Race is an invention. It is a category which is socially constructed for furthering economic exploitation and socio-cultural hierarchies. It is not something objectively or biologically formulated. Race continues to be a powerful platform on which discrimination and violence are asserted, rationalized and committed. Racism, commonly understood as prejudice and intolerance of people belonging to a different race, fuelled by the idea that one’s race is superior to others, is an idea that breeds on the notion of difference- difference in language, physical features, cultural practices, beliefs and the like. Racial discrimination is ordinary and ubiquitous. It is not something buried in history or rooted in distant lands and cultures. It does not manifest only in institutionalised structures like slavery and segregation but is also a part of social imagination and everyday interaction. Racism could be manifested in various degrees; it could be limited to an idea, a mentality steeped in the assertion of stereotypes about other racially different people, it could be found in verbal attacks or hate-speech and, of course, physical violence.
In light of the recent uproar against the various incidents of racial discrimination in the national capital, racism has been brought to the forefront of public debate all over the country.Much of what was highlighted in the media as well as in discussions in public and private forums, primarily revolved around the awareness and admittance of racism as a living reality in India. What is alarming about this is the fact that it was only until terrible violence (murder of Nido Tania and rape of the fourteen year old Manipuri girl) was committed that racism was acknowledged as a pressing problem in contemporary India. Racial discrimination is directed not only towards people from the North-East. It is a systemic phenomenon which affects minorities and underprivileged people all over the country. Depending on your ethnic identity and/or geographical location, one is susceptible to racial prejudice.
The issue of race never exists in isolation; it is meshed in with gender, class, caste, religion and the like. Acts of violence against people from North-East India are repeatedly classified under the label of racial discrimination. Although on the surface, racial identity (language, features and cultural practices) is enough to rationalize violence, one must look deeper and recognize the role played by the existing structures of power in generating and perpetuating such violence. The murder of Nido Tania can be explained as mere intolerance of a person’s cultural and ethnic identity. However, intolerance is a condition which resides on several factors like ignorance of the other’s culture, history etc and competition over economic resources as well as political rivalry. The multiple sexual assaults and rapes on women from the North-East again involve an overlap of race, gender and sometimes class. North-Eastern women, more than men, are subjected to more discrimination by virtue of their gender identity. They struggle first against racist stereotypes which brand them as non-Indian (usually Chinese), who speak in strange unknown languages, who eat “smelly” food; and against sexist ideas about them being fashion-obsessed, intellectually impoverished, sexually lax and possessing excessive freedom. Although it is superfluous to get into the debate of whether these claims are valid or even justified, I do think, however, that there is a need to recognise the overlapping arguments of racism and patriarchy vis-à-vis the oppression of North-Eastern women. Intrinsic to the claim that North-Eastern women are sexually loose is the operation of a patriarchal ideology that disproves and detests women’s freedom (sexual and otherwise) as well as a racist attitude towards any culture which supposedly tolerates indiscriminate sexual advances.
Racism also coincides with conflict over resources, jobs and other forms of economic assets. The racial violence against non-tribals (majority of whom are Marwaris, Bengalis and Nepalese) in Meghalaya, as part of the Pro-ILP movement is an interesting case which both fits and exceeds the margins of such a condition. The fight for the Inner Line Permit aims at a regulation of the influx of people from other parts of India (or the world) to Meghalaya. The pro-ILP activists assert that the non-tribal population of Meghalaya is usurping the natives of resource control and ownership as well as employment privileges. One can accept and endorse the ILP Movement for raising a valid concern over the loss of indigenous rights, but I am not certain if equal applause should be granted to the violence committed against non-tribals, supposedly for that same purpose. The ILP Movement points to a conflation of class and race which, sadly, lacked a critical eye because it failed to condemn the dominant section of the Khasi community itself. As reports suggested, most of the victims of the ILP assaults were non-tribals from a working class background; people who do not possess any property but who are, in fact, the pillars on which the very lifestyle of upper-middle class Shillong rests. If the question is merely about the fight for native ownership of land, then I’m afraid it is a movement which is short-sighted and incomplete. What should gain focus is the problem of indiscriminate exploitation of resources by the growing capitalist class in non-tribal and Khasi society. Therefore, the politics of race in such a scenario should transform into a politics of class, not because racial identity is completely irrelevant but because it is only through class that the problem of economic control of resources could be approached comprehensively.
Another question which needs to be addressed is whether it is possible to expand the meaning of the term racism by applying it to intra-community and intra-cultural phenomena. If racial discrimination entails a dislike for and ostracism of a group of people coupled with the construction of stereotypes and the usage of derogatory terms on them, how wrong would it be to claim that the discrimination against some sub-tribes of the Khasis is an instance of racism? For instance, the Maram community from West Khasi Hills are often mocked for their supposed uncivilized and uncouth nature. People from Ri Bhoi district are often accused of indolence and stupidity. These are just a few examples of intra-tribe racism that exists in Khasi society. One could see that although these groups are not racially different, their relationships are governed by a mechanism of power and hegemony.
The politics of race should be treated with caution because the viewing of incidences of communal violence and discrimination strictly through the lens of race is over-simplification. Of course the assaults against people from the North-East in Delhi are evidences and products of racism but in order to have a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, we need to pay attention to the complex and nuanced socio-historical fabric of Delhi, with its intersectional issues of class, caste, gender, religion and culture. Moreover, while our own experiences of victimhood are important, we also need to introspect and discern the double standards inherent in our own home-state. We need to admit to our roles as agents of racism, not only against other communities but also members of our own tribe.