Recently, in Melbourne, Indian students were picked on by street thugs. The news made headlines back in India asking whether Australia was a racist country. From my experience, the answer is an unequivocal NO.
What was probably transpiring, as the police (and some students) have said is that Indian students are viewed as passive therefore are easy pickings for street thugs and bullies. It has tempered down somewhat since the police and students took measures to protect themselves.
Meanwhile in India the race brouhaha sparked off a debate about India's attitudes towards race. Chinese attitudes are well known. They make no secret of the fact that they view blacks as sub-human. Hmm, strange that anti-racists don't seem to have a problem with the Chinese over this attitude? Must be way down on their To-Do List. Or more likely because the Communist Party doesn't take kindly to meddling Westerners mouthing off about human rights and all that in their country. Race activists are only brave where the States permit them to be "brave", and that covers only just about every Western country. Like Australia. It is predominantly white, democratic and tolerates freedom of speech - so it's ok to scream "raaaaacist!". White country = racist= par for the course. Got it.
Okay, a teensy weensy slight detail left out of the reporting. While some of the perpetrators were indeed white hoodlums, some were muslim thugs, probably Lebanese, definitely not white. Details eh, who needs 'em? You may also recall the Cronulla in Sydney riots of 2005 which involved the Lebanese community.
But it also got people thinking about race attitudes in India which is refreshing because for once a non-white country gets to do a little introspection. Some people in India have queried whether India's attitudes towards race isn't a case of the pot calling the kettle black.
As for Africa and blacks, don't expect the same from them any time soon. Their gig as the world's perennial victims is too good to let go.
The attacks on Indians in Australia have once again raised the ugly head of racism.
Once again India is caught up in the midst of a racist storm. A while ago, the Big Brother controversy launched Shilpa Shetty as an international anti-racism icon from India. This is entirely appropriate as Indians are arguably the biggest targets of racism in the world. And they are targeted not just by unlettered British yobs or Australian thugs but, first and foremost, by their own compatriots. It’s because we are so racist ourselves that we are so quick to react to a racist slur: it takes a racist to catch a racist. And our racism is colour-coded in black-and-white terms: white is intrinsically superior and desirable; black is inferior and undesirable.
In the Indian colour scheme of things, black is far from beautiful. The colloquial word for a black person of African origin is ‘habshi’, an epithet as offensive as the American ‘nigger’, both terms derived from the days of the slave trade.
For all India’s official championing of the anti-apartheid crusade in South Africa’s erstwhile white regime, north India at least is steeped in colour prejudice - ask any African student who’s had a taste of Delhi’s campus life. For the north Indian, fair is lovely, as those abominably tasteless TV commercials keep proclaiming: Don’t get sunburnt, use skin whitening creams, or you’ll end up dark and no one will marry you. (When did you last see a matrimonial ad seeking an ‘attractive, dark-complexioned life partner’?)
Why is dark literally beyond the pale for so many of us? Is it an atavistic throwback to the supposed superiority of ‘white’ Aryans vis-a-vis the ‘non-white’ original inhabitants of the subcontinent? Is it the result of 250 years of white rule under the British? Is a pale skin, as against a deep tan, a testimonial to social rank, segregating those who don’t have to toil under the sun from those who do? Is it an amalgam of all these?
Whatever the reason, ‘chitti chamri’ (fair skin) is a passport to fawning social acceptance — which might partly explain why an increasing number of Caucasians look for assignments in India, be it as MNC executives or bartenders in 5-star hotels.
Our racism is largely, but not exclusively, based on colour. Caste is India’s unique contribution to the lexicon of racial bigotry. Whether ‘caste’ - a result of cultural and social segmentation - can legitimately be conflated with ‘race’ - with its genetic and physiological underpinnings - is a matter of academic debate. However, as only too many horror stories testify, the average rural Dalit fares worse on the human-rights scale than her ‘kafir’ counterpart in the worst days of South African apartheid.
Caste apart, real or imagined ethnic traits compound our racism. People from the north-east are said to have ‘Chinky’ (Chinese) eyes and are routinely asked if they eat dogs. Even in so-called ‘mainstream’ India we sub-divide ourselves with pejoratives: ‘Panjus’, whose only culture is agriculture; stingy ‘Marrus’; mercenary ‘Gujjus’ who eat ‘heavy snakes’ for tea; lazy, shiftless ‘Bongs’; ‘Madrasis’, who all live south of the Vindhyas and speak a funny ‘Illay-po’ language. In our ingrained provincialism is our much-vaunted and illusory unity.
No wonder we can’t stand racism. It reminds us disquietingly of the face we see in our own mirror.