South Asia Correspondent
It has been long known that India has its own brand of racism, and what is worse, there are many kinds of it. But they were largely kept away from the world. However, it needed the gutsy Chief Minister of India’s north-eastern State of Mizoram, Pu Lalthanhawla, to dramatically expose the malaise in an international forum. ‘‘I am a victim of racism,’’ he told a recent seminar on water in Singapore, leaving his fellow delegates red-faced. ‘‘In India, people ask me if I am an Indian. When I go to south (India), people ask me such questions. They ask me if I am from Nepal or elsewhere. They forget that the northeast is part of India.”
The Chief Minister’s remarks come uncomfortably at a time when New Delhi is protesting racist attacks on Indian students in Australia, and his observations though embarrassing have a strong basis. For long, men and women from the northeastern States have found themselves alienated because of their facial features that are very different from the rest of Indians. Students, for instance, have found it harder to get college or university seats or living accommodation. Also, they have been victims of cheating and other forms of fraud.
However, the prejudice against colour and caste is a far more serious issue in a nation that essentially consists of three races – the generally fair complexioned Aryans from northern States, the usually dark skinned Dravidians from the south and the mongoloid featured light coloured people of the northeast. It may sound ridiculous that Indians who fight against colour are themselves staunch practioners of this kind of bias. To this day, most matrimonial advertisements in the media ask for fair brides, and dark girls are often discriminated. It is not exactly rare to find them being forced to part with a huge dowry or bride price to find a groom. Wheatish looking actress and social activist Nandita Das felt harassed for a long time at the way her makeup men tried painting her face a deathly white.
Of late, Indian men too appear to be increasingly conscious of the colour of their own skin. A range of cosmetic products promises to make them fairer, and “more handsome”, clearly indicating an unhealthy link between complexion and beauty. The dangers of such propaganda cannot be underestimated in India where other forms of racism create havoc threatening society’s peace and fabric.
Caste is one, and a horrifyingly dividing force. Hinduism has four main groups: the upper caste Brahmins or priests, the warrior/ruling Kshatriyas and Vysyas or traders and the lower Sudras. The lowest of this section are the Untouchables or Dalits, who still face awful discrimination, cruelty and hostility. In many remote and not so remote regions, Dalits live in ghettos, have their own water wells, are not allowed to worship in temples and face death if they dare to fall in love with men or women of the upper castes. Such murders occur often, only that they are not reported with such regularity.
Obviously, caste differences have an unmistakable class distinction with the Dalits often being poorly educated and economically weak. Dalit success is often an exception: Mayawati, Chief Minister of the Central Indian State of Uttar Pradesh, is one, who fought odds to study and become a teacher in New Delhi before politics beckoned her. It is clear that education holds a key to Dalit welfare, but despite six-decades of reservations of seats for them in schools, colleges and jobs, Dalits have not been able to break from the shackles of backwardness and victimization.
Though some may argue that caste and race are not the same, their implications are not different: discrimination on the basis of one’s birth. In short, race and caste are two sides of the same coin. The Indian Constitution offers equal rights to all, and caste discrimination is a punishable offence. Yet, Dalits face rape, murder, hate campaigns and other forms of injustice every day. Much like the blacks in the pre-1960s America who had to use their own public facilities, Dalits have to do the same as well at least in many parts of the nation. Racism is invariably a deep rooted prejudice that may need years of radical education and sense of enlightenment to be eradicated. And till then, India better think hard before blaming the world of racially segregating and attacking its citizens.