The discourse on racism in the Indian society has again been ignited “eventfully”. It has taken another series of brutal attacks on African students in Greater Noida for us to begin, yet again, to talk about whether our society is racist or not. The dominant narrative has again declined to call these attacks on Africans by the mobs as racist. The official narrative oscillates between two coordinates of reasonability — a) the anger against Africans is related to the issue of drugs, and b) the current spate of violence is arising due to their cultural foreignness. These coordinates eerily echo the defences used in the context of attacks on people from the Northeast in the rest of India. But the Greater Noida attacks are unprecedented to the extent that the attacking mobs went after any African they came across.
The racialised Africans and people from the Northeast are set apart by the Indian society at large, who perceive them as a collective with potent sexuality, propensity to eat smelly food, natural proneness to criminal activities, drug abuse etc. These perceptions are reproduced through an assembly of stereotypes, images, attributions and explanations, which are constructed through everyday encounters, often too insidious and subtle to point out.
Africans in Delhi often get yelled at as kala bandar or habshi, invariably laughed at and ridiculed, sometimes denied something as basic as milk in stores, refused houses on rent and made to feel inferior on public transport, harassed by police as potential criminals and so on. Similarly, the array of racist discrimination that people from the Northeast face, includes everything from actual violence to persistent racist remarks like chinky or safed bandar, stares and at times sexual harassment. Women of both the “races” are popularly perceived as sexually “available”.
There have been debates about whether the targeted assaults on people from the Northeast can be called racism or ethnocentrism, especially among scholars. The fine line between these two categories can still be identified to the extent that biological features shared by certain people are targeted by a defaulted virtue of their being a race category. Aggravated ethnocentrism seemingly arises out of cultural superiority but once cultural codes begin to solidify as essentialised elements, it can hardly avoid its progression into racism.
The denial about racism in India hinges primarily on the self-righteous nature of the so-called mainstream Indian society — they can only be “victims” of racial attacks elsewhere in the big White world; and victims cannot be perpetrators. This inability to acknowledge racism in our societies is symptomatic of the popular understanding across societies in Asia that racism is essentially a western phenomenon, a practice morally unjustifiable and discriminatory done by the Whites to “us” non-Whites. “The conflicts that happen against chinkies or habshis are due to cultural differences and misunderstanding” — seems to be the standard response. But this declamation is articulated without any guilt or recognition of the deeply casteist and hierarchical nature of the Indian society and pulls it off the hook.
Here it is not possible to divulge the historical processes of how the European colonial project erected a whole apparatus of so-called racial science to establish that Whites are the most superior race and Blacks are at the bottom of human hierarchy. This not only aggravated pre-existing hierarchies of caste, class and patriarchy, but also inscribed a racial world view on to our societies. What seems to have worked in the mutual sustenance of race and caste are the notions of purity, assumed superiority, and a fetish for “whiteness”. Invariably, the aggravated form of racism exists in those parts of the country where caste, misogyny and jingoism are present in an intimate coalition and collaboration.
Though similar to attacks on Northeasterners, dalits and women, the cases of violence against Africans are somewhat different. They do not have the privilege of citizenship here. The former groups at least have, even in its minimal accessibility, notional rights as citizens. Africans are abused particularly with words and terms that distinctively deny them a human status. They do not have local support groups. It becomes further complicated when the whole race becomes associated with drugs and other illegal activities. The association with drugs, and this time around with cannibalism, is nothing but a euphemism for racialised hatred. This goes on to attribute all kinds of sub-human and criminal conduct as “natural” to them.
The need of the hour is to argue for the establishment of racism as a serious issue in India, even a basic acknowledgement of it. The heightened and momentary discourse of racism between events of violence and assaults can only repeat what has often been said, but for a real understanding of the problem and this society, we need to engage in sustained talking of it, in the least. One may even start by asking this society — Have Indians been targeted in African countries on the basis of their colour, looks and nationality, like it so often happens in dominant White countries?
This short op-ed was first published in Business Standard on April 1, 2017