By Prannv Dhawan and Dhruv Jadhav
As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement sweeps across the globe, India is being forced to confront its own racial biases. Unfortunately, racism in India is being treated as an aberration, rather than a systemic problem entrenched in society.
A recent Punjab and Haryana High Court order highlights the problem. The court rightfully took offence at the use of the term “Nigro” by the police in a challan of an NDPS case and issued strict directions for appropriate training and sensitisation of the police force. While the judicial outcome leaves hardly any discontent, the reasoning and the narrative used by the court leaves much to be desired. For instance, it made a reference to Mahatma Gandhi’s activism against discrimination in South Africa and his allyship with black nationals there, in an effort to highlight Indian-African fraternity.
This, however, is a case of historical revisionism. Gandhi’s own extremely derogatory and demeaning views on Black Africans betray a racist contempt and his pedestalisation should be a cause of societal introspection. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their seminal work on Gandhi’s stint in South Africa, have shown how he was a “stretcher bearer” for the racist British empire and have posited that “for Gandhi, whites and Indians were bonded by an Aryan bloodline that had no place for the African. Gandhi’s racism was matched by his class prejudice towards the Indian indentured”.
It is no wonder that across the African continent, a number of assertive members of civil society are seeking removal of his statues. In fact, his prominent statue on Parliament Street in London had to be put in a protective metal box in the light of the BLM movement. By invoking Gandhi as an egalitarian individual, the HC has dismissed his racist past, and along with it the racial prejudices that exist in the Indian society.
Racism, then, is not viewed as the norm, but rather as an anomaly. In the court’s own words, the use of the term was unacceptable, but one should not expect better from the “uneducated and insensitive” constabulary. By attributing the use of racist terms to the “uneducated” echelon of the society, the court has conveniently turned a blind eye to the fact that racism in India exists in every level of the society.
African students and professionals routinely face harassment, not just from the police but also the society. The vigilante raid on the residences of African women in Khirki Extension by a former law minister of Delhi in 2014 is a case in point. They are stereotyped as drug peddlers and criminals and there are numerous accounts of students being physically assaulted. The problem exists across the board from cricketers to actors being accused of racist attitudes.
This narrative betrays a sense of misplaced pride in non-existent egalitarianism in a society that is marked by hierarchical oppression of marginalised communities. Basic human dignity has to be attributed to individuals regardless of the fact whether the same was given to them by historical figures. Making dignity of individuals conditional on such historical approval creates foundational issues.
First, it takes away from the historical oppression that the oppressed have faced. Linking them to a historical Indian figure, whitewashes the oppression that they have faced in the Indian society. There must be a deliberate focus on the oppression faced, rather than on irregular acts of solidarity to acknowledge the problem of racism within the country.
Second, historical revisionism is a dangerous endeavour. Many historical figures will not stand up to the scrutiny of contemporary times. This is a reality we must collectively grapple with. By falsely equating national leaders with causes they did not champion and at times were at odds with, the society collectively engages in cognitive dissonance. The cognitive dissonance elevates the leaders to a position where their pernicious prejudices cannot be criticised. This silences the oppressed who then cannot criticise the leader and racism is swept under the false narrative of solidarity.
Third, it is also peculiar for its omission of our transformative Constitution’s strong emphasis on the equality code that included the prohibition of untouchability. The Constitution marks a departure from the pre-constitutional order of iniquitous social hierarchy. The reliance on extra-legal considerations like the tradition of Indian hospitality (mehmannawazi or atithisatkar) provides weak foundations for the need to abjure such conduct.
In addition to limiting the scope of the issue to societal goodwill towards African “guests”, this reasoning omits the pertinent jurisprudence, which underscores that constitutional right to a dignified life is not conditionally conferred but rather judicially confirmed and protected.
However, the court’s remarks offer some guidance. It said: “We are, professedly, a tolerant subcontinent of “browns” in all its shades, but more often than not, display a perverted and primitive mindset looking down on others without looking within ourselves”. These remarks should be an invitation to introspect the deep-rooted social prejudices and structural inequalities that exist in India. These prejudices can be explicated through the prevalence of the unconstitutional practice of untouchability.
Notably, Amit Thorat and Omkar Joshi had uncovered in their recent nation-wide survey that while 30 per cent of the rural households accepted that they practised untouchability, 20 per cent of urban households did so. The introspection and acknowledgement of social inequalities can be the start of meaningful atonement, much like the German collective guilt post World War II. In line with this introspection, there is a need for comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation that actualises the promises of the Constitution. This will be a step forward for a constitutional democracy committed to progressive preambular goals of transformative justice and equality.
Jadhav is a lawyer at the Bombay High Court and Dhawan is a student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore
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