Let’s talk about racism | Colour bias in India is colonial, not traditional

Hindustan Times | By
May 23, 2017 07:16 AM IST

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta traces how colonialism justified its rule by positing darker skin as inferior.

Unkind as it may seem, the truth is that we all suffer from a universal failing that is not edifying at all. No matter where we are from, or what stage of economic development we are in, the belief that our culture, custom and language are superior to all others is a trait to be found in literally every corner, nook and rounded cranny of the globe. However, it is also true that traditionally, such cultural differences were never used to justify conquest or domination.

Slavery became associated with race only after colonialism made its historic appearance, writes sociologist Dipankar Gupta.(Illustration: Malay Karmakar)
Slavery became associated with race only after colonialism made its historic appearance, writes sociologist Dipankar Gupta.(Illustration: Malay Karmakar)

With colonialism a big change happened. For the first time in human civilization, people from elsewhere did not come to loot and scoot, but to loot and stay put. For this reason, it was not enough to rely on cultural differences, for these are socially constructed and liable to change; it was necessary to depend instead on physical variations, which are natural, and hence permanent. This approach was supported by many spurious evolutionary theories that were doing the rounds in Europe well before Charles Darwin.

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It is not as if cultural differences went unnoticed under colonialism, but they played second fiddle to racial features. In pre-colonial times too, physical differences were noted and remarked upon, but more out of curiosity than scorn. The scribes who came with Alexander were more engrossed in fantasizing about imaginary animals than in commenting on how different people on the other side of Indus looked. In this context, it is worth recalling that before Africa was colonised, many white explorers recorded how sorry the natives of that continent felt for them on account of their sharp noses, thin lips and, worst of all, their albino complexions.

Some may contest both the recentness of Indian racism and its link with colonialism by running us back to the so-called Vedic distinctions between fair Aryans and dark Dravidians. While a lot has been said about this theory, there is little evidence to show that colour played an important role in upholding the divide. The term “varna” in the Vedas could easily signify ‘order’ and not ‘colour’, and the word “anas” could mean ‘bad pronunciation’ and not ‘noseless’ or ‘squidgy-nosed’. Proper pronunciation, or ‘uccharan’, was essential if the Vedic gods were to be pleased; bad elocution, therefore, immediately disqualified a Vedic prayer.

Likewise, the reference to “bull lips” appears just once in the Vedas, but has been repeatedly commented upon. At any rate, the bull in Indian mythology is not merely a dumb, bovine creature, but a being of strength and power. Some have even been silly enough to equate caste with race; fortunately, Ambedkar refuted such speculation in his brilliant work, The Annihilation of Caste.

  • Based partly on the scholarship of the early Indologist William Jones, who found similarities between Sanskrit and Greek and Latin, a theory took hold among linguists and historians that Europeans and some Indians belonged to the same population just a few thousand years ago.
  • Many proponents of the theory believed that a European or Eurasian community had invaded India and established dominance over its indigenous peoples. This was thought to be one explanation of the caste system — the ‘Aryans’ were the forebears of upper castes.
  • Research in population genetics over a decade and a half doesn’t support this, but has proposed a divergent and interesting set of lineages for various Indian populations.
  • Some studies have found a fundamental distinction between North and South Indians; some have seen evidence of ‘gene flow’ from West Asia accompanying the rise of Islam; yet others have emphasised unity in the Indian gene pool across religion, region, and caste.

In pre-colonial times, slaves were bought and sold freely across continents, and it literally did not matter if they were black or white. Slavery became associated with race only after colonialism made its historic appearance. As racism grew, it not only brought in new aesthetic standards, including the admiration of the Caucasian (European) physical type, but also devalued the established learnings and findings of those who were subjugated. In the past, relationships between cultures were less mediated because the conquerors, when they stayed back, mingled with local traditions in a relatively uninhibited fashion.

In medicine, for instance, we find a free and promiscuous mix in the provenances of pharmacopoeia whether it be in Akbar’s court or in Kublai Khan’s Xanadu. Predictably, colonialism changed that too. For the first time, Indian healers were seen as inferior and shunned by the ruling class. Remember, all this happened well before the germ theory of medicine was even born in Europe.


Racism, therefore, is something quite different from the valuation of self over others which, as we mentioned earlier, has always been our universal, anthropological flaw. Racism is a freshly minted colonial fiction invented specifically to justify domination of the colonial variety. It was never resorted to before that — not by the Crusaders, not by Genghis Khan, not by the Mughals. In all these cases, the conflict was either transient or the rulers came to stay.

Colonialism was different: it was long-term rule by aliens whose loyalties remained with their mother country. Hence, the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ had to be constructed on a firm foundation, and what could accomplish that best but physical differences built around the conception of race.

That this ploy succeeded well beyond what may have been anticipated by the colonialists was because sections of the dominated communities began to absorb the aesthetic standards set by race. The famous 19th century scholar and writer, Bankim Chandra, once said that he was proud that Aryan blood flowed in his veins. In this context, it is worth noting the lack of strong genetic evidence to bolster the text book ‘Aryan invasion’ theory. In this context, it is worth noting the rather uncomfortable fact that the African haplotype is frequently found in the genetic makeup of North Indians.

When we physically assault Africans, it is our colonial mindset, and not our tradition, that comes into play. We now look down at Africans as an inferior species, just like the colonialists did, ignoring the fact that there are many Indians who are darker than some Africans. Given our genetic make-up, it is not possible to commandeer the skin colour of our choice, even for our children. A dark-complexioned person may not be seen as an ideal candidate for marriage — a fate that may also dog those who are short or bald. But these handicaps are not as insurmountable as race since they can be compensated for by wealth and power and personality, and, with some luck, by ‘fair and lovely’ skin solutions.

If our claim to being Caucasian were less dubious, we might be less anxious to demonstrate that we are superior to Africans, especially now, well after colonialism is dead and gone. It’s just too bad that we are neither white nor black, but khaki.

Dipankar Gupta is a sociologist and was a professor at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

This is the fourth part of Lets Talk About Racism, a new HT campaign that addresses deep-rooted prejudices and discrimination in India. If you have faced racism, tweet using #LetsTalkAboutRacism or write to HT’s earlier series, Let’sTalk About Rape and Let’s Talk About Trolls, have focused attention on crucial issues.

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    Dipankar Gupta taught sociology for nearly three decades in Jawaharlal Nehru University before taking voluntary retirement in 2009. He has written and edited 19 books on a variety of subjects ranging from ethnicity to on agrarian politics, caste to modernisation. He enjoys writing for the press for he believes that it sharpens his understanding of issues as he is now compelled to write for the non-specialists.

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