Thursday, April 06, 2017

Is India a racist country?

April 07, 2017 00:15 IST
Updated: April 07, 2017 01:07 IST

thehindu

LEFT

The Indian government must acknowledge there is deep-rooted prejudice

Samuel Jack

Samuel Jack is president of the Association of African Students in India

In India, racism is practised in some quarters and by some Indians. This is evident in the manner in which we are treated when we seek extension for our visas, in the problems we face in getting accommodation in the country, and in the general treatment of viewing us with suspicion. The prejudice and stereotypes are all too apparent. When we seek accommodation, most landlords come out with an emphatic ‘no’ without offering any explanation. We are left with little choice and make do with what we get. We are faced with a situation where we cannot even communicate with our neighbours in case of an emergency. How do we talk with each other with so many stigmas attached to us? How do we even begin to counter the prejudices?

Bias linked to caste system

To an outsider like myself, when I begin to process this blatantly discriminatory attitude, I find that this racism is linked to the prevalent caste system which is very hierarchical. Black people, Dalits and untouchables somehow seem to be linked to this caste system which is discriminatory and excludes people. Indian kids smoke in public places. Yet when we smoke, we are always supposedly smoking marijuana or weed, when there are many Indians who smoke the same. How can Africans playing loud music be an excuse to beat them up and complain to the police when Indians do the same? I am not saying black people don’t smoke weed or don’t do drugs but isn’t that true of others too? So, why single us out? Why do people here become aggressive when they see us on the streets? Students from the Northeast face the same problems like us.

Is Punjab’s drug problem because of us? The State is reeling under a drug crisis affecting many young men. In Goa, the drug problem is largely due to Europeans and Russians who, along with local leaders, peddle drugs, but will India discriminate against them? They give some donations to NGOs and nobody dares speak against them.

The Class XII student who passed away in Greater Noida recently unfortunately died of a drug overdose. He was an addict. You will be amazed to see what Indian school children are smoking. Unfortunately, Africa becomes a binary for most Indians. The impression is that we hail from a backward continent, which is simply not true. Some African countries have better human development indicators than India and have a robust democracy. Indians went as indentured labour to the African continent and elsewhere. If that is an acknowledged fact, how do Indians reconcile with their racist attitude towards us? If Indians went as indentured labour and Africans were treated like slaves, isn’t there a common history of discrimination that binds the two?

The wrong colour?

Right from when we land here, our colour becomes an excuse for Indians to display all their prejudices. An extension of our visas which should not take more than seven days takes at least three months for us. Police verification becomes an excuse for extortion. Policemen keep calling at odd hours.

We are deeply disappointed and hurt that the Government of India has not condemned the attacks against us. The government must say this is wrong and that it will deal with it in an appropriate manner. The government has to acknowledge there is a deep-rooted prejudice first. It is only after you acknowledge the problem that you can address it.

But the Government of India appears to be in denial. Due to the hostility of some Indians, the number of African students coming to study in India may come down.

RIGHT

What we are witnessing is the conflict of cultures which is a law and order problem, not racism

Rakesh Sinha

Rakesh Sinha teaches political science at Delhi University and is president of the RSS-affiliated India Policy Foundation

Some sporadic incidents cannot, and should not, lead one to brand any society as racist. Of course, one cannot deny that there has been some violence against people of African origin in some parts of the country. But a majority of these incidents have not been motivated by the colour of the nationalities involved. The reasons are sex, drug trafficking and behaviorial patterns which unsettle the structured values cherished by locals. A society’s multi-culturalism depends on the blending of empathy and reason. Chances of conflicts are higher when empathy and reason diminish. What we are witnessing is the conflict of cultures which is a law and order problem, not racism.

The case of Western societies

Racism is a negative value of life which is not a part of the Indian psyche. That said, no society or nation can claim to have achieved a completely ideal stage where its citizens are on their best behaviour. Whether a society is racist or becoming racist can be judged only by the collective consciousness of larger masses. Unprovoked incidents against Indians or Asian nationals in the form of violent attacks in Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand tell us that all is not well with the melting pot of Western societies either.

The notion of the Other is historically rooted in the Western civilisation trajectory which erupts whenever societies face an economic or political crisis. While the notion of egalitarianism rests easily with elites there, this feeling does not find resonance with the masses. There is a huge disconnect between academic discourse on egalitarianism and social realities.

India’s history and the psychology of its masses have remained unchanged for as long as one can remember. During the anti-colonial movement, leaders of the freedom movement wisely secularised the struggle against colonial forces. Indians had no problem when two westerners, George Yule (1888) and William Wedderburn (1889) became presidents of the Indian National Congress (INC). Acceptance is the norm in Indian society.

There is an interesting observation in the 1911 Census report that Indians had no problems stating their religion. However, what mattered to most surveyed was social status. Historically, India has welcomed people of different races and creeds. The INC participated in the anti-apartheid conference in 1927 in Brussels.

We are one family

It is this credo of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the whole universe is one family) which led Indians to embrace victims of religious or racist persecutions. In 1931, as the Census data revealed, there were 24,000 Jews and 109,754 Parsis in India. They played a significant role in our freedom movement and in economic activities that shaped India. In the first session of the INC, there were nine Parsi delegates, and two each from the Muslim and Christian communities, of a total of 72. Their representation kept swelling in successive Congress sessions. Moreover, there has been consensus for Anglo-Indian representation in Parliament. The fundamental rationale underpinning this has been one of cherishing diversities.

However, in India there have been clashes between Dalits and upper castes and some violent incidents against students from the Northeast. But drawing a parallel with racism would not be correct. Racism is based on hatred which makes conciliation between people of different groups virtually impossible. Spiritual democracy is the basis of our secularism and our multi-culturalism negates perpetuation of conflicts. These have little to do with race.

CENTRE

Early education is an important field for providing the basis for independent and critical thought

Sanjay Srivastava

Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth

The remarkable 1952 novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is about the experience of being black in the U.S. Its opening paragraph has the following lines: “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me”.

The novel’s protagonist goes on to say that “the invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with who I come in contact”.

What is the peculiarity of the Indian eye that makes blackness such an invisible – that is, insignificant – thing as to take an axe to it when it seeks normal, human visibility, expressing the same desires and anxieties as those who think of themselves if not as completely white then at least something like possessing whiteness?

Confront the ‘messy’ present

We could, for a start, begin with history. There are, by now, a number of books and exhibitions about an Indian past that was apparently far more tolerant of blackness. Historians speak of an easy intermingling between Indians and people of African origin, with Indian noblewomen taking African men as lovers, and slaves being raised to the status of rulers.

But to invoke history is to only add to the problem of Ellison’s protagonist’s invisibility in the Indian present. History is easy. It is the present that is messy. A certain kind of, albeit well-meaning, history has convinced us that we were, in fact, good and tolerant in the past and hence that goodness must lie somewhere submerged among us, only needing minor prodding to emerge as joyful guiding light of the present. Indians love history because it allows an exit route to not having to deal with the present.

To the extent that 20th century racism has been addressed in the West, it is not through constant references to the Black Madonna in Christian iconography and Shakespeare’s Othello in literature. No. It has been done through addressing the root causes and reasons for intolerance in the present.

We in India refuse to deal with our present because history is such everlasting comfort.

Strategies for the present

What of the present, then? We could begin with school education. This crucial realm is one where ideas of the false basis of race and racism are almost never touched upon. While it is more difficult to influence attitudes in the domestic sphere, early education is an important field for providing the basis for independent and critical thought. But our social science school books continue to deal with ‘tribes’ – a category that flows on to blackness in general – in terms of their proximity to ‘civilisation’. The term itself – its bloody history, for example – is hardly ever examined. We are willing to put up with the ‘uncivilised’ as long as they know their place. We might also consider another strategy for the present. Our cities are now places where we increasingly have declining tolerance for strangers. We primarily extend courtesies to those we know, and exhibit hostility to those outside our circles of familiarity. Do we not need an education on how to live with strangers? Accounts of the past – fascinating and important in themselves – are about the past. The past is, actually, another planet and cannot be a guide to what is to be done now.

As told to Anuradha Raman

Source: thehindu

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