There is ample evidence — historical and contemporary — to say, without ambiguity, that large swathes of the Indian population are essentially racist. Even as we habitually mouth tributes to our own capacity for apparent 'tolerance,' we stoke the flames of hatred and intolerance on a daily basis. Our multi-layered prejudices reveal themselves not just in our shoddy treatment of minorities, women and the LGBT community, but also in our fearless championing of one of society's foundational prejudices - discrimination based on the colour of one's skin.
People from various African nationalities who have lived in India, particularly in the National Capital, have experienced the full brunt of India's deep-seated racist mindset from time to time. Last month, Masonda Ketanda Olivier, a Congolese national, was lynched to death by a mob in New Delhi. The police said the violence was triggered by a row over hiring an autorickshaw. However, Olivier's friend, a national of Ivory Coast, clearly identified the incident as a hate crime. The attackers, according to his friend, used racial slurs to abuse Olivier.
By no means was the attack on Olivier an aberration that can be shrugged off as an act of erratic lumpenism. Targeting individuals from Africa has become almost habitual for Indians. Delhi, despite claims to cosmopolitanism, is a brutal, racist place where the population of an entire continent has casually been branded drug peddlers.
Two months ago, on the eve of Holi, a gang of 12 men violently attacked two Nigerian nationals, including a football coach, with cricket and baseball bats. The apparent provocation was that one of the Nigerians allegedly scolded a child for hurling a water-filled balloon at him in a West Delhi locality. A full 24-hours passed before the police registered a case. In February, a Tanzanian woman was stripped and thrashed by an irate mob in Bangalore, because of an entirely different incident, where a Sudanese man reportedly hit a local with his car.
Ask a citizen of any African nation living in Delhi about her day-to-day experiences in public spaces and you are likely to hear a shameful narrative of how people openly mock and sneer at them - besides of course subjecting them to the customary long and hard stares. If black men and women are spared direct violence, then it is the trauma of being made to feel unwelcome that they have to contend with every day.
This prejudice against African people is of course, an extension of Indians' natural deference towards white skin. In our cultural practices, we privilege dangerous combinations of colour and gendered discrimination. While patriarchy makes it somewhat easier for dark skinned men to get by, dark skinned girls and women face discrimination at every level of society. Consider for instance matrimonial advertisements openly stating their preference for fair skinned brides, or Bollywood films where light skinned women are always foregrounded. Even in everyday, unglamorous jobs, all things equal, dark-skinned applicants - particularly women - are often passed over for those with a fair complexion.
Our advertisement and cosmetic industry has vigorously promoted this racist bias. According to a report by Ranjavati Banerji in New Statesman this January, "The Indian fairness cream industry is worth around $450m. Fair & Lovely, marketed by the consumer goods behemoth Hindustan Unilever, has more than a 50 per cent share of the market." Despite the growing criticism of such blatant racism and interventions by celebrities to end the culture, the sale of skin whitening creams shows no signs of abatement.
So, where do Indians get their racism from? In answering this question, we frequently cite India's colonial history and the well-entrenched caste system that predated it. In fact, many point to Mahatma Gandhi's racist beliefs when he lived in South Africa between 1893 and 1914. South African scholars Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, in their book The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of the Empire, drew attention to Gandhi's indifference to the condition of the indentured in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Gandhi believed that whites should remain in power even as he described the black African by the derogatory label of Kaffirs.
The history of caste is deeply implicated with racism too, as many have pointed out. Most marriages still occur within caste groups and upper and lower castes are still usually segregated in the Indian mind on the basis of fairer and darker colours respectively. As the case of caste also adequately points out, we cannot get away by blaming everything on the British. As far back as in ancient India, terms like mleccha (barbarian) carried all kinds of discriminatory connotations - often racist.
In the face of this long racist history, pleading for introspection seems fruitless. On the other hand, realising how deeply racism is embedded in our collective culture, does provide some clues to why some chest-beating Indians - who often sign praises of our 'tolerance' - have taken to worshipping at the altar of Donald Trump.
First Published On : Jun 1, 2016 10:21 IST