Ranjona Banerji: All is not fair and lovely in India

We may be a nation where fairness creams fly off the shelves, but our society is quite unfair when it comes to racism or any discrimination

Ranjona BanerjiThe caste system never happened. Indians are not racists. No one discriminates against anyone. India is the most tolerant place on earth. And if you disagree with any of these statements, you are an anti-national, anti-Indian person who should immediately run away to Pakistan.

This is the response from so-called 'patriotic' Indians whenever an ugly side of Indian life becomes public. The best way to be a patriotic Indian therefore, is to pretend that nothing bad ever happens or to cover it up or to look the other way or, even, to actively take part in some act or gesture of discrimination. The status quo must never be challenged. Only then will the India they love survive.

Students stage a demonstration on February 4 in support of the Tanzanian nationals who were recently assaulted by a mob in Bangalore. Pic/AFP
Students stage a demonstration on February 4 in support of the Tanzanian nationals who were recently assaulted by a mob in Bangalore. Pic/AFP

Yes, it sounds like it's time to laugh. And it would be funny if it wasn't for the recent suicide of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad. Or the mob in Bengaluru which assaulted and stripped a Tanzanian woman because her skin was the same colour as a man suspected of killing an Indian woman in a car accident. Or all those 'right-thinking' people who cannot countenance that a woman might want to enter a mosque or a temple in the same way a man would. Or that people of other sexualities should not be treated as criminals.

Anyone who is seen as 'different' from the majority or the dominant section is apparently 'fair game' in a deadly combination of unfairness and injustice. And that is a reality in India, no matter now loudly you shout otherwise from the rooftops or how hard you try to silence anyone who holds up a mirror.

Are Indians racist? Of course we are. Unless you believe those crackpot theories that the caste system did not exist or did exist but was not discriminatory until Muslims arrived in India, you would know that discrimination is in our DNA. Certainly, every society in the world had its various differentiations of class and colour but most have changed since then. And no one managed such a strict classification and system of belittlement and entitlement as us. Caste maybe illegal in India but you see it raise its ugly head in society all the time. Unless you are a patriotic Indian of course: then you see nothing.

And then we can pretend that we do not look at dark-skinned people differently or that we do not either crave to be lighter-skinned or adulate the light-skinned. Across India — width and breadth — to be fair-skinned is seen as some sort of achievement. And yet, it is not even as if Indians look the same or we have some homogenous Indian standard: we can boast a vast variety of features and colours. The much-longed-for fairness also barely exists or would those bogus 'fairness' creams do such good business?

We need to understand how quickly a difference translates into making value judgments which then become an excuse for violent behaviour. In recent times, both Indians from the North East and people from Africa have been in the news for the threats, intimidation and violence they have been subject to. The excuses made by society — the inefficacy of our police and politicians is too well known to be surprised about — are disturbing and appalling. 'Those people' are tagged as 'the Other' and are therefore responsible for every kind of anti-social behaviour. No fair-skinned 'perfect Indian' has ever, it seems, committed a transgression let alone a crime.

This is not about politics and about political parties, even if they do try to muddy the waters further with their own prejudices and need to cater to vote banks. This is about us, because it is us who succumb to their games. Or allow them to exploit our bias. It is about the inability of some of us to put justice ahead of prejudice, to put inclusiveness ahead of age-old discriminatory practices, to be open to new ideas instead of being hidebound in bias. And then hide it in a muddle of fake 'patriotism' as an excuse for despicable behaviour.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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