Racism is Every Bit a Part of "Indianness" as Religious Bigotry, Sexism

The myth of racial and religious superiority that feeds Indian racism needs to be demolished.

The continued assault on black people – mostly from African countries – living in India constitutes a turning point in the history of racial discrimination. Most recently, locals at Chhattarpur’s Rajpur Khurd village attacked Nigerian, Ugandan and Congolese nationals with cricket bats, bricks and iron rods after picking them out at random. Several victims were hospitalised as a result of the injuries they sustained. No one came forward to assist them. These attacks took place several days after a Congolese teacher was bludgeoned to death on a Delhi street. The execrable response to these attacks by some Indians  – ranging from laughter to incitement and encouragement of the perpetrators and slamming the door on the faces of victims seeking help – is cause for a serious searching of the nation’s democratic conscience.

The continued refusal by the police as well as union cabinet minister Sushma Swaraj to characterise these incidents as racial attacks constitutes a refusal to come to terms with an important feature of “Indianness” that has become central to the ruling party’s ideology: racism. “Indianness,” which is a modern, racial and cultural construction and equated with Hinduness, can only accommodate the idea of Indians as victims and whites as perpetrators. Any hint of racial injustice through even the slightest taunt or gesture against any Indian anywhere produces a barrage of official complaints of racism and racial targeting stretching from America to Australia. “Indianness” cannot broker the idea of being a perpetrator of racial intolerance and hatred. And yet it is precisely this feature that is integral to the idea of the Indian nation and the religious, cultural and racial exclusions along which it has been constructed.

It is important to understand that racism is not just directed towards “foreigners” but is also internal and endemic. It is systemic and integral to the very structure of society. From marriage ads and fairness creams to more brutal and violent racial attacks, such as the one on 19-year-old Nido Tania, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, who died in Delhi after a racist attack in 2014, the hierarchy of race becomes a part of everyday life. The ‘fair and lovelies’ of Indian society scorn those who have not crossed into the kingdom of lightness and remain unsightly blotches on a purified race, in a country where notions of beauty are measured against a colonial mentality according to which white was both might and right. The racial harassment of northeastern women in the nation’s capital or the taunting of South Indians with regard to their darker complexion, is evidence of the exclusionary and degrading attitudes of those for whom racial superiority has become a normalised part of their thinking. And this deeply rooted chauvinism remains unquestioned and considered unremarkable. Clinging to the myth of victimisation, as opposed to the reality of Indians being perpetrators, ensures that India’s racism problem remains unaddressed.

Attitudes of racial and religious superiority

The colonial encounter that labeled the Indian as backward and primitive and in need of a civilising mission constitutes the backdrop against which this conceit of the Indian (read light, Hindu, male and straight) as a superior species developed. Coupled with an educational system that was historically designed to encourage the native to walk and talk like an Englishman, and which in the current moment is sustained through the recent makeover of the school curriculum (into one that propagates the idea of a preeminent Hindu civilisation), the indoctrination into an attitude of racial and religious superiority embeds itself into the very thinking of both the rulers and the ruled.

While there have been some remarkable efforts to incorporate the treatment of Dalits into the category of race in the UN human rights system and ensure India’s compliance with the terms of the Convention on Racial Discrimination, this focus tends to narrow the focus of race. Racism is part of a much bigger problem and it is remarkable that given its everydayness, not a single case on racial discrimination under article 15 of the Constitution that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, amongst other things, has ever been brought before the courts. Discrimination is endemic in India: the country continues to slowly but surely move in the direction of exclusion, where being Indian means being straight, male, Hindu and non-Dalit. Exclusions are justified on the grounds that the difference is threatening, or might dilute the purity of the race and its culture, a nationalist craving that was endemic in the writings of the early Hindutva ideologues, but that has today become a normalised feature of the Indian mentality.

Need for introspection

Mohammad Ali, the dynamic figure of the 20th century who recently passed away, declared his opposition to the Vietnam war in the 1960s and was excoriated for his stand. Ali argued, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” The US has since sought to confront its racist past and present, judicially and politically and has gone on to elect a black president, while instituting the grassroot movement, “Black Lives Matter”, to address the continuing, endemic racism that plagues the country.

While Ali refused to facilitate the dropping of bombs on brown people, there needs to be a deeper introspection on how brown (Indian) people treat other brown people and black people, and to confront how, within the nation, some humans continue to treat others as lesser humans, subhumans or even as non-humans on the grounds of their race. There is a desperate need to recognise that racism is every bit a part of “Indianness” as is religious bigotry and sexism. It is time to address this stain on the democratic conscience of the nation and demolish the hierarchy on which our national identity has been and continues to be constructed.

Ratna Kapur is Professor of Law at the Jindal Global Law School.