Even before the remarks made by former Member of Parliament Tarun Vijay had been aired on international television, it was clear that we were in for a rambunctious debate on racism in India. After news of the unspeakably ugly treatment meted out to an African woman in Bengaluru some months ago and scenes of an African being beaten by young Indians in a mall in Greater Noida recently went viral on the Internet, Mr. Vijay set himself the task of absolving Indians of racism by reference to history and in the process opened up an issue of relevance to us ourselves. Before we turn to this, however, it may be useful to suggest some ways in which we can quickly assuage at least partially the hurt that our African students must feel, before turning vigorously to building institutions that ensure their security and encourage them to feel part of the community in India.
A sense of community
Despite the attempts by the government to bring international students to India, the experience of foreign students here has not always been a happy one, this being particularly so for those from Africa, though there could be exceptions. Part of the problem is that there are no mechanisms in our educational institutions to enable these students to settle down and flourish. What is worse is that university authorities appear to be unaware of the need for these.
This contrasts deeply with arrangements in other English-speaking countries that receive students from India. There our students are made to feel welcome and informed of the existence of institutional arrangements to cater to their concerns. One only needs to read the educational supplement of this newspaper for accounts of the happy experience of Indian students abroad today. Of the experiences of Indians who studied abroad, we need only recall the great affection for the British public formed by Mahatma Gandhi while he trained to be a lawyer in England. This was to last for the rest of his life even as he led a national movement against the British empire. Furthermore, from his strategy to his goals, Gandhi was inspired by western thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin, which would have been unlikely had his experience of England been negative.
We might want to reflect on what impression we are leaving on the young African students who come to study here. Judging by the expression of most of them on international television, it is not particularly inspiring, even though some of it may have been influenced by immediate events. It is not that we do not know what is needed right now. State governments must be instructed by the Centre to see that African students are assured of their safety and all educational institutions must with immediate effect double-up the attention they devote to their personal needs, which range from housing to food. But it is important that this initiative to welcome our overseas students does not end up as yet another government scheme to be obeyed with sullen passivity and implemented in the letter but not in spirit.
India’s educational institutions need to create a sense of community, something sorely lacking in them today. It was not always so. I recall that over four decades ago the Christian college in Madras where I had studied did a pretty good job of providing a kind of home to students from as far away as Fiji and Africa, including, dare I say, from Nigeria. This had something to do with their sense of mission.
The ripple effects of Mr. Vijay’s observations, however, are going to be harvested in India and not to the west of the Horn of Africa. As a challenge to the characterisation of the Greater Noida attacks as racist, Mr. Vijay is reported to have queried, “If we are racist, how is it that we live with South Indians [for they are “black” too]?” Only out of political correctness would we chastise him for the colour coding. After all, in India the southerners are on average darker complexioned than the northerners. What is significant therefore is only his observation that “we live with”, implying that the group to which he belongs, presumably the people to the north of the Vindhyas, extend a favour to those who live to its south. If this was just a patronising remark, it would matter for little.
The impulse to dominate
However, it is such a blatant delusion that it needs calling out, for Mr. Vijay belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation that is making inroads into the governance of India via the Bharatiya Janata Party. The fact that Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and the once-undivided Andhra Pradesh have largely held out against the ‘Hindu, Hindu, Hindustan’ project of the RSS is a sign not of the generosity of the group that Mr. Vijay implicitly represents but that the attempt to dominate the peoples of south India did not succeed. No amount of finessing can alter this perception. The ideologue’s spin is no more than the masking of a defeated project by projecting it as magnanimity.
While race as a category may have been discredited in science, the primordial loyalties that early observers, mostly from the West, had characterised as racial have not only been part of the history of mankind but also remain to this day. The forces that have catapulted U.S. President Donald Trump into global prominence stem from such loyalties but they have a far older history in the Indian subcontinent. An aspect of this is the sense in the section of India Mr. Vijay represents that southern people are different, and must therefore be dominated. This is evident from the fact that the oldest civilisations we know of in India are the ones represented by the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro.
The people who inhabited these sites are believed to have been dark-skinned and spoken a non-Aryan language. In contrasting narratives these civilisations are said to have been destroyed by flooding and the drying of their water source. But two entirely related facts lead us to speculate that environmental factors may not have been the determining ones in their decline. Northern India today is largely populated by a lighter-skinned peoples who speak a language of the Indo-Aryan linguistic group.
That they did not just move into this geography absent-mindedly is suggested by the presence of a darker-skinned underclass in the same space, till recently mostly as agricultural labour. Even if not enslaved, they had certainly been ring-fenced into a subservient position by the group that clearly sees itself as Aryan, conquering and destined to rule. At one time ideology had it that these peoples had arrived in India as part of a larger global migration from central Asia to Europe in the west and to Iran and India in the east. It is this idea that had motivated Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s The Arctic Home in the Vedas . Today however, when the control of the subcontinent is a gleam in the eye of the RSS, this is a somewhat inconvenient truth for its believers to pursue.
Puncturing Aryan illusions
It is this idea of the Aryan destiny to rule India that underlies Mr. Vijay’s interpretation “we live with” south Indians. The same impulse to dominate the country had prompted the aborted attempt to impose Hindi on southern India within months of the death of Nehru who had seen the irony in replacing “the imperialism of English with the imperialism of Hindi”. After a long gap, it has resurfaced in the smuggling-in of Devanagari numerals on currency notes last year and more recently, though with lesser significance, in the jettisoning of English from milestones on national highways in deepest Tamil Nadu.
None of this is to even remotely champion a Dravidian separatism. Apart from its barrenness, history does not contain encouraging intimations of the likely success of such a project. For a start, linguistic chauvinism has dogged the forging of a southern identity. And as a colleague from Bengal pointed out to me, were India not one country, some of the southern States may have gone to war with one another over their rivers. Being part of the Indian Union has brought not only material wealth to the south but also cultural wealth that has come with the meeting of peoples, thus immeasurably enriching our lives. Yet it is important to call out the ethnocentrism that drove Mr. Vijay’s non sequitur . While south Indians would quite happily agree with his observation that they have more melanin in their skin or even that they are made of different stock, they are amused by the suggestion that they are in India on sufferance.
Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, Sonipat and Senior Fellow, IIM Kozhikode