Recent incidents of violence against African students not only harm India’s international image but are the tip of a huge civilisational iceberg that only sustained introspection of national identity can address
This article was first published by The Wire on February 24, 2016
At a time when India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is upscaling its African diplomacy, the fact that the country has a deep-seated race problem to confront could complicate New Delhi’s African agenda.
The reported racially-motivated mob attack in Bangalore on an African student from Tanzania inspired by a fatal car accident involving a Sudanese national follows the murder of a student from Burundi in Punjab and an AAP minister in Delhi leading a mob attack in New Delhi on Nigerian and Ugandan women in 2014. All of this on top of attacks that have occurred in metropolitan areas on India’s own racial minorities from its north-east region.
Unfortunately, race tends to be downplayed when discussing India’s social dynamics and seems not to be widely documented, researched and analysed.
Indo-Aryanism and social realities
At the risk of being presumptuous – I am a race conscious African-American in race conscious South Africa – let me say this: racism is not an issue many Indians seem comfortable discussing. However, the most insightful critiques of Indian race attitudes come from commentators like South Africans Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed. They co-authored a provocative book, The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer Of Empire, where – besides noting that the young Indian lawyer who would later become Mahatma, “fought the British empire for the rights of Indians, but not those of the Zulus he lived among” – they emphasised a factor embedded deeply in India’s civilisational heritage that underpins its complex hierarchical social relations: Indo-Aryanism. Desai and Vahed noted how this influenced the young Gandhi’s partiality to “Indo-Aryan bloodlines.” Going further: “There was a feeling among some British colonial officials that Indians were positioned higher up the chain of civilisation than Africans as they originated from the same Aryan root.” No doubt, there were many Indians who thought the same way.
There is, of course, more to India than ‘Indo-Aryanism’, given more tolerant traditions in its south with its darker hues and Dravidian heritage. Still, urbanising demographic upheavals propelled by globalisation expose the extent to which the 19th century lives a vivid and violent life in much of the world, not just India, where ancient attitudes toward women and people of non-European backgrounds provide convenient scapegoats for local frustrations. Of these, there are aplenty in the global north and south alike: poverty and marginalisation of the poor, ‘the left behind,’ the unemployed and unemployable, the uneducated, those fearing their identities threatened – men especially – by loss of status brought on by little understood rapid socio-economic and cultural changes absent appropriate developmental outlets for channeling pent-up tensions from unrequited yearnings likely to never be met.
India’s domestic baggage
Combine such predicaments with cultures of impunity – where there is little or no enforcement of protections for the vulnerable – and it takes little in putting a match to the dry tinder of manifold animosities waiting to explode. This could be an unfortunate accidental incident or the demagogic exploitations of unscrupulous opportunists. Neither does it take much in this brave new world of global integration where different people are thrown together for the innocently unsuspecting to wander into dark corners of life-threatening rage fuelled by uncontrollable grassroots emotions, whatever the spark that may alight them.
This background is necessary to place in broader perspective what India, as an emerging regional power in the global spotlight, is undergoing. The cases of horrendous violence against women, minorities and foreigners expose intractably combustible contradictions in an ancient civilisational culture under strain as external and internal forces of change test leadership and governing capacities to manage such challenges.
While India is in ample company as it is visited with such incidents as in Bangalore – South Africa’s periodic xenophobic spasms are well-known, as is black-on-black persecution of the darkest complexioned Africans in this reputed ‘rainbow’ land – it cannot escape the complications its domestic baggage can and may cause it as it pursues global south diplomacies in Africa and elsewhere.
For one thing, such incidents have the potential to resonate negatively in Africa and the Caribbean, where local socio-racial-class tensions between Indian diasporas interacting with African and African-descended communities have acquired their own contentious historical legacies. These local African-based contradictions intersect with competitive diplomacies of other external powers like China pursuing their own African agendas.
Eastern and Southern Africa are home to important South Asian minorities where interactions with Africans are complicated by the very deeply ingrained prejudices cited by Desai and Vahed. This terrain is well-known if not well-studied. Thus can ‘culture’ work as a double-edged sword where India’s greater English-language historical presence in Africa may suggest a comparative advantage against Chinese and other East Asian forays into a continent where India might expect to leverage its diaspora to its benefit?
Anecdotally, South Asian communities tend to be off-limits to Africans and people of African descent when factoring more intimate social interactions. On the other hand, 19th century notions of an Aryan ‘identity’ linking whites and Asians from the subcontinent is very visible as a contemporary global reality; this is reflected in wide ranging social intercourse between whites and Indians the world over, compared to Indian interactions with blacks of African descent – even where political collaboration enters such equations. Impressionistically, one might even speculate a comparatively easier intercourse between Africans and people of African descent and East Asians – be they Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Filipino – than with South Asians.
‘Dark is beautiful’ and the hierarchies of antiquity
Considering intra-Indian interactions, skin colour, if not socio-racial bias, reinforced by acknowledged caste hierarchies have also to be factored into Indo-African social relations. It seems unlikely that, people-to-people, such cultural compulsions are not operative at given levels of black-Indian interactions. Witness the controversy caused by the Miss America contest of 2014 won by beautiful brown-skinned Indian-American, Nina Davuluri and the following quote from an Indian observer:
“Fair skin, which was originally associated with the educated, reigning Brahmin caste in the ancient Hindu caste system, is contemporarily linked with elevated socioeconomic stature…It’s probably good that Davuluri has no Bollywood aspirations. Dance routines aside, even a Miss America crown won’t propel Davuluri to a celluloid screen near us — not unless she makes the miraculous colour ‘adjustment’ achieved by leading Bollywood actresses who have successfully paled into significance. The fact remains that America is way ahead of India in celebrating a realistic ideal of Indian beauty. In fact, Davuluri is following in the footsteps of other darker-skinned Indian women who have been recognized in America for their talent and beauty, like The Office’s Mindy Kaling or ER’s Parminder Nagra — women who’d never get a second glance in India.”
The ‘Dark Is Beautiful’ campaign seems not to have had the transformative impact in intra-Indian social relations (where Brahminism may be reinforced by elite assimilation of colonially inherited British behavioural characteristics) that ‘Black Is Beautiful’ and notions of ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ had among African-Americans during the 1960s (including such perversions as ‘blacker than thou’!). ‘Light, bright, damn near white’ (‘if you’re white you’re right, yellow you’re mellow, brown stick around, black get back!’) was legendary in African-American and other African diaspora experiences until the 1960s-70s Black Revolution over-turned such internalisations of ‘whiteness.’ In the process, this aesthetic revolution in self-image became a pace-setter, triggering identity politics among other American minorities, including many whites aspiring to be black, hip and ‘cool.’
But black America, which has been at the historical cutting-edge in defining American culture, was never saddled with the deeply embedded hierarchies of antiquity that an Indian ‘dark is beautiful’ movement has confronted. As such, the burden of the 19th century (and earlier centuries) appears to permeate to the very grassroots of imagining ‘the other’ for ready exploitation in triggering violence against black foreigners, women, in some cases non-Hindus or East Asian-looking minorities. The point in all this is that such unfortunate incidents such as the Bangalore attack and the damage they do to India’s international image are but the tip of a huge civilisational iceberg that only a sustained intellectual and cultural movement of national identity introspection can address.
The challenges here extend far beyond race. They reach into more fundamental wells running deep – as in the primacy of male over female. This saddles India with a dangerous gender asymmetry; it is one comprising a testosterone-saturated underclass of frustrated men without hope and few avenues of socially acceptable release in channeling pent up aggression. It seems only a massive grassroots developmental movement with a pronounced urban youth component (accompanied by expanding Indian sports awareness beyond cricket) can help remedy the problem. In a country of more than a billion people, there must be any number of Sugar Ray Robinsons, Floyd Mayweathers and Muhammed Alis awaiting discovery. In other words, the interrelated overcoming of racism and liberating of women may require channeling male energies away from idleness easily exploited for fuelling xenophobic racial, sexual and religious violence with potential for complicating India’s international relations. Such considerations underscore a deeper meaning to the Bangalore incident.
Francis A. Kornegay, Jr., a native of Detroit, Michigan is a permanent resident in South Africa. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Global Dialogue, University of South Africa. Kornegay has written extensively on BRICS, US foreign policy and India-Africa relations.