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Northeast migrants

Reviewed item: 

At a time when violent crimes and discriminatory attitudes against migrants from Northeast India frequently make news, Duncan McDuie-Ra’s book could not have been better timed. Focusing on an issue that has received little scholarly attention - race relations in India - he highlights how race, identity politics, and labor relations define the lives and experiences of ethnic Northeast migrants in India’s capital city, Delhi. Through extensive fieldwork, he traces the ‘frontier-heartland’ politics of identity, citizenship, and nationalism expressed through the migrants’ “place-making” practices (p. 13-14) in the hegemonic cityscape they live in.
The book locates the Northeast region on the discursive map of social change in twenty-first century India – a topic that is rarely discussed in mainstream academic or political discourses. Necessitated by opportunity and need of higher education, employment and consumerist aspirations, increasing numbers of migrants from the “troubled periphery”[1] flock to Delhi each year. Here, they try to create a ‘place’ and ‘space’ for themselves in the face of racial discrimination and violence. For those who have not read the region and its people beyond the limited directional category of the ‘Northeast,’ the book offers a good discussion of how homogenization of the region’s diverse social systems and its inhabitants have differentiated and ‘Othered’ it from the rest of the country. The chapters discuss how this distinctiveness, along with certain specific historical conditions have produced a kind of Northeast exceptionalism defined by race and law, which these migrants encounter and engage with everyday.
A core theme that McDuie-Ra highlights is the normalization of migration from the frontier to the heartland. Insurgency, heavy militarization, and lack of opportunities stimulate the push-pull process despite Delhi’s notoriety as an unsafe and unpleasant place for Northeast migrants. It is within this cityscape that notions of belongingness, exclusion, citizenship, and alienation further reinforce the region’s permanent “state of exception” (p.41) evident in the binary relation of a normal rest-of-India vis-à-vis the turbulent Northeast. The only realm where this exceptionalism lets up is in those “de-Indianized” spaces of global capital (p. 61) such as malls, spas, fashion stores, and restaurants where ‘exotic’ Northeast labor have facilitated their economic inclusion into the mainstream. Such a stark inclusion-exclusion paradox reveals the limits of mainstream India’s idea of diversity especially when it comes to recognizing the peculiarities of the Northeast.
Race is an important factor in defining the Northeast migrant experience in Delhi and producing the imagery of a Northeast “Other” as suspect citizens (p.94), violent anti-nationals, and loose, immoral people who do not fit into mainstream Indian society. McDuie-Ra points out that these broader social attitudes of animosity toward Northeast migrants also symbolize the kind of racialized heartland-frontier politics that have continued since the colonial period. In effect, the Northeasterners’ migrant experience draws up the important question of how racism faced by minorities and foreigners (mostly Blacks) in India is often sidelined or obscured.
McDuie-Ra also discusses how racism, migration, and evolving gendered identities have produced a Northeast “subaltern masculinity” (p.138-141) that diminishes their traditional ethno-masculine roles as protectors of their women. He further observes that while “women seem to thrive in the city, men seem to struggle” (p.142). This observation, however, presents a misleading picture without taking into account the challenges and pressures women face while countering negative stereotypes about their morality as they navigate Delhi’s unsafe spaces and hostile attitudes. Surviving the city has led them to dispense with the notion that they require constant male protection. In fact, their economic independence and self-reliance could be seen as an assertion of their femininity by refusing to be subjugated to the kind of conventional patriarchal gaze they are used to back home. 
Irrespective of gender or ethnic divides, these migrants are united by a pan-Northeast identity that produces a distinct migrant agency through their ‘place-making practices’ of food habits, religion or carving out a Northeast neighborhood in certain pockets of the city. This enables migrants to challenge hegemonic nationalism by affirming their difference from mainstream India and (re)producing a “cosmopolitan” identity shaped by diverse global influences of music, fashion, and Christian cultures and “resilient ethnic and tribal identities” (p. 166-76, 185-86).
The book is perhaps the first of its kind to apply the concept of race outside the usual typology of caste-versus-race studies. It offers a refreshing take on contemporary challenges to the idea of an “imagined”[2] India as neoliberal capitalism transforms social spaces and relationships through migration and new forms of labor. It is in itself a good introduction to the Northeast region; it touches upon the discursive silence on the social dynamics of a historically marginalized Northeast, a much-needed perspective that steers away from the oft-studied issues of insurgency, political instability, and underdevelopment.
However, some points seem misplaced and require further elaboration. First, to say that there is “very scant class distinctions” (p. 130) amongst Northeast migrants would be a faulty assumption that homogenizes the Northeasterners yet again. Class differences are in fact quite prominent with migrants’ backgrounds ranging from economic and political elites to lower middle class families; the differences often manifest in their consumerist habits or the type of places they rent. Second, the indices of cosmopolitanism are somewhat narrow. With a high percentage of English-medium educated population, proficiency in the language is considered a marker of cosmopolitanism that distinguishes them from mainstream Indians and hence increases their labor value in specific sectors of employment. Third, the argument that outward pull of Northeasterners across international boundaries towards kin networks, co-ethnics, and former territories vis-à-vis the inward pull of citizenship towards the heartland (p. 179-80) needs to be contextualized in terms of India’s economic interests in opening its eastern borders. This is crucial for understanding the underlying antagonism against federal politics and the Northeasterners’ consistent attempts to differentiate themselves from the rest of India. Finally, there could have been some assessment of how negative stereotypes flow in the opposite direction as well. The prism of citizenship and identity couched in the oppositional relationship between Indianness and Northeasterness can shed light on how the Northeasterners themselves view mainstream Indians as the ‘Other.’
Despite these gaps, McDuie-Ra’s book is significant in that it raises key questions about internal migration in Asian cities and the concomitant challenges of exclusion and engagement faced by ethnic migrants. In addition to illustrating the impact of neoliberalism upon the ways ethnic groups subscribe to ideas of identity, citizenship, and nationalism, it has also underscored the importance of studying how this local-global dynamic plays out in the borderlands, especially in India’s Northeast. In conjunction with his other works on Northeast identity, ethnicity, and race[3], this book should be part of university curricula in India and read by anyone wishing to understand the evident binary relationship between mainstream India and the Northeast. 

Reviewed by Babyrani Yumnam, Binghamton University, State University of New York (

Yumnam, B. 2016. A review of McDuie-Ra, D. 2012. Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge, and Retail, posted online on 7 June 2016:

[1] Bhaumik, Subir. 2009. Troubled Periphery: The Crisis of India’s North East. California, New Delhi: Sage.
[2] Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso.
[3] See McDuie-Ra. 2015. “‘Is India Racist?’: Murder, Migration, and Mary Kom”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 38(2):304-319. Also see McDuie-Ra. 2011. “The Dilemmas of Pro-Development Actors: Viewing state-ethnic minority relations and intra-ethnic dynamics through contentious development projects.” Asian Ethnicity, 12(1): 77-100.


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