Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine
Taking pride in prejudice
When racism plays out in subtle ways in everyday life, it doesn’t provoke
debate. It is only when it takes a violent turn, as it did in Bengaluru, that we
are forced to address it
It is a time of denial. Barely a month has passed with many flatly refusing to
accept that Rohith Vemula’s suicide had something to do with caste
discrimination. Now, some politicians are claiming that violence against a
Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru has nothing to do with race. Karnataka Home
Minister G. Parameshwara said the incident stemmed from “road rage”. A few
nights back, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary, Rakesh Sinha, said on a
television show that “Indians are not racist at all”.
These statements reflect the serious nature of the problem of racism in India: a
stubborn refusal to acknowledge something that is so obvious. Perhaps the fact
that violent expressions of racism spring up only once in a while allows us to
present the problem with other coordinates, such as law and order and road rage.
When racism plays out in subtler, less physically damaging ways in everyday
life, it doesn’t provoke debate, as this form of racism is internalised. It is
only when it takes a violent turn that we are forced to address it.
Method in mob behaviour
Take the Bengaluru assault. Mob behaviour is generally inexplicable. But in this
case, the fact that the mob chose to target Africans specifically, those whose
skin colour was the same as the Sudanese man, a good half an hour after the
accident, shows that there was some method even in the madness — a vague idea
that all “these people” come from the same community or region and must hence
bear responsibility for each other’s actions.
Saying that Indians are not racist is akin to saying that caste has disappeared
in India. Examples are abundant. We turn a blind eye to advertisements that ask
us to transform the colour of our skin. We applaud a film in which the heroine
cringes after sleeping with a black man. We laugh heartily when Rajinikanth
drinks gallons of saffron milk and lies in a tub of multani mitti in the hope of
being worthy enough to woo his pretty fair-skinned love. We hear people at
weddings say that the bride is too fair for the groom. We have the world’s most
regressive matrimonial advertisements, we are suspicious of black people, and
even if we compliment a dark-skinned person, we do it grudgingly: she’s pretty
despite being dark. We also go a step ahead, we justify them in one way or the
However, the justifications for racism are selective; they’re only reserved for
incidents within India. Any such incident outside the country and Indians lose
their minds. When Shah Rukh Khan was detained at a U.S. airport, angry fans in
Allahabad shouted slogans and burnt the American flag. A series of attacks on
Indians in Australia triggered a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.
Attacks on Sikhs in the U.S. were met with angry demands that the U.S. take
urgent steps to tackle its problem of race.
But racism in India is not about skin colour alone. If it were, Arunachal
Pradesh college student Nido Tania would not have died in 2014, people from the
Northeast would not be harassed by employers and landlords, nor would they have
fled Bengaluru in 2012 following rumours about violent attacks being planned
against them. In fact, as many studies point out, racism stems from a complete
ignorance about people perceived to be different, and the false stereotypes
constructed about the Other.
A survey conducted in 2012 by the North-East India Image Managers about the
perception of people from other parts of the country about the Northeast found
that 52 per cent of respondents had a negative perception about the region. They
saw it as “riddled with insurgency and the most unsafe place in the country or
that of people with mongoloid features and weird food habits and an alien
culture.” A whopping 87 per cent of working professionals spoken to couldn’t
even name the seven Northeast States. Despite chest-thumping about diversity and
difference, displayed in Republic Day parades and other occasions that showcase
nationalism, Indians seem to take pride in and demand some level of homogeneity.
This sense of oneness stems from an imagined sense of “us” and excludes the
Combating racism in India first requires acceptance of its existence. Second, it
involves understanding the definition of racism. Racism does not concern
prejudices alone; it is a system of oppression, one that creates two sets of
people: the powerful and the powerless, those whose citizenship is taken for
granted and those whose citizenship is questioned every other day. In 2009, a
couple of my friends, including a North-eastern girl, visited the Taj Mahal. The
guard at the entrance allowed us all in, but stopped her to ask her which
country she was from. “Tawang, Arunachal,” she said, but he had no idea where
that was. “Chinese?” Only after she screamed at him — Main Hindustani hoon! —
did he let her pass.
While the Bengaluru incident showed horrific behaviour on the part of the mob,
even more horrific was the behaviour of the policemen who stood there as mute
spectators. Three of them have been suspended since. But what caused them to
stay silent in the first place? A fear of the mob? A sense that justice was
being meted out? The M.P. Bezbaruah chaired committee, set up in 2014 following
Tania’s death, suggested several measures that would ensure that the people of
the Northeast feel more included. One recommendation was to include personnel
from the region in the Delhi police. But why Delhi alone? Would another
Committee now suggest the same for Bengaluru? Recommendations need to be
pan-Indian instead of focussing on one region.
Popular culture perpetuates stereotypes by leaving out, or marginalising, some
communities. Advertisements hardly ever feature dark people. Mainstream films,
even if they are about a North-easterner (Mary Kom), don’t cast someone from the
region for the role. Changes in these can be more effective in the short run, as
institutional changes take time. Take Orunasol Man. He’s Arunachal Pradesh’s
first superhero, who came into existence in 2014, to “make people aware of the
social evils plaguing his State”. One powerful cartoon shows a Sikh, a Muslim
and a generic-looking young Indian holding up the Indian flag on Republic Day.
Orunasol Man stands among them holding the biggest flag of them all.
Racism is not black and white; it shows in the way North Indians call South
Indians as “Madrasis”, in the way fair-skinned South Indians sometimes treat
dark-skinned South Indians, and so on. But any kind of ethnocentrism, fostered
by pride in the self and in prejudices towards others, only divides people, not
unites them in their diversity.
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