The Debate | Opinion

Black Lives Matter Should Be a Wake-Up Call for India

The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States should remind India that it has much soul-seeking to do on issues of race and identity.

By Surabhi Singh for
Black Lives Matter Should Be a Wake-Up Call for India
Credit: Matteo via Flickr

The death of George Floyd, a black American, at the hands of a white police officer in the U.S. state of Minnesota has sent ripples round the world. In America, people have flooded the streets despite the coronavirus pandemic and more than 100,000 deaths it has caused—blacks and whites together, hand in hand.

In other countries too, people have started to accept that racism is real and that biases based around skin color exist. In India, people with smartphones and access to the internet have once again started talking about racism and other forms of discrimination prevalent in society.

With increasing violence against minorities and weaker sections of Indian society, like lower caste Dalits and Adivasis, or aboriginals, it is not surprising that in today’s India, hashtags like #MuslimLivesMatter and #DalitLivesMatter are echoing the sentiments of #BlackLivesMatter.

If you are unfamiliar, Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” While skin color is a concern in India, too, the equivalent of such systematic discrimination has more than one form.

Religious Discrimination

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The constitution of India has declared the country secular. And indeed, India is home to many religions. But it is also a country with the traumatic past experience of Partition based on religion. In a way, ever since 1947 when the “Muslim state” of Pakistan was formed, the integrity and loyalty of those Muslims who chose to stay  in India have been questioned by the majority. Unfortunately, it prevails even today and has come back with a vengeance in the last few years.

Take the comments of former Indian cricket player Irfan Pathan for instance. Lending his voice to the global debate around racism, he said on Twitter, “Racism is not restricted to the colour of the skin. Not allowing to buy a home in a [housing] society just because you have a different faith is a part of racism too.”

In 2015, a 52-year-old man, Mohammed Akhlaq, was lynched to death by a group of cow vigilantes in the town of Dadri in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh for allegedly killing and consuming cow meat – cows are considered holy by many Hindus. What came off as shocking and unacceptable then soon spread like wildfire to other parts of the country.

Religious minorities, and Muslims in particular, became the target of slurs like “terrorist,” “jihadi” and “Pakistani.” And those who came out in support of the minorities were branded as “anti-nationals.” Attacks on them, some even leading to killings, started to become a regular item in the news. Five years on since Akhlaq’s murder, there have been so many such cases that the actions of cow vigilantes have become normal and, sometimes, to our great shame, even praised by Indian lawmakers.

In February 2020 alone, more than 50 people were killed in a targeted mob violence in the Indian capital of Delhi. More than 70 percent of those who died were Muslims. Their crime? Exercising their right to protest against a controversial citizenship law.

Interestingly, the people who have fueled such violence through hate speech have not only gone scot free, but seem to have been rewarded with high positions in the government – both at the state and central levels. Protesting students, on the other hand, have been slapped with the stringent UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 2019). The Act allows the government to designate individuals (read “dissenters”) as “terrorists” without giving them a chance to present their case.

India is not new to skirmishes between majoritarian Hindus and the Muslim minority. But with a Hindu nationalist government at the helm, the fault lines have become starker. Their idea of India, often described as a Hindu rashtra (a Hindu nation), has inspired the majoritarian population to brazenly ignore the Constitution and take over, even if it sometimes means crushing the minorities, literally to death. 

The sense of superiority has always been there in the upper-caste Hindus owing to the system of castes. Muslims, on the other hand, have taken pride in calling themselves the descendants of the Mughals.

The hostility between the two communities is not new, but the Hindu nationalist government has exposed the middle-class, the lower middle-class and even the poor with their idea of India, where Hindus should rule. As a result of the encouragement and emboldening, sections of the predominant Hindu population have brought their otherwise covert prejudices around Muslims in open. Except for the well-off Muslims in India, the lower class or a poor Muslim is facing hostility every day, on every front.

Caste Discrimination

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“I hope he’s not a Brahmin.”

“Whenever I meet somebody on Tinder, I hope that the person doesn’t turn out to be a Brahmin or someone from the upper caste. I come from a Scheduled Caste (Dalit) background and I’m afraid he might leave if he finds that out.”

These are the words of a girl studying at one of India’s finest media colleges.

Hindu society in India is based on the system of “varnas.” And it holds enormous value in most parts of the country even today.

The system is based on tracing the heredity of a newborn. It indicates not only the caste, but also the color, type, and class of people. The four varnas have been classified as the Brahmins (priests, gurus), Kshatriyas (warriors, kings, administrators, etc.), Vaishyas (agriculturalists and traders), and Shudras (servants).

The Shudras were meant to live in service of the other three.

Even today, menial jobs like cleaning toilets, manual scavenging, skinning dead animals and performing last rites for the dead are performed exclusively by people from the lower castes.

At the 2001 World Conference against Racism in Durban, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, a group of Dalit rights activists asking to end caste-based discrimination, tried to present the equivalence between caste and racial discrimination but the Government of India protested and their attempt failed.

Article 15 of the Indian Constitution states that “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.”

But in reality, there is plenty of that going around. Discrimination based on caste and religion not only exists but thrives under a government that appears to be promoting it and a citizenry that has embraced it for convenience.

In Uttar Pradesh’s Amroha district, a Dalit teen was shot dead on June 6 by four assailants, just days after having an altercation with an upper-caste family over entering a local temple. This comes on the heels of relaxation of lockdown restrictions. The police, apparently also part of the problem, denied that there was a caste-angle to the case.

Article 46 of the Constitution says, “The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes (SC or Dalits) and the Scheduled Tribes (ST or Adivasis), and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.”

But the struggle has no end.

“Oh! You’re an SC/ST. It must have been so easy for you to get a seat in this college. I’m reminded that every day,” recounts a girl who belongs to the one of Scheduled Tribes. SCs/STs are often stereotyped as non-hardworking or undeserving of their achievements. That stereotype also weaves itself, rather conveniently, into the upper-caste argument against affirmative action.

Colorism and Discrimination

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Ladki kaali hogi to shaadi kaise hogi? (If the girl’s skin is black, how will she get married?).”

Such statements are a part of everyday discourse in an Indian household.

In India, discrimination based on skin color is partly a colonial hang-up. The idea that fair skin is superior has been thoroughly internalized by society. With no moral obligations, the idea of fair skin being equal to beauty is promoted among young men and women. As of 2016, the Indian fairness cream industry was worth $450 million.

And this isn’t just among young women. West Indian cricketer Darren Sammy shared on social media that he had been called “kallu (black)” by many Indian cricketers.

People from the southern parts of the country are often mocked and discriminated against for their skin colour, language, and cultural dissimilarities. Similarly, people from the northeast are ridiculed as Chinese or Nepali. Recently, many of them have been called “corona,” since the pandemic started in China’s Wuhan city.

In the Indian society, it is common for parents to play matchmaker. These matches are found on the basis of religion, caste, skin colour, social status (read class) etc.

The Lok Foundation-Oxford University conducted a survey in January 2018 and found that of the 93 percent of respondents who said they had an arranged marriage, only 5 percent said a family member married outside their religion, and over 70 percent said they would not accept an inter-caste marriage for their children.

Honor killings, another shameful practice in India, come from the idea of marriages outside one’s religion or caste. It is also a common practice to ban couples of inter-caste and -religion marriages from the community. Sometimes, members of the community are prohibited from talking to them and none of the resources are shared with the couple. This includes a plot in the cemetery when one of them dies.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. is a great opportunity for India to look inwards upon its own shameful past and present. So, while we lend our voice to that movement, we must also make an attempt to question our own privilege. We must recognize our own biases.