Thinking Allowed: The enemy within

The first step to deal with racism is to recognise it.

Are we racist? Of course we are. Most Indians are. In fact, most South Asians are. Some of us are more racist than others. Similarly, some of us are appalled by racism as well. India is a fine mesh of tolerance and intolerance of many hues. Racism, casteism, sexism, classism, majoritarianism and religious intolerance are just a few of the shades of intolerance that often make the fabric of our democracy very uncomfortable. So the question today is not whether we Indians, caught repeatedly in racist acts of physical and emotional violence, are racist. The question to ask is this: why is a racist, casteist, sexist, intolerant, insensitive and indiscreet man our minister of state for external affairs?

A little background for those who have come in late. On May 20, the eve of his birthday, Masunda Kitada Oliver, 23, a student from Congo, was beaten to death by a mob in a posh Delhi neighbourhood. The following week saw several Africans attacked in many incidents in the smart, cosmopolitan capital of this large democracy. It led to a diplomatic crisis, and the short and sweet “Africa Day” celebrations last week were almost ruined. As the external affairs ministry scrabbled to make amends, its junior minister brashly brushed aside the attacks as a non-issue. Just a “minor scuffle” blown up by the media, declared Gen. V.K. Singh, Retired, minister of state for external affairs. “Why is the media doing this?” he demanded to know. “As responsible citizens let us question them and their motives.”

As responsible citizens let us question the wisdom of having the curious general as minister of state for external affairs. Because being racist is bad enough, but denying it and trying to silence the media when it reports on racist violence is much worse. Of course we are not surprised that the good general will look at incidents of beating up Africans in Delhi as inconsequential — he has seen the dance of death in battlefields, he may have a different perspective on violence.

Besides, he has a bit of an ostrich attitude, he seeks to dismiss issues he has trouble dealing with as irrelevant. Like when he responded to the killing of two little dalit children in Haryana in an act of casteist violence with the unforgettable: “If somebody throws a stone at a dog, then the Central government is not responsible...” Or his way of dismissing the inconvenient news media as “presstitutes”. His response is not surprising.

But the fact that our government, which is busy doing the peacock dance to woo the world, doesn’t see the urgent need to deal with our racism is shocking. Earlier this year a Tanzanian girl was beaten and stripped by a mob in Bengaluru, her male friend beaten up, and their car torched, because a Sudanese man, in an unrelated incident, had run over someone. In 2014, the video of three black men being beaten up by a mob shouting “Bharat Mata ki jai” inside the police kiosk in Delhi’s busy Rajiv Chowk Metro station shocked us, but didn’t change anything.

In fact, Delhi’s then law minister Somnath Bharti even conducted a midnight raid on a Delhi neighbourood that had many African residents, attempting to bust a “drugs and prostitution” racket, where several African women were reportedly manhandled and molested. Let alone fight the stereotype that Africans are involved in crime, state governments seem to encourage it. Nigerians, specially, have been badly treated and deeply harassed in places like Goa.

In 2013, after Obodo Uzoma Simeon, 36, was hacked to death in Goa, apparently in a fight between Nigerian and Goan drug traffickers, about 200 Nigerians had blocked a highway in protest and the police had swiftly arrested 53 of them. And Dayanand Mandrekar, senior BJP leader and Goa’s art and culture minister, said: “The Nigerians are like cancer.”

The way we respond to racism shows how disinterested we are in solving the problem. After Oliver was lynched in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj, our minister of state for culture and tourism, Mahesh Sharma, remarked that even Africa was not safe. Sure. India is pretty unsafe too. Does it mean we can be murdered happily by the locals when we visit other countries? After the Tanzanian girl was attacked and stripped in Bengaluru, MEA spokesman Vikas Swarup called it an “isolated incident” that had more to do with road rage. Karnataka home minister G. Parameshwara said the same: it had “nothing to do with racism, it was just road rage...”

The first step to deal with racism is to recognise it. We refuse to take that first step. For example, the Delhi police is arresting those accused of attacking Africans, but apparently no one has been charged with racist abuse. The police is busy portraying this one-sided racist violence as a clash of cultures, and seem to be blaming victims for not understanding cultural sensitivities. The dear cops have also asked Africans in Delhi to avoid late-night parties and drinking in public, since such behaviour disturbs the locals. Sweet!

Culture trouble has been our knee-jerk response to racism for ages. Students from the Northeast have been attacked physically, sexually and verbally for years. It’s because they are “culturally different”, of course, they do drugs, their girls are easy! Stereotypes fuel racism and make racist violence strangely acceptable. Killings are rare, but not unheard of — like the murder of Nido Tania, 21, a student beaten up by a lynch mob in Delhi in 2014.

If you have faced systemic discrimination — if you are a woman, a dalit, a Muslim, a Northeasterner in Delhi, an Indian in a white, Western country, for example — you learn to live with intangible, apparently benign daily barbs. But you smell the terrible violence lurking behind it, and try to stay away. As India tries to woo the world, we need to raise awareness about racism, treat it as a hate crime and put laws in place. Like other civilised countries have done. Like we have laws against caste violence and violence against women.

We are a country of various shades of ‘darkies’, yet we loathe those with darker skin and assume that they need to be treated as low class, low caste people with low expectations and lower entitlements. Our racism is spiked with casteism, classism and colourism. It will be a long fight, but it needs to begin. And the first step is to recognise the enemy within.

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