Indian upper caste outrage against racism in the West is in jarring contrast to apathy towards marginalised at home

While 'Black Lives Matter' needs and deserves all the attention coming its way, the sudden outrage by India's upper caste on this issue seems rather hypocritical, considering their long history of brutality against Dalits and Adivasis.

Jahnavi Uppuleti June 25, 2020 11:16:34 IST
Indian upper caste outrage against racism in the West is in jarring contrast to apathy towards marginalised at home

With protests raging across America and other parts of the world after George Floyd's murder by a White police officer, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has been trending on social media. The African-American struggle has a long history, and many marginalised communities across the world seek inspiration from their resistance. Other countries have extended their support to the protests, while expressing concerns over racism and police brutality.

Similar support has also been extended by citizens of India to the on-going protests, condemning acts of racial violence and discrimination. While #BlackLivesMatter needs and deserves all the attention coming its way, the sudden outrage by Indians on this issue seems rather hypocritical, considering the upper caste's long history of brutality against Dalits and Adivasis.

There is constant outrage in Kashmir about the cruelty inflicted by armed forces on civilians; people in the northeastern states of India are also victims of racism and brutality at the hands of the armed forces. In recent times, several activists and students fighting for the rights of marginalised communities have called out Indian celebrities for showing selective outrage.

Indian upper caste outrage against racism in the West is in jarring contrast to apathy towards marginalised at home

Image via AP

The marginalised in India have often faced criticism for even voicing their concerns. Seeing friends and colleagues be oblivious to matters in their own backyard, while showing extreme interest in the US protests, is worrying.

For instance, news outlets and people on social media, pouring their hearts out for a very significant movement in the US, have never bothered to acknowledge the rampant racism towards people from the North East. The brutality towards the indigenous communities in Northeastern states is rarely addressed.

“When we talk about racism in India, it is certainly not restricted to the upper caste population. I have been in enough left-liberal spaces to say that it exists all over the country. We have the AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act), which gives the power to displace indigenous people, procuring their lands etc without being questioned and for the supposed national interests. Northeastern states have numerous communities with their own culture, who are facing their own set of problems with the laws implemented by the state and are bearing the brunt of colonial laws till date. It is infuriating that the region is homogenised when spoken about, covering our culture and issues under one huge umbrella. I have tried to voice my opinion about the ecological politics in Arunachal Pradesh, the brutality over tribals in the region and the silence over the issues. Neither are these issues spoken about nor is the racism that we face acknowledged,” said Deyir Nalo, a student of sociology and Delhi University alum.

“We also have many colonial blunders to which tribals fall prey even till date. In Arunachal Pradesh, where I come from, I can point out an issue about the Yobin ethnic community who live on the borders of Myanmar. And to seal the border, Indian government evacuated a significant number of people from the community and pushed them into a region which was in 1983 notified as the Namdapha National Park. Now the people living there are constantly forced to move out of the place and no amenities can reach them since it is a national park. Racism, brutality, evacuations — all of them go unreported,” she added.

The Dalit movement in India has taken immense inspiration from the African-American civil rights movement, connecting to Black struggles and seeking support from the teachings of leaders like Malcolm X. However, the Indian upper caste diaspora in the US and other countries continuously equates itself to the Black community, despite being perpetrators of oppression against the marginalised in India themselves.

Manasa Yendluri, a Telugu-Dalit feminist, poet and writer, expresses distress over the same, "Many NRIs and Indians restlessly shouted at the top of their lungs and wrote their hearts out for George Floyd. But they never seemed to have heard the names of Madhu, Surekha Bhaiyyalal, Manasa Yadav, Teku Lakshmi, Bakki Sreenu, Vikas Kumar Jatav, and many other Bahujans who were killed in the name of caste. They kept their silence even if they knew about these incidents. Animal killings in this country have gotten the attention that not a single Bahujan life could get."

On 27 May, a pregnant elephant in Kerala died after consuming a pineapple stuffed with crackers — a common snare used to scare away wild boars from plantations. Social media outrage rose to a crescendo over it, with condolences pouring in on every platform. The death of the elephant was extremely disturbing and sad. However, what is rather revealing and heart-wrenching about India's reality is that Dalits and Adivasis, in spite of losing their lives to brutality every day, do not receive a similar outrage or response to atrocities committed against them. This reflects the truth about how lives of some communities in this country hold a different value when compared to others, and the value is nowhere close to the attention that an animal gets.

Indian upper caste outrage against racism in the West is in jarring contrast to apathy towards marginalised at home

The pregnant elephant died standing in a river after eating a pineapple laden with crackers. Image courtesy: Facebook/mohan.krishnan1426

The same people, grieving the death of the elephant, could also be seen proactively sympathising with the protests against police brutality and racism in the US. “Over the last week, I've seen plenty of largely apolitical Savarna, middle and upper caste people, join in on the global outrage and solidarity over George Floyd's murder. This is particularly ironic when one thinks of how this empathy is absent when Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims and other marginalised communities in India are brutalised at the hands of the state machinery, day in and day out,” says Nolina Minj, an Adivasi researcher and writer. “While there is a history of transnational solidarity between Dalits and Blacks, upper-caste Indians would loathe recognising that their casteism and indifference towards the oppression of marginalised communities in their own country stems from the same unequal world order that enables racism. Supporting anti-racism in the West, while staying mum about violence at home, is a paradox that is morally flawed and unstable,” she adds.

According to a study by Common Cause in 2018, the percentage of people detained in India without being sentenced for a crime was 32 percent in 2003-2005, and 31 percent in 2013-2015. 67.2 percent of undertrials happen in India — double the global standards' percentage. The survey also clearly indicates that the fear among Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims of being vulnerable to accusations of crime are quite significant.

Newsrooms in India too bustle with a homogeneous population of upper caste people, with this lack of diversity and inclusivity mirrored in the attention attributed to brutality on marginalised communities. Several national and state broadcasters, which have reported on the protests against George Floyd's murder as an outrage against white supremacy, thereby projecting the protests as dissent with reason, have constantly criminalised the anti-CAA-NRC movement in India. They have also maligned the Bhima-Koregaon rallies, and with no reluctance, have reported saying social activists are anti-nationals.

“I have been consistently speaking out against the current government on social media, especially after the revoking of Article 370, during the anti-CAA-NRC protests, the Delhi pogrom, and the unreasonable arrests of activists. Several friends and acquaintances often shunned me saying I was blowing everything out of proportion, and asked me to focus on the positives in the situation. Protesting to protect my right to survive, and to speak about it, seemed to be costing me my friendships. But yes, at the same time, the same people tweet about 'Black Lives Matter',” says Kazim Syed, a journalist from Ladakh.

It is rather distressing and infuriating for marginalised communities to shout themselves hoarse, only to see people around them conveniently dodging the subject of violence inflicted on them in their own country. The same people either perpetrate said violence themselves, or are complicit in the act by choosing to stay quiet and ignorant about the lives of a huge section of society.

Solidarity is important while dealing with oppression, but solidarity means nothing when it is wrought with hypocrisy. “If incidents that happen to Dalits, Adivasis and Kashmiris in India had happened in the US, there would be so much more outrage. There are Whites who, like many communities in India, try to malign the Black protestors. But the support of celebrities towards Blacks is very crucial, because celebrities make up the US culture,” says Shripad Sinnakar, a Dalit queer activist, writer and poet.

Indian upper caste outrage against racism in the West is in jarring contrast to apathy towards marginalised at home

Representational image of a Dalit protest. PTI.

According to a 2018 Amnesty report, more than 40,000 crimes against the Scheduled Castes were reported in the year 2016. In June 2012, 17 Adivasis were killed in an unprovoked attack by the security forces in Chattisgarh — this being among the many atrocities carried out against the marginalised sections every day. Such incidents make for fleeting news pieces that are hardly paid attention to. “It's akin to ignoring the fire in your own backyard, while being engrossed with the distant one being televised into your home. It's no secret that Indians from dominant castes and communities are far removed from resistance struggles in their own country. Their silence then, and outspoken outrage now, speak volumes about their inhuman hypocrisy. It only goes to show how in popular discourse, social justice has become a buzzword devoid of meaningful engagement that requires hard work,” Minj says.

The Indian diaspora abroad has always misrepresented India as a country, and also its dynamics. The diaspora condemns racial discrimination in the West, while erasing their role as perpetrators of violence against marginalised communities in their own country.

“Responsibility lies on their shoulders to raise their voices for the marginalised in their homeland, if they are vocal about the minorities in the countries they are living in," says Sinnakar, before adding: "But this is also an area of contention for me. What about the problems people in other countries are facing? — Muslims in China, indigenous communities in Brazil, Chilean protests, and so many others. Those, like our own country's plight, are also talked about globally. So, I believe it's a moral responsibility of every diaspora to voice the concerns of their countries, which I'm sure the upper caste diaspora cannot do without being pretentious...Solidarity is a moral responsibility; it is what heals civilisations and people."

Indian upper caste outrage against racism in the West is in jarring contrast to apathy towards marginalised at home

Image via Twitter/yoursdharm

Few days after students from Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University were seen protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), news of the Delhi Police forcefully entering the institute's library on 15 December 2019, and charging at the students with canes, emerged. The videos of the incident were circulated widely on the internet. The police had entered university premises in riot gear, and had attacked students who were studying in the library. Expectedly, the Indian diaspora abroad chose to remain largely silent about the episode. Additionally, a significant section of this population also hosted pro-CAA rallies in their respective countries.

It is also this sect of people who condemn racism and support affirmative action in the US, while speaking against reservation, and criminalising the discourse of marginalised communities in India.

“Upper caste feminists only address patriarchy, and refuse to speak of caste. Similarly, the Indian diaspora and a majority of upper caste Indians can only look at racism in other countries, but not (see) their own caste system. Indians who take pride in admitting that they fight against racism are giving a statement that they are much more 'educated' and advanced (than others), and that casteism is too small an issue to fight against. The day Ambedkar enters their bookshelves and rests in their hands, is the day this nation starts advancing,” says Manasa Yendluri.

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