Many years ago, the late Bhajanlal Bishnoi, the chief minister of Haryana, in response to an alleged rape in the state flippantly remarked that women are meant for that. The exact phrase used is more evocative: “aurat toh bhogne ke liye hi hai!” At that time this kind of misogyny was par for the course. After the Nehru era, our leaders were increasingly coarse bumpkins but our media too was very sensitised on gender issues.
This kind of somewhat risqué comments were not considered fit for polite company but not considered outrageous either. Bhajanlal got a slight rap on his knuckles from the then prime minister Indira Gandhi and went about his business as usual. In these days this would be considered unpardonable but general attitudes overall have not changed very much. Women are still for most part treated as objects of desire and more so among politicians. Donald Trump should do well here.
To complicate these attitudes is the marked racial or colour preferences due to our own history and evolution as a nation. The very first struggle between invading Aryans and the earlier settlers, the Dravidians has been mythologised as the struggle between the light skinned Devas and the dark skinned Asuras. The consequent Hindu caste structure was essentially racial. Even the fused pantheon of Gods took care of the colour bias by making the dark skinned Gods blue.
We generally link beauty with fairness of skin. We are still quite far from the Martin Luther King dream of a country “where people are not judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Hence it should not surprise anyone that even a Vinay Katiyar, a person who hails from the purported birthplace of yet another blue God, Rama, should consider beauty as directly proportional to lightness of complexion.
So, Katiyar, obviously alarmed by the political impact of Priyanka Gandhi’s entry into the UP election cauldron, but affecting nonchalance says: “There are many beautiful star campaigners (in the BJP). There are many heroines and artistes who are more beautiful.” Speaking in Hindi he refers to her as “gori” which simply means fair one.
Speaking elsewhere on the important topic of the citizens duty to vote, senior politician Sharad Yadav said: “It is necessary to educate people at large on the importance of ballot paper. Honour of vote is bigger and important than honour of daughter. If daughter’s honour is compromised, it only affects the village or community but if the vote’s honour is compromised, it impacts the entire nation.” His concern that people should vote is well-meant but his analogy is patently stupid.
He also has well known opinions about “westernised” women and their values and has famously referred to such ladies as “par kati mahilaen.” It is a phrase that can interchangeably refer to women as pet birds whose wings are clipped as well as women with cut hair. But at least he is on record not equating beauty with colour. He did make that infamous comment about how he gets turned on by “saanvali” dusky South Indian beauties, outraging the DMK MP Kanimozhi no end. Clearly colour clouds our outlook.
To set right these attitudes we have NDTV now carrying on a bold, and even if somewhat self-serving, campaign against “whitening” creams which rails against the preference for light complexions. The ads make the point effectively but by just making it in black and white the implicit colour bias doesn’t disappear. It only masks the colour bias. Why then are the lady anchors and interviewers on the channel so heavily made up to lighten their complexions?
Writing about 50 years ago in “Soul on Ice” the Black Panther activist, Elridge Cleaver, wrote that the biggest harm white people did to black people was instil in them their notions of physical beauty. White women and men epitomised these standards of beauty. Light hair, pink complexions, blue eyes, slim bodies and so on. So much so that black people even began disliking themselves. Some tried to escape their negritude (Aimee Cesare’s word) by using whitening creams and hair straighteners.
We Indians are not very different when it comes to standards of physical beauty. We benchmark physical beauty with western standards and notions of good looks. It probably has much to do with the repeated conquests of northern India by light skinned races starting with the Aryans and ending with the English. The Hindu caste and class structure is now racist with complexion as its basic foundation. It is the same with Muslims, where the indigenous Muslim occupying the lower stratas of their community.
These notions have permeated the entire country and the sale of whitening creams and beauty aids are related to the spread of complexions.
Media houses like NDTV have made a bold beginning but they must also put their money where their mouths are.
Mohan Guruswamy is an economic and policy analyst
The views expressed are personal