Photos: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photos: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Welcome to Humayunpur, Delhi’s  North-East outpost

This urban village has become the de facto migration station for the growing lot of workers from the eight north-eastern states

New Delhi: To leave home in a small town and move to a big city is not always one big decision. It begins with small journeys that become longer. Some people come to study, others briefly for an event, say a friend’s wedding, or an exam. But eventually in most cases, people just end up following the promise of a better life that only a city seems to offer. Away from home, some want to blend in and belong, others want to survive and chase their dreams but at the same time keep the idea of home and their identities intact.

In this Jat dominated urban village in south central Delhi, which is now home to the largest population of migrants from the north-eastern states, the story is no different. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) greets you with a ‘Welcome to Humayunpur village’ blue signboard. Entering the main gali (alley), overhung with a confused mesh of electrical wires, there’s a tiny temple on the left; a little ahead, on the right is Freedom Corner, a restaurant for Chinese, Thai, and Tibetan cuisine, and also one of the first restaurants to have come up in the neighbourhood. Ahead, there is a Runway NE clothing store, with mannequins displaying western outfits most of which are imported from Thailand, China and Nepal. There is a tattoo parlour, a hairdresser, and a Korean DVD store along the way. On the right again, is Strings and Spoons, a small restaurant with live music—mostly jazz and pop.

At any time, day or night, women can be seen walking around, some with their hair dyed in different colours, some wearing denim shorts with bandanas around their heads, others in floral dresses and colourful sneakers. There are men with closely cropped hair, and almost all with tattoos imprinted on their forearms. Along the same route, but towards the edges, you see women wearing salwar kameez with dupattas on their heads, and their men smoking hookahs while sitting on charpoys outside their houses. While the main gali has matchbox sized houses, lined up above commercial establishments; there are some places in and around the gali where the entire building is a single home. And the nameplates tell the story of who the real owners in this locality are: Choudhury Kamal Singh, Choudhry Jagat Singh….

Humayunpur is located along the upscale Safdarjung Enclave residential area. While there are more than 400 Jat households here, the enclave houses one of the largest migrant communities from the eight north-eastern states.

When 40-year-old Sonam Lhamo came to Delhi from Sikkim in 2001, she was 23. She was working in an Italian restaurant, and lived in Delhi’s Kotla Mubarakpur—a locality with mixed migrants. Within a few years, when her husband started a small restaurant of his own in the same area and it didn’t work out, the couple decided to move back to Sikkim. It wasn’t just economical reasons, people would discriminate, tease, say things that Lhamo felt humiliated by.

While Humayunpur looks nothing like any of the north-eastern states, walking around gives a sense of home to north-easterners, with familiar faces, different north-eastern languages being spoken, and many restaurants serving north-eastern food.
While Humayunpur looks nothing like any of the north-eastern states, walking around gives a sense of home to north-easterners, with familiar faces, different north-eastern languages being spoken, and many restaurants serving north-eastern food.

Back in Sikkim, a neighbour came up with the idea of starting a restaurant in a small neighbourhood called Humayunpur in Delhi. Both Lhamo and her husband decided to take the plunge and return to Delhi. Since 2008, the couple lives here. “It wasn’t like any other neighbourhood I or my friends had lived in….everywhere you looked, you saw people who looked like you, people who spoke your language, and no one judged you for being what you are or for how you looked. There was a strange comfort in this familiarity. It is a safe place for people from the North-East," says Lhamo, who runs the restaurant Yo Tibet in the area.

To belong or not to belong

Delhi for years has been a melting point for migrants from diverse backgrounds. The population of the city grew by nearly 1000 people a day in 2016, out of which over 300 were migrants who came to the city to settle down. While people from the north-eastern states have been coming to Delhi since independence, migration earlier was reserved to the elite, wealthy and was primarily for the purposes of education. Now, however, it has become more democratic and happens for diverse reasons. Northeasterners try to create homes in some spaces, without really trying to belong.

“Humayunpur is definitely one among the three places (Mukherjee Nagar and Munirka) which north-eastern people come to when they land in Delhi. In Munirka, over the past few years, there has been a growing suspicion against north-easterners. But Humayunpur is like a migrant station for the north-easterners coming to the city. It provides a sense of cultural familiarity amidst the social alienation of the national capital. While you acclimatize to the new city, you want to do that living in the comfort of familiarity," says Rahul Saikia, a research scholar based in Delhi and Shillong, who spent some time researching on Humayunpur.

Apart from call centres, the aviation and hospitality industries—especially high-end hotels and resorts—also draw north-eastern labour to Delhi-

Humayunpur started out as a small Muslim settlement during the medieval period. Based on Saikia’s research, from the 17th century onwards, Humayunpur came to be dominated by the Phogats, the Tokas, the Mahalwals and the Singhs—all Jat clans. But in around 1960s, even though most of its surrounding farmlands were acquired by DLF and developed into Safdarjung Enclave, Humayunpur in itself continued to be a sleepy hamlet. By the 1990s, however, Saikia says many of these otherwise traditional houses added floors to accommodate migrants coming from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Nepal. They were soon followed by young north-easterners and Tibetans.

This coincided with the call centre boom in India. Humayunpur had what the community was looking for. It was cheap, it was in a good location, it was safe, and it could be home away from home. “As migrants from the north-eastern states rarely own property or capital in Delhi, they have limited means of controlling the urban environment. One of the ways migrants have countered this is by territorializing neighbourhoods," writes Duncan McDuie-Ra in his book Northeast Migrants in Delhi Race, Refuge and Retail. McDuie-Ra is a senior lecturer in development studies at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Since areas like Humayunpur are designated as Lal Dora, there is more freedom for construction without violating the central tenets of Delhi’s building codes, and landlords can bend the rules. This meant landlords could not only construct floors after floors without having to worry about the law, they could also charge whatever they wanted to. So, as more and more migrants came in, the rent started increasing as well, bringing in new wealth to the landlords. When Deepak Daju, owner of Urban Clothing, a clothing store in Humayunpur, came from Darjeeling in 2001, a (2 + 1) apartment was for 2,500 per month. And now, he pays around 20,000 for the same apartment.

But how do two communities, so different from each other—one so conservative, another perceived as “Western in their outlook", co-exist?

Pratap Singh, a pharmacist in the area, who migrated from Rajasthan in 2002 and has since been living in Humayunpur says for some when “Laxmi (money) knocks on your door, nothing else matters". “Doodh deini wali bhains ho, to admi ko uski laat bhi khaani padti hai. Everyone wants more money. Why would you say no to 20,000 if you actually deserve only 10,000? The landlords don’t care whether the tenants are family people or not, whether they have any culture or not. These people believe in kamao, mauj manao. They live in live-ins mostly. As long as they pay more, the landlords ignore everything else," says Singh.

North-easterners are called names, judged on the basis of what they wear or eat, called immoral or anti-national, sometimes even Chinese-

The Humayunpur of the early 2000s, Singh says is nowhere close to what it is now. “It has changed drastically since 2005, basically since the call centres came up (2004-06 was when it boomed). First you saw a few of them, and then they just started growing in numbers. They came in groups, started living in groups….changing all that Humayunpur was. The locality transformed—the clothing and the eating habits of this place all just changed," says Singh.

While the area looks nothing like any of the north-eastern states, walking around gives a semblance of home, with familiar faces, different north-eastern languages floating around, and even grocery stores selling things like yongchuk, bamboo shoots, axone, ngari, raja mirchi, bekang, pasi, lenger, black rice, sapdhei, santamise—all foods of the North-East.

Stories of migration

In casual conversations, on visits to Humayunpur or any of the north-eastern state, the feeling of alienation can be sensed when the locals use words like “mainland India", and refer to people from other Indian states as “people of India". While the local identities still mean much to those from these sister states, with the change in economy, their place in it changed as well. As Delhi transformed from manufacturing to the services sector, more opportunities started coming up for those from the north-eastern states. With increase in call centres, there was an increased demand for north-eastern workers because of their non-Indian accented spoken English and soft skills.

Residents claim that most women who live in Humayunpur work in call centres, some as cabin crew, some in salons, and a few others are students. A sizable portion of men work in call centres, and others have corporate jobs. Two other sectors that draw north-eastern labour are the aviation industry and the hospitality industry, especially high-end hotels and resorts. “The match between where the wage premium is in India’s labour market and the skillset that the people from the North-East have is quite substantial. The fastest growing segments of India’s job market are sales, customer service and logistics. And what these require matches with the skill profile of those coming from the North-East," says Manish Sabharwal, chairman of staffing company TeamLease Services.

As McDuie-Ra writes in his book that the neoliberal transformation of Delhi created “spaces of engagement between north-easterners and the Indian mainstream". And it is precisely because these spaces are “crafted as un-Indian that they are open to peoples outside the boundaries of the nation. Importantly, economic inclusion is not matched by social inclusion."

Us vs them

Peeling off the layers of any city, many such enclaves become visible. For those coming from the north-eastern states, the existence of places like Humayunpur is not only about wanting to live in familiar settings, but also an attempt at creating such safe spaces to protect themselves from any kind of discrimination.

“Unless you are friends with people from mainland India, whom you can trust, hang out with, outside of the North-East, everything else looks alien to us. There is a language barrier, our physical looks are different; our customs and habits are different. We keep hearing mainland Indians say we don’t bargain. For us, it is because we trust fellow human beings…that is how we are brought up…we don’t lie, we don’t cheat. Instead of appreciating that, we are being called gullible. What we are forced to do then is just start cocooning ourselves. And what is wrong in creating such spaces? For example in Manipur, don’t the Marwaris or Nepalese stay together in one place?," says Ashok Mutum, 38, the co-founder of Eat Pham, a Manipuri cuisine restaurant in Humayunpur.

north-eastern migrants are seen as racially different. They are called names, judged on the basis of what they wear or eat, called immoral and sexually promiscuous, or anti-nationals, sometimes even labelled as Chinese nationals, and harassed and discriminated against.

In 2014, a ‘panchayat’ in Munirka held a meeting where it was decided that tenants from North-East India would be asked to leave the area. This happened after the rape of a 14 -year-old from Manipur. In this panchayat, some of the people said that the people from the Nort-East are gandey log (dirty people). Then another meeting was held, where they said they wanted to rid of all gandey log. There are other instances for example after the gangrape of a Delhi University student from Mizoram, the vice principal of the college she was in, issued a press release ordering women from the North-Eeast to wear salwar kameez—basically blaming the victim for the rape. In another instance, the Delhi Police issued a pamphlet asking north-eastern migrants to avoid using bamboo shoots and akhuni (a fermented soy paste common in Naga cooking).

In places like Humayanpur, the migrants don’t have to fight many of these battles. The real estate brokers operating out of shop-fronts, Internet cafes, and grocery stores are connected with the landlords, who appear fine with the lifestyles of the people from the North-East.

Jai Singh, a resident of Humayunpur, who moved to Delhi around 2008, says, “Brokers at the time of signing the rent agreement, tell us gaana bajana, house parties, everything is allowed. Jats have become used to our culture, as long as money is coming. Which is only fair, right?"

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