A close look at the discrimination and crimes targeting Africans in recent years reveals India’s deep-seated bias against dark skin. In the thick of the global #BlackLivesMatter movement, Indians would do well to remember and rectify the closet colourism prevalent in the country.
There’s a scene in the well-known Bollywood movie Fashion (2008) in which the protagonist Meghna (Priyanka Chopra), having descended into debauchery over a failed relationship, wakes up after a wild night of rave partying to find an African man sleeping next to her. As the camera zooms in on his bare back, she recoils at the sight, apparently hit by the realization of how low she has sunk. The racist connotations of her shock and horror couldn’t have been clearer.
Ironically, the same actor Priyanka Chopra – of Quantico fame – was part of a bandwagon of actors who dropped messages expressing solidarity with the George Floyd protests using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Kareena Kapoor Khan, Ranvir Shorey, and Disha Pathani were among the others.
Twitterati were quick to react to these stars’ calls for justice. They called them out for their pin-drop silence at caste-based violence and atrocities against minorities in India. They also criticized them for saying nothing when desperate workers, abandoned to their fate, traversed hundreds of miles on foot to reach home during the lockdown. And they correctly pointed out that both Chopra and Khan had endorsed “fairness” creams in the past.
It is important to note that these stars have also not uttered a word with regard to African nationals facing mob attacks and discrimination in India.
India’s “Black” Record
The brutal killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, set off a chain of events unprecedented in scale and impact. Protests roiled U.S. cities for weeks. Fresh outrage tumbled out as old wounds were reopened. Debates were ignited and history was questioned. In a ripple effect, there were demonstrations in countries such as South Africa, France, and the U.K. Statues of controversial racist figures were exultingly pulled down by mobs. Irreverence rent the air. Rebellion loomed large.
India, however, remained untouched by these protests and the message they embodied. George Floyd’s killing led to bustle on social media and that was it. And perhaps it wasn’t wrong of Indians to not raise a terrible hullabaloo over the U.S. incident after all. India’s own record of racist crimes against black people has been anything but white.
In 2014, Somnath Bharti, a Delhi Assembly legislator and his supporters allegedly conducted a midnight “raid” on a suspected drug and prostitution ring run by Ugandan women in Khirki Extension, a south Delhi locality. Though Bharti was subsequently charged with assault and molestation, the audacity of the attack – foreign women being targeted in the national capital –seemed unquestionably fuelled by racial contempt. In 2016 in Bengaluru, also known as India’s Silicon Valley, a young Tanzanian woman and her friends were attacked and stripped by a mob minutes after a Sudanese man (unknown to the women) ran his car over a local woman.
Watch: Racism against Africans in India
Again, one cannot help feeling that the nationality and race of the victims made them more vulnerable to the egregious assault. The same year, a young Congolese French teacher was fatally beaten by three men on a Delhi street following a dispute over hiring an auto-rickshaw. In 2017, Nigerian students were attacked in Greater Noida, on the peripheries of the national capital. Another was assaulted by a mob inside a mall. The attacks were allegedly prompted by the death of an Indian teenager due to an overdose of drugs, which his parents claimed were given to him by Nigerian students. Though diplomats from African countries condemned the spate of attacks as being “xenophobic and racial”, the Indian government refused to categorize them as racist.
The Might of White
According to the latest data in the All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19 (AISHE), Sudan and Nigeria are among the top six source countries for foreign students in India. For these young Africans, racism primarily assumes two forms, namely overt racism resulting in molestation, rape, and mob assaults; and covert racism leading to higher rents and rent deposits, extra commission, and steeper fares. That’s not all. From being ogled at to being ridiculed on the streets and called derogatory names such as Habshi(black person), Kaalu (black), and even N*g**, African men and women pay a heavy price for the colour of their skin.
Watch: Attacks On African
India is a country morbidly obsessed with light skin. So ubiquitous is this obsession, it transcends states, caste groups, and religious communities. This deeply-ingrained fascination for white skin and visceral prejudice against dark skin manifests in myriad ways. It can be seen in the unending demand for fairness creams. In the images of light-skinned gods and goddesses. In matrimonial columns teeming with terms as “fair bride wanted”. In the wild popularity of photo-editing apps that lighten skin tones. In innocuous nursery rhymes in which the thief is kala (black). In the lyrics of Bollywood songs that extol the heroine’s gore gaal (white cheeks).
Watch: Why India’s Fair Skin Business Is Booming
Despite being a country where swarthy people form the overwhelming majority, from north to south and east to west, light skin is uniformly regarded as an attribute of beauty. This bias can at least partly be traced to India’s larger evil of caste system. Since deep brown or black has traditionally been the skin color of those at the bottom of the hierarchy, namely the Dalits or untouchables, it is deemed disagreeable. In fact, the very term for this system of social rank on the basis of birth in Sanskrit – India’s ancient liturgical language – is Varna, whose primary meaning is color.
British colonial rule is also said to have exacerbated India’s racial prejudice. Not only did the British shamelessly display their white supremacist beliefs – underpinned by the concept of social Darwinism – but even fortified the caste system by allying with the elite. It was no mere coincidence that the elite in India then, like now, comprised high-caste individuals. The fact that power was wielded by those with light skin further reinforced the idea of white being the overarching symbol of might.
That blameless Africans should have to bear the brunt of India’s historical bias against skin colour is not just iniquitous, but flies in the face of the country’s vaunted tradition of hospitality, as embodied by the Sanskrit saying, AtithiDevoBhava(The guest is god).
The Pot Calling the Kettle “Black”
That scene in the movie Fashion, alluding that sleeping with a black man is the ultimate sign of the decline of an Indian woman’s moral character, cogently sums up our collective attitude to race. Though many Indians remain in denial, confronting the problem is key to battling, and ultimately defeating it. These hideous biases must be looked in the eye, not looked away from. Instead of airbrushing the countless crimes of colour, they must be made the subject of introspection. Us Indians – Bollywood celebrities, Hindutva right-wingers, and legions of light-skin lovers –enraged at Floyd’s killing and calling out Americans for their racism would do well to remember and rectify the closet colourism prevalent in our own country. Else it’ll be a classic case of the pot calling the kettle “black”.