Attacks on Africans: Racism or simply a lack of respect for individualism? - Firstpost
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Attacks on Africans: Racism or simply a lack of respect for individualism?


Here are a few questions the English-educated, upwardly mobile must answer honestly: Do you have the gumption to tell the Hindu residents in your colony that you cook beef at home? Do you have the audacity to drink liquor openly in a Muslim colony? Will you, in case you also happen to wear a turban, smoke incessantly at a gathering of Sikhs?

Obviously, hypocritical as you are, in the manner all us Indians, you will say the questions are flawed. You will say that in residential colonies or at a social gathering there is a bewildering mix of the conservatives, liberals and fundamentalists. You don’t wish to offend anyone – and so you consume beef or drink liquor or smoke on the sly.

But you think you are modern, impervious to the pull of traditions. And so, in a tone of superiority, you will say, “I eat beef or drink or smoke among those who are broadminded and educated.”

But the connection between education and liberal worldview is a myth in India. Universities shudder at the idea. Do you think Banaras Hindu University or Delhi University or even Jawaharlal Nehru University will ever allow beef on their mess menu? Do you think Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, will serve pork as an optional dish for those who savour it?

The answer: NEVER.

File phot of members of the African Students Association holding placards during a protest in Hyderabad in February in support of Tanzanian nationals assaulted by a local mob in Bangalore. AFP

File phot of members of the African Students Association holding placards during a protest in Hyderabad in February in support of Tanzanian nationals assaulted by a local mob in Bangalore. AFP

For those who don’t know, here is a piece of information – some of the private universities mushrooming in and around Delhi don’t even allow mutton or chicken to be served to residential students. One of them has a social scientist of repute; he often writes newspaper articles bemoaning the retreat of liberalism.

In case you are wondering what I am driving at, let me confess: I chose to furnish a checklist which could help determine our degree of hypocrisy before asking yet another question. Do you think the two recent incidents of attacks on Africans in Delhi are examples of racism hunting for its targets?

Perhaps we need to revisit the two incidents. One of these involved African residents who lived in Chattarpur, which may be in Delhi, but is essentially a village. In sociological parlance it is what you call urban village, the prefix giving it a façade of cosmopolitanism. But caste ties bind the residents, as also their traditions.

In their tradition, there are several taboos. You don’t drink publiclly, or only the toughies do, not women. Women don’t wear short, diaphanous dresses, don’t mingle freely and certainly don’t party.

You don’t play music late night at loud volume – you do it on Holi or during Durga Puja, in which the entire community participates. Obviously, you are allowed to play bhajans beyond 11 pm, and even the most punctilious of police officers can’t book you for breaking the law.

That’s the way it is in these villages. There is a clash of cultures. The lifestyle of Africans is perceived as a threat to the culture of the village. It is not as if these urban villagers don’t drink alcohol. But there are rules – the elders can openly, the young do it on the sly. The Africans with their openness are both a challenge to as well as a living critique of the traditional lifestyle of villagers. In the last sense the African lifestyle is also a temptation for the young.

It is ostensibly a mystery why villagers then rent out places to those whose lifestyles they detest. It is about economics. Africans pay better rates in comparison to Indians who would want to stay in these urban villages. But the rates the Africans pay cannot secure them a better dig elsewhere. The villagers believe that since they are in a majority in the residential area, their culture sensitivity is something the Africans will have to respect.

Call it majoritarianism in miniature.

But before you pass a severe judgement on the urban villagers, return to the checklist I have provided. We don’t flout the principles of the dominant majority in the colonies we live in. In this Youth Ki Awaaz article, read the woes of Rupsa Chakraborty, a Bengali Brahmin who had to overcome her non-vegetarian desires when she moved to Gujarat.

In the second incident involving the killing of an African, the row was over who flagged a three-wheeler down first. The African had, but three men from Kishangarh village in Vasant Kunj, an upwardly mobile residential colony of Delhi, insisted they would take the three-wheeler. The African was chased and beaten up fatally.

Could it be typified as a form of road rage, about which we read or hear every week? There are people in Delhi who have been shot dead for overtaking or for parking in a spot another person has reserved for himself.

In a recent incident in Delhi, two boys called an app-based cab and had the driver take them around for an hour or so. When the exasperated man refused to drive them any further and asked for money, he was shot dead by one of the two boys.

Did racism play a role in the two incidents of attacks on Africans? It is hard to tell, regardless of the judgement summarily passed by the media. There could have been an element of it, once the clashes were sparked. Stereotyping of the Africans and their lifestyle, but also their vulnerability, perhaps came into play once the clashes were triggered. It may have motivated others to join the fracas or was invoked post facto to justify their barbarity.

But this isn’t peculiar to clashes in which Africans have been victims. For instance, community clashes have often been sparked because a Muslim scooter-driver has bumped into one driven by a Hindu, or vice versa. The arguments between the two often have their communities taking sides. In towns, a game of cricket has often been the trigger for communal fights.

In India, all of us, from the educated to the illiterate, have been appropriated by our respective communities, which have overlapping identities of class, caste, religion, race, region and language. Individually, despite the arrogance of our independence, we have become a metaphor for our community’s honour or dishonour. There is no respect for individualism, no tolerance of individual choices.

There is no escaping it. We fear to offend. We have our survival techniques, all of which fall in the category of hypocrisy. We drink or eat beef or pork on the sly. We smoke in toilets, exhaling smoke out of the window with the exhaust fan running. We party behind closed doors. We are embarrassed to flaunt our individualism. We are closet deviants, unlike the Africans, whom we expect to become like us.

Out of cowardice or belief, we are individuals who subscribe to the idea of majoritarianism, of which racism is an aspect, as are communalism and casteism. All isms, ultimately, prey on the individual, regardless of whether he or is Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Sikh or upper caste or lower caste.

From this perspective, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is right in saying a sensitisation campaign is required to be undertaken in areas where Africans reside. She should know as she is part of a government for which majoritarianism seems to be an article of faith. For starters, she should sensitise her colleague, Gen VK Singh.

First Published On : Jun 1, 2016 16:47 IST

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