There’s a Facebook album that was doing the rounds – a compilation of social media posts of all the overtly racist statements people have either witnessed or experienced themselves in the UK after Brexit. I went through some of the extremely horrifying and heart-breaking pictures a few days back, and it got me thinking. The unfortunate reality is that while the public way in which people are now thinking it acceptable to tell other human beings to “go home, we voted for you to leave the country” was shocking, the sentiment itself is unsurprising.
The rise in racism, xenophobia, and the anti-immigration rhetoric in the West is well-known, especially since the 23rd of June, and I don’t want to restate any of it. The simple fact that Brexit even happened, and that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican Candidate – both thought to be such preposterous ideas when they were first proposed, speak for themselves.
We, in India, are missing a certain irony to all this, though. We’re up in arms over Brexit – how it’s brought British racism to light and, more than that, given that racism a much larger scale advocacy. We’re focused on the racism that’s apparent in the West, where we are the victims, while feeling immune to being accused of racism ourselves, because we are ‘Brown’ and from a developing country. How often do we take a step back to express anger, or even reflect, on the racism that occurs daily at our very doorstep?
India has seen a spate of violence against African nationals over the past few years, especially in the so-called cosmopolitan and presumably more open cities of Delhi and Bengaluru. These attacks have continued even as India was ‘strengthening ties’ with the continent during October’s India-Africa Summit. The fears of Africans in India, as well as racial slurs and bureaucratic challenges that are faced by them on a daily basis, are well documented in the media.
If we were to look even more inward than that, we’re disgracefully racist and violent towards our own citizens, whether it’s people from the northeast, Muslims, Kashmiris, or Dalits, with Delhi being a hotbed of racist intolerance. A 2014 survey conducted by ReachOut Foundation found that as high as 54% of people from the northeast feel that discrimination is a reality in the National Capital Region. While a few cases are widely publicised, like the murder of Arunachal Pradesh’s Nido Taniam in 2014, incidents of violence and racial tension take place on a much more regular basis, but are swept under the rug or go unreported.
Muslims face similar issues, with rampant discrimination among landlords for house rentals, for example, resulting in a ‘ghettoisation’ in some cities. My Muslim friend from a well-off, influential family described to me recently her own struggles with finding a flat in Mumbai, as every landlord balked at renting to her after hearing her name. Racial tensions and the rejection of ‘the other’ are so strong that enough Kashmiris don’t feel a part of India. It’s no wonder that the secession debate has not yet been put to rest, even as we, ironically, express shock and betrayal over talk of secession while continuing to treat Kashmiris as second class citizens.
The similarity between these incidents in India and the recent spate of racist violence in the UK is not that a racist attitude innately exists, but that the political environment is such that it gives it a stamp of approval. Whether intolerance in India has increased over the past couple of years is still being debated, but incidents like the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, Rohith Vemula’s suicide, February’s events at JNU, and the audacity of the FIR that was recently filed against Akhlaq’s family for cow slaughter cannot be ignored. And neither can the deafening silence or lack of response that follows each incident, which, along with police inaction, forms the basis for tacit and systemic acceptance of racism in India.
Similarly, overtly racist name-calling and violence in the UK – previously isolated incidents – have now gathered momentum, fuelled by Brexit and the open, large-scale, systemic rejection of immigrants that some British citizens are taking it to exemplify. And come November, if Trump emerges triumphant, who knows what will happen in the US, especially given their lax gun laws.
These worldwide trends speak of a global increase in intolerance – evident in that both Brexit and Trump have gained steam on the backs of immigration concerns rather than any other argument, as well as the polarising voices of France’s Marine Le Pen and The Netherlands’ Geert Wilders. Countries increasingly look inward, whether as a result of economic motivators, a perceived threat to safety, or simply a crude rejection of ‘the other’. This intolerance, in turn, powers the systemic support to discrimination.
While this mindset might not have been as blatantly vocalised in India, our situation certainly mirrors these global trends, with the added complexity that our ‘looking inwards’ constitutes excluding a significant number of our own citizens. We have remained blissfully ignorant of it all the while, only speaking up when it starts to target us, apparent in the outpouring of angst in the past few days following Brexit. This racism has existed for decades in India, and will continue to do so as long as we do nothing until it affects us, a thought that was beautifully captured in Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem ‘First they came …’, which remains eerily relevant today. It talks of not speaking out for social groups who were under attack (by the Nazis) until, eventually, there is no one left to defend you. In a way, it parallels what we have been guilty of for so long – not speaking out against the attacks on ‘others’ in our own country, because we are a comfortable majority. As we now see the other side of it, as we become the victims and speak up, the question that begs asking is, who will stand up for us?