The Discriminatory Indian
Establishing identity through exclusion has taken a deadly toll on modern India
There are people in India who won’t even walk in the shadows cast by certain people: Those who are perpetually shadowed by their own heritage. These are the 200 million people in India who ‘unofficially’ belong to the ‘untouchable’ or Dalit community, many of their lives often relegated to the darkness. They’re systemically marginalized, discriminated against, and persecuted. They’re routinely asked to wash their own plates and cups in restaurants, forced to take up jobs that impinge on human dignity such as manual scavenging, and prevented from partaking of basic services, from haircuts to bus rides. Gandhi had excoriated the practice, renaming the community ‘Harijans,’ or ‘children of god’. Yet, these children of god are routinely denied entry into temples, and the term has now come to be associated with discrimination, as well.
Caste as a social construct is said to have been codified in the Manusmriti, an ancient Hindu text, around 1500 B.C., leading to the birth of the four varnas or classes, and the innumerable jatis or castes within these four divisions. The Dalits occupied the bottom of this pyramid of social order and were considered ‘unclean’, destined for menial work. But it wasn’t until the British came and saw the opportunity that caste presented in India, to ‘divide and rule’ its subjects, that caste took on a decidedly pernicious and malevolent hue. The upper caste Brahmins further used it as a means to subjugate the Dalits, and the latter were marginalized and segregated. The founding fathers of independent India, from Mahatma Gandhi and B R Ambedkar to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, ultimately enshrined the abolishment of untouchability in the Constitution of India and engraved the tenets of affirmative action into its very being, with reservations for socioeconomically vulnerable individuals in educational institutions and government employment. And yet, 70 years removed from those historic times, one third of Dalits make less than 2 dollars a day. Much has been written about their struggles, but one only needs to read a week’s worth of news to get an idea of their plight. Almost on a daily basis, the incidents pile on, with atrocities against Dalits tallying upward like the coronavirus count to which we’ve become so accustomed, our eyes glazing over in a survivalist inurement of sorts. But India’s desensitization to caste-based violence and discrimination is particularly wounding as it goes against the tenets of the Constitution that was ironically built on the very blood and sweat of those who fought for India’s own independence from colonial subjugation. I will come to the concept of Indian identity, shortly.
Discriminatory practices carry particular import in the international community now, as the world has woken up to the struggle of black people, after the tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Discrimination shares universal similarities when a segment of society is treated as ‘second class’ for the purpose of socio-economic oppression and ideological subjugation. But there are differences between the clarion call that led to the awakening of the American conscience and consciousness and the Indian situation. In the wake of the COVID – 19 lock down in India, when millions of the nation’s internal migrants were existentially suffering, with no food and shelter, walking back over hundreds of miles in the blistering heat to their home towns, they were initially patently ignored by the same Indian milieu that has made its voice heard, understandably, in tweets and hashtags peppering the internet, over George Floyd. But, where was that empathy for their own citizens? Sense and sensibilities are lost in the digital mist and we lose perspective in our mind’s eye in the midst of cliché’s and jingoism. Further, we have yet to see an uprising from the migrants, unlike that of the African American community, which sustained its dissentious voice until the world was forced to hear. Migrants in India, many from lower castes, were just relieved to be alive and much too beleaguered by their struggles to rally together and rightfully protest against the collective apathy of a country that has come to internalize such discrimination as being normal.
In India, the 8-billion-dollar beauty and personal care industry counted Fair and Lovely, a skin brightening cream, as one of its evergreen best sellers, till very recently. The obsession with fair skin might not be unique to India, but its brazen mainstream acceptance, aggravated by famous Bollywood celebrities endorsing these products for a quick buck, the cavalierly whispered gossip around office water coolers and college lecture halls over another’s unattractiveness equated with dark skin, the overwhelming preference for fair-skinned brides and bridegrooms as expressed in matrimonial columns, and the oblique preference given to fair skinned individuals in job interviews and promotions, collectively, is decidedly Indian, and empirically factual. We are open about our biases in a manner that many elsewhere would consider shocking. This alludes to a cultural inurement.
There is a reason why the IPL, the Indian Premier League of cricket, which came into being around 10 years ago, ostensibly to promote healthy, inter-regional cricketing competition, is such a huge success, outside of love for the great game. We are heartbreakingly parochial as a nation and the tournament tapped into that rich vein of regional Indian instinct, to tout our own and be hostile toward ‘others’. It gave vent to our insular neurosis.
One just has to look at the immediate history of India, in relation to its handling of Indian Muslims over the last year, to see the extent to which discrimination has taken root into the bones and blood of our country. First, there was the abrogation, last August, of Article 370 of the Constitution, which had guaranteed special status to the mostly Muslim Kashmir, a tenet of legality deeply valued for its symbolism by its citizens. They were now, no longer special. Then, in November of 2019, the Supreme Court ruled against Muslims in the long-running disputed land case in Ayodhya, favouring the Hindus, who had brought down a mosque on the contentious holy site claimed by both Hindus and Muslims, 30 years ago, leading to violence and bloodshed. Finally, in December 2019, the government decided to forge ahead, with the CAA – the Citizenship Amendment Act. The Act, in short, seems to discriminate against citizens based on their religion. It led to mass protests across the country, which only petered out last year when the pandemic carpeted the world in a different sort of gloom, and people needed to physically segregate. Social distancing might have become a way of life this past year but in India, physically and professionally isolating people through casteism and classism, social and religious isolation, economic and opportunistic disparity, has been happening long before the pandemic.
Public educational and healthcare systems are so intrinsically deficit that those who can afford it, send their loved ones to private institutions, enhancing the fault lines of a fractured system that is rigged from within, perpetuating income disparity.
So, who is an Indian? And, how Indian are different Indians? Outside of possessing a passport or more likely, an Aadhar (identity) card, and ancestors from the soil, how does one quantify Indian-ness? Even this is an exercise that our current government won’t overlook lest someone falls accidentally through the cracks and finds himself undeservingly Indian, with money being spent on the NRC (National Registry of Citizens) and NPR (National Population Registry) exercises, to document citizenship and demographic statistics. Gandhi’s inclusive notions of empathy and kindness toward all seem lost in the mists of Time.
Turning to ideological philosophies to categorise the Indian persona has historically proven troublesome. Our country had its political birth in the tenets of conservative ideology, and this has seeped into civil society, as well. The socialist left-centric ruling Congress of post-Independence has given way to the nationalist BJP in power. Both are riddled with endemic contradictions. Our future leaders, the youth, are seemingly confused. Some characterize them as politically liberal but culturally conservative. The majority of young people still prefer arranged marriages and believe women should listen to their husbands. The majority think eating beef shouldn’t be a matter of personal choice. (The cow is sacred in India.) Yet, they revel in Western-inspired aspirational values from trendy clothes to fast foods, from Western education to popular music. India’s spiritual and constitutional founding fathers, Gandhi and Ambedkar, defied ideological categorization. Perhaps, we should look to them for clues as to how to see ourselves. Labeling people as leftist, secular, conservative, liberal, as a means to describe anything more than personality traits, is always going to be met with contradictory arguments, for every human being is the sum of varied characteristics. He could be left-leaning on certain matters and nationalistic on others. I am not averring ideologies don’t exist. They most certainly do, for their perceptual, intellectual and affective influence, and proof is in the blood red pudding:
Horrific lynching of Muslims and Dalits occur on a regular basis these days, targeting them as ‘beef eaters’, thinkers and writers are routinely jailed for even cautiously expressing their minds, ‘rational thinkers’ such as Narendra Dhabolkar and M M Kalburgi, shot dead, movies are routinely banned and books are burned. Even academic institutions, bastions of free thought and intellectual growth, are subjugated to violence on religious lines, as was the case in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Delhi, recently. Insular members of society have found a voice in this current, divisive political environment, giving vent to their primitive instincts and parochial behaviour, to mask their own frustrations at the misery in which they find themselves, in a country which ranks behind Botswana, Mongolia and Nepal in the Social Progress Index rankings of 2019.
Yet, it isn’t all gloom. There have been sparks of progress on the inclusivity front. On 6th September, 2018, the Supreme Court legalized consensual gay sex, allowing a long-silenced voice to be heard unfettered, after a long struggle. Just recently, the cosmetics industry was issued a directive to rebrand and rename skin-lightening creams and products. The start-up ecosystem in India is fecund and prolific, where young entrepreneurs buck the system and intrepidly innovate technology and services that take India forward, inclusively. And yet, on every street corner, we are reminded of why India is the world’s poster child for disparity. The juxtaposition of the haves and have-nots is rarely witnessed more strikingly, in all its Dickensian tapestry, in a desi or Indian sense, than when we take a walk down any city street in India. This is because, in the economic revolution that India is undergoing, not everyone is benefitting equally. The rich are growing even richer, with India minting 3 billionaires a month, the poor are being left behind with around 200 million Indians going to bed hungry every night, and the middle class isn’t shifting much in its aspirational journey, not for want of trying. For this to fundamentally change, we need a paradigm shift at the Bottom of the Pyramid, tackling fundamental paucities in food, shelter, education, healthcare and employment. Only when this happens to the extent that it creates definitive traction in our developmental indicators, will India truly live up to its potential.
India is a land steeped in borderlines. Whether we are building walls to block out the visual of a slum settlement for President Trump’s cavalcade, which happened last year, whether we are socially ostracizing our classmates due to caste and skin colour, the former poignantly illustrated in the beautiful Marathi movie Fani, and whether we are lynching people to death for their religion, or denying them basic medical care due to caste, we are in the shadows of insularity, caught in a miasma of bigoted confusion and angry jingoism, mistaking it for a universal Indian identity. It isn’t going to get us far or win us any friends. We need to acknowledge the bitter truth that the rage we feel inside is mostly directed at ourselves. We chose to elect those in power. We may stare aghast at the atrocities befalling vulnerable members of our society, from women to religious and socio-cultural minorities, but it is economic segregation that has led to the fomenting of misplaced anger. We are all collectively, to blame for the poignant chaos that is Modern India, divisive, disparate, and utterly discriminatory.