Social issues

Many shades of racism

Print edition : July 03, 2020

Irfan Pathan. Photo: V.V. Subramanyam

Darren Sammy. Photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Responses in India to George Floyd’s killing in the U.S. bring to the fore the issue of discrimination in the country.

He could make the new ball swing and eke out precious runs too batting down the order. For millions of Indians yearning for an all-rounder of unquestioned merit, Irfan Pathan, who was a member of the ICC T20 World Cup winning squad in 2007, was supposed to be the next Kapil Dev. Marred by erratic performances, that expectation was not to be. What, however, he failed to accomplish as a cricketer, Pathan is doing by humanitarian and bold gestures. 

At a time when Indian cricket is beset with conformism and silence on most issues, Pathan made bold to speak out against racism. Writing in the aftermath of the George Floyd incident in the United States, Pathan gave it a uniquely Indian dimension, tweeting, “Racism is not restricted to the colour of the skin. Not allowing to buy a home in a society just because you have a different faith is part of racism too.” He followed it up with another tweet shortly after, writing, this time in Hindi, “Mein mere makaan se mohabbat karta hoo, lekin usme rehne wale sabhi logo se nahin… ye kaise ho sakta hai? Aur agar hota hai to nuksaan kiska hota hai?” (I love my house but I do not love everybody who stays in the house. How can this be? And if it does happen, whose loss is it?)

Predictably, Pathan’s call for unity was greeted with name-calling. He responded with “love, lots of love” online. His tweets, though, helped bring to public discourse what had conveniently been brushed under the carpet: the issue of racism, exclusion and segregation in Indian society. While Pathan was obviously referring to people of a certain religion not being allowed to buy or rent a house in a society or apartment complex, the malaise is much deeper. In November 2019, a Muslim man was denied a house in the Vasna area of Vadodara in Gujarat, Pathan’s home State, after local residents protested against the move. 

Much worse has been the experience of the residents of Shahpur in Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Whenever a Muslim resident intends to buy a house, the deal invariably runs into trouble, more so if the seller is a Hindu. It is because Shahpur falls under the Disturbed Areas Act where property transaction is next to impossible. It impacts Hindus too who own houses in places like Sardar Kunj. While members of the majority community do not want to move into the vicinity of Muslim ghettoes, they struggle to sell their property. 

Caste bias

However, exclusion is not limited to religion. It permeates to caste too. Within days of Mohammed Akhlaq being lynched in Dadri in western Uttar Pradesh on suspicion of storing beef in his refrigerator on September 28, 2015, 90-year-old Chimma was burnt alive in Hamirpur in the same State for the temerity to enter the Maidani Baba Mandir for darshan. Sanjay Tiwari, who claimed monopoly over the deity and the temple, slapped Chimma and threw him to the ground before using a pickaxe to hit him. Even as Chimma’s wife screamed for help, Tiwari doused the old man with kerosene and set him on fire before any onlooker could come to his rescue. 

In October 2016 a Dalit boy was beaten with slippers for entering a temple in Ghaziabad. Later, questioned about his action, the priest of the temple located in Khoda colony said without remorse, “Ye inke devi-devta ka mandir nahin hai. Phir kyun pooja-archana mein badha dalna hai.” (This temple does not belong to their gods-goddesses. Then why should the prayers be disturbed?) 

In one stroke, the priest had divided the gods too between the haves and the have-nots, the dwija or twice-born and the Sudras. Incidentally, most temples in the city house deities worshipped by upper castes, leaving the lower caste people standing at their doorsteps. The boy had come looking for prasad at the temple and ended up with his dignity hurt. A year later, in 2017, a Sudra man was asked to lick the spit of a Thakur for using slippers while walking in front of the upper caste man’s house in Uttar Pradesh. Three years later, in Bihar’s Nalanda district, a barber was forced to lick his own spit for daring to enter the village sarpanch’s house. He was also beaten with shoes. There have also been several instances when Dalit grooms have been denied the right to mount a horse on their weddings or to take their wedding party through lanes where upper caste people live.

In recent years, other instances have come to light of people from the lower caste being victimised. Days after Pathan’s tweet, three men of the oppressed castes were tied up, thrashed, tonsured and paraded around Barauli Khalilabad village in Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh. Two of them, one belonging to the Scheduled Caste and the other to the Other Backward Classes community, had allegedly stolen a fan from a Brahmin’s house. The incident was similar to the one in Chittorgarh in Rajasthan in May 2016 where a Muslim man, Ajju Hussain, was stripped naked, thrashed and paraded around the town with three companions, all Muslims, for carrying cattle on a truck, allegedly for slaughter. The truck driver, a Hindu, was let off with a warning.

The politics of exclusion and expulsion does not leave even upper castes untouched if they happen to be from the north-eastern region of India. Shortly after the uproar over the Floyd attack, the academic Ngurang Reena wrote of her experience of racism in Delhi in an online portal, VICE India. Recalling her experience, Reena, who joined as an assistant professor in Delhi University in 2016, wrote: “When I moved to Delhi from Arunachal Pradesh I was oblivious that my trials with racism in this country were going to be perpetual. In January 2015, I was in Rajasthan for the Jaipur Literature Festival, but my friends and I were denied entry to a hotel. The manager demanded that we prove our nationality…through a passport.”

That was not all. Reena and her fellow participants at the Tribal Writers Meet in Ranchi, Jharkhand, were asked to share rooms with members of the opposite gender. When questioned, the organisers replied they were not sure of their gender from their names. 

“It is the same wherever I go in Delhi. Even in the so-called posh areas. Whenever I step out on the road there is that inevitable gaze. I have never been able to live with freedom. I understand freedom or azaadi has a different connotation now. But for me, freedom is about living without fear. And that is something I have not experienced in this country. We have complained to the police, local MPs, MLAs, even the media. However, unless there is a murder or something like that, this discrimination is normalised. The tendency is to say, ‘It happens’,” rues Reena. 

Reena’s problems had little to do with her gender. Back in 2014, a teenage boy from Arunachal Pradesh was thrashed to death in Delhi for objecting to racial slur in Lajpat Nagar. Thousands of people from north-eastern India protested against it. “We are not treated as equals here. How can somebody call us Nepali, Chinky or Chinese just because we have Mongoloid features,” said a protester. “I am from Arunachal Pradesh, not from Japan or China. We are true Indians like any other Indian in Delhi,” said another.

A large number of people from all quarters condemned the incident, but soon it was forgotten and lessons from it remained unlearnt. Shortly after it, two working women, hailing from Manipur, were thrown out of their house because they came home late and the landlord suspected them to be women of easy virtue merely because of their place of origin. Reena, too, shared the feeling of indignation and recalled that she had forgotten how many times she had to call the police for help in Delhi.

But what exposes all the ugly crevices of society is the treatment of African students in India. They are often subjected to racial slurs in everyday life as illustrated by how autorickshaw drivers do not hesitate to call them “Habshi”, “Negro” or “Kalu”, the word former West Indies captain Darren Sammy recalled his teammates, including Indian fast bowler Ishant Sharma, used to refer to him while playing for Sunrisers Hyderabad in the Indian Premier League. Sammy probably took it as a term of endearment, for in a text to the former Indian batsman V.V.S. Laxman, he called himself by the same name, little realising its racial connotations and bigotry. It was after the Floyd incident that he asked his teammates to clear the air.

Shocking as the Ajju Hussain, Chimma, Reena and Sammy incidents were, they were not entirely unexpected. It was the same in ancient India when people were denied, deprived and dispossessed on the basis of their skin colour. Writing in A History of India, the historian Romila Thapar says of the contempt the Aryans had for the indigenous people who were dark-skinned. She wrote: “The Aryans had still to contend with the indigenous people of northern India, who were of non-Aryan origin, and of whom the Aryans were contemptuous. The enemies are described as Panis and Dasas…. The Dasas were held to be inferior because of their darker colour and flat features.” That was around 1500 B.C. Not much has changed in 2020 as Pathan’s tweet and the reactions to it proved.

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