The other day while debating the insurance bill in Rajya Sabha Janata Dal(United) leader Sharad Yadav gave his two pennies' worth. He said women in south India are dark and have 'good bodies' (he then went on to gesture with his hand to buttress his point). What has the colour of your skin got to do with a debate on the insurance bill?
While many fellow MPs thought it was much-needed comic relief during a tiring session in Parliament, DMK MP M Kanimozhi thought it was objectionable and protested. However, House proceedings went on and the House passed the bill.
Yadav's statement is objectionable on mainly two counts: It has a racial undertone and is sexist. However, the smugness on his face when he made the statement and the crass shamelessness with which he later defended it should not surprise anyone. After all, he was just reiterating a prevalent notion in the north of the country.
The racial tinge to Yadav's comment is a reflection of an attitude that finds resonance in the north or Hindi-speaking parts of the country. A 'Madrasi' or 'kale log' is a label reserved for dark-skinned non-Hindi speaking outsiders who do not 'belong' to the north.
This is coupled with ignorance. Such so is the geographical ignorance and cultural blindness about the south of the Vindhyas that there is a naive romanticism that borders on sympathy for the 'Other'. If Joseph Conrad were to write a sequel to Heart of Darkness, this time Marlow would travel from Delhi to Chennai.
A similar, but less virulent, ignorance is also seen in the south of the country, but 'north' India being the seat of power and the fulcrum on which the nation operates, the prejudice is amplified and has a far-reaching impact.
The second point is the sexist remark made by the senior politician. Respect for women is mostly reserved for references to goddesses and in the dusty pages of a school textbook. The increasing number of crimes against women is a painful reminder of this reality.
It is, however, hypocritical of politicians to feign objection to Yadav's statement, after the media highlighted the JD(U) leader's remark. What were they doing while he was 'entertaining' the House? Muffled laughter and applause encouraged him to speak. A Union minister—whom Yadav mentioned in his statement—thought it appropriate to give a rebuttal, but not to stop Yadav. The parliamentarian chairing that session in the House—who, incidentally, is from the south—did not find anything objectionable in Yadav's remarks nor did he stop him.
Be it a former chief minister attributing an objectionable phrase to praise a fellow leader at a political rally, or a poet-politician poking fun at the expense of nurses from Kerala or a Congress leader denigrating women who were protesting at India Gate after the December 2012 gang-rape—the truth is leaders in India do not think twice before making such comments. Seldom has a politician in India apologised or paid for his sexist or racial remarks. Racial abuses have only lately become talking points in our debates. For example, until recently it was considered normal to address people from the northeast using a derogatory term. Italian football striker Mario Balotelli was spot on when he said: "Racism springs from ignorance."
The chasm that divides India into its north and south, where you are a 'foreigner' if you do not know the language and if the colour of your skin is different, cannot be bridged with Golden Quadrilaterals or interlinking rivers or superfast trains. This can be bridged when people are educated about the meaning of the much-repeated thoughtlessly used phrase: Unity in diversity. This unity will become a reality when a leader, however up the pecking order, is made to apologise for his banter, which is anti-women, racial and reinforcing of a stereotype and prejudice.
How many MPs that were present in the House when Yadav made that statement will demand an apology from the JD(U) leader? How many women's groups—or any other group for that matter—will put their foot down till he apologises? In all likelihood this will also be brushed under the carpet—because we do not like to talk about inconvenient truths. To avoid such discussions, we would rather just ban it.
Writer's twitter handle: @vijucherian