Category Archives: Diaspora

Where is compassion for our own / Jail return tales / The underside of national pride

[ Daily News and Analysis, 23 Mar 2013; Millenium Post, 27 Mar 2013; Echo of India, Mar 2013; Frontier Vol. 45, No. 41, Apr 21- -27, 2013]

2 Italians came, shot 2 fishermen off the Kerala coast, got apprehended, were parked in a hotel and then they left for Italy. With the Italian government finally saying that they will not give back the 2 accused sailors in the Kerala fishermen-in-sea murder case, the ground was fertile for some reaping of patriotic crops. Nothing works better than some good-old Italian bashing to make ‘patriotic Indians’ out of us. The Italian government agreed to send them back, cutting short the tournament of competitive patriotism.  But for these Italians, how else could the homegrown saffron Goths, constantly plotting the fall of an imagined Roman regime in New Delhi, rehearse another episode of their ‘India, good or bad’ drama. How else could certain khadi-clad centurions grab this opportunity to show off intense love for peninsular fishermen? As the khadi and the saffron match each other’s love for fishermen, decibel for decibel, they also compete in actively plotting the destruction of life and livelihood of thousands of fishermen at Koodankulam, beating for beating, 144 for 144, arrest for arrest, tear for tear. Irony is not a very effective genre of public performance in the subcontinent. May be because there is just too much of it around us, making it plain and non-newsworthy. Just like hypocrisy.

Italy is not alone among European states in irking the mandarins of the government at Delhi. In a less publicized series of events, Denmark did it too. Was Sanjeev Bhaskar was right when he famously asked – is it ‘coz I am brown? Most probably not. One of the prime accused of the almost-forgotten Purulia arms drop case of 1995 is a Danish citizen Niels Holck (famously known as Kim Davy). Authorities of the Indian Union wanted him extradited. A Danish court said that the conditions in jails run by the Government of India are inhuman. Between 2001 and 2010, 14231 people died in police and prison custody in Ahimsa-land. Sadly, this is no foreign NGO data but statistics from the National Human Rights Commission. Mumbaikar Arun Ferreira closely avoided becoming a part of that statistic. If J.L.Nehru had received from the British the same kind of prison-treatment as Arun Ferreira received from the Government of India, he would have discovered another ‘India’. His fatherly letters to his daughter would have sounded very different. Actually, this is the ‘India’ whose power was transferred during Partition. Norwegians simply did not want to risk a rediscovery of this ‘India’. Incessantly claiming to be the world’s largest democracy probably did not help. The Danish court did not want Kim Davy to suddenly jump off from some height, hang oneself unnoticed, meticulously commit suicide deceiving the prison and police-folk or simply die of ‘unexplained’ internal bleeding. We would love to call this ‘racism’, that is, us minus some fourteen thousand.

Most of these 14231 deaths were due to torture, typically occurring within 2 days of being taken into custody. We will probably never know the exact details – your  ‘right to information’ has its limits. Unfortunately, the dead do speak – if not in words, then in numbers. The Government of India has no anti-torture law satisfying the United Nations Convention Against Torture guidelines. Denmark and Italy have such laws. The honourable and reasonable Government of India also promised that Kim Davy would be housed in a ‘special jail’ so that Danish fears are laid to rest. Browns are second-class for a regime jail that can give an undertaking to produce a ‘first-class’ jail, when it wishes, for international PR purposes. We browns are not fit for such treatment. No ‘India first’ Saffron-wala will accuse any Khadi-wala for this preferential treatment, or vice-versa. Third degree treatment is reserved for its own ‘nationality’. This predictable closing of ranks around this ‘India’ is deeply revealing about their sense of pride and patriotism.

The twisted sense of patriotism and the opportunistic use of the charge of ‘racism’ came together in producing another spectacle around which much tear was shed , much pride was hurt, many hearts bled and many  professional fire-eaters ate fire on camera. The daughter of a junior-level Indian Union embassy staff in New York was in police custody for less than 48 hours with others in the cell, due to a faulty investigation. The familiar parade of Saffronwalas and Khadiwalas came again, spouting pride and honour. P.Chidambaram (then home-minister), S.M.Krishna (then foreign-minister) and diplomats became vocal.  It was declared that a lawyer would be employed for the girl’s case and that they would ask for compensation for distress in custody. This is rather rich coming from the nation of 4 custodial deaths per day. Add to it the hundrerds of millions of days of torture, hopelessness, broken families, lost aspirations and insanity. Will our khadi and saffron patriots ask for such compensation? If one believes that girls case has merit (and I believe it has), then the whole exchequer has to be emptied many times over to pay back the citizens of the Indian union who have been brutalized by the state’s criminal justice system. Coming back to Italy, it’s alright to love or hate pizza. Lets not talk about pride being hurt and loss of dignity of the justice system. If there was any pride and dignity at all, it should have been hurt at least 14231 times in the past decade. One should have some shame to qualify as human.

What is this thing that changes even human physiology, numbing our compassion, making us cheering spectators of contemporary gladiator games? It is the civic duty of a nationalist. My nation is good. You, sir, are bad.

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Filed under Army / police, Diaspora, Nation, Our underbellies, Rights, Scars, Terror, Under the skin

The United States of non-Walmart America

[ Millenium Post,  24 Oct 2012 ]

USA or ‘America’ is as much an idea as it is a swathe of land with people. It lives in different forms in minds of people all over the world, beyond the USA. A serious number of non-poor urban youth from the Subcontinent have grown up with American sitcoms. Now they partly live that reality, fired by ‘onsite’ assignments and contract-labour opportunities in IT of the last 2 decades. This first-hand experience of  by the prodigal children of the middle class also comes with second hand experiences of America in the extended families and friends, back in India. Visiting parents lodged for a few weeks in the suburban homes of their children see the America of the malls – a place where anything one think one might need ( or not) exists, the warehouse of Santa Klaus. The ease of the push-cart, the smooth and snappy non-bargaining retail experience is an important part of the legend that is relayed back. In the pantheon of these multi-brand retail palaces, Walmart is the unquestionable Indra. Almost all of what it sells is also sold by others, and is indeed, made by others, mostly Chinese others. It is the brand of brands – it sells cheap but easy buying as a fundamental right.

In the east-coast of USA, stand two famous cities – New York City ( with over 8 million people) and Boston ( Metro Boston’s population being upwards of 3 million). Together, they are home to more than 3% of Americans. Both are iconic and enduring symbols of America to the world. But there are no Walmarts. I live in the Boston area. As I do no have a car and locally travel on a bicycle or by public transport, I simply do not encounter a Walmart.

This is peculiar as America has nearly 4000 different stores all across the nation, with presence in every state and multiple stores in many major cities like Houston and Philadelphia. The absence of  Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained. I slowly started finding a clue among the ‘No Walmart’ signs that started popping up in my neighbouring towns – Watertown and Somerville. None of these two cities had any Walmarts, but on inquiry I found that it had plans to set up shop there. Many people from the area had been organizing against Walmart. These are but everyday people who do like low prices. But many of them feel that they would pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite Walmart’s ‘low price’ bait. A moneyed entity like Walmart left no stone unturned in its public relations offensive  to make people see the ‘benefits’. The civic opposition gathered steam. Their elected representatives in the municipal council, many of who were supportive of Walmart, started feeling the heat. This year Walmart announced that they were suspending plans of setting up shop in these two areas citing profitability issues. The reasons might have been something else.

These towns too were divided on the issue, but the current was clearly on the side of the opposers. Much north of Boston is the picturesque state of Vermont. In the town of St.Albans, Vermont, residents have been debating whether to let Walmart in, for 19 years now. With the lowest number of Walmart stores among all the states, Vermont has been an especially tough nut to crack. If St.Albans falls, it will open up newer markets in northern Vermont to Walmart. That has not happened, yet.

These clearly are not stories of every town and urban community – the huge number of Walmart stores all across the USA is a testament to that. But towns that have successfully blocked Walmart are not just a handful either. From Hercules (California), St.Albans (Vermont), Hood River (Oregon), Damariscotta (Maine), Skaneateles (New York), Taos ( New Mexico) and many others. Join the dots and the contours of the United States of non-Walmart America emerges. That too is America, if we care to look.

How exactly can a town or a  municipality oppose a the entry of a perfectly legal business? Democratic deepening is an important feature that can be seen in the governance of these town by which they can veto or oppose many kinds of decisions that they deem inimical to the interest of the local community. This includes railways, roads and other ‘development’ projects. Walmart and other such retail giants  profit and outcompete many partly by having huge warehouses and stupendous variety – a question of scale. This requires the availability of a large amount of floor area. Rather than target one specific big-box store company (that is what Walmart type of stores are called because of their shape and size), which is not legally tenable, the city councils opposing the entry of such stores effectively ban such stores by setting an upper limit to the floor area of the shops they allow in their jurisdiction. This favours small and medium size, largely local stores over super-size big-box stores. In this way, people’s opinion matter in policy – what they want and what they do not want.

This right to host a Walmart is what the Union government in India has used in its framing of the Walmart debate. They ask why states which want Walmarts should not be allowed to have them? The core appeal of this logic is of democratic justice – if a fraction of the people want something for themselves, others should not be able to deny them that. The union government untiringly tomtoms its purported advances in promoting local governance, does not have the courage to give municipalities and village councils the right to embrace or veto Walmart or other projects that might affect them. Singing paeans to democracy and people’s will is one thing, taking democratic empowerment and devolution seriously is another matter. More Nandigrams and Koodankulams can be avoided if local government becomes real government and not an elected but powerless charade under bureaucrats who take orders from the top. Attitudes and aspirations differ between states and within states too. If people of Walmart’s home country have a greater say on where Walmart can or cannot be, why should brown folks settle for any less? They may chose to embrace Walmart, they may chose to block it. But it is important that they do the choosing directly.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Community, Diaspora

Let grass roots decide on Walmart / This land is your land – Walmart and the other America

[ The Hindu, 12 Oct 2012 ; Down to Earth, 31 Oct 2012 ; Globeistan, 16 Oct 2012; IndiaResists, 13 Oct 2012; The Shadow (Jammu) Oct 2012 ; The Morung Express (Nagaland) ]

There is the United States of America and then there is the ‘idea’ of USA that exists in the minds of significant portions of the middle classes all across the globe. How this looks in real life varies slightly according to the region of the world, reflecting specific aspirations and anxieties. In the subcontinent, the latter idea is increasingly not made in a Hollywood basement, given the ‘IT-coolie’ fired traffic to the USA. One important element of the newer idea of USA that flows back daily by television, Skype, photographs, phone conversation and emails is the ease of the consumer experience in multi-brand retail stores as big as football stadia, with the variety of wares on offer seemingly endless – from bananas to bikinis and beyond. Walmart is unquestionably the most prominent of these chain-stores, a super-brand. Viewed in another way, it is a ‘shop’ whose name is more famous that than the brand names of the things it sells.

I have been living in the United States of America for the last few years, more or less in  east coast cities. The last 6 have been in the Boston area.  A map of the area (Figure 1) shows the many separate municipal towns that constitute much of the Boston area. My location however deprives me of the quintessentially ‘American’ experience of shopping at Walmart. In the map of the area, B and C represent the two Walmarts in the vicinity. I live in Cambridge and hence I am atleast 10 miles away from each of those. Given that I use public transport and my bicycle to move around, both these locations are quite inaccessible for me. Walmarts and stores like that cannot exist in the USA in the absence of the stupendous subsidy to the highway systems that make the stores viable, not to mention the ultimately unsustainable mass-culture of individual car-ownership that makes such stores reachable. However, the map (Figure 1) may be misleading as it gives an impression that Walmart stores are relatively sparse in the United States of America. That is far from true, as evident from this 2006 map (Figure 2) of Walmart locations in the nation. This corresponds very well with a population density map of the nation, in case anyone was inquisitive about the large patches of virgin territory in the western half. The absence of  Walmart in my neighbouring areas and the preponderance of such stores all over the nation is a phenomenon that needs to be explained.

It is not that Walmart did not want to set up a store in my vicinity. In fact they tried and tried hard. When I was a student, as a part of my on-campus job as a server and bartender for the Harvard University Dining Services, I would be deputed to various addresses around the area to serve at parties, clean dirty dishes and similar chores. One such assignment was in the neighbouring municipal area of Watertown. When I was going into the house, I saw a sign on the lawn that said  “No Walmart – No more big boxes.” ‘Big box’ incidentally is the nickname for Walmart and other such stores, for that is what they look like. Given that I knew that there weren’t any such stores in the area, I wondered what this was about. After my working hours were over, I talked to the house-owner and he informed that he was part of the burgeoning local citizens movement ‘Sustainable Watertown’ which was opposing a proposed Walmart ‘big-box’ store near the central square of Watertown. In the United States of America, citizens of town and villages have a say in what happens to their areas, and elected officials can veto proposals – be they of setting up stores, building highways or railways. He informed me that they have been getting a lot of support, which had translated into some elected city councilors getting pressurized not to court Walmart.

Fast -forward a few years. In November 2011, the incumbent vice-president of the Watertown City Council came very close to being defeated by a candidate fighting almost solely on the agenda of stopping Walmart from gaining a foothold in Watertown. In June 2012, Walmart announced that it was shelving plans to set up shop in Watertown. At the same time, it also suspended plans to build in a store in the neighbouring town of Somerville. The Walmart spokeserson Steven Restivo said, “In the case of the Somerville and Watertown sites, we made a business decision that the projected cost of investment would ultimately exceed our expected return.” There was another thing common to these two towns – both had popular citizens’ initiatives opposing the entry of Walmart in their areas. In response to this, Barbara Ruskin of Sustainable Watertown issued a statement that read “”We, the members of Sustainable Watertown, applaud the news of our campaign’s success and pledge to continue to work with town residents and members, supporting neighborhood groups, taking an early role in planning and development projects, and providing venues for discussions of sustainability. We will continue to advocate on behalf of the town for a positive vision of a healthy, just and prosperous community.”

This is not a long-winded argument against Walmart or other large multi-brand retail chain stores and their pros and cons vis-à-vis the local community. This simply is a reminder that there are gaps in the network of stores Walmart wants to establish. Those gaps are populated by real people, who, like most of us, are consumers who love low prices.  But at the same time, many of them feel that they would have to pay a very high price in other aspects of life in their community if they bite the ‘low price’ bait. These gaps, in the shadow of the glorious network of Walmart, when joined together by an alternative perspective of what really matters, also forms a USA. It extends beyond Watertown and Somerville and beyond the faux anti-corporate sensibilities of affluent white hipsters. Among the cities, towns and villages all across the nation which have put a low upper limit to the maximum area that can be covered by a ‘shop’, one can count Ashland (Oregon), Oakley (California), Madison (Wisconsin), Ravalli County (Montana), Sante Fe (New Mexico), San Diego (California) and many more. Join the dots and you see the contours of a nation. This is a USA of Walmart-gaps that few hear about, but it exists nonetheless.

The central government of the Indian Union has cleared foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. This adds diversity and capital-power to the already existing scene of Indian multi-brand retail giants. In a rare and cunning gesture of state’s rights, it has added an enabling rider so that individual states can chose to not permit the entry of foreign multi-brand retail entities in their respective areas. The centre has made a lot out this enabling clause, and has waxed eloquent about its commitment to state’s rights as well as democratic principles. It has also driven home the opposite point that the refusal of certain provinces should not hold up the power of other areas to host Walmarts. This is quite reasaonable, in my opinion. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the centre is indeed sensitive to the differing aspirations and ‘development’ trajectories of different regions, why does it not have such clauses across the board, in all aspects of trade and commerce and beyond that, in much of what are called the ‘central’ and ‘concurrent’ lists. The Indian Union never tires to tout its successes in the devolution of power by the Panchayati Raj system.  In fact, taking the logic of devolution to its logical end, why does it not accord the lower units of the local government to veto decisions and policies that affect the area but the local body thinks is inimical to the interests of the area? By feverishly canvassing for the rights of the individual as a consumer, this apparently libertarian rhetoric is exposed when the centre devolves powers to local bodies without giving them veto powers over most decisions that govern life on the ground, including the right to refuse certain kinds of entities to set up shop in an area. As long as the fundamental rights of the individual citizen are not compromised, what does the centre fear? If the gram panchayats could decide the fate of what comes up in their areas, Nandigrams of the future could be avoided. They might choose to have Walmarts or not. On being liberated from ‘New’ Delhi notions of constitutionality, that is what democracy looks like. There is no second-guessing the potentialities of human plurality.

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Filed under Americas, Class, Community, Diaspora

Envisioning excellence: Academic quality and autonomy in context

[ Frontier (web) 6 May 2012; Sakaal Times (Pune) 24 April 2012; The Hitavada (Nagpur) 30 April 2012; Daily Excelsior (Jammu) 28 April 2012 ]

In a recent piece, Prabhat Patnaik ( The Telegraph, 2 April, 2012) lays out what he thinks are major  threats to the  autonomy of the domestic intellectual discourse in India. He comes up with ‘coercion to conform’ to academic fashions of the North and its hegemony in deciding the worth of ideas as a prime suspect. He also reserves special fire for the insistence on quality when assessing academics. Finally, he talks about the anxiety of the NRI academic about being increasingly irrelevant in India’s academic circles. If one were to go beyond aimed-to-disarm self-congratulatory banalities resting on wistful anecdotes that the level of intellectual discourse in India was superior to Bangladesh, one might come to see the boy who cried wolf and the real wolf itself. I cannot argue for the autonomy to cheat millions of students, by posing the demand for quality as simply a conspiracy to defang heterodox ideas. The victims of the wolf may want  a hearing. That affair can get very dirty.

For academic discourse, two things that are of utmost importance are quality and iconoclasm. Both are easier stated than implemented.We need iconoclasm in the world of knowledge to both expand and question our conceptions of the world. Ideas, especially those on which the  reputation of stalwart academicians and their ‘intellectual’ children depend, those which conform to ideologies of the state, are especially hard to challenge and discredit. It is important to foster iconoclasm so that knowledge does not become a tool in the sustenance of the powerful, but becomes  Those who claim to want to change this equation between ideas and power, more than often recreate stifling power hegemonies themselves, if they happen to capture some part of the academic sphere themselves. All through the euphoric seventies and the pre-doomsday eighties, the way Marxist   academics in India coerced budding students into their ideological predilections, through thinly veiled carrots and sticks, peppering departments all over the country with their ideological kith and kin, should serve as a grim reminder of what intellectual fascism can be unleashed in the name of fighting conformity and hegemony. The veritable boom in the number of thesis and research papers coming out of JNU, CU and JU during that period, that employed ‘Marxian analysis’ is a sad testament to this. Ideological limitations, the need to reward loyalties and conformity,  combined with an intricate system of informal mutual back-scratching helped permeate close-mindedness in academia, right upto departments in small colleges. Atop this hierarchy sat the nomenklatura – now, not so much out of favour as it touts to be, more out of fashion than it wants to be. The pariah status that an academic of the class of Ashis Nandy was accorded is a telling reminder how erstwhile champions of things heterodox can quickly transform themselves into defenders of status-quo, discouraging multiple heterodoxies. Iconoclasm, while being aimed at existing hegemons, cannot be a pretext for spreading petty mediocrity, so as to entrench vested interests, making their uprooting that much harder. West Bengal is still reeling from this phenomenon. It is not clear yet whether the ‘greenwashed’ future will be  any different. Though employed here for the purposes of illustration, encouraging nepotism, spreading mediocrity, propagating hegemonies, creating a nomenklatura based on in-group loyalties, shrillness and service to power, is by no means an exclusively ‘red’ disease.

An ecology where reasoned iconoclasm reigns supreme needs, among other things, a democratic setup and the student-professor relationship that is like that one between peers. It needs to be a  space where deference to truth and evidence comes foremost, where plagiarism is dealt with ruthlessly, where students and research scholars who oppose the academic ideas of their mentors cannot be threatened with ‘dire consequences’, where individual brilliance of a student that surpasses that of the professor causes celebration rather than anxiety, where ‘stalwart academics’ can be heckled by sound logic and shown their place if need be. Finally, it needs to be place where that great unmentionable called quality reigns supreme. The last point is especially important for research, as many of the researchers will come to populate the teaching departments of India.

One way by which hegemonies are perpetuated in academia in India, are by faculty appointments on the basis considerations other than academic quality. In a scenario so rife with  nepotism and favouritism based on academic lineage, political inclination and other vested interests, setting an objective quality bar hits right at the heart of these informal structures of patronage. Though by no means perfect, one useful index of academic quality is impact factor or H-index. Academic research, in the natural and social sciences, is mainly published in specialized journals. Impact factor  or H-index are various measures of citation and quality of journal where one published their work, indicative of how many other people deem your research important or relevant enough to refer to it in their own work published in an indexed journal. There are many indexed journals in India too. While not prostrating totally at the altar of impact factor, a deference to that deity might serve well to separate the wheat from the chaff generated by prejudiced, ideological and nepotistic calls that faculty recruitment committees often make, using the cover of subjective assessment.

The claim that NRI academics in Harvard and Stanford suffer from some kind of relevance-to-discourse-in-India envy is a just that, a claim. There is absolutely no evidence to show that  academic in India is cited more than his or her Boston-based NRI counterpart by academics based in Pune or Nasik or Satara. In fact, for all the fire-eating talk of undercutting and inverting the global academic pecking order, the reality is much more sobering. Pre-eminent warriors of ‘autonomous’ discourse make their beeline for Oxford University Press, Routledge or Ivy-league university presses, be it Harvard University Press or Columbia University Press, to get their thick books published. These books cost a fortune to libraries in India.

There have been for sometime currents within the world of science that seek of remove the commercial barrier to knowledge access. Open-access journals which can be read freely all over the world are part of this. The charge that peer-reviews may be prejudiced against those espousing uncomfortable and heterodox ideas is now being countered with innovations in the methods of review, open review and even scope for open-debate during the review process. Journals with open access and newer forms of review are being cited highly and many have established themselves repute in a very short time. It is this process of open-access and open review to level the international playing field in knowledge production that India can ride high on, rather than viewing the demand for quality as a conspiracy.

On the question of quality and the conspiratorial scorn heaped at ‘refereed journals of repute’, let me mention P.C.Mahalanobis’s Sankhya. Sankhya, was and is, a refereed journal of repute, and at the same time, is published from India by the Indian Statistical Institute. It calls itself the “Indian journal of statistics.” Its impact factor is comparable to the better  journals of general statistics. Sankhya’s latest issue (Volume: 73, Series: A, Par: 2, Year: 2011) has 7 papers from 15 authors. All but two are non-Indians. These numbers vary but the underlying point is clear. It is simply a quality Indian outlet of academic research, that is also coveted by foreign researchers as a place to be published in. It would be absurd to argue that its high quality and concomitant stature in the globe hurts its autonomy or that it discriminates against research workers in India. The Sankhya project is no narrow nationalist project that some might paint it to be – rather it is a product of a certain confidence that a research journal can be Indian and of high quality at the same time.

Of course, all that there is or should be, has a context. It exists in the backdrop of India’s stark social inequity, a global order that seeks to promote and reward certain voices and stifle others, an increasing commercialization and corporatization of the vehicles of public discourse, a culture that equates research utility with the private profits that it can generate. India needs vigorous affirmative action and democratization of academic and institutional cultures. The institutions need quality and autonomy and the imagination to wed the two.

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Filed under Acedemia, Democracy, Diaspora, Knowledge, Science

Coolies under attack: What to make of the racist violence on Indians in Australia?

( 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.


Filed under Class, Diaspora