This is a significant issue that has received its due attention only recently. We, North Indians, have always thought of racism to be a Caucasian affair and felt that South Asians, like African blacks, have only been victims of racism, not its perpetrators. The reason for this is that racism exhibited by many (though certainly not all) of us is subconscious, thus, often our reaction to the assertion that we exhibit racist prejudice is one of denial. Over the last few months, certain events have forced us to examine this phenomenon objectively more than ever before, these events being BJP ministers in Goa saying that Nigerians are “wild animals” and “cancer”, former Delhi minister Somnath Bharti’s inappropriate conduct with two Ugandan women (Bharti is from the AAP, and the Congress and the BJP rightly slammed him for the same, though keeping even the remarks of a BJP minister about Nigerians aside, both the Congress and the BJP have a far worse history in terms of stereotyping, given that elements in these parties have participated in or not checked horrendous religion-based riots against fellow Indians) and worst of all, the murder of Arunachali student Nido Tania in Delhi.
Even historically and though contrary to the Vedic principles, viewing foreigners as mlech or ‘unclean’ (Romila Thapar’s The Image of the Barbarian in Early India and Aloka Parasher’s Mlecchas in Early India: A Study in Attitudes towards Outsiders up to A.D. 600 provides a detailed analysis of this) was commonplace in earlier times. We can find accounts in the medieval period testifying this racial arrogance and injunctions against sea travel in some Hindu societies, which existed even as late as in British times (this even finds a mention in Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography). The dialogue between the Indian teachers of Nalanda University, who were Buddhist monks, and their Chinese student Xuanjang very clearly demonstrates this superiority complex of Indians. During the Delhi Sultanate period, the nobles were often classified on the basis of origin, with Muslims of Hindu ancestry treated as inferior to those of Arab or Persian descent, even though Prophet Muhammad had explicitly condemned such an attitude.
Speaking of contemporary times, our characterising people with mongoloid looks as not being Indians like everyone else is nothing but racism, and our calling them Chinese or subjecting them to slurs like chinki (the usage of which has fortunately been made illegal ) is racism, and it is indeed this attitude on our part that has alienated many of them and has made many of them feel that they are not Indians. Interestingly and unfortunately, even in our neighbouring country of Pakistan, mongoloids are referred to by the racial slur chinu (despite Pakistan’s excellent political relations with China).
In fact, in the Indian context, as far back as in 1963, innocent Chinese-origin people living in West Bengal and Assam, in many cases whose forefathers had migrated to India in British times (Indian Idol anchor, singer and actor Chang belongs to this community) and some of whom had intermarried with ethnic Indians, were subjected to violence by non-state actors and many of them were arrested in a baseless fashion by the then Congress-governed state machinery after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, and subjected to very harsh treatment, which is totally a matter of national shame for India and an apology for which is long overdue.
Even a prominent leader like Sardar Patel exhibited a sense of xenophobia towards the northeast in a letter he wrote to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in November 1950 (much before the Sino-Indian War of 1962), in which he mentioned-
“China is no longer divided. It is united and strong… All along the Himalayas in the north and northeast, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of potential trouble between China and ourselves… The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices… Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibetans would be a handicap.”
Ironically, Tibetans became hostile to China after the withdrawal of autonomy, with Bhutan emerging as India’s great friend! Darjeeling and Kalimpong have had internal issues with West Bengal, but no anti-India secessionist sentiment of any consequence, and Gorkhas from these regions have a stellar record of contribution to the Indian Army, even in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Also, Sardar Patel was completely wrong in saying that the culture of India’s northeast is the same as that of the Chinese and the Tibetans! Moreover, as noted Indophilic Myanmarese writer Thant Myint-U points out, even secessionists in regions like Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya have no great love for China. He mentions-
“…there is no indication that people in the Northeast have any desire to come under Chinese domination. Militant groups have received Chinese training and support, at least in the past, but this was done opportunistically and not out of any special affinity to Beijing.”
In fact, he mentions that he noticed among them, “a sense of dread that, with China’s growing stature and influence”, the little ethnic communities “caught between ‘India proper’ and China would find it harder, not easier, to maintain their separate identities and traditions.”
Another instance that can be quoted in this regard to demonstrate the northeasterners having no special affinity to China is an extract from the renowned novel Bitter Wormwood by noted Naga novelist Easterine Kire, which is stated hereunder (all the characters here are Naga)-
“The two of them kept turning the knobs. They first listened to some songs and them to more news broadcasts. There were about four channels they could listen to. One was a Chinese station where a woman spoke very rapidly in Chinese. Mother and son laughed uproariously at that because they couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying. Even the static made them giggle. Eventually, they made a habit of tuning the radio into the station where news was broadcast in English.”
To cite some instances I have witnessed first-hand or heard from people I know, an Assamese friend of mine has been a victim of racist remarks by a classmate who offensively pointed at him saying – “kutte to ye kutte khate hain” (dogs are consumed by these dogs).
Next, I may mention a friend of mine, whose mother hails from Arunachal Pradesh (he was born there too, though his father is from UP) and who has mongoloid features. He is a bright student and he was, along with two other students from our university, selected on a full scholarship for a summer course on international law in China, where the best of academicians and practitioners in the field from across the globe, including the sitting ICJ president, were going to teach. My friend, owing to his having been born in Arunachal Pradesh, was given a notorious ‘stapled’ visa by the Chinese Embassy, which didn’t come in the way of his getting his boarding pass from the airline counter at the airport (since the airline had apparently not received any instructions to this effect) but was offloaded from the aircraft by immigration officials owing to the nature of his visa. He was keen to go for the course and this sudden turn of events naturally annoyed him, and he argued a little with the immigration officials, saying that he shouldn’t have got the boarding pass at all in this scenario, to which they retorted saying that he appeared Chinese, was Chinese at heart and was hence so eager to go to China! (Ironically, Arunachalis were fiercely loyal to India during the Sino-Indian War of 1962, they have boycotted Chinese goods and often greet each other saying ‘Jai Hind’!) When he narrated this to me telephonically, it set my blood boiling and I experienced mixed feelings of anger and sorrow. Earlier, this very friend of mine was once sitting in the hostel room of his Gujarati classmate, and the hostel warden told that Gujarati boy to not entertain such “dopers” and “anti-nationals” in his hostel room to my Arunachali friend’s face!
Also, I was told of an incident by a humanistic Rajasthani friend of a mongoloid girl who offered to hold an old lady’s bag travelling in the ladies’ compartment in the Delhi metro, and another woman randomly retorted that no help needs to be offered by foreigners like her. Aside from the very obvious racism, this smacks of insanity and lack of logic, for even those who are actually foreigners are humans, whose courtesy should nonetheless be appreciated!
This article in The Hindu and this one, as well as this account of leading Bollywood actor from Sikkim, Danny Dengzoppa, are worth a read in this context. It’s also noteworthy how when a video of Mizo soldiers in the Indian Army dutifully serving India was released, there were several people posting racist comments abusing these men in uniform serving our country based on their looks!
However, holistically speaking of racism in India would also mean that we don’t turn a blind eye to the racism exhibited by many (though again, certainly not all) northeasterners too, and the insurgent groups among them have targeted people from mainland India, even those living in the northeast for generations, forcing many of them to leave their homes and settle elsewhere. However, like an anti-racism consciousness has developed in mainland India (as this interesting social experiment demonstrates), a consciousness against this has emerged in the northeast too.
Moreover, there is this obsession with fair skin in India, and dark-skinned South Indians, wherever they may be from, are condescendingly referred to as Madrasis and North Indians often tend to mock South Indian languages. In fact, a lot of us are often not quite willing to befriend or mingle with African blacks. This article in the Economic Times by an African-American lady who spent some time in India is a must-read in this context. As a student in a French language learning centre in Delhi, I was witness to how so many students ganged up to bully an African classmate of ours in the lunch-breaks for no rhyme or reason, and while they may not have thought of themselves as consciously racist, I’m quite sure they wouldn’t have done so with any white. Back in 1966, Indophilic Australian writer Walter Crocker wrote, referring to Indians-
“In private they have an infatuation with fair complexions, and, conversely, a distaste for the African’s complexion. African students in India have sensed this and have voiced their resentment of what they regard as Indians’ race prejudices against Africans just as in Communist China African students have sensed and protested against Chinese race prejudices…this fact stands though the Indian authorities are now doing their best for African students, and though all race, like all caste, discrimination is illegal in India.”
In fact, it is noteworthy that ISKCON founder Prabhupad made very prejudiced, anti-black statements. A friend of mine once told me how a fellow Indian friend of his referred to a black passerby on the road as ‘King Kong’.
Finally, I must mention that though Caucasians invite an unnecessary sense of awe in many Indians, it is equally true that there are Indians who subject them to negative stereotyping owing to British colonial rule over India. In this context, this article talking of even viewing British imperialism impartially is relevant.
A friend of mine from Jodhpur told me that as a small child, he would run to white-skinned foreigners at tourist destinations and say – “Bastards, you ruled us!”, and while he was narrating this to me when we were in college, his only regret seemed to be that he did not realize as a small boy that those people could have been of non-British nationalities, as though saying what he did to British people would have actually been justified. I also recall some of my educated friends proudly sharing, on their Facebook profiles, a picture of a cycle-rickshaw with a highly offensive message written at the back, and to put it mildly, it was to the effect that whites would not be allowed to board the rickshaw owing to their having ruled India.
In fact, while we all fumed and fretted over the racist tweets against Nina Daluvuri targeting her for her Indian origin when she was crowned Miss America this year (let’s, for a moment, keep aside the tweets by ignorant people who presumed she’s Arab or Muslim, though this is not to say that Islamophobia can be condoned either), don’t many of us do the same when we pick on Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origin? Criticising Sonia, like criticising any other Indian politician for his/her flaws, is certainly most legitimate, but why should her origin be made an issue, when we cherish the likes of Ruskin Bond and Tom Altar and historically speaking, Verrier Elwin, Sister Nivedita and Annie Besant?
More awareness needs to be generated against racism in India, which would have to start with the acknowledgement of its existence. After the murder of Nido, the central government (then of the UPA) set up a commission to examine the complaints of harassment by northeasterners (though I believe that its ambit should be expanded to include racism in all its forms), which is a welcome step. In Delhi, the police has introduced helpline numbers (011-25315003 and +919810083486) for northeastern students, and Delhi’s lieutenant governor Najeeb Jang has set up another panel of security personnel to specifically look at northeasterners’ safety and similar steps should also be taken in other cities. The new prime minister Narendra Modi, during the course of the election campaign, had referred to Nido’s murder as a matter of national shame in a rally in Imphal, other than talking of encouraging Pondicherry and Goa to develop relations with their former colonial maters (France and Portugal respectively) based on cultural connections, and his party had strongly condemned the conduct of Somnath Bharti in the context of the Khirki Extension raid; hence, the new BJP-led government ought to deliver on this score.
I can proudly say that I have friends of diverse races and nationalities (including mongoloid friends who are actually Chinese by nationality), and it’s time we, Indians, believed in our ancient teaching of vasudhaiv kutumbakam (treating the whole world as a family), an idea that also finds an echo in verse 49:13 of the Quran.