In August 2012, thousands of individuals from the Northeast fled Bengaluru amidst a heightened threat of violence. This year has seen a spate of unprovoked attacks against African nationals in the city across a range of spaces, the latest of which resulted in a group of Nigerian women being booked for allegedly assaulting a bus conductor, with little mention of the violence initially perpetrated by the conductor against the women. And then, earlier in the month, an Australian student was threatened by a mob over tattoo of Goddess Yellamma on his shin.
This last story is remarkable, simply for the banality of its horrors. Matthew Gordon was sitting at a restaurant with his girlfriend when he was approached by a man asking him about his tattoo. Before they know it, the couple was surrounded by 25 men who refused to allow them to leave the premises of the eatery, threatening to skin Matthew’s leg to remove the tattoo. When the police did intervene, it wasn’t to put an end to the spectacle: the personnel, on the other hand, gave the duo a lecture on Hindu values. Matthew was ultimately made to write an apology to the sub-inspector of Ashok Nagar police station, one worth reproducing in full:
“My name is Mathew, visiting from Melbourne, Australia. I am very sorry for offending Hindu religious beliefs by my tattoo. I did not know of this auspicious custom regarding tattoo placement. I will make sure to cover it up while I am in India. Thank you for educating me in what is appropriate in regard to body art on my body. I am also sorry for using inappropriate language.”
Diversity of Hindu culture
If one were to even summarily engage with the dizzying diversity of Hindu culture, it would be clear that there is, emphatically, no particularly “auspicious custom regarding tattoo placement”. This isn’t about debating the contours of Hinduism, however. Bengaluru has often been invoked as a paradigm example of cosmopolitanism, a city that prides itself on its (relatively) liberal values. The narratives mentioned above tell us that this image is more flawed than one would want to believe.
There is a thread running through the stories involving these people: the disrespectful White man, the aggressive African, the suspicious Northeasterner. These are stories where people are reduced to one defining attribute and targeted on that basis. It is also effectively a dividing exercise: ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, the ‘right citizen’ versus the ‘outsider’. Paring individuals down to a single element that can then be used a means of targeting them is hardly the newest trick in the book. The line is invariably determined by a privileged majority, even as the list of ‘outsiders’ becomes more and more diverse.
It isn’t simply the shrinking social sphere that should give us cause for alarm — it is the fact that the law itself is primed to aid the process. Take the role of law enforcement agencies in many of these situations. There are, on the one hand, instances where the police have reached out to citizens. In April, the city police organised a well-attended meeting with African students which led to the formation of a coordination committee for a better relationship between the students and locals. The Northeast Solidarity Forum in Bengaluru highlights many instances of positive engagements with the police.
Apathy, collusion of law enforcement authorities
And yet, for each of these stories, there are numerous ones where there is either apathy or active collusion. What does it mean for a vulnerable individual reaching out to a police officer to, in turn, be subjected to violence? What does it mean for the police to be guardians of morality? When Matthew is asked to “thank” the police for “educating him” on what is appropriate in regard to body art, he is being asked to explicitly acknowledge a kind of moral education forcefully imparted upon him. Subsequent to the incident, the police claimed that their reaction constituted posturing to exercise control over the mob. Considering that the Deputy Commissioner dismissed the incident as trivial, this point rings somewhat false. But even beyond that, this “posturing” only served to validate the extra-legal violence that threatened this particular individual. Bengaluru’s social fabric stands threatened enough by public intolerance, without having to account for the failure of the rule of law.
(Danish Sheikh is a member of the Alternative Law Forum, a collective of human rights lawyers based in Bengaluru.)