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Into the dark world of bigotry and racism

Race-related crimes continue to be a global challenge, as the recent shootings in Wisconsin reminded us. Where does xenophobia and ethnic profiling emanate from and how can it be stopped?

world Updated: Aug 18, 2012 22:54 IST
HT Weekend Team

Less than a fortnight after white supremacist Wade Micheal Page killed six people and wounded four at a gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on August 5, another Sikh from the same congregation was shot dead in what local police maintains was a robbery turned violent.

Since 9/11, turbaned and bearded Sikhs have often been mistaken in the US for the Taliban or al Qaeda members and targeted. "This shows the dark side of America - the ignorance and hatred that lurks in the fringe groups," says Stanford university fellow and expert on immigration, Vivek Wadhwa, referring to the Wisconsin shootings.

The problem isn't restricted to the US and there have been reports of Indian students being targeted in Australia and the UK too. According to the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a group in London that monitors racist violence, there have been 96 racially-motivated murders across Britain since 1993. Forty per cent of victims were people of Indian origin.

Racism has a long and ugly history and has impelled colonialism, genocide, forced migrations and slavery. Before the fall of the Twin Towers it seemed like western societies were embracing multiculturalism. But 9/11, the War on Terror, rise of anti-Islamic groups and globalisation that has seen jobs moving to cheaper destinations like India has changed that.

In UK, there are echoes of what is happening with Sikhs in the US. "Hindus being mistaken for Muslims are ending up being attacked in the backlash against the war on terror," says John Burnett of the IRR. "There's hasn't been an incident like the one in the US, but that's partly about gun law. There have been serious racist murders but the vast majority don't get anywhere beyond the local press."

In a report published in 2010, IRR found evidence that Asians who were moving out of crowded inner city areas into upscale suburban neighbourhoods were facing racist attacks. So too were Indian and other international students at small language colleges or universities in a cluster of "traditionally very white" towns along the south coast of England.

"I've sensed bad vibes once in a while," says engineering professional Dharmender Singh from London. "The first time it happened, I realised with shock how the 'other' must feel in India."

However, what constitutes racism and also how it is perceived, continues to be a grey area. While the Indian media widely reported on hate crimes in Australia, there are other views. Marketing professional Cornell Coello, who has lived in Australia for 12 years, insists he never faced discrimination. "Many Indians separate themselves from whites and believe that anything negative that happens is because of racism," says Coello. Many NRIs in the US have similar views. Social theorist Ashis Nandy agrees that to an extent Indians have a harder time adjusting to countries where they choose to emigrate. "Blacks are more acceptable because their lifestyle is not drastically different from that of their white compatriots," he says. "Indians stick to themselves and look more exclusive, more race and culture conscious," he says.

The connection between the recession and racism in Europe has been well documented. Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics at JNU, in her 2011 essay Fear of Foreigners: Recession and Racism in Europe, writes, "As the economic crisis bites deeper and… cause(s) more unemployment, bitterness and anger among the population will inevitably grow. The danger is that it will be directed… against more vulnerable targets... The most obvious targets are the migrants who often stand out also because of their perceived racial difference." She has written extensively about the recent upsurge of Right-wing parties like the National Front in France, the Northern League in Italy and the British National Party in the UK who have an openly anti-immigration stance.

In the wake of the North-Eastern exodus, Indians are also addressing racism. The UN, while not defining racism, terms racial discrimination as "distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent... nullifying or impairing... enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms..." It makes no distinction between racial and ethnic discrimination.

With Indian society having institutionalised difference through caste and the country being divided on religion and race - factors that stood out in the clashes between Bodos and Muslims in Assam, leading to the subsequent exodus of North-Easterners across South India - Indians are no strangers to ethnic conflict. However, Susan Visvanathan, from JNU's School of Social Sciences says racial discrimination as the modern world understands it is new in India. She says: "Unlike in the West, where racial hatred has existed since times of slavery, in India, racism is a new term because traditionally we always lived together as a community." She adds: "It is a construction of a new political current when in actuality racial profiling is not the way Indians look at living with each other."

Sociologist Santosh Desai, while saying that the Wisconsin incident was a severe hate crime, says "there are degrees to racial profiling, beginning from even the way you think about a community in your head. If you are conscious about a community and are discriminating against them based on any commonality they share it is also a form of ethnic profiling." He adds: "Calling names, or preempting a certain behaviour from a community, is also a form of profiling."

Most agree that the best way to contain racial hatred is to have zero tolerance towards it. "In America and UK, the government has been firm in coming down on offenders." India has similar steps recently - the Home Ministry directed all states and union territories to be stricter in applying the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

But the perception largely is that discrimination or violence here often goes unpunished. "In the London lootings, authorities didn't take sentiment, race and poverty into account. Our politicians, scared of losing support, prevaricate," says sociologist Dipankar Gupta.

While the West may think that such an exodus would not happen there, the Wisconsin events prove that nobody is insulated from racial hatred. The questions continue to be debated: are Indians abroad responsible for their isolation by sticking with their own - which in itself can be construed as racist? Or does the West need to free itself from its ignorance and embrace other cultures? Back home, the questions fly equally fast. Are we looking at each other with suspicion and in denial over the nature of our racism?

With inputs from Dipankar De Sarkar in London & Yashwant Raj in Washington