Why do we deny the racism in us? All humans are infected by it. When an Indian techie was shot dead in an American pub, when an Indian woman was stabbed to death in Australia, we knew and we said they were racial attacks. Why do we do a metaphysical turnaround when we are the attackers and Africans the victims?
When Africans were beaten up horrendously in a Delhi mall recently, the government spokesman expressed regret but hastened to add that it was not a racial attack. What else was it? Even when a fight is triggered by routine factors like a restaurant altercation or taxi fare dispute, when the fight is between Indians and Africans, it takes on at once a racist character expressed through the expletives used and the sheer ruthlessness of the attack.
This message has been conveyed by many incidents of violence in recent years. Typical was the case of the African student who stopped at a wayside shop in Bengaluru and asked for cigarettes. The shopkeeper said he was out of stock. A minute later a local came along and he was given the brand he wanted. The African protested—and was beaten up. The worst part is that the police either turn bystanders or side with the locals.
Denial doesn’t help anyone. In the language of social scientists, racism exists as an unconscious attitude in individuals and societies everywhere. “There has been a racial element in human history,” said A P J Abdul Kalam in his 1998 book India 2020. Long before him, the poet in Sarojini Naidu had referred to “the natural conflicts of races and religions” and said that only education could resolve them.
That was an optimistic view. The greatest racist crimes in history were committed by apparently educated people —the annihilation of the natives of America by European colonisers, the decimation of Australia’s aborigines by British settlers and Nazi Germany’s extermination campaign against Jews.
Education may tone down racism but cannot eradicate it because ethnic prejudices are ingrained in human psyche.
That Germans claiming pure Aryan blood set out to obliterate Jews showed that racism is not always colour-based. But colour is the most potent element in racism. In Israel itself black Jews from Africa and India are second class compared to white Jews. George Washington, who pioneered the concepts of equality enshrined in the American constitution, kept blacks as slaves because he considered it normal. Despite the “black is beautiful” movement and an icon like Cassius Clay defiantly becoming Mohammed Ali, white policemen still attack black Americans because they are black.
We in India should be able to understand this clearly because no other Asian country is home to such colour-based prejudices as we are. See the matrimonial ads and the craze for fairness creams. Scholars trace our colour complexes all the way back to our Vedic heritage. R S Sharma, author of books like Sudras in Ancient India, cites chapter and verse in the Rig Veda to show that “other survivors of earlier societies were reduced to what came to be known as the fourth varna of Aryan society.” But, he adds, “it would be wrong to think that all the ‘blacks’ were reduced to the status of Sudra helots, since there are some references to black seers.”
He also draws attention to the fact that “in the tenth book the Angiras author of the Rig Veda x.42-44 is called ‘black’”. Perhaps it is the Rig Veda’s triumph that the average North Indian sees all South Indians as “Madrasis”. That dumbness of the brain made Aam Aadmi Party’s court poet Kumar Vishwas and JD(U)’s antique leader Sharad Yadav talk about the dark damsels of the south. They are convinced no doubt that Deepika Padukone is a Garhwal native.
By comparison Tarun Vijay is a worldly wise politician. Even for him it came naturally to wonder “how we live with” South Indians. For all his public relations chutzpah, Tarun Vijay’s veins carry RSS-treated blood, making the Vindhyas a cultural wall. Compulsions of vote politics may impose different public posturings but the inner cells remain fixed.
That is why it is important not to miss the significance of the “we” he used. The message to the Africans was: How do “we”, inheritors of Aryavarta’s glories, live with “them”, the unsanskritised natives of the south; if we can live with them, we can live with you. Convinced? It’s time to expand Kipling: North is north and south is south and never the twain shall meet.