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From the discomfort zone: Are we racists?

We pride ourselves about India’s ‘unity in diversity’ but in the face of regional discrimination in everyday life, everything becomes hogwash.

We pride ourselves about India’s ‘unity in diversity’ but in the face of regional discrimination in everyday life, everything becomes hogwash. (Photo: AP) We pride ourselves about India’s ‘unity in diversity’ but in the face of regional discrimination in everyday life, everything becomes hogwash. (Photo: AP)

Death resulting from racism is even more painfully shameful in a heterogeneous country like India. We can only empathise with Nido Taniam’s parents. We pride ourselves about India’s ‘unity in diversity’ and in being the world’s most spiritual society, but in the face of regional discrimination in everyday life, everything becomes hogwash.

A colleague of mine who visited Kolkata on research work told me recently that after a wonderful dinner at a Park Street restaurant, she spoke appreciatively to the restaurant manager when he approached her. The manager was very happy, and asked where she had come from. She replied, “Bangalore”. The next words he whispered shocked her. “Kolkata could be better if there were no indecent Biharis spoiling the city.” The irony of the whole situation was that she was from Bihar.

Having grown up as a Bengali in West Bengal, I can vouch for such culturally racist sentiments. Marwaris are offensively referred to as Mero, Biharis as Khotta, Oriyas as Ure and all South Indians as Madrassis. When I look at other states, similar codifications apply. North-Easterners are Chinkis; Kerelites are Kurkurias; in Karnataka, the derogatory words for Tamilians are Konga or Pandi; Tamilians call Andhraites Kolty and Kannadigas Kalli, and all North Indians as Setu. Whereas the word bhaiyya is respectful in North India, for states south of the Vindhyas, it’s a belittling reference to North Indians.

From retail distributors in Pune, I’ve heard gripes about the alleged parochial arm-twisting in Maharashtra that has frightened away Biharis — the very people who are their low-cost labour base. It seems workers from Bihar are very sincere, hardworking and dedicated. They’d come without families, and distributors gave them room and board next to the godown where several of them stayed together. They were willing to work day and night, whenever required. Local distributors unhappily said that Maharashtra is not allowing outsiders to come because of high local unemployment. They also say that as locals have to return to their families at night, distributors don’t have the all-time loading-unloading facility any longer. Whatever may be the business implication for the distributors, the situation amounts to preventing those who belong to Bihar from excersing their fundamental right to work anywhere in India. At the same time, it is exploitation of labour and social discrimination that leads to fostering hatred among fellow Indians.

When you look at India’s heterogeneous perspective, there are many areas that can potentially divide us. Take arranged marriages as the indicator of what is acceptable. First comes religion, then caste, language, and then state of origin. It’s very clear that no family will arrange a marriage between two people who speak different languages. The exception I’ve noticed is among Rajputs, where the ruler stratum is the most important factor.

Whether the bride or groom comes from Rajasthan, Nepal, Bengal, Gujarat, Karnataka or Manipur does not matter so long as the social lineage is from the ruling family (although in independent India, nobody has any ruling powers anymore). Other areas critical in arranged marriages are matching the family status in terms of economic power and what the boy — and nowadays the girl as well — earns. Matching the education level matters as that anticipates the earning capacity and long-term compatibility of the couple. A most denigrating factor is checking the colour of skin, which purportedly determines beauty. All marriage advertisements look for a fair person, while a dark-skinned person describes himself/herself as wheatish complexioned.

Interstate, cross-communal marriages between persons speaking different languages or having different religious beliefs can happen only within the bounds of a love marriage. So aside from race, religion, caste or language, we subscribe to divisions of rich and poor, literacy-illiteracy, lower to higher education, jobs, being a native from a north, west, south, eastern state, social standing from being a member of a family who is in politics, industry, business, trade, armed forces, education, working in a corporate, having a government job, or being professionals like doctors, lawyers or tailors and carpenters. So many ingredients are available in our country to express our racism.

The race problem is not limited to India alone. In spite of being part of the European Union, different countries in Europe rarely identify one another as Europeans. All may have the same skin colour, but each nation has its own language. Hence, there is no unity. Significantly, a historical residue can create such strong hatred that at one point a whole race was about to be obliterated. During the 12th century — when the Pope declared that Catholics were prohibited from lending money — people turned to the Jews for their economic requirements.

The cumulative result was institutionalised hatred against the Jews. Nazi Hitler’s “Final Solution” strategy to exterminate Jews expressed blatant racism propagated by the state. Racism can be expressed even in difficult economic situations. After World War II, the French were very negative in their dealings with the Italians and Spaniards. After six decades, the situation has almost been repaired, though if somebody is doing something the wrong way, you can still hear comments like, “Why are you working stupidly like a Portugese?”

A controversial survey from three decades ago which spanned 80 countries, which was mapped by The Washington Post, put India at No. 2 position after Jordan among the world’s most racist countries. The accuracy of this survey has been questioned. As addressing African origin people as Black or Negro is taboo in the US (you have to call them African-Americans), would any American openly express bias?

TV debaters vehemently argue for and against Indians being racists. It’s a pity that our education system is so archaic that children are still not taught to appreciate the diversity of our different states, languages, religions, food habits and cultures in a positive way. Unless that happens, the extreme discrimination that killed Nido will always exist.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at http://www.shiningconsulting.com

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