Speaking Of Asia

India should confront its prejudices

Biases based on race and caste have hurt the country's image abroad despite its remarkable progress overall.

Last week in India's Parliament, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj rose to rebut a statement by the 54 African heads of mission in New Delhi who laid out their complaints about a series of attacks on African students around the national capital region.

Noting that the violence was not sufficiently condemned by the Indian authorities, the envoys had threatened to take the matter to international human rights bodies, saying the attacks had been "xenophobic and racial in nature".

Her voice quivering with anger, Mrs Swaraj slammed the statement issued by the ambassadors as "unfortunate, painful and surprising". India, she insisted, was committed to the security of all foreigners in the country.

Around the same time, Mr Tarun Vijay, a former MP from her Bharatiya Janata Party, went on international television to defend India's record on racism. After questioning the patriotism of a fellow panellist, Mr Vijay, who edited the official mouthpiece of the Hindu nationalist RSS organisation for nearly a quarter-century, offered this disjointed explanation: "If we were racist, why would we have all the entire South…Tamil (Nadu), Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra (Pradesh) …Why do we live with them? We have black people around us."

Mr Vijay, known for his deep interest in Tamil literature, quickly apologised for his remarks after running into a volley of criticism from across India. For one thing, except in the vale of Kashmir, it would perhaps be factually inaccurate to characterise particular regions on the basis of skin colour. Pitiably though, he seemed unaware of the casual prejudices that his words revealed. Nor did he seem to realise that his remarks subliminally assumed that people of the populous North had first call on Indian nationhood.


Indians can take pride that theirs is a nation that includes every racial group on earth. From the Proto-Negroid to Mongoloid and Caucasoid, Indians come in a variety of shapes and skins. This remarkable mix, combined with the ancient social stratification system based on caste, has however created a nation where multiple prejudices unfortunately do exist in parallel.


Colour prejudice remains even as the flintier edges of the caste system - such as restrictions on physical contact - are being dulled as every passing generation shares workplaces, schools, canteens and play areas. Indians - men included - lap up skin-lightening creams, evidence of aspirations for a fairer tone. In some states such as Tamil Nadu, lighter-skinned girls get better treatment within households although this too is easing, thanks to shrinking family size.

In northern India, a popular lullaby has the Hindu god Krishna, known for his roguish playfulness, lamenting he was born dark-skinned even as Radha, his consort, was fair. Some years ago, the visiting Australian cricket team was outraged after a section of the crowd in Vadodara, in Gujarat state, made monkey-like chirrups at the all-rounder Andrew Symonds, who is of mixed-race parentage. Symonds responded by smashing the Indian bowling attack all over the ground.

While much of it is harmless, and sometimes the discrimination is even a positive one - landlords in northern Indian cities tend to prefer South Indians over their own because the southerners are perceived as reliable tenants - there have been too many instances latterly when things got dire.

This is what happened with the Africans in New Delhi's satellite town of Noida most recently. An angry mob seized on them believing, wrongly as it turned out, that the foreigners had fed the drug habit of a young boy who died from an overdose. They did so even as the police, who had initially held the Africans, released them saying they had no evidence to lay charges.

And it is not foreigners alone who are affected. Indians themselves often turn up as victims of their prejudices. Even Bangalore, India's most globalised city, has witnessed the phenomenon. Resentment against people from the north-eastern Indian states, where many tend to have Chinese features, frequently bubbles to the surface. Part of the reason is that India's booming services sector has absorbed thousands of young men and women from states such as Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland in attractive occupations such as airline cabin crew and hotel front- office staff.

Against that background there is little surprise that New Delhi, which attracts thousands of muscular, insufficiently educated migrants from the neighbouring provinces of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, also should witness such violence.

Three years ago, a boy from north-eastern Arunachal Pradesh died after a beating he received in a busy market in New Delhi. The violence ensued after an altercation with shopkeepers in the area who had teased him about his bouffant hairstyle.

Criticising that incident, Mrs Swaraj, then in the Opposition, showed why even well-educated Indians are unaware of the traces of prejudice implied in their words.

"People with flat noses are as much Indian as those with sharp ones," she said.


The pity is that Indians haven't been able to overcome these shortcomings despite remarkable progress overall on their nationhood. Seventy years after emerging as a free nation constituted by a patchwork of states, many of them former princely ones, a true national glue has emerged, thanks to the All India Civil Services, a meritocratic military, television, Bollywood and cricket. Its historical record is of being an absorptive culture.

Now, with the passing of legislation for a nationwide goods and services tax, it is also poised to become a unified market.

The poor treatment of Africans comes at a time when India is assiduously wooing the continent, partly as a strategic counter to China but also because of the immense opportunity to export trade and services as that huge market opens up to the world. The country's pharmaceutical exports to Africa, for instance, have soared from about US$250 million at the turn of the century to some US$3.6 billion (S$5 billion) currently.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also offered students from the 54 African states as many as 50,000 scholarships over a period of five years. Many students pick India over China, sensing deeper kinship with Indians. Rather than sending back African youth with sound skills and goodwill for the country, a permanent sour taste for India may well turn out to be the result.

Besides, there is a substantial Indian diaspora in nations such as South Africa, Kenya and Uganda. Indian telecoms markets have a big presence in some key African markets. Surely, Indians haven't forgotten that Mahatma Gandhi's career as a civil rights activist began in South Africa after he was thrown out of a "whites-only" train carriage.

Right-thinking Indians are aware of their many prejudices and the cost this puts on the national image. Seven years ago, the Indian Supreme Court banned the use of the word "chamar" - the name of a low caste whose members tend to work in the leather trade (and hence, regarded as ritually polluted) - because, the court said, the term had come to have pejorative connotations.

Likewise, to its immense credit, India recently passed legislation to prohibit discrimination against people living with and affected by HIV. It applies in a range of settings, including employment, education, housing and healthcare, as well as with regard to the holding of public or private office, access to insurance and freedom of movement. It also bans unfair treatment of HIV-affected people with regard to accessing public facilities, such as shops, restaurants, hotels, public entertainment venues, public facilities and burial grounds. No other South Asian state has even considered such measures.

Time, perhaps, for India to accept that it has a serious racism issue on its hands that it needs to outlaw in a similar way.

Two years ago, the Modi government had said it would introduce laws to that effect, with proven offences fetching jail terms of as much as three years, and a fine. Indians have nothing to lose but their prejudices.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2017, with the headline 'India should confront its prejudices'. Print Edition | Subscribe