Attack on Tanzanian student not because we're 'racist'

Do not turn a tragedy into food for a theory that only perpetuates racism instead of ending it.

 |  5-minute read |   07-02-2016
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India may be the only place on earth where a proudly anti-racist intellectual elite decides to fight racism with – more racism.

The mob attack on a Tanzanian student who stumbled into a fatal car accident scene in the outskirts of Bangalore has rightly raised concerns about the many acts of harassment and even violence that have taken place against Africans in India, mostly in Delhi, and now in Bangalore.

Concerns have also been raised in recent reports about the harassment often faced by Indians from north-east India in some parts of the country - in Delhi once again, and in Bangalore.

There have also been several acts of regional, linguistic, casteist, or religious harassment and violence between various communities in India over the years. We remember some riots and displacements, we don’t really talk so much, in the mainstream media at least, about others.

Also read: 7 reasons Indians are the most racist in the world

We have had “freedom movements” where whole communities were driven out of their ancestral homeland, and our intellectual elite said these communities were non-elites, and therefore, perhaps, it was okay for them to be treated that way.

We have had nativisms where politicians openly promise to destroy “settlers” who might have come from as near as two or three districts away, or even fellow local-borns whose parents or grandparents came from two or three districts away, and our intellectual elites said it was not just okay, but even progressive.

After all, some of the members of the said settler groups had indeed been guilty of mocking the local population for the way they spoke their (shared) language. All of this happens, and has happened. India has every kind of identity squared off against each other in every inch of land. Some bear long and deep historical burdens, and others don’t. Some breed rancour, and some only a stoic indifference.

Also read: What stripping of Tanzanian woman says about the Indian male

And yet, for all of its complexity, diversity, and history of grievances, real, exaggerated, or imagined; one billion Indians do not kill or even hurt each other merely because of having encountered a shade of skin different from theirs.

In many parts of India, especially the cities, “difference” and “diversity” are existential realities for every single inhabitant. An Indian sees and hears more diversity in an hour than some other people in a whole lifetime perhaps.

We do not operate through race, and we are not racist in the sense of the Western experience of the word. We have serious and systemic problems in terms of class, caste and gender, and we still face a need for self-examination, critique, and change.

But we are not what the strange fantasy borrowed by some Indians now from the minds of far-out “scholars” in far away lands and times has made us out to be. This may really be news for the anxious commentators throwing every high concept they have at this tragedy, like the proverbial “ambulance chasers” of America: Indians are not Europeans.

Also read - India's ugly racist face exposed: Bangalore mob assaults and strips Tanzanian girl

We are not “whites”. We did not colonise, enslave, torture, lynch, imprison and execute people on the grounds that they are “not white”.

And no, Hinduism is not a European racial supremacist religion invented to justify colonisation of people because they looked different either. And yet, the whole discourse about Indian racism we have seen in the last few days seems to rely heavily on a pseudo-scientific 19th century racial coloniser’s myth of the Aryan Invasion Theory.

We have been told that Indian racism, of the sort that a few African victims have faced in India, goes back to the Vedic age.

We have been told that there is some sort of a “Indo-European” versus “non-Indo-European” faultline in India, where almost everyone to me seems some shade of Indian and no more, and almost everyone I know hasn’t had anything like the privilege level (or culpability) of the European coloniser’s power over the world.

And as if the race bogey wasn’t enough, we have also been told that “Hindu iconography portrays and depicts almost all of the Hindu pantheon as fair” and that “almost all the deities are white” - leading thereby to the deep racism and sexism of the Indian male.

And we were told, in several headlines and reports, that the unfortunate student had been “stripped and paraded naked” when her own account states that her clothes were torn in the assault. There is no excusing the crime, but we cannot ignore the vastly different implications of the inaccurate headline either.

Does the “paraded naked” exaggeration not invoke a ceremonial or ritualistic humiliation, as if it were some sort of a cultural or religious ideology at work here?

Is this how desperate the media is to smear India, Hinduism and Hindus as a whole group for this crime?

“White Hindu deities.”

“Indo-Europeans.”

Really?

And why does the same discourse that condemns the whole of Indian culture as racist not pause to consider that some of the same so-called racist Indians in the crowd also tried to speak up for her, according to her account? India has its faults, and what Africans and others face are part of them.

The tragedy in Bangalore was clearly one that involved many reasons: a fatal accident, tensions of class, nationality, and indeed colour, and most of all, the growing power of the mob in India and the seeming inability of the government to provide security.

As Indians, we must ask her forgiveness for what happened to her in our country. And we must also learn our lessons.

If you are a car owner, do not drive recklessly - and do not stop to talk to a mob. If you are a state government official, do not neglect the police force so much that they fear the mob more than failing in their duties. If you are a concerned writer, respect the truth. Do not turn a tragedy into food for a theory that only perpetuates racism instead of ending it.

Writer

Vamsee Juluri Vamsee Juluri @vamseejuluri

The writer is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of Rearming Hinduism.

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