Vantage point

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Indian Collective Conscience's Blind Spot for Racism/Discrimination

A 2009 issue The latest issue of Outlook has this cringe-inducing article by Diepiriye Kuku, an African American (and presumably gay) PhD student in Delhi. There's nothing new about stories of discrimination faced by Africans or African-Americans or North-East Indians in major Indian cities. These instances are real and shameful. But for me, the most hard-hitting portion was not the one where Kuku describes the specific instances of discrimination he's faced (as shameful as they were), but this

Outside of specific anchors of discourse such as Reservations, there is no consensus that discrimination is a redeemable social ill. This is the real issue with discrimination in India: her own citizens suffer and we are only encouraged to ignore situations that make us all feel powerless. Be it the mute-witnesses seeing racial difference for the first time, kids learning racism from their folks, or the blacks and northeasterners who feel victimised by the public, few operate from a position that believes in change.
Bingo! Kuku has put in words an issue I have been discussing with friends for several years now.

When I tweeted this story, I got a few responses which said "yes, but Indians are also discriminated against in the West" and "Blacks face discrimination even in America, not just India" and "Discrimination is a universal human trait, so why single out India?" That last bit is valid. Discrimination or xenophobia is indeed a universal trait. We have all heard of people discriminating against outsiders or minorities all over the world. India is definitely not unique in that regard.

Where India is unique.....well I shouldn't say unique....but different from societies at least in the West, is the way its collective conscience views racism, or more broadly discrimination against those belonging to groups that aren't part of the "mainstream". We have a major blind spot there.

In the West, yes, everyday there are instances of discrimination on the basis of race and sexuality. But in the West, the collective conscience, or the social discourse recognizes that this is wrong. People use the term "politically correct" like a pejorative. But in the West, it is not considered politically correct by the society to come out and say that some races are inferior. Or that gays are inferior or abominations. Yes, some nutcases say that but in the West, the mainstream collective opinion holds the ideal of equality very dear.

That is largely missing in India. There is no general understanding that saying someone is inferior based on their race or sexuality is wrong. It does exist, in some degree, when it comes to caste. While casteism is still prevalent in India in various forms, the general collective discourse recognizes that saying certain castes are inferior is wrong. The opponents of racism using "merit" is often a code for implied inferiority, but even the use of that code is a "thank heavens for small mercies" byproduct of that Indian collective conscience as least recognizing casteism as wrong.

But when it comes to racism or homophobia, the Indian collective conscience still has a blind spot. Most Indians feel no compunctions in saying that a particular race is inferior or that gays are "unnatural" or "sick" or "disgusting". We humans may never be able to completely rid ourselves of xenophobia and discrimination, the way we may never be able to rid ourselves of murder and rape. But we can take a step in the right direction by at least getting our collective consciences to recognize that xenophobia or discrimination is wrong, just the way murder and rape.

India is yet to take that step. It is lagging behind the West by some decades. The West's conscience wasn't always enlightened. Before the 60s, it was perfectly acceptable to say in public that blacks are inferior and so should be segregated. Even until the 70s and early 80s, it was perfectly acceptable in the West to treat gays as abominations or mutations. But that isn't the case now. The Western conscience has moved and continues to move in the right direction.

I hope India's collective conscience does too. And soon.