( The Telegraph, Kolkata – June 11, 2009)
The shocking racist attacks on an young Indian student in Australia might bring flashbacks of such assaults meted out to another young man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi aboard a train in South Africa, more than a hundred years ago.
Living and studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard and MIT and arguably the liberal capital of the United States of America, it is easy for me to presume that overt racism displayed to Indians in foreign lands to be a thing of the past. But what I have come to know about Ravi Raj, an IT specialist at the Harvard-MIT Data center, challenges presumptions. Allegedly, his supervisor at work called him “fucking towelhead” (mistakenly using slur to mark him as an Arab) and a “dothead” (this time getting the ethnicity right- the dot being the teep or bindi worn by some Indian women) and getting food splattered on his table at work, in addition to racially motivated poor work performance reports. This does not match the treatment meted out to Shravan Kumar Theerthala, the 25-year old Indian student who was non-fatally stabbed in what appears to be a racially motivated attack in Melbourne, Australia.
Racially motivated attacks against Indians in countries like Canada, United States of America and United Kingdom are not new. These events only show that certain strains of intolerance are alive and kicking, amidst the cosmopolitan love-in that urban centers of such nations purportedly provide. Not so long ago, Indian residents of New Jersey faced spent the year of 1987 in mortal fear as the community came under a series of racist attacks from an organized anti-Indian group calling themselves the “dotbusters”. The attacks continued till as late as 1992.The street attacks against Indians, mainly Punjabis in Canadian cities continued through the 1970s and 80s and only tapered down with the formation of “resistance” groups like the East Indian Defence Committee where youths took to policing neighbourhoods when the community felt helpless in the face of racist attacks in the backdrop of an apathetic state. In Britain, the racial slur of “Paki” sticks to Indians as well, ironically undoing the carefully constructed image, of late, of the ‘good’ brown (the Indian) as opposed to the ‘bad’ brown (the Pakistani).
Australia, which is the center of present attention, has a long history of racially inspired hate-crimes. The aboriginal inhabitants faced the brunt of it in the earliest years and then it was the turn of the Chinese. United States of America, Canada and Australia, all have at various times, tried to make race homogenized societies by law, by limiting immigration from non-Caucasian ethnicities. Such laws have now been reversed – but then discrimination by castes is illegal in India too-it is the dismantling of the embedded hierarchy that really matters.
What also ties these nations in a common thread is a long state of denial of racism as an original sin based on which these nations were founded in their modern form – to be more precise, the genocidal racist violence by which entire populations and communities of the original sons and daughters of the soil were wiped out. To admit it and atone for it as such shakes the foundational myths of nations, which can be very unsettling – every people have holy cows in the form of their founding fathers. So, the results of the non-atonements for such original and devastating racist ethos are generally the continuation of an underbelly of racism, which finds covert resonance with significant portions of the populace.
It is easy to divert the angst of hopelessness of working class youths in such societies into a sense of pride in race – xenophobia and overt racism follow close behind. There is always demagoguery in abundant supply to feed these youths – stories of pride and victimization, of the greatness of the “white-washed” past and the eyesore-ness of the fact that communities now “look different” that is more racially diverse. I had heard this refrain from such a fellow in Boston who complained why the immigrants could not act like us and eat like us and have to stick out. This talk of “assimilation” was rich coming from a person who did not see the irony of calling part of the eastern coast area of the North American continent as “New England”. Assimilation of the kind he wanted has never really happened but this exceptionalism is but a result of feeding foundational myths for centuries. No wonder, in both the USA and Australia, the reverential remembrance of Christopher Columbus and James Cook, serve to underline the exceptionalism – for if they were discovered, there is nothing to be assimilated into. Playing down the presence of large living indigenous communities and their violent uprooting are relegated to footnotes at best.
But for the white-collar Indians, “assimilation” was always a natural forte- or so we thought. We, the white collar Indians in these countries, are the “model minority”. We work in silence, follow the rules, play by the book, pay taxes in time and when we hear about racist attacks , whether they be against African-Americans in the USA or the Chinese in Australia, we also diligently change the channel. In other words, we were perfect! In fact, holding signs and joining marches in solidarity against things inhuman don’t behoove us – that is for the rabble you see.
The incidents in Australia and the marked absence of Chinese and aboriginal groups from the Indian protests in Australia show the futility of the hope that being disdainfully aloof and gently avoiding the trouble of the main street is effective insurance against such attacks. The brown sahibs conveniently forget the example of Ram Manohar Lohia, who on 28th May, 1964, “broke” the rules by trying to eat at a racially segregated restaurant in Jackson,Mississippi. This solidarity is what creates bridges- the white collar Indian community has generally shunned such bridges. We, who read English papers, are hearing this story and getting agitated, because, people like us, people whose lives we can identify with – the student in the university, the clean professional have been affected.
Perhaps, it is not out of place now, to think about the daily brazen racist exploitations on undocumented low paid Indian workers in construction sites or the slurs to be faced daily by working class Indians in these countries. The NRI affairs minister Vayalar Ravi has issued statements calling for the protection of Indians in Australia – with India’s supposed new clout of quasi-superpowerdom, this, we are to believe is effective. But time and again, a certain Gandhi and a certain Lohia has shown that, on the street, in the community, a cross-class, cross-race alliance against intolerance is the best bet.