India is a country with diverse regions, languages, castes, religions and races. As a nation, India has been in the forefront for propagating values like ‘unity in diversity’ and pride in multiculturalism, both in the national and international forums. India’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa can never be forgotten. But in practice, Indians have failed to accept and respect its heterogeneity resulting in the social exclusion of ‘others’. This social exclusion is often the result of discrimination based on race or differences based on physical attributes such as colour of the skin, facial structures etc.
Though racial discrimination is prohibited by law and may not be practised at the institutional level, but its effects in everyday life are regularly experienced by people from ‘other’ ethnic groups who live in a different geographical or social landscape. For example, there is an anti-Bihari sentiment across the country, a South Indian is called “Madrasi” and a person from North East is called ‘chinki’. These are just few of the many cases. There is also a never ending prejudice against black or dark-skin, always giving preference to a fair-skinned person, in India.
To exclude racism, various groups and experts have demanded the enforcement of an exclusive anti-racism law. However this demand is much in debate as the other side of the argument is that racism is a social problem that exists in the minds and attitudes which cannot be addressed unless the minds of the people are connected through integration and promotion of cultures of other ethnic groups.
Injustice inflicted by racism
Indians often see themselves as victims of racism, inflicted particularly by the West. However time and again, Indians have themselves been perpetrators of race based violence towards others whom they consider as inferior.
State of North Easterners in Metro Cities
Death of a 19 year old student Nido Tania; physical assault of an engineering student in Bangalore and attack on two youths by few locals in Gurgaon are still fresh in our memory. Though these are three different tragedies, what is common to all these incidences is the shameful fact that these are racist crimes committed against the North East people in mainland India.
According to a police record, the national capital has witnessed a rise in racial crimes against people from the North Eastern Region (NER). Out of 847 phone calls this year (till mid November), the police received 650 calls concerning racial discrimination against the people from NER. The Bezbaruah Committee that was set up under the chairmanship of Mr. Bezbaruah to look into the racial issues faced by the North Easterners, highlights that over two lakh people have migrated to Delhi from North Eastern states between 2005 and 2013 and about 86% of them have faced some form of racial discrimination.
There have been several racial attacks against people from Bihar who migrated to other parts of India mainly for employment. However they have been subjected to severe social exclusion in other states. Between 2000 and 2003, anti-Bihari violence led to the deaths of upto 200 people and created 10,000 internal refugees (MS Academic, 2012).
In February 2008, migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who settled in Mumbai for jobs were charged of being ‘infiltrators’ and accused of spoiling the Maharashtrian culture. Orchestrated riots and anti-migrant political campaigns routinely target migrants from other states and protest their presence in the city, even today.
Outsiders vs Tribals in North East
There have been series of massacres and bomb attacks on migrants from other states even in the North East. Discrimination and violence faced by ‘outsiders’ or ‘non-tribals’ in the North East have continued for a very long time, resulting in declining population of ‘non-tribals’ in Meghalaya, from 20% when the state was formed to below 10% (Tehelka).
An ‘outsider’ is called a ‘Dkhar’ in khasi, a pejorative term for people from other ethnic groups including Bengalis, Nepalis, and Biharis.
African nationals are stereotyped as drug peddlers or sex workers in India. They are made victims of derogatory remarks like ‘negro’ or ‘kale’ (black), physically abused on the streets, and are also made victims of administrative (like police) apathy. The most recent demonstration of this is the brutal assault of African students in one of the metro stations of Delhi. These students protested being photographed by few local youths. In response, the African students were attacked by the locals and alleged of misbehaving with a woman, without any evidence. The victims sought police protection, but in vain.
Anti Racism Law in India: the debate
Need for an anti racism law
Article 15 of the Indian Constitution prohibits any race-based discrimination by the state. Such a fundamental right like Article 15 guarantees protection to victims of racial crimes committed by the state but fails to guarantee protection from private individuals. Additionally, anti-discrimination legislation also fails to acknowledge racism that is ‘invisible’ and executed through certain tone or gesture.
The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act is one of the foremost anti-discrimination legislations in India. Though the act protects significant number of persons from the North-East as majority belong to the Scheduled Tribes, it fails to protect non tribal from the region and other communities in India who are victims of xenophobia.
Recognising these gaps in the existing domestic laws, there have been demands for an anti-racism law from various groups and activists. However, the prospects of an anti racism law should be looked at holistically, such that it is able to tackle the issue and protect the interests of every vulnerable individual and group, both national and non-nationals, without being biased towards a particular group. One has to also see whether an exclusive law like this can eradicate every form of racism? Xenophobic exclusions and other forms of ethnicity-based discrimination are legally forbidden in the United States, yet it continues through indirect forms of expression, prevalent as ‘symbolic racism’ or reflected in socioeconomic inequalities like employment opportunities, homeownership, and income levels etc. For example, there is disparity in homeownership between African-Americans and the Whites, which is an indicator of the racial wealth gap, according to a recent study from Brandeis University.
The other side of the debate- need to strengthen existing legislations
Contrary to the advocates of anti-racism law in India, there are activists and groups who suggest correcting and strengthening existing legislations on anti discrimination. According to Mr. Bezbaruah, the chairperson of the Bezbaruah Committee, “We need a quicker solution because these crimes are increasing rapidly, when they should be decreasing.” In his views, the “introduction of fresh legislation would be lengthy; the government must consider swift reform of existing laws.”
The Bezbaruah committee recommended adding sections to India’s Penal Code, including making a “word, gesture or act intended to insult a member of a particular group or of any race, punishable with a maximum of three year jail sentence and a fine.” The other recommendation from the committee includes setting up designated courts to deal with racial conflicts, making Police more responsible and increasing role of media, NGOs, private sector in addressing the issue together. Promotion of other cultures and spreading awareness amongst people about various social groups and culture is necessary to curb the problem.
In a survey poll carried out by the Morung Express, a Nagaland based newspaper, majority of the people said an anti racism law is unlikely to protect the people of North East from racial discrimination. “Racism is a social problem and it can only be solved at the societal level……………Only a paradigm shift in societal attitude will minimise racial discrimination.”
Racism is a social problem
Racism originates from intolerance towards other cultures to faulty prejudices against them. Since the ethnic minority or an individual belong to a different social landscape, their behaviour and lifestyle is absolutely unknown to others who develop wrong perceptions about them. There is an utmost need to address racism not just through legal discourse but also through sensitising people about other ethnic groups and cultures. It is essential to deconstruct faulty perception and half truth that have been passed on through incorrect narratives. Role of universities, media, sports and tourism become crucial in creating awareness and integrating people (both national and non-nationals) of different background.
Racism is India has a very long history; however there has been lack of voice against such injustice. We all have to accept our share of the responsibility in supporting racism either by pretending that it does not exist or by preferring to stay silent on the issue. There has to be zero tolerance towards racial discrimination not because it is against ‘our’ people but because it is against human dignity. Academics, thinkers, artists, writers, activists, journalists, professionals and students must challenge any form of discrimination through debates, discussions, writings, complains and protests.
Strengthening law enforcement agencies and institutional support also becomes significant. Attitude of the police, who are often charged of harassing victims of racial slurs, needs to change. As also recommended by the Bezbaruah Committee, concerned state and central government bodies like state bhawans, should play a more proactive role in providing support to migrants. Fast track courts should be set up in States, exclusively to handle crimes committed on grounds of race.
Time to put an end to ‘Racism’
India's contribution to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa has been highly acknowledged globally. Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, as a national ideology, India has shown an uncompromising attitude towards any form of institutional racism. However this pride and India’s own freedom struggle becomes meaningless as long as racism exists, even if at an individual level.
Racism is a form of exploitation and it will continue to exist as long as we deal with the problem half heartedly. Resorting to legalistic means cannot be ignored, but complete eradication of this problem is only possible when people develop solidarity towards their countrymen and also non-nationals, by destroying artificial differences on the grounds of culture, language, physical features and colour.