Unpacking 'chinki': Unlike 'dkhar', a term used for non-tribals, the slur is rooted in racial derision, power dynamics
To say that chinki and dkhar (a term used to refer to non-tribals in Meghalaya) are similar would be incorrect. While one is undoubtedly a slur, the other can be used as a slur. Moreover, a term used by a minority cannot be as damaging as one used by a majority because of the power dynamics inherent in this set up.
Not too long ago, I posted a story on Instagram regarding the spate of racist attacks towards North Eastern people in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. My reaction was prompted by a picture I had seen of a Manipuri girl who had been spat on by a man in North Delhi. He had also called her ‘Corona’. One can safely assume he had done this because of what she looked like.
After posting this story, I was met with concerned replies, and validation of my outrage. However, amid all this support, one negative comment stood out: completely disregarding the context of my story, a woman got into a heated debate with me after going off on a tangent about how North Eastern people are racist towards non-tribals living in the North East. This is the same kind of reasoning that nationalist Hindus offer about the plight of the Kashmiri pandits whenever issues about Kashmir are brought up in public discourse.
Me speaking about the racism against North Eastern people does not invalidate the sufferings of non-tribals in the North East, just as no one is willfully ignoring the sufferings of Kashmiri pandits. But it appears no argument against racism on the Internet can be made without someone obfuscating the matter with a little whataboutery.
The woman who responded to my story went on in this vein and brought up the word ‘dkhar’, which is used by the Khasi and Jaintia people of Meghalaya to refer to non-tribals. She claimed we are racist for using this word, that it is as bad as the word ‘chinki’.
A quick Google search would tell anyone that dkhar is a term used by Khasi people to refer to non-tribal people. As a Khasi who grew up in Shillong, I was taught that it meant 'foreigner' or 'outsider'. It is shorthand for all non-tribals, regardless of their religious affiliations. Further, depending on the context, the word can be used in a derogatory manner.
Now, one can compare this definition of dkhar with the Wikipedia definition of chinki.
Chinki is indisputably a slur, regardless of context. To say that chinki and dkhar are similar would be incorrect.
One is undoubtedly a slur, the other can be used as a slur. One can compare dkhar to the word 'gringo', which can be used broadly to refer to any non-Hispanic person. Many Americans think the word is inherently racist. It is not, but it can be.
I am not going to argue that there isn’t racism towards non-tribals in the North East, nor that the word dkhar is completely innocuous. Since Meghalaya became independent in 1972, the problem of non-tribal migration had always loomed over the state. The fear of being overpowered by a usurping race has existed in all communities, and Meghalaya is no exception. This fear came to a head in 1979 when the Beh Dkhar agitation resulted in ethnic clashes in the state and caused an exodus of Bengalis. 'Beh' literally means ‘to chase’. Families were made to pack up their bags and leave a place they had called home.
A recurrence of this violence took place in 1987 and 1992. Tensions only eased in the 2000s when Shillong became relatively peaceful. Ethnic clashes occurred in spurts through the years, like the most recent anti-CAA protests, but there has been no violence of the magnitude of those previous years.
This overt antagonism may have eased off, but the hostility never truly dissipated. There always remains the fear of being overwhelmed by a burgeoning non-tribal population.
The woman who messaged me was right about how tribals are racist towards non-tribals. She can even decry the usage of the term dkhar, but she cannot compare the two words. The term 'chink' implies racial inferiority. North Eastern people are often subjected to taunts like ‘How can you see with eyes like yours?' — suggesting that our ‘mongoloid’ features are somehow inferior. For the British, the term ‘chinky’ was derived from the word 'chink' which meant a narrow opening or gap. It alluded to the epicanthic folds that are a feature of many East Asian people's eyes. Either Indians aped the British with this racist referencing, or its usage proliferated because the term is very close to 'Chin', the Hindi word for China. The term dkhar does not constitute this type of racial derision based on facial features. There is no sense of racial superiority in the term — it is used to mean differentiation.
A term used by a minority cannot be as damaging as one used by a majority because of the power dynamics inherent in this set up.
Khasis form a very small portion of this country’s population. They have almost negligible social, economic and political leverage. In many cases, we are viewed as foreigners. Tribals have always been a disenfranchised and marginalised group, even with the constitutional safeguards put in place to protect them. Compare that to the dkhar migrant in Meghalaya, who may be a minority in this small context, but is otherwise a part of a greater majority that surrounds the state. Dkhars are therefore viewed as a representative of the majority that has helped in maintaining the status quo, while the vulnerable and disempowered positions of the tribals have improved little. They see the dkhar majority encroaching into their space that they had to fight to claim as their own.
As if scrambling about to make sense of the pandemic was not difficult enough, North Eastern people have to also worry about racist attacks. No one is spitting at dkhars, mistaking them for Chinese people, or blaming them for the pandemic — which is an extreme form of racism. Othering by using terms like 'chinki' makes North Eastern people feel less Indian. We are already made to feel like we do not belong when we are made to prove our ‘Indianness’ by speaking in Hindi, or forced to argue outside monuments, so that we do not have to pay foreigner rates.
The way we dress, what we eat, how we speak are all scrutinised. This helps no one. It will not ingratiate dkhars to tribals, nor will it stop racism towards them. Using racially oppressive terms like chinki only further alienates an already alienated people. Unless non-tribals can see how damaging a word like chinki is, North Eastern people will continue to feel like non-natives in their own country.
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