India’s tryst with racial discrimination is a tale which has even found its way into its constitution. The recent attack on a Tanzanian lady in Bangalore because she was assumed to be from the same community, or representing the same community of Africans, because she shared similar physical attributes is the most recent prominent example of the same. Such an incident is not a rare one, and so, it cannot be dismissed as one of public outrage. Allegedly, a person of Sudanese origin had run over a woman in his car in the locality. In reaction, the Bengaluru mob decided that it must punish a person who belongs to the same community to which the man belonged to. Besides the ignorance of the crowd, two things can be discerned from this act – one being people’s emphasis on a group based identity, and the other being the absence of rule of law in the Indian society. While our focus right now will be on the former, the latter needs an important mention because it is the culture of the latter, the rule of law, the western ideals of individualism, equality, the rule of logos over pathos and ethos, which at times becomes incompatible with the practice and culture of the eastern nations thus leading to incongruity in its application and often its blatant violation.
In the World Values Survey conducted by Swedish economists, reported by the Washington Post, India along with Jordan was the least racially tolerant country. The question that was asked how welcome will a person of a different race will be in the neighborhood. A staggering 43.5% of Indian said they would not appreciate a member of a different race living amongst them. Obviously, such data cannot be held to be representative of all us Indian or every Indian household for that matter, but deep down we know that such a number would not be an incorrect one, especially, when cases such as Muslims not being offered houses on rent in a Hindu locality are not infrequent.
Racism in India which primarily arises of the group culture phenomena does not only arise out of two classes, unlike most of the western countries, but among multiple regional, racial, caste and religious units. You can find it at every nook and corner, every neighborhood, cinematic depiction and individual attitudes. On one hand it is the north-eastern populace which faces prejudice across India by way of a demeaning attitude which people wear on their sleeves against them, on the other hand there is an endemic discrimination faced by Muslims and Dalits in not being able to get accommodation is many neighborhoods. It is not that Indian’s are narrow-minded or uncouth, but the attitude and behavioral approach is rather restricted and self-contained under the garb of comfort, groupism and convenience.
Obsession with the West
Indians are obsessed with the west. I do not think it is a point of any debate here. Yes, the US has a global hegemony; yes, European culture is revered because Europe colonized most of the habited world, but this obsession is not only in the form of the cultural penetration of the West in our lives, but our reverence of their very being – how tall or lanky they are, how they are fair-skinned, the instant fascination for anybody who has atypical blue or green eyes. We look up to the West; not that we are not proud of ourselves, but there is a certain level of regard and recognition which the Western habits and ideas find among the Indians. Obviously, Indians are not to be blamed for the psychogenesis of such a behavior as it has got a lot to do with how the West impresses itself upon us. Be it by way of movies where the idea of a hero, savior, or a male protagonist is a Caucasian man who is more than adept at every activity (Star Wars VII is a great exception), be it by way of sports, or be it by way of literature (some literature classics such as Around the World in 80 Days portray India as a land of snake-charmers and elephant-riders, where an Englishman outsmarts everybody). I came across this rather interesting incident on the social media where Professor C.V. Ramakrishnan (father of Nobel Prize winner Venkat Ramakrishnan), who has leukoderma was mistaken to be a westerner and was specially asked for an interview among many other ‘only Indian’ participants at the National Diabetes meet up at Hyderabad. As soon as he spelt out his name, the press interviewers cancelled their interview.
Obsession with Fair Skin
India’s obsession with fair skin is an industry in itself, literally. Right from the fairness creams to an elderly advice of not going out in the sun for we will get tanned or a darker complexion to fairness being one of the attributes defining the groom or one which is sought after in a to-be bride in matrimonial ads, fair skin is a clear mark of distinction. Commonplace instances where a darker skinned person is automatically assumed to be from the South, a fair skinned South Indian to be a Brahmin, or a fair skinned person to be from the North are stark reminders of the racist mentality which somehow has survived in ourselves.
Xenophobia and Group Identity
The eastern culture is a culture of group based identities. India with its system of caste division, albeit originally for economic purposes, is one which has the strongest culture of group based identities. In an environment of prosperity, co-operation, transparency such identities would probably not be a problem, but India, post the British decline, is a country which has a culture of competition, bureaucratic secrecy and a democracy where one group identity often has to override the other to make itself be heard and represented. This, firstly, creates a xenophobic environment with respect to other groups who may take a share into the resources of our own group, and also creates an environment which lacks dialog and discussion. This in turn gives birth to all sorts of group based hostilities. Any person who stands out physically is taken to be of a different cultural type, thus, not being met with the same treatment. The calling of people from the North-East as chinkis is nothing new to us, and is something to which I must shamefully admit I have jocularly been a part of. It is not only limited to facial features, I being a Bengali am often referred to be of ‘some’ type or even a coward because Bengali’s are supposed to be only arm chair intellectuals. My individual preference for reading philosophy, classic literature and taking part in political debates is seen to be a ‘Bengali’ trait, and not something which probably I as an individual must have cultivated.
The beating of the Tanzanian woman is the result of this hostility, this group identity which we are so eager to categorize people in. There is nothing wrong to belong to a group, but to wear such identities on our sleeves and allow it to color the glass through which we see the world leads to a phenomena where every act of an individual is seen as representative of the group. An individual does an act, the intention is imputed to the whole group or race, which results in anyone who belongs to the same group or race being subject to a retort. This is what happens when individualism clashes with group-ism – divides are created, the rule of law breaks down resulting in xenophobic acts.
The hostility is even more in cases of people from African origin or African descent. It is because we are not only people who have ingrained group based xenophobia but when this xenophobia marries our fascination with color it produces the love child of supremacism, whereby Africans provide us the luxury of being the better class, the better race, truthful hardworking Indians infiltrated by the lost and poor race of Africans who bring to us their scams, drugs, and prostitution. No surprise that the law minister of a state like Delhi supported his raid of four Ugandan women on reasons of them probably being ‘drug-peddlers’, ‘sexual predators’, ‘hookers’ – our very own version of Victorian-era ‘Asiatics’ and ‘Orientals’.
During my visit to China for a summer school last year, I noticed people from countries which have recently started making a mark on the political map of the world, recently liberated or gaining economic power are overtly patriotic about their heritage and country tag. India is also one such country, and the Indians do not leave any space to leave a mark of their ‘Indian-ness’, leading to xenophobic vigilantism in case of our political attitudes and identities. People from Kashmir are still randomly called ‘traitors’, people from the northeast not truly considered Indian. One of my college seniors and a friend who has northeastern features faced a problem in this regard when he was denied a visit to China from Indian authorities, which Karmanye, also from our college, in another article on racism in India on this very portal, has written about. This protectionist attitude is now becoming so commonplace that now a guy from Mumbai has a dislike for a guy from Bihar, a devout Hindu a contempt for a beef-eating counterpart and a devout Muslim for a pork-eating counterpart. Indians have carved out an eye for the odd – anyone who looks, behaves, speaks differently and is put to silent judgment. Clearly, this jingoistic fervour was seen when three Nigerian men were beaten up at Rajiv Chowk metro for allegedly eve-teasing a woman to slogans of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram”.
Racism in India is not institutional, it is not systemic, but it is what Lawrence Liang and Golan Naulak in their study on levels of racism would say to be “footnote racism”. Footnote racism entails racial prejudices experienced in subtle forms in everyday life. This type of racism happens at everyday interactions with random people on the streets, at neighborhood markets, alleyways and other interactions with essential utility providers. A real life instance, which might be common to many, was when a woman who was having trouble with her child, pointed out to a black man on the street and remarked “This person is going to take you away.” Clearly the child was being taught to be fearful of any person who is black, ingraining him an attitude which would be prejudicial. Or in daily incidents which are faced by most African, where they are called names which cannot be stated in this article, as if they are having an infectious disease. Bollywood also has contributed its share in stereotyping blacks by portraying them as either tribals or as jocular characters, whereas on the other hand Indians allege Coldplay of ‘cultural misappropriation’. Our sensitivity regarding our culture carves both a patriot and a racist out of us, each coming out at our own convenience.
When incidents such as the stripping naked and beating of the Tanzanian girl happen, the racism level is considered to be “headline racism”, which are implied acts which are major enough to be reported by the media. Nido’s killing typically falls under this category. But we need to really question ourselves when this starts becoming institutional, as I previously mentioned where Ugandan women’s privacy was breached and the minister allegedly called their race of people as ‘sexual predators’ and ‘hookers’.
To evade institutional discrimination, the Constitution equips the citizens and individuals with Article 14, Article 15 and Article 16, which expressly bars any discrimination on the basis of race, caste, creed, or sex. But, being a law student I am forced to analyse this from a jurisprudential point of view, for which I would like to mention H.L.A. Hart’s theory under legal positivism. Simply put, primary rules of recognition which merely recognize the phenomenon or a crime or a behavior are pretty much left superfluously tackled if the secondary rules of enforcement are not strong. Secondary rules of enforcement refer to such rules, laws, regulations which make sure the primary rule is followed efficiently, and when adopted in our everyday lives they become a part of it. An example of this would be how racism in the US never ended after the 14th Amendment as blacks were still discriminated against in varied ways, but it started atrophying after positive changes were made in everyday rules and ways of life, expressly endorsed by the civil society and the government, around the 1960s and 70s.
The constitution does provide us with such primary rules, and we are even aware of the fact that arbitrary discrimination is something which is inherently wrong but there are no mechanisms to curb it. India could take a leaf or two out of UK’s book. In the 1950s and 60s, signs such as “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” were common in places of accommodation and eateries. “Negro” was the word by which blacks were referred to. Then came the Race Relation Act. Change ensued in people’s behavior. Soon the word “Negro” vanished. By the late 1980s, the UK was a different country. Racism was punished by jail or severe fine or both. Today, the UK stands as one of the most multicultural countries in the world. Racism as we see needs to be attacked not only institutionally but also instances of “footnote racism” and “headline racism” need to be tackled. And not tackle by way of general criminal laws but laws which specifically target such acts.
Indians must understand that diversity, dialogue and discussion are necessary for a country’s growth, both political and economic. Indians cannot afford to be absorbed by their nationalistic fervour and group divide, seek comfort in their group identities, allow it to govern them and then dictate to others accordingly. Xenophobia cannot be tackled by consciously making sure that there is a lack of it, but by allowing heterodoxy to prevail for which we must welcome people from diverse cultures, races and identities. There must be a positive effort made by the government to make sure that racism is tackled. Pitching in a chapter or two in the school textbooks among the many stories told about our national heroes will be a good start. Take educative measures and not only reactive measures on a mass scale. India must not lose out on its huge advantage of having a large English-speaking populace and work culture by making it uncomfortable for people across the world to feel different and discomforted.
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)