Anti-blackness is still a galvanizing force in India, writes Nilanjana Bhowmick.
In 2017, when a 19-year-old went missing from home in Greater Noida, a suburb of the Indian capital, locals raided the house of five Nigerian students living a few doors away, accusing them of being cannibals who had eaten the youth. Later the youngster returned in a state of severe intoxication – according to media reports at the time – and, a day later, died in a hospital, allegedly from a drug overdose. His father instigated the police to arrest the Nigerian students and slap murder charges on them for supplying drugs to the boy, charges which proved baseless.
Following the detention of the Nigerians, other African students gathered to protest outside the police station. Their slogans of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Skin tone is not a crime’ didn’t lead to hashtag wars in the country.
This is not surprising; racism is so deeply embedded in our daily lives that it doesn’t even register as being offensive. Calling a black person ‘kallu’ (a derogatory term derived from kālā, the Hindi word for black) or someone from northeastern India ‘chinky’ is considered harmless. Bollywood perpetuates racist stereotypes, with black people usually portrayed as mercenaries or drug lords. And while many Bollywood celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon to condemn police brutalities against black people in the US, they have not protested against these stereotypes in their own backyard. Or similar hate crimes against their fellow citizens.
Not many now remember a young man called Nido Taniam from northeastern India, who was killed in New Delhi in 2014 because of his East Asian features. He had stopped at a shop to ask for directions when the shopkeeper and a few other men began to taunt him with racial slurs. According to his friends, the men beat Nido with iron rods and sticks and made fun of his dyed blond hair.
His death highlighted the racism people from the northeast have constantly faced in other Indian regions, coming as they do from a less hidebound social and cultural milieu. The Delhi police’s crisis helpline for people from the northeast received over 1,000 calls in 2018. When the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, hate spiked. People from the northeast were spat on, thrown out of their homes, detained and forced to quarantine themselves just because they ‘looked Chinese’.
Racism in India is intertwined with hatred of the ‘other’ and the ‘outsider’. It has been harnessed as an electoral strategy and mainstreamed by the ruling rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Hindutva poster boy Narendra Modi. Hate crimes have rocketed and, according to Amnesty International’s Halt the Hate website, between January and June 2019, over two-thirds of victims were dalits (so-called ‘lower caste’ Hindus) or religious minorities like Muslims and Christians. Dalits were attacked over basic rights such as access to roads, water, crematoria and schools. Muslims and dalits were lynched by vigilantes who suspected them of killing cows, considered sacred in India.
Hate – racism is just one of its components – is India’s new religion. But many who now publicly voice outrage over black lives in the US have stayed resolutely silent about state-sponsored brutalities inflicted on Muslims and dalits. What will it take to prevent us from looking away when Africans in India say ‘Black Lives Matter’, or when a Muslim or dalit man gasps, ‘I can’t breathe’?