Battles with racism in India's own backyard


CHENNAI, India — It has long been known that India has its own brand of racism, manifested in a number of ways. Largely out of sight from the rest of the world, the malaise needed the gutsy chief minister of India's northeastern state of Mizoram, Pu Lalthanhawla, to get dramatic exposure.

"I am a victim of racism," he told an international forum on water recently in Singapore, leaving his fellow delegates red-faced. "In India, people ask me if I am an Indian. When I go south (India), people ask me such questions. They ask me if I am from Nepal or elsewhere. They forget that the northeast is part of India."

The chief minister's remarks come at a time when New Delhi is protesting racist attacks on Indian students in Australia. His observations, though embarrassing, have a strong basis. For a long time, men and women from the northeastern states have found themselves alienated because of their facial features, which are very different from the rest of Indians.

Students, for instance, have found it harder to get college or university seats or to find living accommodations. They have also been victimized by fraud.

Prejudice against color and caste is a serious issue in a nation that essentially consists of three races — the Aryans of generally fair complexions from northern States, the usually dark-skinned Dravidians from the south and the light-colored people with Mongoloid features from the northeast.

It may sound ridiculous that Indians who fight against color bias are themselves practitioners of it. To this day, most matrimonial advertisements in the media ask for fair brides. Dark girls are often discriminated against, and it is not rare to find their families being forced to part with a huge dowry to find a groom. Wheatish-looking actress and social activist Nandita Das felt harassed for a long time because of the way her makeup men tried to paint her face a deathly

Of late, Indian men appear increasingly conscious of their skin color. A range of cosmetic products promise to make them fairer and "more handsome," clearly indicating an unhealthy link between complexion and the image of beauty. The dangers of such advertising cannot be
underestimated in a nation where various forms of racism create havoc that threaten the very fabric of a peaceful society. Caste is one form, a horribly dividing force.

Hinduism involves four main groups: the upper-caste Brahmins or priests, the warrior/ruling Kshatriyas and Vysyas or traders, the lower Sudras, and the Untouchables or Dalits, who face awful discrimination, cruelty and hostility.

In many remote and not-so-remote regions, Dalits live in ghettos, have their own water wells, may not worship in temples and risk their lives if they dare fall in love with men or women of upper castes. Murders related to this occur often, though they are not reported regularly.

Caste differences, of course, predicate unmistakable class distinctions. Dalits are often poorly educated and economically weak; success, like that achieved by Mayawati, chief minister of the central Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, tends to be an exception. She battled the odds, studying to become a teacher in New Delhi before politics beckoned her.

Clearly education holds the key to Dalit welfare, but despite six decades of seat reservations for them in schools, colleges and jobs, Dalits have not been able to surmount society's deep-rooted
discrimination. Some may argue that caste and race are not the same, but the implications are the same: discrimination based on birth. Race and caste are two sides of the same coin.

The Indian Constitution provides equal rights for all and caste discrimination is a punishable offense. Yet, the Dalit community faces rape, murder, hate campaigns and other forms of injustice every day. Much like blacks in the American South before 1960, Dalits must use
their own public facilities in many parts of India.

Racism is invariably a deep-rooted prejudice that may take years more of radical education and enlightenment before it is eradicated. Till then, India had better think hard before castigating people in other countries for segregation of and attacks on its citizens.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based journalist who writes for several newspapers across the world.


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