June 15, 2020, New Delhi: It’s been almost three weeks since George Floyd’s death. Outrage continues to vent and the debate has reached the shores of India. Indians have spoken out in large numbers, condemning Floyd’s killing at the hands of a cop as “racist”. But the furious outpourings can mostly be seen only on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
In the US, custodial killings of black people are commonplace. It is an almost institutionalised practice. The US government doesn’t keep any data for public access when it comes to racist killings of black people. Whether it’s a deliberate unwillingness to officially air such data, we don’t know. One can only guess.
According to Mapping Police Violence, a monitor on police brutality in the US, about 1,000 unarmed people die every year due to police violence. The chilling stat: about one-third of them are blacks. In 2019, blacks comprised 24% of the deaths in America from police brutality even though black people make up just 13% of the country’s population.
VERSE OF THE TORTURED
When the video of Floyd’s murder went viral in India, common people and celebs fumed and called it racism. Facebook and Twitter was literally on fire. But the same flock can hardly be seen airing their disgust when it comes to reported acts of racism in India.
“I can’t breathe” – the last words from Floyd before he choked to death – became a slogan of the Black Lives Movement since the 2014 custodial death of a black man called Eric Garner in the US.
The words have become an epitome of resistance against racism. It’s become a symbol of not just racism-related deaths, but of race-related torture and humiliation.
In India, which is celebrated as the world’s largest democracy, marginalised people perhaps say these three words every single day. Not because they are physically strangulated to death, but because they perpetually choke under collective acts of race-driven hatred and exclusionism. We cannot hear them call for help while choking. That’s because we don’t want to. We are not interested to hear them out; nor is the state.
MIGRANTS: OUR GEORGE FLOYDS
When India announced the coronavirus lockdown in March, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers were forced to set off on long walks back to their native places. With no state support extended to them, countless migrants died on the road, starving for food and water.
The famed Indian salaried middle and upper-middle classes saw it happening, yet stayed indoors, assured of their monthly income. They didn’t raise their voice against the historic blunder of the state to not make any arrangements to prevent migrants from dying on the roads.
The tragedy was not one off. Trains reached destinations with bodies of migrants. Kids watched their parents die and cried in horror. These migrant families suffered due to lack of food and water. Access to these survival needs is their basic constitutional right. But for an unfortunate many in India, “citizens’ rights” are just words. For more news reports, read here, here and here.
DALITS: OUR GEORGE FLOYDS
India’s deep-rooted caste system is yet another brand of racism that is over 2,500 years old. According to a 2011 census report, Dalits, a marginalised section of Indian society, comprise 201.4 million of India’s 1.3 billion people. India’s caste system considers Dalits to be on the lowest rung of social acceptability.
A look at the trend of Dalit killings shows how dark India’s present is. The reasons for hate crimes against Dalits are dumbfounding. They could get killed for non-issues such as drinking water from a public-use tap to eating in front of upper-caste people.
According to 2016 data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), over the last 10 years, hate crimes against Dalits have shot up 25%.
FRAGMENTED MINDSET, DIVIDED NATION
Yet another form of racism common in India is hatred between people from different states. We often call it regionalism. Bengalis hate Biharis, Maharashtrians chase people out who come from Uttar Pradesh, Assamese want the once-dominant Bengalis to back away, north Indians look down upon south Indians, mainlanders mock at Northeasterners – the list of racism within our borders is endless.
Most prominent is the discrimination that people from the Northeastern states face in mainland India. We have seen reports of a surge of racist attacks on people from Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh during the Covid-19 pandemic.
BLACK LIVES MATTER, BLACK WIVES DON’T
India’s obsession for fair skin is a minefield of racism that puts us on par with the most other racist places on the planet. The demand for fair-skin ‘bahus’ (brides) for arranged marriages is a classic example.
Skin colour is a no-compromise priority for traditional Indian families that search for prospective brides for their sons. No matter how technologically advanced or urban these families may appear, fair skin is always preferred over dark skin – it’s a must.
When a family places ads in newspapers for their son’s marriage (it still happens in Indian society!), the ad usually carries the words: ‘We want a bride with fair skin, who is beautiful, intelligent, working and an expert in household work.’ Some ads even say, ‘Ignore contacting us if the girl is not fair and beautiful.’
NEWBORNS, TOO, HAVE ‘COLOURS’
This deplorable trend exposes the hypocrisy of a society that takes potshots at other countries for acts of racism. We live in a country where people get disappointed when a baby girl is born ‘black’ or ‘brown’ (and these words are freely used in households). A fair-skin newborn is cheered more than a dark-skinned one. This ‘colour favouritism’ has been embedded in our society for centuries if not more.
Even Indian ministers are known to be making shameless, racist comments. Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar’s alleged remark about a group of nurses who were protesting – “Don’t protest in the sun, it will make you dark” – was widely slammed and reveals the Indian psyche about skin-colour favouritism.
OF WOUNDS AND FAIRNESS CREAMS
India’s deep-rooted love for fair skin has led to numerous fairness-cream companies cashing in on the booming demand for skin whiteners. TV channels are replete with embarrassing ads that show dark-skinned women turning fair after applying whitening creams.
According to a report published in 2018, titled: ‘India Fairness Cream & Bleach Market Overview, 2018-2023’, women’s fairness products are estimated to fetch mind-boggling revenues of over Rs 5,000 crore in India by 2023.
Despite sustained awareness campaigns against skin-colour obsession, such as the one driven by actor-director Nandita Das, who is often referred to as someone with ‘dark’ skin, many Indian women themselves have a bias for fair skin.
There’s another angle to it, one of a colonial hangover. Prominent billboards that can be seen hanging at public places and overlooking busy streets usually depict either white, western models or Indian models with pronounced fair skin. The ads of ‘desi’ brands are no exceptions.
‘YOUR SKIN LOOKS TANNED’
I am sure many women reading this article, who have been to salons or parlours, can recall getting the following offer from the staff: “Ma’am, your skin looks so tanned. Get it bleached, you will look fair.”
Capitalising on India’s love affair with fair skin, cosmetics giants are getting filthy rich. And they are being helped along by our own film industry stalwarts such as Deepika Padukone, Shah Rukh Khan, Shahid Kapoor, John Abraham and many others.
Is the same fair-skin-loving society in a position to lecture Americans on Floyd?
Indian society has its own assortment of troubles when it comes to matters of xenophobia. We actively practise racist acts at multiple levels – from killing Dalits to ignoring blue-collared migrants to hating Northeasterners to obsessing about fair skin.
‘Floyd’ may have happened somewhere far away. But Floyd-like racism is nothing new to India. Many such Floyds get killed here day in, day out. Do we raise our voices then? Shouldn’t we detox our own racist mindset before tweeting about what’s happening halfway around the world?