Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014

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. (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)
Written by Shombit Sengupta | Posted: February 16, 2014 3:00 am

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 continued…

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