February 04, 2016

Colour of hate: Attack on Tanzanian girl shows racism is alive and well in India (Shuma Raha)

The Times of India

Colour of hate: Attack on Tanzanian girl shows racism is alive and well in India
February 4, 2016, 9:00 pm IST Shuma Raha in Random Harvest | India | TOI

How do you tackle racism in a country where few admit that it exists? How do you solve a problem that the state insists is simply not there?

We act racist in so many obvious ways, but will hotly deny any such slur on our national character. We are fifty shades of brown, but the lighter we are on that colour scale, the better we like ourselves — and others. Whether it is the humongous popularity of fairness creams or the fair factor in matrimonial ads for brides, they all point to our inherent loathing for the dark-skinned. Yet ask us if we are racist, and we are instantly amazed by the very idea.

The shocking incident in Bengaluru last Sunday in which an angry mob thrashed a 21-year-old Tanzanian girl once again spotlights the curious relationship we Indians have with racism.

Consider the circumstances of the incident. On the night of January 31, a Sudanese man runs over and kills a 35-year-old woman on the outskirts of the city. He is attacked by a mob (violent vigilantism is now the inevitable endgame of almost any fatal road accident) until he is rescued by the police and taken into custody. Thirty minutes later a Tanzanian female student with four friends happen to drive through the same spot. The mob, its bloodlust clearly unsated, pounce upon them and beat them up too. In the ensuing melee, the girl’s top allegedly gets torn.

Terrified, her clothes in shreds, she tries to escape the rampaging mob by getting into a bus. But the passengers push her right back into the midst of her tormentors. And when she finally goes to the police, the law keepers turn her away and do not immediately take down her complaint.

There has been considerable outcry over the incident since it came to light on Wednesday. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has voiced her shock and dismay; The Tanzanian high commissioner has sent a ‘note verbale’ to the Indian government protesting the incident; and the Bangalore police, galvanised into action by the outrage, has now arrested five men.

But no one has uttered the “R” word. Karnataka home minister G Parameshwara said, “The attack on the Tanzanian student was a not a racial attack. It was in response to an earlier incident.” Police commissioner NS Megharikh chimed in, also insisting that it was not a race-related hate crime.

Okay, so why was the Tanzanian girl attacked at all?

It has been argued that it was a case of “mistaken identity”, that the mob mistook the girl and her friends for those who had caused the accident (as if to say that had there been no “mistake”, the thrashing and alleged stripping of the girl would be perfectly justified). However, since the mob had already been venting its ire on the Sudanese man who was responsible for the accident, the “mistaken identity” theory falls flat on its face.

The ugly truth is that the Tanzanian girl and her friends were attacked precisely because they bore the same racial features as the Sudanese man. Because one African national had committed a crime, the good people of Hesaraghatta Road in Bengaluru decided to teach a lesson to any African they could lay their hands on.

You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t nurture a glowering hatred for that community of “others” — those who are different in features, skin tone, language and culture. So one incident is seized upon with righteous viciousness and at once turned into a licence to go after that entire community, that entire race, with sticks and stones.

It’s a fantastic excuse to rain abuse on those “different” folks and tell them to get out and stay out. It’s exactly the same as attacks on Muslims in the West whenever there is an Islamist terrorist strike on their soil.

Only, here, the retaliation is sharpened by a racism that rides on colour — our collective hatred for the dark-skinned.

Attacks on blacks in our country have been on the rise in recent years. As more and more students from the African continent come here to study and work, hoping to profit from India’s quality institutions, they often have to contend with frightening racial prejudice. In January 2014, Somnath Bharati, then law minister in Arvind Kejriwal’s first AAP government in Delhi, famously led a vigilante group into the house of some African women, and in utter violation of the rule of law, humiliated them and accused them of prostitution and drug peddling.

In September that same year, three African students were beaten up at the busy Rajiv Chowk Metro station in the heart of Delhi after an altercation with other passengers. In March 2015, a group of Ivory Coast nationals were attacked in northeast Bengaluru allegedly because they were making a “nuisance” in the area.

Like every racist society, much of India stereotypes blacks as being prone to crime, violence and sleaze — the men, dealers in narcotics, the women, peddlers of prostitution. They are stared at, whistled at, called names, their “otherness” a perennial source of fear and loathing and intermittent bursts of violent hostility.

Of course, our racism is not directed at blacks alone. Men and women from the Northeast face the same animus, quite obviously because they belong to a different racial type. In 2014, Nido Tania, a 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, was beaten to death in south Delhi. That, and the sickening regularity with which people from the Northeast are attacked in the rest of India, have led to the demand for an anti-racism law.

However, bringing in a new law will be an exercise in futility unless we acknowledge our racism, and admit to the fact that we singularly racist in our thought and action. We are not just colour conscious, but we ascribe qualities and stereotypes to the “dark” and the “fair”. And that shapes our response to people, often in dangerous and destructive ways.

We need to face up to this elephant in the room. Only then can we hope to begin the conversation about ending racism in our society.
The state can make a beginning by calling a spade a spade — by calling a deplorable racist attack just that.