International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: A Reading List on Racism in India

In India, racism, casteism and colourism are not mutually exclusive - they may often overlap. That does not mean however, that racism does not exist.

Racism has had a long history all over the world, and has been responsible for the most violent phenomenon, such as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in colonial times, and the American Civil War later. In South Africa, institutionalised racism, that is, the apartheid regime, continued almost into the 21st century. The United Nations (UN) has declared 21 March as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to commemorate the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when 69 people protesting against apartheid in South Africa were killed by the police. Racial discrimination has not remained limited to people from Africa, however. Asians and South-Asians have also faced it in various parts of the world, particularly in the last decade, with a resurgence of populist leaders like Donald Trump and Victor Orban, who have run xenophobic campaigns.  

More recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading swiftly across the world, there have been reports of a spike in anti-Asian, and specifically anti-Chinese racism. Trump himself has tweeted, calling the virus a “Chinese virus,” which can put Asian Americans at risk against hate crimes. This kind of racism is also a problem in India, though Indians have historically thought of themselves as victims of racism owing to our colonial past. Racism as a social issue has had limited visibility in the Indian public sphere. But, it is still a widespread and deep-seated problem, especially in the Hindi heartland. People from the North East have been discriminated against with racial slurs and stereotypes that question their Indianess. Particularly now, as the COVID-19 epidemic spreads, they risk facing racial and ethnic discrimination, and being labelled as “Chinese.” This is not a new problem, however. Several incidents have taken place in Delhi over the last decade, against people from North East India and from Africa. 

In 2014, following an attack on three African students on the Delhi metro, an EPW editorial noted

Each hate-filled action of the young male attackers shows the depths of depravity – the African students had sought refuge in a police booth but found no protection, even there, from the police personnel. The crowd believed the rumour-mongering that one of the three had “misbehaved” with an Indian woman even though there was absolutely no evidence at hand. The attackers actually screamed Vande Mataram and Bharat Mata ki... to a great chorus of jai. Coming on top of all the attacks on north-eastern students in Delhi in the past couple of years, including killings, and a brutal assault on a Rwandan student in Chandigarh in 2012 that left him in a coma, the present assault is further proof that, by and large, Indians harbour strong racist prejudices.

These racial prejudices that Indians have, also take the form of colourism, which the number of “fairness” products available in the market testifies to. Especially women with darker skin are particularly vulnerable to culturally embedded prejudice as Neha Dixit wrote in her article examining everyday colourism in Indian families. 

Historically, the discourse of racism and colourism in India has also woven into the discourse of caste-based discrimination in India, for instance. Movements against caste-discrimination have often looked to movements against racial-discrimination for shared experiences and inspiration. Particularly, the Dalit Feminist movement in India has drawn parallels with the Black Feminist movement in the United States, to better communicate their experience of marginalisation. 

In India, racism, casteism, and colourism are not mutually exclusive–they may often overlap. That does not mean, however, that racism does not exist. There is a need to identify racism and differentiate it from other forms of discrimination, not to take away from the experience of discrimination, but to understand the complex dimensions of discrimination better. In this reading list, we explore how the discourse around racism in India was built to understand the specificities of the experience of racial discrimination in India. 

Racism as Caste

In 2001, the UN Convention on Racism had taken up the matter of caste discrimination in India, which helped the Dalit cause by giving it international recognition. Thereafter, the discourse of racism and caste in India has been somewhat interlinked. As Ambrose Pinto wrote shortly after the UN Convention, the provisions in the Indian Constitution not only juxtapose caste with race and sex as prohibited grounds of discrimination, but also equate caste discrimination with racial discrimination. Pinto refers to Articles 15, 16, 17, 23 and 29 of the Constitution, all of which serve as measures against both caste and racial discrimination.  

The first explicit reference to caste discrimination in the CERD report was in 1996. The position of the Indian government was on expected lines that caste discrimination did not fall under the purview of CERD because the term descent is exclusively referred to descent based on race. However, the CERD had made it clear that the term descent mentioned in Article 1 does not refer to race alone. One of the major obstacles for gaining international recognition to the Dalit cause is the language of the UN. Being dominated by the west, the language, concepts and terms of the UN bodies have been euro-centric. The need is not only to bring the caste issue into the UN, but to put pressure on the UN to change its language so that the UN becomes representative of all countries and people. The civil society groups and NGOs active among the Dalit bahujans well understand why India has been resolutely opposing the inclusion of caste question, which is the primary source of human rights violation of Dalits and the basis of economic deprivation and social degradation. The objective is to perpetuate the existing social order that has benefited the upper castes. The system has developed large social and economic interests. 

Denying Racism

In 2012, after the mysterious and controversial deaths of Richard Loitam in Bengaluru and Dana Sangma in Gurugram, a debate on racism opened up on primetime news channels, social media and traditional news platforms. Following this incident, Swar Thounaojam wrote that the government response framed discrimination faced by people from the northeast in terms of their Scheduled Tribe status and not as racism. Thounaojam criticised the government for neglecting to take cognisance of the debate on racism which was emerging in the media. And while the latter had started talking about racism, it was still not questioning the government and academic silence on racism.   

Mainland India has, for years, exhibited one core characteristic of race thinking in its social interactions with the north-east. The mental and moral behaviour of the north-east have been related to their physical structure (Barzun 1937). This biological distance-marker (which is now irrelevant in contemporary studies of racism) transformed itself into a social fact by the formation of strongly-held stereotypes of the north-east, especially its women, and the usage of racial slurs against them. The racial slur chinki is persistently used by mainland India to categorise the north-east (and any person with an east Asian physical structure). The majority of users defend the usage as handy in identifying who is what in this country. This usage is an ideological process to define an unclassified populace who have become the nation’s citizens but do not share, in the popular imagination of the country, its biology, historicity and cultural values. 

Victims turned Perpetrator

In 2014, following the death of Nido Taniam, a 19-year-old man from Arunachal Pradesh, in Delhi, racism was making headlines once again. But as Thangkhanlal Ngaihte argued, Indians, having themselves been a victim of racism from the British Raj, have historically failed to see themselves as perpetrators when it comes to racism. Discussion on racism in India had been limited to a framework of caste-based discrimination. Therefore, the experience of racism by people from the northeast has been equated with caste-based discrimination, even though caste-based discrimination does not have an ethnic dimension and does not question the Indianness of the victim. 

Most people have, through their own localised socialisation process, internalised some levels of prejudice against people not like them. The problem assumes an altogether different dimension when the institutions of law-governed societies themselves become a site of racism. One needs to seriously worry when institutions like the police, which are supposed to be neutral and fair to everyone, can no longer be trusted to enforce the law in a fair and just manner. Because of this special nature of racism which is experienced at every stage from the initial prejudices and attacks to the police and hospital authorities, there is often no choice for the victims and their supporters but to mobilise and pressurise the authorities at every stage to come to a semblance of justice. People have to come and agitate in front of police stations, hospitals and courts. That is what the people of the north-east in Delhi are trying to do. However, this kind of perpetual mobilisation is unsustainable – most have to earn a living or study

Race and Space

Drawing on her personal experience of being mixed heritage, Neha Sinha wrote that, “Racism gets more and more pernicious when entangled with other forms of differentiation.” For instance, when racism is combined with sexism, it generates popular perceptions and stereotypes about women from the northeast. The danger of this, Sinha argued, is that the differences seen in faces, or in skin colour, become the basis of dehumanisation, blind hatred, and thereby violence.

“The problem is my face”, a young Mizo friend told me once. “They see nothing but the face – they see ‘chinky’ eyes, they see my straight hair. I am slotted as a ‘type’ in a second. A type that will not mind male attention”, she says. Ironically, I have escaped racism (but faced ignorance, and some stereotyping) because my face is not “ethnic” enough. For many others, the personal is painfully political, each day of their lives. This leads me to my final point: it doesn’t matter anymore if differences are perceived as a difference in faces, cheekbones, noses, dressing-sense, or hair. The perception of difference is getting so varnished in blind violence and hatred by dominant communities, that it is increasingly losing any set markers. Because of this violence – tragically much of it is perpetrated by young people, often buoyed by political interests – we can no longer afford to be quiet when seemingly innocent comments on “Madrasis” or “chinkys” are passed. For the days of innocent ignorance themselves seem to have passed. The space to correct the types – the stereotypes – is becoming increasingly narrow, and is being laughed at by regional majoritarianism

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