We pride ourselves on being a tolerant society; but does that claim really hold up?

  • Seema Goswami
  • Updated: Feb 13, 2016 21:30 IST

I can’t get the image of that Tanzanian student in Bangalore, who was stripped and beaten by a raging mob, out of my head. How scared she must have been as she was pulled out of her car, with dozens of hands violating her body. Her terror as the one person who offered her a T-shirt to cover up was also set upon by the mob. And her utter despair when the police, who were supposed to protect her, simply looked the other way.

And then, to add insult to already grievous injury, came the comments of the state home minister. This was just an instance of road rage, he said, set off by the death of a local woman who had been run over. It had nothing to do with racism.

A matter of colour: While attacks like the recent one on the Tanzanian student in Bangalore are rare, it’s hardly a secret that African women in India are routinely stigmatised as sex workers. If this isn’t racism, what is? (Photo: Getty Images) (AFP)

Really? Why would a mob attack the occupants of a car that came upon the scene long after the accident had occurred, if it wasn’t for the fact that both cars were carrying African students? They couldn’t tell a Sudanese from a Tanzanian; all they saw was the colour of their skin. And that was enough to spark a murderous rage in them.

If that isn’t racist behaviour, then I really don’t know what is.

And while attacks like the one on the Tanzanian student are rare, they are far from unknown. We can’t have forgotten the midnight ‘raids’ conducted by Somnath Bharti in Delhi, when he led an angry mob, which went on a rampage, attacking and harassing several African women, accusing them of being sex workers and drug dealers. Bharti has since been prosecuted in the case, which is now slowly winding its way through the justice system, and will continue to do so over the next decade.

There are probably many other incidents of racism against African residents in India that never come to light. And even when they do, we never consider them worthy of discussion. It is hardly a secret that African students find it next to impossible to rent houses, that they are often referred to in pejorative terms as they go about their daily business. That the women are routinely stigmatised as sex workers and the men as drug dealers. We all know this, but for some reason, it doesn’t bother us in the slightest. Perhaps, because we are far too busy denying that we are racist (Who me? Don’t be silly!).

It is not just the black Africans who bear the brunt of our racism, though. Even our own countrymen from the Northeastern states suffer, simply because they look a little different. The term ‘chinki’ is used routinely when referring to them; the thought that it might be offensive doesn’t even occur to those throwing it about. That we can’t tell a Naga from a Khasi, a Meitei from a Mizo is bad enough. What is even worse is that we can’t tell an Indian from the Northeast apart from a Chinese, Korean or Japanese person. And so, we end up treating them as foreigners in their own country.

Sadly, racism is not the only taint on our so-called ‘tolerant’ society. Ours is also not a country for women, whatever their colour, racial type, religion or socio-economic status. We can’t walk down the street without being harassed, can’t travel in public transport without being groped, or even work in an office without suffering some kind of sexual harassment. The girl child is killed in the womb, the young adult is denied the same education as her brother, and the professionals come up against the glass ceiling sooner rather than later. And that’s before we even go into the sexual violence women are subjected to, both in the home and outside, and the dowry deaths that go on unabated.

No stigma attached? Even if gay sex is decriminalised by the Supreme Court, it will be a long time before homosexuals in India can live their lives without being harassed in some way. (Photo: Getty Images) (AFP)

But women, at least, still have recourse to the law. In that, they are still better off than same-sex couples who are criminalised by Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, simply for the act of loving whom they do. It beggars belief that a colonial-era law that makes homosexuality a criminal act is still on the statute books of independent India – even after the British themselves made homosexuality legal in 1967 and legalised gay marriage in 2014. And, sadly, even if the curative petition accepted by the Supreme Court does result in gay sex being decriminalised, it will be a long time before homosexuals in India can live their lives without being stigmatised or harassed in some way.

But then stigmatising and harassing people seems to have been honed to a fine art in our country. Men can be lynched to death on the suspicion that the meat in their fridge is beef. And instead of condemning this unreservedly, we say, ‘What a shame! It wasn’t beef at all, it was mutton’, as if he deserved his fate if he had, in fact, eaten beef.

The sad truth is that we are rapidly exposing ourselves as a people who can’t stand the Other. Men who are threatened by strong women use every tool at their disposal to keep them down. Hindus and Muslims regard one another with suspicion at best and hatred at worst. Dalits and high-caste Hindus are caught in a perpetual battle. Straight people can’t stand homosexuals. And nobody has any love lost for people of another colour.

I don’t know what word best describes a nation like this one. Except that ‘tolerant’ is not the first one that comes to mind.

From HT Brunch, February 14, 2016

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