US confronting demon of racism, India faces demons of intolerance

June 14, 2020 08:34 PM
Protests in US against fascism

Are we as a society racist? You bet we are! Note the obsession with having a fair complexion and the terrible way we treat Africans. But the real disgrace is the continuing bias against SCs, and the bigotry on display

Rahul Singh

George Floyd’s death by a brutal American policeman has resonated all over the world. It has stirred a debate on racism and bigotry, as Floyd was an African-American and the policeman a white. Some 4 crore American citizens are African-American (they were called “blacks” before, and earlier “negroes”), who trace their origins to Africa. Their forefathers were brought to the US under appalling conditions to work on the plantations and as menial servants for their white owners (see that revealing TV serial, “Roots”, based on the book by Alex Haley). They were treated inhumanly, as virtual chattel with no legal rights.

The American Civil War of the 1860s was mainly over the issue of slavery, which had threatened to split the nation. US President Abraham Lincoln fought to keep the country united and though over 6,00,000 Americans died in the civil war and Lincoln was assassinated, the country remained united and slavery was abolished. Nevertheless, it took a century for the ‘negroes’, as they were then called, to get legal integration, to be able to put their children in mixed schools, to enter restaurants or take public transport. This was thanks to the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King (Jr). He, too, was assassinated. “Affirmative Action” by the government — similar to our reservation policy — was also put in place to narrow the wide social and economic gulf between whites and blacks. However, successful integration still eludes American society. Racism remains deeply entrenched, as the Floyd tragedy shows.

One direct result was the recent toppling of a statue in England’s Bristol city of Sir Edward Colston, a notorious slave trader. Another person who made his fortune from slave trading was Elihu Yale, the founder of the famous Ivy League Yale University. And guess where he was based when he made his millions? He was president of the East India Company settlement at Fort St George in Madras, as it was then called! From there, he conducted a flourishing slave trade of kidnapped Tamil and Telugu youngsters, who were transported to Europe and, primarily, to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

It came as a revelation that tens of thousands of Indians, mainly from the South, were sent as slaves to Europe, the East Indies and to British colonies. But there was a large import of slaves to India from Africa as well, mainly to the princely states on, or near, the western coast. Once, in the early 1970s, I went on a driving holiday to Saurashtra with some friends. While travelling through the Gir forests, we came across a village where the inhabitants were mostly dark-complexioned, with typical negroid features. An American graduate student, who had been there for some time, told us that they did indeed have African ancestry and that their forefathers had been in the employ of a nearby Saurashtrian ruler, who had later settled them in the village. They still followed the customs and rituals of their African homeland, she related.

Many other African slaves came from what is now Ethiopia and though dark-skinned, their faces were aquiline, without the typical negroid features. They were tall and strikingly handsome. They also made great warriors and were enlisted in the armies of Maharashtrian and Kannada rulers. Some rose through the ranks. They were known as “Siddi” and one of them ruled Janjira, an island fort south of Mumbai that successfully resisted the might of the Maratha forces, and another, Malik Ambar, commanded a formidable army in Bijapur.

So much for history. Let’s get down to the present. Are we as a society racist? You bet we are! Note the continuing obsession with having a fair complexion and the lucrative sale of “fairness creams”. Also the terrible way we treat Africans. When I was residing in Chandigarh in the 1980s, there were hundreds of African students studying there. Some of them recounted the racism they faced. It made me feel thoroughly ashamed. And to think that these students would return to their countries and many of them probably go on to occupy senior positions. They certainly would not think kindly about India, and of Indian society.


And there is the case of West Indian cricketer Darren Sammy, who, while playing in the IPL, would be called “kalu” by his Indian teammates. He thought it was a word of endearment, until he recently learned the real meaning — “blackie”.

But the real disgrace is the continuing discrimination against those labelled as the Scheduled Castes. The practice of untouchability was legally abolished a long time ago but continues, especially in the rural areas. Even Sikhism, which preaches equality, as does Islam for that matter, has not been able to shake off the caste system. There are still villages in Punjab with wells where Dalit Sikhs cannot draw water, and gurdwaras where they are denied entry. The reservation policy, perhaps because of misuse, has hardly made any difference in bridging the social and economic divide.

Is the way Indian society looks down on Dalits racism? Perhaps not, as colour is not involved, as in the US. But it is a deeply ingrained prejudice, based on the odious Hindu caste system that still governs the Indian mind. And to me, that is worse than racism. We need another Dr Ambedkar.

As destructive as prejudice is bigotry. With bigotry, religion is inextricably linked. Sadly, bigotry in India has increased in recent years, not gone down. Hate speeches against another religion and lynchings go unpunished, meat is checked by vigilantes when being transported, the police take no action, the politicians remain mute, the media cowers, and the public often applauds. The spreaders of hatred get elected to office. USA is confronting its demon of racism. It is time we face our own demons of intolerance.

— The writer is a veteran journalist

Have something to say? Post your comment