By Pratap Bhanu Mehta
The self-proclaimed image of a tolerant society has often sidelined questions about racism in India.
Nido Taniam’s death was deep tragedy. But there is some consolation that political attention to this incident is ensuring that it does not become a mere statistic. Yet in India, a single violent incident bears the weight of complex histories and tangled sociologies. It has highlighted the casual but consequential racism prevalent in our cities.
It has reopened the delicate question of the place of the Northeast in India’s imagination. It has also reminded us of the subtle transitions the idea of India still needs to make for the Indian project to be complete.
The first transition it needs to make is the move from territoriality to people. The idea of India is tied to an emphasis on territoriality. While this is inevitable in any modern nation state, the monumental privileging of territoriality has often led to making concrete peoples invisible.
The Northeast has often been imagined in Delhi in largely territorial terms; even the name suggests that. Defending territory trumps almost everything else: human rights, economic freedom. But in a strange way, discourse in the Northeast also has been besotted with territoriality. The claim that ethnicity and territoriality be aligned has also wreaked havoc in the region. It is a formula that has also produced more violence, displacement and antagonism in the region.
The principle fight of the Indian state with the Northeast, on one hand, and among the peoples of the Northeast, on the other, has been about who controls what territory, not about how to define proper ethical relationships with others. In a way, the Indian state and the Northeast have shared each other’s pathologies. It is time to move from the question of territory to what it will take for us to treat each other as free and equal human beings.
The second transition is the move from diversity to respecting freedom. Indian toleration was often based on segmentation and hierarchy. Each community could have its place, so long as it remained in its place. But the mobility produced by economic changes, the desire to expand the boundaries of freedom, the jostling in same spaces, sometimes even competition for the same jobs, needs a different kind of toleration.
This toleration is not about respecting each other’s identities at some distance. In a way, it is not even about knowing the histories and identities of others, though that might help. It is about quite the opposite. It is about making identity more of an irrelevant fact in the background, not an axis on which we organise what rights people have and what places they can inhabit. It is about recognising the limits to which we can, as individuals, exercise sovereignty over others; how one wears one’s hair is nobody’s business. This is a challenge for migrants in India everywhere.
The third transition is from self-proclaimed innocence to an overt confronting of racism. The self-proclaimed image of a tolerant society has often sidelined deep questions about racism in India. Racism is a complex subject. But it haunts our conception of nationalism, where we often cannot decide whether the Northeast is radically different or the same, based on race. It haunts our relations with the outside world, as we see with Africans. The moral education required is not more facts about this or that culture. It is about the idea that racism of any kind is not acceptable.
It is about not letting common decency be immobilised by abstractions of identity. This is a much harder thing to achieve. In fact, much of the diversity discourse in India is quite compatible with racism, because it is premised on essentialism: each culture is like this or that. Even positive assessments of different groups partake of the same fallacy: the individual is always a sign of the group, nothing more nothing less. We need to inculcate toleration based on freedom rather than identity, individual equality rather than group difference. Even well-meaning calls for overcoming racism obscure this fact.
The fourth transition is from states of exceptionalism to normalisation. The fact of the matter is that much of the Northeast is still under siege. So long as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act remains in place in its current form, so long as security-based arguments close off developmental possibilities, the Northeast will remain a troubled zone. It could be legitimately asked: what is the connection between the political problem of the area known as the Northeast, and the racial problem of attacks on Northeasterners? The short answer is that both are a form of distancing from the language of Indian citizenship. It is true that horrendous violence goes unpunished in large parts of India.
That we are still debating 1984 testifies to that. But how can the language of citizenship gain primacy, both in Delhi and in the Northeast, when the normative values of citizenship have no purchase in the way the state behaves in the region? In fact, every intervention of the Indian state, including the creation of separate ministries and development councils based on ill-conceived ideas of a territorial identity, is a reminder of just how exceptionally the area is treated. Except that this exceptionalism is a form of marginalisation.
It is taking a Supreme Court intervention to investigate the disappearance of hundreds of young people in the region. The AFSPA may give legal protection to the army to operate. But it is also a daily reminder that people of the region are not allowed to lay claim to the legal protections of citizenship. The AFSPA morally denudes citizenship because it presumes people are guilty rather than innocent. And racism towards the Northeast partakes of the same assumption: guilt just by being. Internal politics in the area will also have to change.
The final transition is from a regime governed by the contingent waves of sympathy to governance by institutions. It should not take a propitious political conjuncture every time to achieve justice. The good thing is that in this case there are few of the “ifs and buts” that normally disable the quest for justice. In India, there is often a danger that history and sociology will be used to immobilise normal institutional roles. Delhi Police is, rightly, under a scanner.
But it is also currently a political football, being kicked around in the politics of blame. How to reform institutions in ways where the politics of assigning blame is not mistaken for the politics of genuine reform will be a challenge. Our hearts are full, our heads need to be clear as well.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’