The BJP leader’s claim is a variation on “I am not racist because I have black friends.’
Africans living in India might think otherwise but India does not have a race problem and the ruling party has conclusively proved it.
First Sushma Swaraj, the Minister for External Affairs told parliament that the attacks on Nigerians in Greater Noida were “unfortunate” but not “racist” or “xenophobic”. Her reasoning was simple. “Any race-motivated attack is pre-planned,” she said. “This was not a pre-planned attack.”
Until now no one had realised this simple truth – that racism, like some biryanis, needs marination, planning and prep work. Just beating up any African-looking man in a mall with sticks, chairs and metal bins is too spontaneous to be a proper racist attack.
Now Tarun Vijay, the BJP leader from Delhi, has offered clinching proof that whatever we are, we desis are not racist. He told Al Jazeera television, “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them? We have blacks…black people around us.”
Vijay sees black people just like that child in Sixth Sense sees dead people.
This is an interesting variation of the ‘I can’t be racist because some of my best friends are black’ argument. The Dravidian people must be relieved to know that they, by their mere presence, provide this vital service, to help whitewash India’s reputation. They are the certificate that Indians can brandish to prove to the world that we are a fair and lovely people notwithstanding those bleaching cream sale figures. That’s just a cultural preference. We are obviously quite colour-blind. Vijay could have mentioned we gave the Smita Patil Memorial Award to Katrina Kaif in 2016.
Indians seem to think that racism has some kind of immaculate conception, that because Indians were not as involved with the slave trade they are incapable of being racist. Our attitude towards Africans or darker skin in general might be shaped by a colonial hangover but we are unwilling to use the R-word to describe it. Instead we find all kinds of reasons to explain away each and every mob attack that has taken place on Africans in different parts of India, though mostly in Delhi:
Too many Africans are involved in drug smuggling.
An African ran over a woman sleeping on the sidewalk.
Africans play music too loudly.
Africans party too much.
African women wear revealing clothes.
African women are involved in prostitution.
The African guy wanted the same auto rickshaw.
The Africans were drunk.
The Indians were drunk.
And now in a new low, Africans are cannibals.
We do not think any of this is racial stereotyping, that to tar everyone with the same brush is racist, that to pull anyone who looks African out of a car and beat them up because one African ran over someone in a traffic accident is racial profiling. Instead each of these function as a perfectly valid reason for “unfortunate” behaviour by a few bad apples. Or as Rakesh Sinha of the RSS-affiliated Indian Policy Foundation puts it “What we are witnessing is the conflict of cultures which is a law and order problem, not racism.” But to the person at the receiving end, it stinks and hurts just as badly.
Faced with a Twitter backlash, Vijay has clarified that he merely meant to say that Indians come in all kinds of colours and “never ever we had any discrimination against them”. The north-easterners who live in some of India’s metro cities might beg to differ with this sanguine prognosis but they should bite their tongue, especially when our national honour is at stake.
But Vijay was merely being honest about the Aryan-Dravidian divide. Many Indians genuinely think that living in the same country as dark-skinned people proves that they don’t have a racist bone in them. Indians also live with many Dalits around them. Some have even been elected to high office. By Vijay’s impeccable logic we don’t have a caste problem either.
To recap, thus far we have learned we cannot be racist because:
1) Racist attacks must be pre-meditated. – Swaraj
2) We tolerate all those black people in Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka – Vijay
3) We were ourselves the victims of British racism – Vijay
4) We were the first to oppose racism and Gandhi went to Africa – Vijay
5) Indians had no problems allowing George Yule and William Wedderburn head the Indian National Congress – Sinha, Indian Policy Foundation
6) We worship Lord Krishna which literally means black – Vijay
7) Many of us learned Martin Luther King Junior’s ‘I Have a Dream’ as part of elocution class.
Okay, the last was something I made up but it could be something that Vijay missed in his haste.
The International Gandhi Peace Prize has been given by the government of India to not one, but four people of African origin – Julius Nyerere, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Coretta Scott King. And the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize has gone to Sam Nujoma, Olusegun Obasanjo, Kofi Annan and Wangari Maathai.
Really, what were those African envoys thinking? We might not want to rent African students rooms easily but we did give their leaders big prizes, didn’t we? Doesn’t that count for anything?
Sandip Roy is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.