Rights

Seeing India Through the Black Lives Matter Protests

It is clear that India too needs urgently to address its glaring problems of systemic discrimination and police brutality.

America is churning. 

The selective application of its founding ideals — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — has once again been brought to the fore. The killing of unarmed black citizens by the police and the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on black communities have underscored that America extracts the labour of black bodies even as it devalues black lives. 

There are parallels with India: the police viciously beating down already oppressed populations and their allies; the police’s failure to respect constitutional and legal rights; and a national leader who is hostile to minorities and dissidents

In both societies, these injustices have deep historical roots. America’s founding ideals did not extend to African slaves or their descendants, who numbered approximately four million by the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861 and whose unpaid labour contributed to American prosperity.  

While formal discrimination ended decades ago, black Americans continue to face greater economic and social barriers than others. Given India’s systemic discrimination against Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims, its extreme economic inequality, and the police’s violent and often illegal repression of those already at the receiving end of the caste-class order, the protests in America speak to many of the issues that plague India as well. 

Looking at India in the mirror of American protests makes clear that India too needs urgently to address its glaring problems of systemic discrimination and police brutality. It also makes clear how far India is from fighting for such changes.

Background

The killing of George Floyd was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In recent years, the ubiquity of cell phone cameras has made it possible to record police murders of black men and women. These recordings have revealed how unarmed black men and women have been shot or strangled for such ‘crimes’ as jogging, driving, and being in their own homes. They have revealed how the police can blatantly lie in their official version of events. 

While black communities have been aware of the pattern of unjust and illegal black deaths at the hands of police going back decades, these cell phone recordings have made it hard for the rest of America to look the other way. Since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager, anger has repeatedly boiled over into street protests, sometimes accompanied by violence. It is precisely that anger that has pushed authorities across America to make efforts at reform, from mandating body cameras on policemen to introducing racial bias training.

Also read: US Police Officers Involved in Brutal Violence Often Have a History of Complaints

Alongside, the coronavirus has taken a much heavier toll on communities of colour. Black people have been infected with and died from the coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates. Black people are also far more likely to be in low-paying but essential jobs, risking their lives every day so the better-off can work from home. 

The coronavirus has also caused massive economic pain, with millions who live from paycheck to paycheck losing their jobs. Many are struggling to feed their families or make their rent or mortgage payments. Emergency governmental financial support programs have helped, but millions are still facing extreme financial hardship and uncertainty. 

Yet, recent events have served to highlight that in crucial ways, little has changed in how the police treats black people. 

In February, Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, was hunted down by a white father-son duo as he jogged through a predominantly white neighbourhood in small-town Georgia. 

In March, police in Louisville, Kentucky killed Breonna Taylor, a black woman, in her own home when looking for someone else. 

In May, just days before Floyd’s murder, a video from New York City surfaced depicting a white woman, Amy Cooper, making a false police complaint against a black man surfaced. The woman was retaliating against the man for telling her to leash her dog in compliance with the rules governing the section of the park. Cooper’s casual summoning of police brutality as an instrument of her own personal revenge triggered widespread anger and condemnation. 


‘Defund the Police’

This moment in America, however, feels like a crossroads. 

Black communities and those yearning for a more just society are tired of the continuing murder of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement. The most urgent demand arising from the protests right now is to defund the police. 

In its current formulation, this is a demand to drastically reduce police budgets and police operations. It is a call to address the underlying causes of crime and to respond to as many situations as possible through community organisations that can diffuse situations through relationships of trust. 

It is a demand to channel as large a chunk as possible towards supporting these more holistic approaches.

Given the persistence of black deaths at police hands despite efforts at reform, activists argue that steps like surveillance or re-training of police forces have not worked to prevent police discrimination and violence against black people. A section of protestors are now demanding a rethink of America’s relationship with its police. 

Protesters gather at the scene where George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was pinned down by a police officer kneeling on his neck before later dying in hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S. May 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Eric Miller

They point out that in past decades, America has started to approach societal problems as law-and-order matters. The police are sent in to handle such issues as homelessness. A range of problems with socio-economic roots are addressed only as crime, with little or no attention paid or investment made into alleviating the poverty, drug abuse, or mental health issues that might be underlying the crime.

This over-reliance on the police and widening of the ambit of their authority and operations is an important element of how things got so bad.

Also read: Minneapolis Looks to ‘End’ Police Department After George Floyd’s Death

In addition, the wars that America has been fighting overseas have made their way back home. America’s urban police departments have become increasingly militarised, investing in armoured tanks and a range of heavy weaponry. Their SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams increasingly resemble military assault units. America now approaches parts of its own society as it does ‘the enemy’ across battle lines. 

This suggests an ‘othering’ of the urban poor, many of whom are racial minorities. 

Finally, as commentators have pointed out, in an increasingly unequal society, the approach of America’s political leadership has been to lean towards austerity. The establishments of both the Democratic and Republican parties claim that America simply can’t afford welfare solutions. And yet, police budgets have ballooned, as have the bank accounts of the wealthy and the profit margins of corporations.

The protests themselves have ranged from peaceful though energised gatherings to violent ones targeting public and private property. It is not just the big cities but even small towns that have seen protest gatherings. 

Most protests have been peaceful even as those that have spilt over into violence have grabbed headlines. What is common to the protests across America is the diversity of participants. People across races and ages have come out at great personal risk, in the midst of a pandemic, to stand up against highly unequal and racist violence against black people.

The emerging consensus has caused the demand to defund the police go mainstream within days. City authorities in Los Angeles are looking into cutting their police budget by up to $150 million. The city council of Minneapolis, where Floyd was murdered and where the protests began, has voted to disband its police force and explore alternative models of community-led safety.

Desi girls and boys

In this upheaval, Indian Americans have played an array of roles. Many have suffered racial discrimination themselves and have sympathy for anti-racist impulses. 

There are some, like Rahul Dubey in Washington DC, who have gone above and beyond in their support for the protestors. Others in the broader South Asian American community have also stood firm in their support for the Black Lives Matter protests even at great personal cost. A Bangladeshi American family made headlines for its steadfast support of the movement even though their restaurant in Minneapolis burnt down during the protests. Many Indian Americans, particularly the young, are joining in the protests, marching, holding placards, chanting.

Then there is the small section of Indian Americans who are steadfast Donald Trump supporters and who make common cause with the Islamophobia of the American Right. 

Many South Asian Americans, whether Trump supporters or not, are anti-black, a worldview that derives in part from the caste and colourism they brought with them to the States. Many in the community, even if they despise Donald Trump and champion racial justice, would be deeply upset by their child marrying a black person. 

Many desi liberals turn a blind eye to the growing persecution of Muslims and Dalits back home in India and also do not challenge the Islamophobic and casteist attitudes rampant in their families and communities. This group sees no irony in their fervent support for equality and justice in America alongside their indifference to or even support for discrimination in India and in the Indian diaspora. 

A dummy depicting US President Donald Trump during a Black Lives Matter protest in London, June 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Henry Nicholls

Most South Asians, sadly, have forgotten that when they first moved to America in the late 19th century, it was black and Hispanic neighbourhoods that sheltered them and included them in bonds of friendship and marriage. The successes of the black Civil Rights struggle had a role in knocking down racist policies that also excluded South Asians until 1965. 

Since then, as Indian Americans have built lives and businesses in America, many have bought into the ‘model minority’ myth that presents Asians as bestowed with the ‘right’ work ethic and family bonds required to succeed in America. 

Many Indians see nothing wrong with being associated with such a stereotype. But like all stereotypes, the idea of the Asian model minority erases the variety of historical experiences of Indians in America. It also works to justify anti-blackness by suggesting that, if only black people worked hard enough and had the ‘right’ values, they would not suffer the socio-economic conditions they find themselves in. 

An acceptance of the model minority framework allows a dismissal of the structural and racial asymmetries that are the root cause of black suffering in America. Rejecting the model minority paradigm, progressive members of the South Asian American community are appealing to the Indian diaspora to stand with their black brothers and sisters to demand meaningful change.

India and black lives

The issue of police violence against minority populations resonates with the situation in India. The Indian police deploy methods such as ‘encounter killings,’ the targets of which are largely Muslim and low-caste men. Custodial death and torture is rampant in India. 

The coronavirus seems only to have intensified police brutality, with numerous reports of policemen in India mercilessly beating the poor, often starving migrants making arduous treks on foot to their villages. 

The police are marked by a lack of diversity, with SCs and STs lagging in representation despite reservations. This is because many reserved positions are allowed to remain empty. Muslims too are under-represented in India’s police forces. 

It is perhaps then not a surprise that studies have shown Indian police personnel to be ridden by anti-Muslim biases as well as casteist attitudes. The police on the ground can be partisan, perceiving Muslims, Dalits, and anyone protesting in support of Muslims, Dalits or for a more just society as worthy of repression. 

Also read: Madhya Pradesh Police Apologise for Beating Lawyer, ‘We Thought You Were Muslim,’ They Say

The American protests underscore that it is time for India to talk seriously about its own police problem.

As an Indian in America, it is not only the parallels with this current moment that have struck me but also the divergences. In India, like the US, the ubiquity of cell phones has made possible the recording of unjust deaths and violence. 

In India, however, concerned, helpless bystanders usually do not make these recordings. Rather, the videos generally are recorded by gleeful participants who seek to memorialise and circulate them as trophies of their blood sport. 

Lynchings of Dalits and Muslims — for supposedly hurting cows or while being exhorted to say “Jai Shri Ram”— have become commonplace. Yet, even the first such incident, of Mohammad Akhlaq being lynched by a mob in Dadri in 2015, did not cause widespread outrage. 

Also read: With Its Distrust, Alienation and Fear, Akhlaq’s Village Provides Glimpse of ‘Hindu Rashtra’

The human rights violations of the Indian Army in Kashmir and in the northeast, even when documented, are generally not condemned by mainstream commentators in India. Nothing seems to shock or shame most of India into standing up against the brutal injustices of its own order. 

Some Indians and Indian Americans are outraged by George Floyd’s murder even as they did not bat an eyelid when, say, Pehlu Khan was beaten to death. It is hard to imagine Indian institutions, public figures, and captains of industry making statements of grief and solidarity in response to the lynching of Muslims or Dalits similar to the many public expressions of support to the Black Lives Matter movement in America in recent days. For what it’s worth, major corporations, celebrities, and even a national Republican leader (Mitt Romney) in the US have prominently displayed their support for the protestors. It is hard to imagine such a stand in support of India’s oppressed by its establishment.

Another divergence between the US and India, at least thus far, has been the nature of the protests. 

The recent protests in America appear to be amplified by the hardships caused by the coronavirus. In India, by contrast, it has been remarkable that no protests have broken out among the millions dispossessed by state ineptness in the handling of the coronavirus.  

There are the migrants from villages starving and stranded in urban areas. Other migrants have walked hundreds of kilometres seeking to get back to an only slightly better situation back home. There are city-dwellers who have lost jobs. There are small businesses teetering on the verge of collapse. 

These same groups have already borne the massive shocks and economic slowdown caused by demonetisation and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax. 

Indian history is replete with examples of uprisings in times of agrarian distress, be they triggered by famine or oppressive tax regimes. With India’s own heightened economic inequalities — a small elite accessing dollar-priced coffees, Louis Vuitton stores, sprawling bungalows — the question one is left with is, how much more will the Indian poor bear?

Given how far India’s elites are pushing the poor, it looks like this is something the nation wants to know.

Divya Cherian teaches South Asian history at Princeton University.