Let me start with a health warning: if you don’t like reading criticism of the Indian people skip to another article. What follows is not just blunt but also reveals a dismal and depressing truth we rarely acknowledge. Yet after the unspeakable treatment of a young Tanzanian student in Bangalore we can no longer deny facts. Indeed, the time has come to confront the demons we harbour.
Are we racist in our attitude and behaviour? The answer is an unequivocal yes. We look down upon darker skins and discriminate against black ones. We call our own citizens from the north-east chinkies and dismiss those from the south as madrasis. And everyone from Africa is a habshi.
So deep runs our colour consciousness that even our celebrities are unashamed of it. How else do you explain the fact that Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan and John Abraham blithely advertise fairness creams and aren’t embarrassed to do so? Can you imagine Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Brad Pitt doing anything similar? I suspect part of the explanation lies in the fact that the rest of us yearn for milk-white brides and laugh away the moral issues that this raises.
Unfortunately, the problem has progressed beyond the attitude and behaviour of individuals. Our system condones it whilst those in authority seem to overlook it.
Both the Bangalore police commissioner and the Karnataka home minister have refused to accept the traumatic treatment of the Tanzanian girl as a racist incident. The former preferred to see it as road rage. The latter as “just a response to an accident”.
But why stop at them? Rahul Gandhi shied away from accepting it was racism whilst his mother was completely silent. That was largely true of Mr Modi too.
When Giriraj Singh said that if Rajiv Gandhi had married a Nigerian and not a white- skinned woman, the Congress would never have made her president, the Nigerian high commission complained but Mr Modi forgave the minister.
In 2014 when Ugandan and Nigerian women accused Somnath Bharti of racism — and I believe he faces formal charges as well — Arvind Kejriwal stood solidly by him. At the time, Yogendra Yadav passionately defended him though today he accepts that was a mistake. But Yadav is a rare politician to acknowledge the error of his earlier ways. No one else has.
Ask anyone who’s served in Africa and you’ll discover that Africans consider Indians more racist than the whites. Krishnan Srinivasan, a former high commissioner to Zambia and Nigeria, who also served as foreign secretary and deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth, unhesitatingly confirms this.
Even our greatest modern icon, Mahatma Gandhi, was guilty of racism in his early years in South Africa. Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their book ‘The South-African Gandhi: Stretcher-bearer of Empire’ catalogue the many instances when his language or his actions betrayed deep prejudice against blacks. He called them ‘Kaffirs’. In 1893 he wrote to the Natal Parliament comparing them to ‘savages’. In 1904 he said: ‘About the mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.’ In 1905 he said he didn’t want Indians and Africans ‘herded together indiscriminately’ in hospitals.
Let me conclude by saying our belief that we are tolerant and free of colour prejudice is an illusion. It’s untrue. And it’s only when we accept this fact that we will start to change.
Gandhi did and became a different man in his later years. The question is: Can we emulate him?
The views expressed are personal