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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 24, June 15, 2024

Unveiling The Racism In India | Tamanna Yadav

Saturday 15 June 2024


Even as the massive general elections to choose the leaders of the national government for the next five years was in progress, Congress leader Sam Pitroda stirred controversy in an interview with ‘The Statesman’ newspaper, while depicting the diversity of India. He said, ‘We are a shining example of democracy in the world. We have survived 75 years in a very happy environment where people could live together, leaving aside a few fights here and there. We could hold a country together as diverse as India, where people in the east look like Chinese, people in the west look like Arabs, people in the north look like whites, and maybe people on the south look like Africans.’ His analysis reduced India’s diversity to crude stereotypes and regional identities to racial markers.

Pitroda’s Statement Appeared to glorify Indian democracy and celebrate India’s multiculturalism, a sentiment often echoed by different politicians, but on closer inspection, we find the voicing of an underlying racial prejudice and stereotyping. The remark not only questions Sam Pitroda’s commitment to inclusivity and social justice but also impacts the credibility of the Congress party in times of the ongoing general elections. However, the Congress wisely dissociated itself from Pitroda’s remark. Following criticism from all corners, Sam Pitroda resigned from the post of chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress.

Many people, particularly politicians and intellectuals in the country, believe that Indians are not racists, they may be casteists. However, the prejudice imbued inside us (especially, the colour bias) was exposed with Pitroda’s remark.

Racial discrimination is frequent and overt in the country, across streets, public places, educational spaces, etc., and covert in political discourse.
In 2017, Tarun Vijay, MP of the ruling BJP, speaking to Al Jazeera, defending the attack on African students in India’s NCR (greater Noida) area said, ‘If we were racist, why would we have the south? Why do we live with them? We have black people around us’, which, back then, sparked backlash. However, such statements from well-known politicians show how the country thinks in terms of black and white.The intention in both scenarios was not to hurt the sentiments of our people, but their statements are mirrors of the nation’s prejudices which led to the articulation of racist statements. Both incidents depict the flawed understanding of leaders about the regional diversity of India and no understanding of the politically correct language of discourse. This, despite our constitutional commitments toward inclusivity and social justice.

The Global Social Attitude Study report says, India is among the Top 5 countries where the population is intolerant. This study is based on the 2013 World Value Survey, which measured the social attitudes of people from different countries. In a country with regional and ethnic diversity, racism is dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘them’. We make a variety of judgments based on faces and features. We can comfortably neglect all these reports and continue to stick to the statement that India is not a racist country, and continue to say all these reports are strategies to downgrade the image of the country in the international community.

Roots of racism: In simple words, racism is the belief that some races are innately superior to others and link cultural and ideological traits with one’s race. Racism is a harsh reality of everyday life. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta traces the root of Indian racism to colonial rule, which popularised the ‘Aryan (white coloured people’s) invasion’ theory specifically to justify domination of a white colonial variety. Before colonial occupation, feature-colour-of-skin bias was never resorted to in India, where people of all countries and races took refuge from persecution and made the subcontinent, their own. The white colonial ploy succeeded as communities started absorbing the colonial aesthetic standards of race.

Colourism across the country: The obsession of Indians with fair colour is deeply rooted and well-known. Even today, marriage portals testify to the preferences for brides. The roots of colourism can be traced to British rule, but the Indian cinema and TV industry have been instrumental in perpetuating ‘Fairness’ as a symbol of beauty and superiority. There is a pervasive and persistent belief in society that fair-skinned people are more desirable for every opportunity, be it a marriage or a job. The skin lightning advertisements further strengthen the practice of colourism.

Is Racism silently determining Indianness? ‘Fairness’ is taken as a compliment by us; why is it so? We need to think about this. Xenophobia, colonialism, racism, and extremism are major concerns for our nation in the era of globalisation. And as a whole, these factors of discrimination go against Indian philosophy, which propagates the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family).

Xenophobic Realities: Independent India began with a discourse on caste-related discrimination which dominated any discussion on racism. After the death of the racially-inspired assault of Nido Taniam, a 19-year-old young boy from Arunachal Pradesh, on 29 January 2014 in Delhi’s crowded Lajpat Nagar area, rampant racism toward north-east Indians came into the spotlight. North-easterners face discrimination is based on their looks, mongoloid features, ethnicity, culture, and language. They are often subjected to derogatory remarks, slurs, and are called chinky, momos, chowmein, Nepali, Chinese, Corona, etc. The violence and harassment toward Northeast Indians are so common, especially the hypersexualisation of women and the objectification of their bodies. This deep-rooted racism toward Northeast Indians was reinforced in times of the pandemic too, when the blame fell on China for the origin of the Covid-19 virus.. Due to geographical, regional, and cultural differences, mainland Indians often question the ‘Indianness’ of Northeast Indians.

Africans in India: For our southern counterparts, the derogatory word ‘kalu’ has been so commonly used that it is no longer funny. When we closely observe South Indian cinema, we find the bias toward fairness and eurocentric standards of beauty, which disproportionately affect the actors and actresses differently; a dark-skinned male cast can be paired with a fair-skinned woman, but it’s not common to see a female cast with a dark complexion. This is how colourism and discrimination are amplified in South Indian cinema itself.

Author Arundhati Roy has pointed out, ‘Indian racism towards black people is almost worse than white people’s racism’. The Africans face discrimination in Indian society, has been a hostile space for them. Africans are painted as curses and thugs here. “A university stands for humanism, for reason, for the adventure of ideas and truth” was well said by our first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, but why have universities often failed to accommodate foreigners, especially Africans? They face violence, discrimination, and assault regularly on campuses. The prejudices and stereotypes are so high that often people identify Africa as a country, not a continent. They even face racism in the process of getting a visa and are always looked at sceptically. And we Indians often tend to forget that we are the country with the largest diaspora spread across the world. We need to come up with more tolerance, not just toward Africans but toward all immigrants.

Legal Provisions against Racism: Article 15, Article 16, and Article 29 of our constitution mention race and the anti-discriminatory provisions.
Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code deals with promoting equality on grounds of race, religion, caste, religion, community, etc.

The Bezbaruah committee, which was constituted after the murder of Nido Taniam in 2014, in its report said, that about 86 per cent of Northeast Indians who have migrated to mainland India for study or work have faced discrimination and harassment in Delhi. It also suggested recommendations to be incorporated in college rules to address racism. Initially, the government appreciated and accepted the recommendations positively, with assurances of enforcement soon. However, proper implementation is still not ensured.

We, as Indians, comfortably deny that racism exists in the country, which leaves no space for discussion of the guidelines of behaviour and social practice. There is also a lack of academic discourse on this subject, which needs to be addressed. The acts of harassment, violence, and discrimination as a result of prejudice and stigmatisation question humanism. Inclusive laws, their strict implementation, and education about the difference through media, cinema, and educational institutions can lead us on the path of inclusive development. There needs to be effort also made by the oppressed by refusing such discriminatory treatment, and filing the complaint against discrimination.

Also, India is a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which makes the elimination of racism and promoting understanding among all races our priority. Greater tolerance and acceptance toward different races and immigrants in the country are not just moral imperatives; they will benefit us economically, diversify our culture, and enhance the country’s reputation, increasing its soft power on the global stage. Embracing our richness of diversity and ideas of humanity, let’s strive to foster a more inclusive and equitable society where every individual is celebrated, irrespective of which gender, colour, race, religion, community, and country they belong to.

(Author: Tamanna Yadav, emerging from a marginalised rural community, writes on the marginalised and navigates the intersections of gender, socioeconomic status, and geographical location.).

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