Opinion | The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Racism and Communalism
- There is much for us to learn from how England responded to racism after the Euro final.
If you are interested in sport, then you probably watched the Euro finals a few days ago. As football games go, the match between England and Italy at London’s Wembley stadium was not overly exciting (it had to be settled on the basis of a penalty shoot-out) but it has attracted much more attention because of its aftermath.
Three black England players missed the goal in their penalty kicks thereby conceding the match (and the championship) to Italy. Naturally, this led to disappointment and gloom all across England. But there was also a horrifying fall-out.
Anyone who follows football will tell you that English fans are among the worst-behaved in the world. Even so, the crowd disgraced itself at Wembley. The fans booed the Italian national anthem, they broke through police barriers to enter the stadium without tickets and violence and robbery followed. (Thousands of them also ritually massacred Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline from the stands but, compared to what followed, this was not such a big deal).
When it was clear that England had lost the match, there was an explosion of racist abuse directed at the black players who had missed the goal. There is a great deal of racism in all European football but even by those standards, the kind of abuse that the players were subjected to on social media was horrific and frankly, terrifying.
The hatred reached such levels that Prime Minister Boris Johnson felt compelled to call it out, as did Prince William who issued a statement condemning the racism .All over England, there was a sense of shock and horror at the explosion of racist hatred.
It is not my case that the United Kingdom (UK) is more racist than the rest of Europe. Its Conservative government has many brown and black people on its front bench and there is more equality of opportunity now than ever before
My point is that, as horrifying as the hatred was, it was gratifying to see the British establishment, all the way from Downing Street to the Palace, come out unitedly to condemn it. As devastated as the black players were by the hatred, they must have been somewhat reassured by the response from decent, non-racist ordinary Brits who rushed to make amends for the abuse and prejudice on Twitter and other social media.
There are few clear parallels between racist hatred in England and communal hatred in India. British racism probably has its roots in the country’s unhappy history as an imperial power and a slave trader. Brits have been brought up --- till relatively recently --- to regard people of colour as being somehow inferior to white people. Even those who don’t believe in racial superiority know that race can always be used as a powerful weapon against black and brown people.
In India, on the other hand, while there is no history of Hindus regarding themselves as superior to Muslims, a deep-rooted resentment towards Muslims has always existed within sections of the Hindu community. Equally, there has been a certain amount of prejudice among sections of the Muslim community as well, which is why we have a history of communal violence.
In recent years, this hatred has become more and more visible. Hindus are encouraged to resent Muslims because their ancestors rooted for Pakistan. (One of the ironies of Hindus communalism is that people who hate Muslims regard Partition as an event that damaged Hindu pride. In fact, if there had been no Partition, there would have been millions more Muslims in India and Hindu dominance would have been harder to establish than it is today).
If the Pakistan argument does not work, then communalists dig even further back in history to blame today’s Muslims for the sins of Aurangzeb or Allauddin Khilji.
The increase in hatred in India in recent years has partly been politically encouraged but mostly it has become more visible because of the growth of social media. Read WhatsApp forwards or go on Twitter and the reams of abuse and the hate-filled posts directed at Muslims will shock any decent person.
We can argue about what came first--the hatred or social media. My view is that some of the hatred was always there but social media provided a perfect outlet and multiplier. As the prejudice spread through smart phones, it magnified in scope and intensity.
You just have to look at the hatred directed at Muslim movie stars on Twitter to recognise that our problem vastly exceeds anything they have in the UK. And while the explosions of abuse in the UK are usually triggered by specific events (such as the Euro final), hatred is a regular phenomenon on Indian social media, one that needs no specific event to set it off.
My point is not just that social media amplifies hatred. We all know that. Nor am I saying that there are lakhs of hate-filled bigots in today’s India. We know that too.
It’s sad. It’s tragic . But there it is.
My real concern is that we do not do what the UK has done in the aftermath of the Euro incidents. As disturbing as the hatred was, it was heart warming to see the more decent elements of civil society reach out to reassure those who were targeted by the abusers that the hatred came from a small number of people and that the majority of the country condemned the racists.
Nothing like that ever happens in India. The bigots and the haters act as though they have political sanction. Nobody in a position of power and influence condemns them. Nobody reaches out to the targets of the hatred and abuse. When we do talk about the danger of social media, the focus is on avoiding criticism of the government on Twitter.
Like most people, I was appalled by the hatred that followed the Euro final. But I was heartened by the response from the very top of the British establishment and from civil society as a whole.
Sad to say, it doesn’t happen here. So the hatred grows. The alienation increases. Communities are even more divided. And each day it gets worse.
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