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.