Yengkhom Jilangamba's timely and important article “Let's stop pretending there's no racism in India” (May 29) needs to be complemented and expanded by asking some more searching questions of ourselves.
It really seems like a joke to claim that we are not a racist country. Just a cursory glance at the Classifieds columns in any newspaper will show us our obsession with fair skin. Recently, a mainstream paper carried a story about a Manipuri woman being raped by an ‘African'. The responses to the article were frighteningly racist, about ‘Africans' as drug peddlers, criminals and rapists. Nationals of various African countries face a hellish time in India's metros too. Try asking them how they have to struggle to rent accommodation in Delhi. Or how they deal with open abuse and ridicule on the streets, in the university, everywhere. So much of anti-Dalit discrimination is on the basis of skin colour. It is the dark-skinned who face the brunt of the most obvious abuse. Fair-skinned Dalits are accused of not being Dalit, of faking it. We are one of the few obnoxious countries who openly advertise fairness creams and top film stars endorse these products. These should be banned by the law and they are not. Do we really have the gall to claim that we are not a racist country?
Mr. Yengkhom's point about the law, on which he ends, perhaps needs to be rethought. It does not seem viable to think in terms of extralegal solutions to the race problem. It is only through the law that norms can be enforced precisely because of the insidious and everyday nature of racism. That cannot be countered in terms of the everyday because that sort of countering demands a sensitive public and collective effort which is far from the reality in our spaces. Law is the only form of public humiliation to which we can take recourse to bell the cat on the question of racism.
Mr. Yengkhom's article unfortunately reasserts an Us and Them equation when dealing with racism. The fact is that Northeasterners from all eight States are racist themselves. Recently, an Arunachali student was explaining to me the name for a waiter from her tribe. It had an appellation attached to it that had to do with his darker skin which is what he was constantly reminded of through it being attached to his name. The caste Hindu Assamese have a rough coir mat on which they wipe their feet they call the Naga mat because that's what they think of the Nagas. The Meiteis of Manipur have a term, ‘mayang', for mainland Indians and it is a term of derision and abuse. They are viciously racist about the non-Hindu tribes (Naga and several others) in the State. The examples can be multiplied. The point is simply this: we cannot afford to only point the racist finger at others. Several fingers are pointing back at us.
It is understandable that Mr. Yengkhom is making a point about institutionalised racism. But he is wrong to think it is difficult to prove. On the contrary, it is in this country rather too easy to prove because Indians are obnoxious enough not to even want to hide it. It is very clear to see both the institutionalised and the everyday forms of it: the racial profiling and the sneer, the look, the tone. What is missing is a strict set of laws to immediately book such behaviour even if it is from the state.
Racism is not an invisible wound at all. It is one of the most visible wounds on the face of India. Mr. Yengkhom's own examples bear this out whether it is the codes on dress and food sought to be enforced by the Delhi police in 2007 or the panic around the Tibetans. We do not have strict laws on race as we do on anti-Dalit discrimination in the form of the anti-Dalit Atrocities Act for example, and that is what we need around race and sexuality and other forms of very evident but unacknowledged discrimination. There is no need to make these forms of discrimination present; they are very evidently present.
We have a long history of proving our racism (remember Indian audiences objecting to Peter Brooks' dramatic version of Mahabharata having a black Kunti?) and there is obvious racism around us every day and every moment of our lives. Only the law can prevent this. It is akin to the political correctness codes in the U.S. Only the right wing object to these codes. They ensure civil behaviour in society. We do not need to know what obnoxious thoughts people think about us. We are happy to have them stay in the heads of those people. That's all. As for the institutional struggle in cases of outrageous and extreme violence, once again, it is only the law that can save us.
The currently fashionable rejection of the law can only come with fully politicised subjects who have support mechanisms outside of the law. For most of us, this is a luxury we cannot afford.
(Ashley Tellis is a gay rights and civil rights activist based in New Delhi.)
Keywords: racism in India