Sinlung /
31 July 2014

There is no escaping racism in India

A strange mix of prejudice, ignorance and centuries-old discriminatory practices make communities stick to regional taboos

By Archisman Dinda

It is an ugly, inexorable truth that Indians are guilty of racism. Though providentially not all of them, but sadly far too many of them — who distressingly reveal such traits more often than one had thought.

Racism, prejudice and xenophobia are rampant in India. It is a strange mixture of prejudice, ignorance and centuries-old discriminatory practices, when communities kept to themselves based on regional taboos. India never misses an opportunity to publicise its rich diversity, but the truth is that Indians are parochial: A large segment of people feel secure to live in their little worlds and protect its borders from any ‘external influence’. Their likes and dislikes for individuals too often have a direct correlation with their attitude towards skin colour and physical features, where even Indian citizens have to bear the brunt of such racist attitude. It extends to cover their language, culture, food, clothes and behaviour. They stereotype each other mercilessly and there are jokes galore about their food, clothes and accents. Colour consciousness permeates the way North Indians treat South Indians.

Indians contemptuously categorise all South Indians as “Madrasis”. Their attitude to their own citizens from the Northeast is no less racist. There, more than colour, it is the Mongoloid physical features of people from that region that attract the ridicule and disdain of those who love to consider themselves as part of the “mainstream”. Casual racism is commonplace. People from the Northeast are derided as “bahadurs” (a common term for Nepalese male servants in India). People ask them whether they are Japanese, Chinese or Korean. For most Indians, the Northeast is another country only accidentally and peripherally Indian. There is total ignorance in most parts of India about the culture and indeed about anything Northeastern. It may be geographically at an arm’s length from the mainland; connected to it by just a narrow strip of land known as the Siliguri Corridor. In terms of acceptance and integration, it may as well be another continent!

It is not just physical differences that make people from India’s Northeast stand out in a big city like the national capital of New Delhi. The fact that they hail from societies that are culturally more permissive than “mainstream” India highlights their “otherness” in the eyes of other Indians. A series of separatist insurgencies being waged by the indigenous people of the Northeast also exacerbates tensions.

As migration takes place, across state borders — with young people looking for better education and work opportunities — a kind of xenophobia begins, which sadly is not restricted to the North Indian heartland only. In Maharashtra, many poor, migrant labourers from Bihar are attacked, beaten up and threatened as they go about their daily grind, often working for a pittance. Last year, when two women of Chinese descent from Singapore were molested in Goa, the police delayed the registration of their complaint with the excuse that they thought the women were from the Northeast. Two years ago — triggered by an SMS hate campaign — many residents from Northeast were forced out of Karnataka and back to their home states fearing racist attacks. Only when the Rapid Action Force was deployed in Bangalore did the exodus stop. By then 30,000 people had already left the city.

Indians rarely perceive beauty in dark skin. In fact, most Indians look for pale-skinned brides for their sons. Bridal ads ask for “fair skinned” girls. So skin colour is important and you cannot be beautiful if you are not fair. There are very few countries, where skin whitening creams can do such roaring business, with such impunity. Yet, our celebrities have no compunction advertising the same.

However, racism outside the country elicits an altogether different response. When actor Shah Rukh Khan is frisked by American immigration authorities and detained for questioning, it is racial profiling at its worst and causes a diplomatic row. Four years ago, when Indian students were the targets of racist attacks in Australia, incensed and outraged protests were staged against Australians, both in India and abroad. Calls were made for diplomatic ostracism and proscribing of Australian universities.

As potential victims, Indians are very mindful of it. But as perpetrators, they are reluctant to accept it.

There is another side to Indians, though. The country has always been a haven for persecuted people all around its neighbourhood. India has given shelter to Jews, Parsis, Armenians, Chinese who ran away from the Revolution and Tibetans who fled the Chinese. These people kept their distinct, separate identities and yet they prospered and loved India. Indians in return provided them with physical and economic security to carry on with their lives. Psychologists would argue that an average Indian’s deep-seated inferiority is rooted in a past of subjugation — the colonial desolation of feeling like a second-class citizen in one’s own country. But a deeper resentment now emerges in the form of bipolar urbanism, where protection of self and the turf is paramount and always guarded against any invasion.

This new form of interstate urbanisation creates social tension, as it proposes a fear of cultural and ethnic contamination, giving rise to the fear of losing traditional customs that the society adheres to the core.

Unless, purity of the heart and intent is accepted as the dominant premise of Indian identity, enforcement of such stereotypes will continue as the society oscillates between modernity, tradition and barbarism.

Archisman Dinda is based in Kolkata, India.


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