Why and how has multicultural India become racist?

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Oct 31, 2014 12:26 PM IST

For a country as diversely populated as India, where the nuance of ‘unity in diversity’ is oft quoted and rhetorically celebrated, racial attacks are bound to evoke a number of questions, with the most basic being ‘why?’.

On October 15, Michael Lamjathang Haokip, a 26-year-old Manipuri youth, was attacked by a mob and asked to speak in Kannada in Bangalore. He was reminded during the scuffle that he ‘was not in China, but India’.

The very next day, in Delhi’s Sikanderpur area, two Naga youths were mercilessly thrashed with cricket bats and hockey sticks and allegedly told, “If you guys from Manipur and Nagaland come and stay here, we will kill you.”

These two incidents come close on the heels of another racial atrocity in Delhi. Last month, three African men were nearly lynched to death by a mob in the Rajiv Chowk Metro station after they objected to being photographed and commented upon by fellow commuters.

For a country as diversely populated as India — where a multitude of communities following different cultures inhabit greatly varied geographies, where the nuance of ‘unity in diversity’ is oft quoted and rhetorically celebrated — such blatant racial attacks are bound to evoke a number of questions, with the most basic being ‘why?’.

In the editorials and op-ed pieces that proliferated after Nido Taniam’s death in January and the thrashing of the Africans last month, commentators and journalists expressed their opinions taking a cue mostly from the existent cultural differences between ‘mainstream Indians’ and northeastern people, and political opportunism of Delhi.

However, the recent incidents of unprecedented mob violence and public lynching leave experts confused about a plausible explanation, feels Pratap Bhanu Mehta, director of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

“Racial prejudice and ignorance about people from different cultures have always existed but targeted mob violence against certain racial groups is a distinctly new phenomenon,” says Mehta.

Mehta adds, “I honestly do not understand what is happening — there is no social, economic or political reasons which can be directly put forward as a cause for such brutal mob violence. Such incidents defy any easy sociological explanations.”

He, however, says that these incidents indicate that in urban areas of India there exists a macabre fascination with violence, and that is quite disturbing.

But, Anjali Monteiro, professor and dean at School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, offers a different perspective.

She says that the brutalities witnessed in Bangalore and Delhi stem out of the same idea of hierarchy and supremacy that the country has been bearing in its caste system for so long.

“The concept of ‘the other’ from which our caste system and religious fundamentalism against minorities germinates, is the same which stokes these ghastly acts against certain racial groups,” says Monteiro.

The ‘other’, she says, is like a variant — it can be the Dalits or people from the northeast or religious minorities — but the ‘intolerance to differences’ remains the same.

“There is a culture of normalisation of hierarchy in the Indian society, mainly pushed by the caste system, and such ideas of hierarchies, albeit in different contexts, are all inter-connected,” argues Monteiro.

A report by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, last year stated that the number of youth from the northeast region in Delhi was around 2 lakh. The same survey also estimated that more than 4 lakh people migrated from the northeastern states into various metropolitan cities in India during 2005-10. And, a recent report by a government-appointed committee reveals that in the past three years, crimes against people from the northeastern states have gone up by 270%.

Kaustubh Deka, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Delhi, puts things in perspective by explaining how the equations between communities have changed in a post-liberalised India where internal migrations for better opportunities have increased phenomenally.

“The increasing out migration from peripheral areas like the northeast to urban centres and big metros are bringing a lot of tensions to the fore, both with respect to employment opportunities as well as cultural insensitivities,” says Deka.

The employment opportunities which Deka talks about have come up mostly, as an essay in the Economic and Political Weekly notes, from “business process outsourcing (BPO) and other private sector businesses, which put a premium on proficiency of the English language, suits people of the northeast, most of whom are products of relatively better, English-medium private high schools”.

Deka further adds, “Post-liberalisation developments have laid open the possibilities of real cultural assimilation which was only in theory as a constitutional arrangement earlier.”

And the recent incidents of mob violence, Deka notes, show how in an actually diversified society “the real insecurities and insensitivities of a section of people are coming out more sharply”.

Other than the undercurrents of violence in urban India and demographic issues pointed out respectively by Mehta and Deka, another reason which can be attributed to the horrific mob violence is the cultural ignorance of the rest of the country about the northeast.

“I study in an IIM, which is supposed to have the best of the country’s students, and believe me, most of my colleagues and friends do not know the names of all the states in the northeast,” says Shougaijam Dibyalaxmi, a Manipuri student at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode.

“At a party recently,” she adds, “a friend introduced me as an Assamese!”

“Ignorance about the northeast and lack of cultural education are, in my opinion, the root causes of the mob violence the country has witnessed last week,” she adds.

Sunil Khilnani, in his book The Idea of India, says that Nehru envisaged India as ‘a space of ceaseless cultural mixing’. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at his maiden UN General Assembly address in New York, referred to the Indian ideal of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family)”. Such ideals cannot be met easily until racism and divisive forces continue to rule the roost.


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