Wednesday, November 4, 2015

White-washing the Paints on the Wall : A reflection on Racism in India

- Amrapali Basumatary

[Editors' Note: This article was published in CRITIQUE Magazine (Vol: 3, No: 2, March-August 2015) brought out by the Delhi University chapter of New Socialist Initiative.]

One day a very young child who had just learnt to speak, probably only a year or little more ago saw me, as she was walking in the campus with her mother and others, and pointed her tiny finger at me and said aloud Nepali. The innocence and the intelligence of the child was amazing, but I will end this story here itself. Similarly, a friend who is dark skinned and from the Southern parts of India, once told how kids in the lanes pelted stones at her calling her names because she was dark. The place was Delhi. 

I begin by telling these personal stories from amongst the countless stories of racism, racism as lived experience, in the same lines of narrative that marginalized, exploited, and dominated sections of humanity have spoken about itself, about themselves, like the women, the slaves, the Jews, the workers and the Negroes, the natives and the tribals, although underlining the refusal of victimization even while standing subjected within the “matrix of domination”[1]. In that sense, this piece will be of repetition, of influence, and thereby of building and identifying connections between different categories of narratives that one is already so familiar with. Like women, workers and slave narratives, mine also will be mooring through lived clichés. But, I believe telling stories is a way to begin, a way to ‘start an idea’, a conversation and eventually a debate and subsequently indicate a possible construction of radical politics around it. The narratives though personal, like in instances I have charted above, to make a tall claim, will resonate with representationality of the people who ‘suffer’ similar experiences.

Taller than tales: Life in Delhi

It begins more than a decade back, new to this city and in the privileged environment of a university hostel, one day me and my Naga friend from Manipur, wanted to go somewhere in the university neighbourhood, so we were about to take a rickshaw in front of the hostel gate. Even before we could ask any one of the rickshawallahs, one of them asked if we wanted to go to Majnu ka Tila[2]. Suddenly I found my friend in an indescribable rage, shouting at the rickshawallah, only an inch short of slapping him. I asked her to cool down, but frankly speaking as I realized later, only because I was new and had not yet understood what had triggered my friend’s rage. It took me only a couple of weeks to understand that rage, and believe me it did not demand any serious philosophical, intellectual meditations. It just required the everyday stepping out of the hostel premises, sometimes even less, within the hostel. 

It was in Delhi that I first came across a black person, I mean physically close. I was ten years old then. I remember staring at him, so different he looked, his skin was shining in blackness. But I felt embarrassed to look at him, till then I had not been told about any black person anytime by any adult and I had not asked anyone, ‘negro’ was not understood as a slur. I wonder what he felt like to be stared at by a 10 year old girl, he did smile back. Ten years later when I came to stay in Delhi, I did not notice any blacks, I mean they did not invite my open-mouthed ignorant gaze. I guess I had seen enough Hollywood “guilty of slavery/racism trying to redeem itself” films by then. The literatures about slavery and racism somehow reduced the possible propensity to otherise blacks. But what I began to notice was that we in university hardly had any black friends, there were whites though. The blacks somehow were socially invisible. 

In 2010 some our friends conducted a survey on racism, talking to some African students in the university. While generally and theoretically knowing that they are discriminated on the basis of their skin, when we actually heard their stories, it brutalized me further. Their situation was worse than that of the mongoloid Indians. But this shared brutalization, apart from general political and humanitarian concerns, sprung from similar predicaments of living in ‘India’. Kevin and Boniface (names changed) told bone chilling experiences of how they face India, in Delhi. They are denied milk by shopkeepers, typists refuse to type their thesis, rickshaw-pullers and auto-drivers refuse to take them and also jeer at them, people in the streets not only stare at them but also call them names like kala bandar (black monkey); the equivalent abuse for northeasterners is safeed bandar (White monkey).

One day as one African student was walking, a Delhite woman who was taking a stroll with her pet dog saw him, the habshi, and commanded her pet to bite him. The pet obeyed. The closest hospital was a charitable hospital. He went there for the anti-rabbies shot, but was charged some monstrous amount, making it impossible for him to get the shot which is supposed to come for free, especially in a charitable hospital. After the infamous Khirkhi-village incident, followed by Nido Taniam’s death, some of us had organized a public talk on racism in India, wherein the panel was shared by Africans and northeasterners. The testimonies of the Africans about their experiences in Delhi felt like drop of icy chill and hot metal running down one’s spine, bit by bit, one after another. Bruce (name changed) was beaten up by a gang of autowallahs (over a small matter of overcharged autofare) which put him into a state of unconsciousness for 3 months, and one day when he finally opened his eyes in the hospital, he could not recognize himself, his skull was bruised and stitched up, face distorted, eyes battered, he lost everything – money, education, and currently he can’t go back home. And of course, the hospital charged a sum which drove him and his family into near bankruptcy. 

For most northeasterners, including Nepalese, Burmese and Tibetans[3], most often their first venture into Hindi speaking heartland of India, which we call mainstream, will be of being marked out as different, different in terms of bodily and facial features, and immediately being slotted as an outsider, an ‘alien’, of being reminded that they are different, unequal. In my own case , like many of my friends coming from the NE region, I began to feel this ‘outstanding’ difference in the university streets, rickshaw pullers asking if I wanted to be taken to Majnu ka Tila, cars slowing down to ‘give me lift’ suggestively, being interrogated in hotels during visits to friends who were staying there despite my university I-card, meaningful smiles in the Pahar Ganj[4] lanes, being charged higher rates by auto drivers, harassed by police because of hindi-language issues, being asked ‘innocent’ and ‘ignorant’ questions of exotica – between the jungles and gun totting terror of NE, how life is in those ‘inaccessible to civilisation’ jungles and villages in NE, why we have such beautiful hair and hairless bodies, do Indians need passports to go into NE, do we eat dogs, snakes, rotten smelly food, and if we still do head-hunting and so on. The list of racial profilisation was just beginning in these questions. And here I am not even mentioning the regularity of racial slurs – Chinki, Nepali, Chinese Maal, Made in China, Chou-Mao China wapas jao .Very soon, as you begin to interact with the city more and live it out there, questions turn into opinions, into typifications and eventually into statements crystalised in clear terms of us and them. Such stories when lived surely can’t be contained merely in narratives, or normalized as given reality.

The views about northeasterners that were scribbled in bold letters by our erstwhile colonial masters still seem to resonate through the mainstream Indian population for whom, it seems, not much has changed since 19th century; as anthropological characters or secessionists with questionable loyalty towards Indian nation. But for the mainstream Indian when a “chinki” comes alive as a co-citizen, he/she doesn’t know what to do with the idea of nationalism, belongingness and acceptance. “yeh log yahan aatey kyon hain” (why do these people come here), a statement once articulated by a colleague in the university, is very often heard as the true sentiment when it comes to sharing rights. In all its fairness, if we begin to truthfully answer her question (slur), the problem that is India will begin to unravel some uncomfortable issues. If Indian state has been so kind enough to continue spending such humongous resources to keep its Army and armed forces in many parts of the northeast, if so many mainstream organizations have been working so relentlessly to spread its religion and language in that region since independence, surely they must have the energy and resources also to fulfill their duty towards northeasterners who are equally citizens of the same country, even if one thinks in a totally functionalist mode of holding on to the ideal of akhandata for which they are willing to kill and die. 

Rally against racism  near Delhi University campus on 3rd February 2014

Arrogance of privilege

Yet Indians refuse to own it – WE ARE RACISTS! Hypocrisy is not what can explain this denial, what this society suffers from is a systemic, civilisational syndrome of accepting and normalizing the most heinous sets of attitudes and values that exist in the world, be it about women, lower castes or tribals, in short how it deals with differences of various kinds. This society’s palate is conservative, norm-obsessed and narcissistic in its recognition of diversity. 

For most blacks, except Afro-Americans and Afro-Europeans, who are well versed with politics of racism owing to their peculiar history and open articulations about it for about more than a century, India, a non-white developing country, is not something they associate with racism. Africans, barring South Africa, who come to India do not come from a racialised setting, back at their homes there is no racial profilisation as it happens in non-African countries. When they arrive in India they are mostly taken aback and even when they experience discriminations based on their colour and race, they refuse to call it racism. The Indian reality eludes articulation of such aggravated and brutal day to day practices of colour-based discrimination and violence, thereby racist practices and experiences slide into the pit of unspeakability - what is not spoken does not exist and what does not exist cannot be spoken about.

The existing ideas and languages of racism in mainstream India suffer from political and linguistic inaptitude, a convenient denial since the measurement of racism yet oscillates between the binaries of the Black and White reality, suffering from a wishful yet ambiguous celebration of a colourful diversity to be managed into governable uniformity. “Most Indians”, as Dr. Yengkhom Jilangamba rightly points out, “think racism exists only in the West and see themselves as victims. It's time they examined their own attitudes towards people from the country's North-East.” It has taken deaths of some northeasterners to bring racism into public debate within India. And it has taken northeasterners to take up that debate. 

Currently, until the Khirkhi Village incident surfaced, the debates of racism posit northeasterners versus Indians, with some understanding voices from South India, who have again been highlighted as unequal because of their skin and language, being cross marked as ‘madrassis’. And yet this debate, which has become more powerful now, hinges on ‘events’, usually events that witness loss of life and brutalization of individuals belonging to certain ethnic/racial profile and certain communities and people with certain kind of looks. But something like racism “works both the visible, explicit manifestations as well as the insidious, unseen machinations". 

The mainstream Indians, barring the progressive and some liberal sections and personal friends, have vehemently refused to acknowledge their enactment of discrimination as racist. There has been, in general, an arrogant defensiveness from what Gautam Bhatia terms as “the great Indian racist” which has confronted such ‘accusations’ as something amounting to conspiracies tarnishing the image of India and Indians. It hurts the sentiments of this celebrated Indian self. Some ‘mainstream’ Indians who understood this phenomenon were those who have been in the receiving end in other dominantly white countries, and haven’t their kins, friends, media and society back here in India cried angry and hurt when elsewhere Indians were subjected to racial attacks? They were even offended when Shah Rukh Khan was frisked at an American airport, but then he is clearly not a Khan from Pakistan or Bangladesh, but from the Bollywood royalty.

The recent debates about racism in mainstream/national media and political circles have bordered between binaries of cultural/linguistic differences and development paradigm, how, because the Indian society is not taught about Northeast, because people from Northeast are visible in certain job profiles, because they keep to themselves, because of lack of education, because of under development etc. etc. The more ‘Indianised’ parliamentarians and bureaucrats from the northeastern communities have taken a step further by voicing convenient ‘unity in diversity’ stand, thus reducing the magnamity of the issue. They have proposed a grammar for assimilation , indicating that northeasterners must learn Hindi, blend in with the Indian (an underbole for north, west Indian norms) culture, try to excel and be equal with other Indians, try not to ‘stand out’ as different. This ‘easy-to-learn’ tips of assimilation resonates the same attitude of the Indian society’s and Delhi Police’s manual for women and girls about ‘how not get raped’, which is suggestive of ‘victims- as- agents of their own victimisation’ idea and conveniently accepts essentialism; where this essentialism is seen lacking, a way of ‘fixing’ is created to bring order in place. 

Capable or not, Indian or not, racism is racism, it is an externalisatiion of something deeply corrupt in the perpetrating agency, an intolerance that can find no justification. It is frustrating when the media lauds at a certain minister from the northeast for speaking such good Hindi during his swearing-in, when your passport, pan-card are seen as inadequate markers of your Indianness, when you are given unwanted extra attention in immigration checks. One might be Nepali or Naga or Manipuri or Kuki or Burmese or Tibetan, in fact one has no particular problem being confused for another group, what one minds is that one is at all pointed out, erroneously but that too with such arrogance, the associative ‘dis-qualities’ loaded in the categories like ‘nepali’ or ‘chinki’ which are the umbrella terms used for all ‘look alike’ people, that one’s difference is seen as a defect, a threat, a dispensable thing.

What goes round comes round

In social media networks, there has also surfaced an accusatory counter claim of Indians regarding racism - that the northeasterners are also racists, an argument which is not only ill-timed but irresponsible. The counter claim denies the historical lopsidedness of the India-northeast relationship and seeks to absolve the former from taking any responsibility. Some prominent voices from the northeast itself has owned up and internalised well this counter claim, reproducing and disseminating it better than the perpetrator side; such a position is defensive and reeks of aspirational assimilation into the idea of akhand bharat, further it fails to differentiate the very different nature of discriminations that happen in the northeast against non-northeasterners and that the latter face in dominantly hindi-speaking areas of the country. Where arguments like this begin to sound plausible is in a moment that heralds something that would soon turn into a widespread social reality in northeast, given the rise of northeasterners’ experiences of racial discrimination in other parts of India, especially in hindi-speaking majority belt, remains unchecked. 

One cannot say the society in northeastern parts have abused, slighted, killed, and meted out hate-crimes against individuals for being either dark-skinned, long-nosed, large-eyed, for being Dravidian or Aryan or Negroid, for not knowing their languages, for being outsiders. Unlike the hindi-speaking population which settled in northeast still retaining and audaciously practicing their discriminatory and obnoxious caste cultures against the very populace amidst whom they have settled, imposing their superiority especially over the tribals, holding on to and flashing their difference as a pre-given phallic privilege over the local populace, the northeast population in places Delhi or Gurgaon or Noida have remained different, unequal and inferior. Clearly one needs to understand this audacity that belies the core of India-Northeast relationship. The ripple effect of this relationship, which has long subsumed the whole of the northeast periphery since the making of India, has but now reached the center, proving a common old saying, “what goes round comes around”. The attitude with which India had been ‘keeping’ and governing its territorial boundaries in the northeastern margins had so far been contained within the margins; but the sustained abusive nature of its governance of these margins have led to more migrations from the margins to the centre which only exposes the depth and structural/systemic nature of what northeast and its denizens mean to India and its dominant populace. Racism is no longer safely contained in the periphery, it remains exposed at the core. What is different in the way racism operates now is the resistance to it which has led to the aggravation in the degree and frequency of racial violence. So long as discrimination was normalized, things had gone unnoticed. 

Self and Other

The issue is not of difference; each individual, like Simone de Beauvoir in her Second Sex stated, is a separate individual. The construction of self has primordially happened against the other. But the problem here is of difference held as justification for unequal treatment, of standing aloft a culturally, politically privileged position and looking down on others, of holding them as dispensable. Privilege cannot be conveniently garbed in innocent ignorance, similarly ignorance or innocence cannot be utilized as privilege against anyone or any community or any race. 

In the coming years, migration and labour mobility is going to be a very grave issue, more than what it is today. One has to think over how nation states as it exist today are not sustainable, nor the developmental paradigm most of these nation-states are pursuing. As we witness the rise of conservative forces world over, one must begin to address issues of difference of all kinds without relapsing into hyperbolic metaphorisms like rainbow country/society or United Colours of Benetton and begin by identifying the problems that really are. It is ironic that the northeast being one of the most ethnically divided, conflicted regions in the world, the Indian breed of racism is one of the rarest mechanisms through which northeasterners come together outside their own region.

Like in the case of caste and gender, it is the responsibility of the dominant, here mainstream ‘racist’ Indians, to first recognize that they practice racism, primarily against African and mongoloid people and second, to be willing to begin to accept people as different, that different doesn’t mean inferior. In short, the racists have to shed arrogating themselves in positions of privilege and begin to have a good look in the mirror, they are neither more or less beautiful than their others, that holding on to sameness with such arrogance and entitlement is but a banal replication of fascistic politics which can eventually only unleash a regime of hatred and genocide.

In one of the post Nido Taniam rallies against racism in the University campus, one young friend rightly pointed out ‘It is us, people like us, who should be willing to stop racism. It is not the responsibility of the people who are discriminated to stop this. People like us should be starting the process.’ He is a young research scholar of the university who as per his physical features go is easily slotted and perceived as the atypical mainstream Indian – brownish-fair, male, long nosed, large eyes, bearded, speaks fluent Hindi, everything that Nido Taniam or Boniface and their racial brethrens do not possess as markers of privilege to be accepted in this society. 

[1] Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York : Routledge, 2000. 

[2] Majnu ka Tila is the area in which Aruna Nagar Tibetan Refugee Colony in Delhi is located. The area connotes many negative things – i) racially other, that is, mongoloids. ii) Refugee, that is, the outsider, status. iii) Indians perceive and associate it with sexual promiscuity and sex trade, like the usual attitudes held towards ‘immigrant’ population. 

[5] The mainstream India does not differentiate between nationalities and ethnicities that have racial affinity, meaning, for it anyone with ‘chinki’ features are all chinkies from NE or nepalis. However, it is quite clued into differentiating the ‘foreign’ chinkies like the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese from the ‘local’ ones who are inferior to the former and thereby get treated accordingly. 

[6] Pahar Ganj is an area adjacent to the New Delhi Railway Station and is a hub of ‘alternative’ travel culture, populated with restaurants, hotels, bars and a favourite accommodation for non-Indian tourists and largely associated with erstwhile hippie culture, sex, drugs and other such extra-legal activities like prostitution. 

Amrapali Basumatary teaches English literature and Gender Studies at Kirorimal College, Delhi University. She is also an activist associated with New Socialist Initiative (NSI).


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