India: Where racism meets the mob

Last Updated: Tue, Apr 04, 2017 08:59 hrs
India: Where racism meets the mob

A teenage boy dies of a drug overdose after going missing from his home in Greater Noida. There are rumours that the drugs were supplied to him by his Nigerian neighbours. Over the next week, Africans who had nothing to do with the boy or the neighbours – and sometimes nothing to do with Nigeria – were attacked by mobs.

Not so long ago, African students were being attacked in Bangalore.

It happens often enough – when someone is accused of prostitution or someone is accused of supplying drugs or someone is accused of a hit-and-run, everyone who happens to share that person’s continent of origin is attacked.

Does it have to do with stereotyping?

Perhaps. But then, why is the stereotyping selective?

Why is it that the arrest of Wilhelmus Weijdeveld on charges of child sexual abuse and the possession and distribution of child pornography did not even attract suspicion against the hundreds of foreigners volunteering at orphanages, which was his modus operandi?

Does it have to do with racism?

Is it that we are conditioned to simper at white skin, offer preferential treatment to white people, while condemning skin that is darker than ours?

It is a familiar template.

After 9/11, when America seemed to have gone berserk, Sikhs were targeted under the mistaken assumption that they were Muslim. The focus was on how the beards and turbans caused them to be misidentified as Muslims – not as terrorists. At the time, the two had become synonymous. It was considered perfectly acceptable for people to target Muslims.

The fact, in every one of the cases above, was that no one should have been attacked, not even the culprits themselves, by a mob. There are laws in place, and enforcement agencies who are empowered to act on it.

The attacks bring to light two aspects of India that are frightening: in our seventieth year of Independence, decades into our declaring ourselves a democracy, we are still fostering the idea that some races and some shades of skin are better than others; and we are increasingly at the mercy of mobs.

Racism in India is not confined to regions, and is not limited by education. Most of us have grown up hearing our families coo in praise of children who are fair and sigh over children who are dark. We have grown up with the notion that fair is beautiful, and dark is ugly. We have been told not to go out in the sun. We have been told of skin creams that can wash away the ugliness of our natural skin colours to reveal peachy skin. We have watched the likes of Kajol grow shades lighter over the years. We applaud ad campaigns that feature “dusky” women because they are so “progressive”. The fact that these ad campaigns are seen as progressive rather than superfluous is evidence of what is wrong with the way we think.

It does not take long for these notions to transform into mockery.

So it is that people from the North East are called “Chinks”; so it is that they grow immune to people stretching the skin around their own eyes in imitation of slits; so it is that Africans learn to endure people on the roads pretending to scratch themselves like monkeys.

The next devolvement is for the mockery to transform into hatred, and for that hatred to turn into violence.

This is where the mob comes in.

The mob began to make its presence felt when India and Pakistan were born from the land ruled by the British; the mobs filled trains with corpses; the mob cut off the breasts of nursing mothers.

The mob took us through 1984, the mob took us through 1992, the mob took us through 2002, and the mob continues to take over our lives.

The mob haunts us on Valentine’s Day, assaulting couples who are out together.

The mob finds us at nightclubs, assaulting women for being “influenced by Western culture”.

The mob circles the roads, killing to protect cows.

The mob barricades the roads, fighting to harm bulls.

The mob comes out every time it believes there has been a trespass against norms set by an imagined icon. It takes ownership of the culture, of law, of bodies.

What we need to fight today is not just racism, but the mob, because the mob determines the –isms.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage.