Do We Give Northeastern Women Their Due Beyond Olympic Medals?

mirabai chanu wins gold, Mirabai Chanu Biopic, Mirabai Chanu Biopic Title
Ankita Konwar on Olympic winners from Northeast: Women athletes from Northeast India are raking in big medals and pride for the country at the games in Tokyo this year. So far, two of the three wins India has secured have been courtesy Mirabai Chanu and Lovlina Borgohain, from Imphal and Assam respectively.

Even heavyweight players like Mary Kom, who carried the hopes of a billion Indians riding pillion on their legendary status, which remains intact even in the absence of a medal, hail from that region of the country that lies “othered” on regular, non-Olympic days. As do hockey stars Lalremsiami and Sushila Chanu who, with their team, scripted history by entering semis of the hockey event at the Games for the first time ever.

The wins and appreciation these women are scoring are being recognised globally, cementing their place as icons for the world to take inspiration from. But what about in their own country? How is India viewing their super-sportswoman status?

The loudest cheers for these women are erupting in their home country, yes, but will the adulation sustain after August 8?Most importantly, are the people of India seeing the Northeast as anything more beyond a goldmine of sports stars? A distant place where players are born and bred to become sporting award winners? Shouldered with the responsibility of bringing in laurels for the country because that is the predominant way many in the rest of the country define their worth?

How are these Olympic wins shaping the narrative for women, not just in sports but across the states in the Northeast?

Not too many days ago, a group of Northeastern women was harassed on the streets of Delhi by men asking their “rates” for the night. Last year, not long after the pandemic began taking over India, a man reportedly spat on a woman from Manipur, calling her “corona.”

This was neatly summed up by social media influencer and fitness guru Ankita Konwar some days ago, who called out the hypocrisy that persists nationally, year-round. That “you can become an Indian ONLY when you win a medal for the country.” That other times, their value is largely contained within derogatory perimeters with labels like “chinky” or “corona.”  

Even without these blatantly overt ways of discrimination, our propensity to otherise people from Northeast India – especially women – is evident in the way racism lurks in our language, behaviours, manners, the stereotypes we hold.

How many people can say they feel similar kinship for a state as, say, Arunachal Pradesh as they do for the front-placed Uttar Pradesh? Or that a mention of the Northeast doesn’t evoke those same, beat prejudices we have ingrained about the food and culture of the states?

Winning streaks from Northeastern sportswomen and the parallel running commentaries expose our inherent racist tendencies. and abuse Northeastern women, both expose our inherent racist tendencies and offer a moment of introspection. Is it not a fitting juncture at which to make reparations?

Views expressed are the author’s own.