Friday, June 26, 2009

Racism and Discrimination in Australia and India

In recent weeks there has been a massive hue and cry in India over supposedly racist attacks on a handful of Indian students in Australia. The outcry has been so great that this issue has even been taken up at the diplomatic level between the two countries. Recently Bollywood mega-star Amitabh Bachchan turned down an Australian honor in protest against anti-Indian racism in Australia.

A couple of years ago, a similar uproar broke out in India when film star Shilpa Shetty, while participating in a voyeuristic reality TV show in the U.K., was subjected to some comments that were perceived as racist.

In general, Indians have been very quick to point fingers at others for real and imagined incidents of racism.

But perhaps we Indians should first take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror. If we do so we will find that appalling discrimination is rampant in Indian society.

Consider, for example, the following.
  • In India there is quite a large number students from Africa studying in various colleges. Most of these students have to face racial epithets like "kallu", "kalia", etc., on a regular basis. According to a professor, "many African students just don't show up in class; they just come for the exams". "It's especially difficult for them to integrate themselves in second-tier colleges", says the professor, since "the students there believe that all Africans are backward, lazy and belong to the international drug cartel". Outside the classroom, Indian students hardly ever have any close social interactions with the visiting African students, such as becoming roommates, etc. I have never been to Australia, so I cannot comment on the situation there, but at least on American campuses international students from India, Africa, etc., are treated very differently. Close social interactions and even romantic relationships between international and American students are fairly common (in fact the current U.S. President Barack Obama is the product of one such relationship).
  • Many students from the North East part of India who come to study in Delhi, Mumbai, etc., are called "chinkies" or worse racial epithets, and face a great deal of ridicule and discrimination. According to a Manipuri student in Delhi, "even rickshaw-pullers, auto-drivers, vegetable vendors and bus conductors cheat us because they know we are not aware of the price trend here, and are not in a position to drive hard bargains". What is worse, female students from the North East are considered "easy" or "loose" and often become subject to sexual harassment.
  • Sometime ago while waiting in a line at an international airport, I overheard a young Australian woman narrating her rather unpleasant flight experience to a friend. Apparently there was a middle aged Indian man sitting next to her on the flight who, while pretending to be asleep, would keep "accidentally" dropping his arm off the armrest and onto his female co-passenger's lap. This kind of obnoxious (or worse) behavior of some Indian men towards women, stemming from repressed sexual urges, is known in India as "eve-teasing" and is very common across the country. It represents a pervasive kind of discrimination that almost every woman in India has to face at some point of time.
  • I have been told by activists working in predominantly adivasi (tribal) areas in Maharashtra (such as say Nandurbar district) that in state transport buses some non-adivasi conductors do not go up to adivasi passengers and issue tickets to them as is the standard practice all over Maharashtra. Instead, these non-adivasi bus conductors sit in one place and require the adivasi passenger to walk up to them to get their tickets issued, since they consider it beneath their dignity to walk up to adivasi passengers and request them to buy tickets. Adivasis in India face this - and other much more serious forms of discrimination - on a regular basis.
  • A couple of years ago, when Bollywood superstars Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan got married, news reports suggested that Aishwarya being a Manglik - an astrological condition considered devastating for matrimony - was made to go through all kinds of ritualistic gymnastics in order to overcome her astrological disability. This included her getting married to a tree, and performing various other elaborate rituals. While not all news reports coming out of Bollywood are entirely accurate, the story of Aishwarya's Manglik predicament is at least believable. This is because of the prevalence in India of widespread discrimination on astrological grounds. When it comes to matrimony, many people (especially women) in India face discrimination for being Manglik, or for being astrologically deficient in other ways.
  • In Mumbai, many of the most elegant housing complexes are marked off as "for vegetarians only". With vegetarianism in India being primarily a caste and community marker, "vegetarians only" really means "reserved for certain upper caste groups only". As a non-vegetarian, I will not be allowed to rent an apartment in such "vegetarian only" complexes in spite of being willing to pay as much as people belonging to vegetarian castes. If you happen to be a Muslim or a Dalit, and you don't have any high-level connections, you will be hard pressed to find any kind of proper rental accommodation in a decent neighborhood in Mumbai. And this is in Mumbai, reputed to be India's most cosmopolitan city. What happens in other cities and in rural areas, where caste discrimination tends to be worse, can only be imagined.
These - and there are many more such accounts - are indicative of the frequent and widespread discrimination that occurs in India.

But what about India's celebrated hospitality? What about India's legendary tolerance?

True, Indians are often very hospitable at the individual level. In fact, many Indians who face societal discrimination are assisted by big hearted individuals who go out of their way to be helpful and hospitable. However, this kind of individual action, though very important, cannot really be expected to overcome the systemic discrimination that pervades Indian society.

Indians are also well known for being tolerant. India's tolerance is said to be the basis of the incredible diversity we see in India today. This is true. Indians are indeed extremely tolerant. However, this much vaunted tolerance is often devoid of mutual respect. Sure, we Indians will tolerate vegetarians and non-vegetarians, Dalits and Muslims, the upper classes and the lower classes, and assorted other groups and communities, all with their own customs and practices - but only if they live their lives separately from each other, in their own separate enclaves and ghettos - for all practical purposes, out of sight and out of mind from each other.

India's tolerance, while very real and very welcome, is unfortunately accompanied by a great deal of social exclusion and social segregation. As result, discrimination thrives.

This is not to say that everything is gloom and doom. There is good news. Segregation and discrimination in India - though still pervasive - are much reduced from what they were fifty or even twenty-five years ago. Much progress has been made. But much more remains to be done.

While we vociferously condemn isolated incidents of racism in far-away Australia, surely we Indians should also condemn, with equal if not more vigor, the various forms of discrimination that are still so widespread in our own midst.


Blogger Smurfy said...

Perhaps the outrage expressed by Indians is more related to a post colonial complex than antipathy to racism. We all know numerous (and you pointed out a few) examples of racism / prejudice in India and any complaints against those never resonate.

July 04, 2009 9:32 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Smurfy, you are absolutely right. The outrage expressed by Indians has nothing to do with concerns over racism or discrimination. Rather it comes from the humiliation of colonialism.

But now that India has been independent for more than 60 years, perhaps it is time to move beyond colonialism and turn our attention towards the many real problems of Indian society today. Unfortunately, colonialism and reaction to colonialism occupies a disproportionate portion of Indians' mindshare, relegating today's far more real and far more important issues into the background.

July 04, 2009 12:09 PM  
Anonymous Alo Shome said...

One of the reasons for India's piculiar approach to tolerance is, I feel, its continuous civilization of many generations. In pre-technological Indian civililzation society was divided into close-knit guilds or castes. An individual was happy or sad by the way he or she was accepted or rejected by his or her own guild-members. It did not matter to him or her much how the other guilds lived. Of course, now, Indian tolerance has to adjust to modern demands.

July 21, 2009 3:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Sid,

apologies for not using my own name here, I have forgotten my gmail password. :(

I really liked your post, I liked how it was written in an unbiased and rational manner. Though, I'd like to point out that I feel the average Indian's attitude and behaviour and lack of tolerance stems not due to shame of the colonial era, but from well before that. When you consider that we were literally a million little isolated states due to our village system in the pre-British era, with our own little priorities and beliefs and customs, it offers enough explanations for our existing mindset. How the hell do you unite such a varied country in basic thought? It's an overwhelming question.

Enough has been seen, over the last 60 yrs, for the people to change. To unite. To respect and appreciate one another. Something though, is stopping them.

I have no idea what it is. :P

July 24, 2009 1:35 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Hi Anonymous,

I agree with your comment completely. Couldn't have put it better myself.

Just want to point out that I never claimed that the lack of tolerance in India (I would actually not call it lack of tolerance, but rather a kind of tolerance that is utterly devoid of mutual respect) stems from shame of the colonial era. What I said was that Indians' hypersensitivity to perceived racism in Australia is due to the colonial baggage and not due to any real concerns about the principle of racial discrimination.

July 24, 2009 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a pity this problem is unique to India so there is no motivation for the rest of the world to step in. Until world pressure starts to build those in power in India will continue to perpetuate this shameful practice. This is the 21st century though and sooner or later this system will be laughed or shamed out of existence

July 27, 2009 11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your comments decrying the setting aside of housing for vegetarian as "caste discrimination" is completely specious and bordering on arrogant. This completely neglects the moral and ethical component of vegetarianism, which are the main reasons for the institution of this practice.

You admit that you are a meat eater, and it's understandable that it's not a nice feeling to be left out and not have every opportunity open to you. The fact of the mater is, however, YOU CHOOSE to be a meat eater. What you seem to be advocating is that meat eaters "discriminate" against vegetarians by denying them the freedom to form supportive communities on the basis of this meaningful moral alternative they choose to practice as a personal sacrifice, which you don't even want to do yourself.

September 16, 2009 10:36 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Hi Anonymous,

Vegetarianism in India is not based on moral and ethical choices, but rather is a marker of caste and community. Probably 99% of vegetarians in India are those who belong to traditionally vegetarian castes and communities - they are vegetarians by birth, not by considered choice. This is something similar to the way people belong to a particular religion. Probably 99% of the world's people follow the religion they are born into. True, there is a degree of choice. People can choose to follow their birth religion or they can choose to convert based on moral/ethical grounds. But most do not. In India almost all vegetarians are born into vegetarianism.

If you think that housing discrimination or job discrimination based on vegetarianism is ok because it is not "racist" but is something where people have a choice (i.e., one can choose to become vegetarian if one wishes to live in a vegetarian-only neighbourhood or work in a vegetarian-run firm), you will surely have to accept that religion based discrimination is also ok - that certain neighbourhoods can be designated as Christian only or Muslim only. And then how far do you go? Can a Christian majority country declare that non-Christians cannot live in that country?

No doubt that those who are born into vegetarianism are proud of their traditional practice and consider it to be morally and ethically superior. This is no different from Christian thinking that Christianity is morally/ethically superior. To a certain extent this is fine. Pride in one's traditions and culture, whether it is regarding food habits or regarding religion is only natural. However this should not be used to discriminate in jobs, housing, etc.

Moreover, even if we were to accept, just for the sake of argument, that vegetarianism in India is a product of free and considered choice, it would still not make it ok to discriminate based on one's vegetarianism. Consider for example one's political affiliation. Say a group of people support the Democratic Party in the U.S., which is largely a product of free choice. Will it be ok for this group to practice housing discrimination or job discrimination against a supporter of the Republican Party?

September 16, 2009 11:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’m afraid your explationation is no more convincing than your original statement...

Although most may follow dietary practices as an inherited social or religious legacy, the fact is, again, that the reasons for the instution of this practice are moral and ethical, and those qualities carry through even if many individuals today don’t think about it much: Were I born into a non-cannibalistic culture and to adopt its conventions, it would be an intrinsically better and morally superior thing than if I were born into a culture where murderous cannibalism was accepted as normal practice—even if I simply followed my society’s conventions without much personal reflection.

Vegetarianism is not as simple as the arbitrary halal or kosher dietary restrictions—its moral basis is compassion and respect for other beings which is a universal and objective moral good. That brahmins may traditionally be more exclusively vegetarian is immaterial to this.

Your desire to tie vegetarianism so closely to simple religious affiliation and social class alone neglects all this. Again, one finds that most meat eaters, east and west, choose to dismissivley respond this way because it’s threatening for them to consider that their choice (whether it's their particular inherited convention or not) is morally questionable, in that it their casual sensory pleasure causes avoidable pain, suffering, and death to their fellow creatures. This is not exclusively hindu or class or caste based sentiment—it’s universal. It’s much easier for meat-eaters to look outward pretend none of this background exists, rather than to look inward and examine their own attitudes and actions in this area.

“Can a Christian majority country declare that non-Christians cannot live in that country?” Of course not. This is wild extrapolation though. A tennet of christianity may be “do not murder people”. While a christian-majority country may not disallow religious minorities, it MAY quite validly establish that murderers may not live freely in every community wherever they choose. Is this “religious discrimination”? This is more equivalent to the actual situation than the question you ask.

September 17, 2009 3:07 AM  
Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

Hi Anonymous,

You say that vegetarianism is based on "compassion and respect for other beings which is a universal and objective moral good". Certainly in the West, among those who are not born vegetarians, but have turned vegetarian, most are indeed motivated by a certain compassion for animals. However, even here I must point out that compassion for animals does not necessarily equate to "compassion and respect for other beings". Hitler was a vegetarian and an animal lover who displayed a distinct lack of compassion for other human beings. Compassion for animals is certainly a good thing, but does not necessarily imply a broad "compassion and respect for other beings".

Vegetarianism in India is very different. Except in very rare individual cases it is not based on any moral and ethical considerations regarding animal rights. Vegetarianism in India is aimed primarily at establishing ritual purity for certain upper caste groups and as a marker to distinguish them from lower caste groups who are mostly non-vegetarian. This kind of vegetarianism has little to do with animal rights. In fact, Indian vegetarians are heavy consumers of milk products even though this means heavy exploitation of animals, including such practices as getting rid of newborn calves. Surely if the vegetarianism stemmed from concerns over animal rights, there should have been an effort to eliminate or at least minimize consumption of milk products.

Had vegetarianism in India been based on animal rights concerns, surely it would not have been the exclusive preserve of upper caste groups. One expects individuals from all castes and communities to be animal lovers in roughly the same percentage. But this is not the case in India. Most Brahmin communities (outside of Bengal, Kerala and Kashmir) are vegetarian, while almost all Dalit castes (i.e., the lowest castes, the former untouchables) are non-vegetarian and even eat beef. Are you trying to say that Brahmins in India are fundamentally more moral and ethical than Dalits? Or that Indian Brahmins are more ethical than, say, the Chinese, who are almost all non-vegetarian?

To the extent that vegetarianism in India has a moral/ethical basis, it is the desire to establish a ritual purity and a clear separation from castes lower down the hierarchy. Is this morality? This is certainly not a morality that we want to perpetuate today.

Your equating of non-vegetarianism with cannibalism or murder is complete nonsense. Broad prohibitions on cannibalism and murder are seen in all human communities, even predating all established religions. These may be considered universal human moralities. These prohibitions are seen in Brahmins and Dalits, Indians and Chinese, Africans and Europeans, Muslims and Christians, etc. Cannibalism and murder, on those extremely rare occasions that they have been sanctioned by human society, have been under extreme stress (famine, war, etc.), or in some extremely rare religious rituals, and even in these very rare cases, these are recognized as exceptions rather than the norm.

Non-vegetarianism is very different. It is result of human evolution. Homo Sapiens are physiologically omnivores, i.e., the human species has evolved in such a way as to eat both plants and animals. Eating both plants as well as meat is natural for human beings, just as eating meat is natural for lions and eating plants is natural for elephants. Humans beings have been eating meat from the very dawn of the species, and, not surprisingly, probably 90% or more of the world's population (and some 75% - 80% of the Indian population) are non-vegetarian today.

September 17, 2009 12:06 PM  
Blogger BeeAmma said...

Hi Sid,
Liked your post. I agree with you. Yes, we are a parochial lot but I think that social attitudes are a result of economics and repeated invasions over the centuries. The issues of gender discrimination and class discrimination are not unique to our culture. Each society has faced it at some time or the other. Victorian England sounds a lot like India a decade ago in terms of class and gender discrimination. Racisism and discrimination should be called out and perpetrators shamed no matter which corner of the world it emnates from.

November 20, 2009 3:15 PM  
Blogger workhard said...

I am sorry to say this from what i have seen around and read around; we Indians are the least tolerant..

Work from home India

December 19, 2009 8:57 AM  
Blogger Montag said...

Fascinating story.
Thank you.

December 23, 2009 3:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice article. thanks.

FYI, i live in australia where many of these 'racist' attacks are occurring, and it is all a media beat up. the media are just running with the story because it seems to be selling. which of course means more revenue.

sheesh... vegetarians sure are thin skinned. you dont eat meat? good for you... now shut up and move away from me.

February 05, 2010 9:52 PM  
Blogger Sudha said...

Hi Sid,

It’s indeed a misfortune that learned persons like you have a myopic view of vegetarianism. Hitler was a vegetarian u heard somewhere and aha a naïve that you are (pun intended) immediately assumed it to be true! Armed with the notion that Hitler was Vegetarian you cannot dimiss the whole concept of vegetarianism in one fell scoop. “Hitler was vegetarian hence vegetarianism must be flawed” – a patently retarded argument . Bad people ocassionaly make good choices. Hitler was fond of chess also that doesn’t invalidate chess as a game does it? The fact that Hitler had nose doesn’t mean that we are going to cut our nose off. It is important that the facts be known so that the myths about Hitler and the Nazis cannot be used against the animal rights and vegetarian movements. The record must be set straight.
The health benefits of vegetarianism are open fact laid bare before all. Besides compassion for animals respecting all the creations of god and blending and co existing with all would itself ensure a creedless society.

While carnivores take pleasure in killing animals and eating their raw flesh, any human who killed an animal with his or her bare hands and dug into the raw corpse would be considered deranged. Carnivorous animals are aroused by the scent of blood and the thrill of the chase. Most humans, on the other hand, are revolted by the sight of raw flesh and cannot tolerate hearing the screams of animals being ripped apart and killed. The bloody reality of eating animals is innately repulsive to us, more proof that we were not designed to eat meat.
Ask yourself: When you see dead animals on the side of the road, are you tempted to stop for a snack? Does the sight of a dead bird make you salivate? Do you daydream about killing cows with your bare hands and eating them raw? If you answered "no" to all of these questions, congratulations--you're a normal human herbivore--like it or not. Humans were simply not designed to eat meat. Humans lack both the physical characteristics of carnivores and the instinct that drives them to kill animals and devour their raw carcasses.

With respect to racism in Australia just one note Imagine that the students actually pay a princely sum to be treated like rubbish. Racism in Australia is no new. The whole world is witness to how the Aborgines have been treated.

Hope Aussie govt take quick measures or stand to loose their business of 2 biilion dollar service export.

Sudha. N.M

August 27, 2010 6:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sudha, (a) the post was not mean to say that since Hitler was a vegetarian, vegetarianism is wrong. It was actually meant to say that since Hitler was both a vegetarian and a mass murderer (so was Charles Manson) it should tell you that vegetarianism does not equate to a "compassion of all beings." It was made extremely clear, how you missed this, I have no idea.

(b) Humans are not sharks or lions. The fact that we do not operate like sharks or lions doesn't mean we were not designed to eat meat. Humans evolved to use primarily one thing to gain advantages - their brain. Humans have evolved to be able to hunt an animal NOT with their bare hands. Humans have learned to use tools and thus have evolved to not need to be able to chase prey with their bare hands. Humans have brains which allow them to use technology such as fire to cook meat and then eat it. Our digestive systems have evolved accordingly. It's not natural for a human to attempt to chase a cow and tear it up with his or her bare hands and eat it raw precisely BECAUSE what IS natural is for a human to use tools and technology to hunt and cook the meat before eating. You can't separate tools and technology from human nature, they are one in the same!

November 08, 2010 9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent article

December 14, 2010 12:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that makes India unique in discrimi-nation is the fact that most of the mainland India which is predominantly Pseudo-Hindu has been corrupted in discrimination for millenniums.

It would not be wrong to say that we are the Leaders in discrimination.
The caste system was designed to oppress and enslave weaker sections of the society so what do you expect from such a country, it’s in the blood.

I have faced three types of discriminations in India, i think one more than could be anywhere.
1) Caste discrimination (oldest and unique),
2) Racial discrimination,
3) Economic discrimination.

And I laugh when people complain of racism abroad, that too Punjabi, Haryanvi guys who think that they are racially the next best thing to a German.
But the fact is that the best they could be nearer (racially) to is a Pakistani or Afghani, not much further.

These Punjabi and Haryanvi guys considering themselves to be at the top of racial pecking order in India therefore tend to behave in very snotty, irresponsible, uncultured manner.

They get away in India but once abroad e.g. Australia, they meet their superiors, because of their upbringing till then they still try to act as in India.

Soon they find that they meet their masters in racism and their mannerisms are rewarded with the same impunity which they are so accustomed of giving to others in India. But I guess what goes around comes around.

May 24, 2011 10:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Sid,
I read the debate on veg vs. non veg on your blog. You have given all the logical reasons for being a vegetarian or non-vegetarian. I also had somehow come to the same conclusions. If you analyze the vegetarian community in India you will find that it has generally been exploitative.

So to unburden them from the exploitation, to protect their afterlife, mind you they are the most hypocritically religious people (with only external form of religion and not its core practice), they had chosen this moral high ground of being vegetarians.

What follows from it is that they donate all their kindness to animals only and so can carry on with their exploitation of humans with clear conscience and full security in afterlife ( you know trading with god).

This ensures that their afterlife is also secured even if they have done all kind of deception, treachery, fraud in their life.

I have seen numerous such Vegetarians hypocrites who are very nasty, unkind to humans but so kind to animals, what an irony.

May 24, 2011 10:55 AM  
Anonymous mohit gupta said...

Mr Siddhartha Ghosh ,

Your Idea is noble but the examples you gave to prove your Ideas are bordering on Ignorance and Irrelevance.

1. Relatin Aishwarya doing some Puja to remove Manglik-Dosh with RACISM.(Please note , I am staunchly against Horoscope and astrology thing.)

2.Relating an Indian 'eve-teasing' an Australian women as 'Racism" .. How come ?

3.Relating "Vegetarianism" with Casteism and finally with 'RACISM' , this was most extravagant comparison.

And what'up with your claim that UPPER CASTE people are vegetarian.And lower caste people are non-vegetarian.That is because lackknowledge of India's regional dietary practices at your end.

Most High caste people in UP/Bihar/Orrisa/Jharkhand/Chattisgarh/Haryana/Punjab/Bengal are NON-VEGETARIAN .. and it doesn't have anything to do with CASTE.
Similarly Most upper caste people in Kerala are Non-vegetarian.

So , you caste-based theory on Vegetarianism is not valid.

And nobody is born veg/Non-Veg. This is another of your misconception.Most of my friends were born in Vegetarian family and they are Non-Vegetarian.

And PLEASE PLEASE Don't gaive the example of HILTER against Vegetarianism.Its like giving example of OSAMA BIN LADEN against Muslims.

Please , Vegetarianism is Ethically , Morally superior than Meat-eating , No doubt.

And very practical thing is that IF YOU are FREE to be a Meat-Eater , Landl-Lords are FREE to choose their tenenats which suits their Ethical and Moral norms on dietary practices.That is Fair.

And RACISM is a very strong WORD , don't use it for silly and petty issue of name-calling that goes on in India like , KALLU , CHINY , etc .. I call my elder brother KALU Bhaiya , because its his name and I am no RACIST !

Pleas read American history of KKK , Slavery , Racism and Holocaust and then Give your judgement about India's RACISM.

October 20, 2011 10:34 AM  
Blogger Nischal Gurung said...

There is a stereotype that people have in their mind for how an Indian should be and anyone who doesn’t fit in the stereotype, face this problem of weird questions being asked every time andthen the long never ending explanations that one has to give. Sometimes it is just ignorance that people have about India and other times it’s just bigotry, especially when it is coming from a fellow Indian.
I have written an article titled 'How Do You Define an Indian? – Stereotypes and Identity Ignorance' at the link

with opinions from various people who don't fit the stereotypical indian defination living in different parts of India.It would be great if you would take a look at it

August 16, 2015 12:03 PM  
Blogger Renton Toshiki said...

Mohit Gupta is right apart from staunch brahmins most upper caste in Bihar, up, haryana are meat eaters. But to consider vegetarianism ethically and morally better is a fucked up idea. Plants are also living beings what's the difference between killing a plant or an animal?

May 25, 2016 11:46 PM  

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