The moment an Indian comes face to face with another for the first time, all it takes are a few subconscious seconds for an ethnic profile to be formed on either side: Punjabi — rich, friendly, brash. Tamilian — affluent, reserved, intellectual. Bengali — middle class, arrogant, culture vulture. Goan —gregarious, laid back, fun.
They’re all stereotypes of course. Unfortunately, that’s how the average Indian perceives people-not-like-me. A predilection reinforced by popular cinema and television soaps that revel in ethnic caricatures. And compounded by an amazing ignorance or worse, contempt of the many shades that make up India.
Given our genetic diversity, when a fair-skinned Punjabi of Aryan descent dismisses a dark-skinned Dravidian as a ‘Madrasi’, what it essentially amounts to is racism. It is the same atavistic urge that makes white skins suspicious of brown skins. And it is what makes Indians put a premium on fair skin, whether in the marriage market, at a job interview or when adopting a child.
The average South Indian who responds to the ‘Madrasi’ tag by labelling everyone north of the Vindhyas a ‘Punjabi’ puts up a racial wall in his mind as well. Move to the North-East and you’ll be told tales of more overt racism. “We’re simply not looked upon as Indians,” says Khanchinpau Zo from Manipur. Most Indians from the hill states of the Northeast will tell you how they have to face an array of prejudices and preconceived notions, the commonest being that girls from the Northeast are ‘easy’, and that everyone from the region does drugs.
Sometimes, they are even denied entry to discos and pubs. A TV anchor from Sikkim was turned away along with his friends from Elevate, a Noida discotheque — while others queuing up after them were let in. He was later ushered in by the bouncers when he made a call to the club’s PRO. The Northeast states, too have pejorative terms for outsiders, and several have seen attempts at ethnic cleansing directed against ‘mainland Indians’.
As for all those protesting the way Indians with long beards are singled out at international airports today, they should perhaps try asking Sikhs what it was like after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. And if you’re outraged at the manner in which all Asians are being tarred with the terrorist brush abroad, hear what Samuel Fatai, a 24-year-old Nigerian studying at Delhi University, has to say: “I’ve been called kalu, Habshi, Negro, all sorts of names. I’ve felt insulted so often on flights — airhostesses have a way of letting you know how unwelcome you are, and Indians excel in it. I have been strip-searched at most Indian airports even before 9/11.”
The worst came after the Rahul Mahajan cocaine scandal, when Fatai was picked up by the Delhi police and kept in illegal confinement for three days. Why? They suspected he was a cocaine peddler. Says Fatai wryly, “Indians don’t want to make friends with a black man. Unless, of course, they get cocaine at discounted rates.” He echoes what most people of African descent will tell you in a candid moment: Indians are among the most colour-conscious and racist people in the world.
(With inputs from Samrat and Mayank Tewari in New Delhi)