The death of George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of a white policeman in the U.S. state of Minnesota has sent ripples around the world. In America, people have flooded the streets, despite the coronavirus pandemic and the lakhs of deaths it has caused, the blacks and the whites together, hand in hand.
In other countries too, people have begun to accept that racism is real and that biases based around complexion exist. In India, people with smartphones and access to the web have once more started talking about racism and other sorts of discrimination prevalent in society.
With the increasing violence against minorities and weaker sections of the Indian society, like lower caste Dalits and Adivasis, or aboriginals, it is not surprising that in today’s India, hashtags like #MuslimLivesMatter and #DalitLivesMatter are echoing the emotions of #BlackLivesMatter.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a specific race.” While complexion may be a concern in India too, the equivalent of such systematic discrimination has been prevalent in India in one or the other form.
This unprecedented support for the fight against racism from Indians, although heartening, just isn’t enough for the scholars and many more of African origin people living in India, who face blatant racism in their everyday lives.
The COVID-19 affected world is undergoing what can be called a “colour revolution”. The Black Lives Matter movement, which reached a new level after the brutal murder of 46-year-old African-American George Floyd by a White police officer, Derek Chauvin, is shaping this revolution. Blacks across the world are joined by Asians and White democrats and, in the process of rewriting history, are bringing down statues of slave traders and racist people eulogised by the colonialists.
Today’s India is yet to see a full-fledged movement against caste discrimination on the scale of Black Lives Matter, even though both racial and caste discrimination have a common aspect linking their past, present, and maybe future too — the notion of inferior and superior.
Similar to how the Whites subjugated Blacks based on notions of superiority for free or cheap labour, the so-called upper castes in India exploited the Shudras and Dalits by holding themselves as superior to achieve and sustain dominance in the hierarchical construct of the Hindu society.
Moreover, similar to how this generation of White Americans and Europeans do not seem to be liable for slave traffic and colonialism but reaping their benefits, the ‘twice-born’ (dwijas), particularly the Brahmins in India, hugely benefitted from their ancestors’ oppression of the Shudras and Dalits. Now, as the ‘colour revolution’ begins attacking all symbols of exploitation, India needs a revolution against caste too.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States should remind India that it is much soul-seeking to try and address problems of race and identity.
The Constitution of India has declares India to be Secular. And indeed, India is home to many religions. But it is also the country with a traumatic experience of the blood-bath post a Partition founded on religious lines. In a way, ever since 1947, when the “Muslim state” of Pakistan was formed, the integrity and loyalty of those Muslims who chose to stay in India have been questioned by the majority. Unfortunately, it prevails even today and has come back with a vengeance in the last few years.
Take the comments of a former Indian cricket player, Irfan Pathan for instance. Lending his voice to the global debate around racism, he said on Twitter,
“Racism is not restricted to the colour of the skin. Not allowing to shop for a house in a [housing] society simply because you have got a special faith which could be a part of racism too.”
In 2015, a 52-year-old man, Mohammed Akhlaq, was lynched to death by a group of cow vigilantes in the town of Dadri in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh for allegedly killing and consuming cow meat (cows are considered holy by many Hindus). What came off as shocking and unacceptable then soon spread like wildfire to other parts of the country.
Religious minorities, and Muslims especially, became the target of slurs like “terrorist,” “jihadi” and “Pakistani.” And those who came out in support of the minorities were branded as “anti-nationals.” Attacks on them, some even leading to killings, started to become a regular topic of discussion in the news.
Interestingly, the people who have fueled such violence through hate speech have not only gone scot-free but seem to have been rewarded with high positions in the government, both at the state and central levels. Protesting students, on the other hand, have been slapped with the stringent UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 2019) arrests. The Act allows the government to designate individuals (read “dissenters”) as “terrorists” without giving them a chance to present their case, in violation of the principles of natural justice.
“I hope he’s not a Brahmin.”
“Whenever I meet somebody, I hope that the person doesn’t turn out to be a Brahmin or someone from the upper caste. I come from a Scheduled Caste (Dalit) background and I’m afraid he might leave if he finds that out.”-These are the words of a girl studying at one of India’s finest media colleges.
Hindu society in India is based on the system of “varnas.” It holds enormous value in most parts of the country even today. The system is based on tracing the heredity of a newborn. It indicates not only the caste, but also the color, type, and class of people. The four varnas have been classified as the Brahmins (priests, gurus), Kshatriyas (warriors, kings, administrators, etc.), Vaishyas (agriculturalists and traders), and Shudras (servants). The Shudras were meant to live in the service of the other three. Even today, menial jobs like cleaning toilets, manual scavenging, skinning dead animals, and performing last rites for the dead are performed exclusively by people from the lower castes.
At the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, a group of Dalit rights activists demanding to end caste-based discrimination, tried to present the equivalence between caste and racial discrimination but the Government of India protested and their attempts failed.
Article 15 of the Indian Constitution states that “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, faith, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” But in reality, there is plenty of that going around. Discrimination based on caste and religion not only exists but thrives under a government that appears to be promoting it and a citizenry that has embraced it for convenience.
In Uttar Pradesh’s Amroha district, a Dalit teen was shot dead on June 6 by four assailants, just days after having an altercation with an upper-caste family over entering a local temple. This comes on the heels of relaxation of lockdown restrictions. The police, apparently also part of the problem, denied that there was a caste-angle to the case.
Article 46 of the Constitution says, “The State shall promote with special care to education and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes (SC or Dalits) and the Scheduled Tribes (ST or Adivasis), and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”But the struggle has no end. “Oh! You’re an SC/ST. It must have been so easy for you to get a seat in this college. I’m reminded of that every day,” recounts a girl who belongs to one of the Scheduled Tribes. SCs/STs are often stereotyped as non-hard working or unworthy of their achievements. That stereotype also weaves itself, rather conveniently, into the upper-caste argument against affirmative action.
Colorism and Discrimination
“Ladki kaali hogi to shaadi kaise hogi? (If the girl’s skin is black, how will she get married?).”
Such statements are a part of everyday discourse in an Indian household.
In India, discrimination of complexion is partly a colonial hang-up. The thought that fair skin is superior has been thoroughly internalized by society. With no moral obligations, the thought of fair skin being the ultimate definition of beauty is promoted among young men and girls. As of 2016, the Indian fairness cream industry was worth $450 million.
This is not only among young women. West Indian cricketer Darren Sammy shared on social media that he had been called “kallu (black)” by many Indian cricketers.
People from the Southern parts of the country are often mocked and discriminated against for his or her complexion, language, and cultural dissimilarities. Similarly, people from the Northeast are ridiculed as Chinese or Nepali. Recently, many of them have been called “corona,” since the pandemic started in China’s Wuhan city.
In Indian society, it is common for folks to play matchmaker. These matches are found on the idea of faith, caste, complexion, social station (read class), etc. Caste-based matrimonial websites have gained ample popularity amongst commoners.
The Lok Foundation, Oxford University conducted a survey in January 2018 and found that of the 93 percent of respondents who said that they had an arranged marriage, only 5 percent said a loved one married outside their religion, and over 70 percent said they might not accept an inter-caste marriage for his or her children.
Honor killing, another shameful practice in India, comes from the thought of marriages outside one’s religion or caste. It is also a standard practice to ban couples of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages from the community. Sometimes, members of the community are prohibited from contacting them and none of the resources are shared with the couple. Resources even include a plot in the cemetery when one among them dies.
The Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. may be a great opportunity for India to self-reflect on its own shameful past and present. While we lend our voice to this movement, we must also make an effort to question our own privilege. We must recognize and eliminate our own biases.
Over the past years, the newspapers have been rife with news of mob lynchings and beatings of Dalits and Muslims. Some Indian activists have started using the hashtags #MuslimLivesMatter, #DalitlivesMatter, #KashmiriLivesmatter to draw the world’s attention to the excesses being committed against marginalized populations in India. These brave voices are fighting a lonely battle. But, unlike in the United States, no significant part of the citizenry is joining their struggle. It is time that Indians stop worshiping false heroes and correct the course of our languishing democracy.
Today, the author hopes that as the Black Lives Matter movement has opened the world’s eyes to the structural injustice and discrimination against African-Americans in the US, it will also open our eyes to the similar discrimination and injustice that we live with every day in our lives in India.
Frequently Asked Questions
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