Racist India's fear of the 'other'

Racist India's fear of the 'other'

In America, Indians are being killed today for the very same reasons we beat up Africans in India for.

Being Asian American, anthropologist Margaret Rhee claims, is like being a cyborg. A robot-human being associated with a lineage of immigrants who have always been seen as less human and more machine. The key to such an understanding or stereotyping is the identification of ‘difference’ that immigrants carry when they travel for work or sanctuary to other countries.

What is it about African immigrants that carries so much prejudice? Is it skin colour alone? Or is it the idea of the mobile person who is so different from a populace, largely immobile, that renders them alien-cyborg?

The virulent, vicious violence that young Africans were subject to in Noida recently begs the question of representation. What do Africans in India represent? What is it that makes them vulnerable?

That we are proving to be racist xenophobes is no secret. Indians differentiating among potential spouses based on skin colour is condemned and encouraged in the same breath. It is no secret that our population is divided in lore and mythology into the ‘dark-skinned’ and the ‘light-skinned’. It is no secret either that we extend this form of prejudice to treat those who are different in appearance, like the North Easterners, with equal disdain.

But the question of the Northeastern students and Africans in Delhi and Bengaluru is similar and connected. Both groups have been targeted by xenophobic crowds and beaten mercilessly. They also face everyday discrimination when seeking housing or public services. Most importantly, the Northeastern student and the African youth are both immigrants to Indian urban centres, which promise opportunities and a fulfilment of desires.

To say that these attacks were not racist would be unbecoming. But they are also against the kind of fluidity these populations embody. The mobility that comes with seeking a better life economically and socially, away from desperate, conflict-ridden homes, gives us a perspective about other people and cultures.

Away from a similar mobility and unable to understand the life circumstances that initiate migration, we instead lash out at the potential ‘otherness’ that young Africans, Mizos, Nagas, Biharis and others carry.

Often, this fear of the ‘other’, whose language and culture are ‘different’, manifests in stereotypes that propagate fear and hatred. Any obvious identificatory marks help in alienating such people further. Skin colour, accent, facial features and many other factors become symbols of social loathing that carry character judgements with them — such as indignations emerging from alleged involvement in sex work or drug peddling.

Colonial history in India is legendary for the identification of certain tribes as ‘criminal’ based on their traditional occupations, which were identified as ‘unlawful’ under the emerging penal code. But here, one must reiterate that our current behaviour cannot be justified as a ‘colonial hangover’.

Role reversal
As the globalised world shifts in scope and movement, emerging countries in the developing world such as India and China are becoming major centres of employment and educational opportunities.

This means that we now live with ‘aliens,’ and not tourists. This geopolitical-social shift has meant that Indians are not the only immigrants travelling to Western countries seeking a better life. We are now host to nationalities that are seeking us out for opportunities. However, we behave as though we know where the shoes pinches. We behave exactly the way bigots and racists in the West behave towards Indians.

I wonder if the hideous violence that was wrought on those young African men and women is part of a vicious cycle? We are as much a part of racism as we are subject to it. In America today, Indians are being killed for the very same reasons we beat up Africans in India for.

Interestingly, Indians make up a big part of varied African economies, thriving in local cultures for several generations. So much so that, decades ago, the despot Idi Amin carried out an ‘economic war’ on Indian citizens of Uganda, grabbing their property and rights; till date this is recognised as the worst form of human rights violation. We continue to uphold such a dubious legacy in India today creating nothing new or tolerant for our future generations to foster and learn from.

Historically, we may have been more tolerant of ‘outsiders,’ but contemporary urban living is making up for such ‘indulgence’ with what can only be classified as everyday racism. This form of violence is not only physical, but emotional and exclusionary — denying people their basic rights. But, then again, this is not new to us. Our social structure encourages such exclusions.

In a world threatened by mobilities, fluid identities and populations, we need to embrace people irrespective of differences — whether in Europe, America, Delhi or Bengaluru.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Liberal Arts, Indian Institute of Technology-Hyderabad)