One of the biggest international news this week has been the racial unrest in the USA. And another great tragedy which has been playing out for the last 2 months in India is the way our migrant laborer have been treated. I will try to go into these two recent happenings, draw parallels and look at the reality of what remains to be done.
I am sure you know about this, but a quick recap: George Floyd was a 46-year-old African American man who worked as a bouncer at a music club until he was laid off when the pandemic hit and Minnesota went into Lockdown.
On the 25thof May, a grocery-store employee called the police on Floyd around 8 p.m. and alleged he had tried to pass a counterfeit $ 20 bill. Derek Chauvin, a 44-year-old white police officer was one of the officers who responded. He, along with three other officers, apprehended Floyd and although the police claimed that Floyd “appeared to be under the influence” and resisted arrest, bystanders captured video of Chauvin restraining Floyd by kneeling on his neck, for as much as nine minutes, even as he kept saying that he could not breathe. Floyd was later pronounced dead at 9:25 p.m. at the hospital. The officers was fired on May 26th After some days of dilly-dallying, Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder and if convicted, he could face more than 12 years in prison.
In Minneapolis, protesters took to the streets in the days after Floyd’s death to denounce anti-black racism and police brutality. The slogans of these protests, ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ evoked a long history of similar police-related killings of black men, such as the 2014 deaths of Eric Garner in New York and Michael Brown in Ferguson. The protests continued to grow and spread to cities around the US and took a destructive turn from May 28 when a police station was set on fire. By the end of the first week, demonstrations and protests continued which claimed large-scale destruction of property.
The unrest comes at an especially perilous time during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has infected and killed more people in the US than in any other country and black Americans have suffered causalities disproportionately. The protests began just as many states were beginning to ease their stay-at-home measures. But our concern today is not about Covid-19; it is about race relations in the US.
President Donald Trump has inflamed the protests by calling protestors ‘thugs’, threatening to send in the military and suggesting in one tweet that ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’, an infamous phrase used in the 1960s by segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace and a Florida police chief who threatened a violent crackdown on civil-rights protests. Trump, a Republican who is running for re-election in November, has a history of inflaming racial tensions. He blamed ‘both sides’ for violence between white supremacists and left-wing counter protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and has been repeatedly castigating the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border.
But knowing President Trump, what he said is not news. The news is that Trump had to be briefly hidden in a bunker under the White House as hundreds rallied nearby. It is news that he had to walk back some of the outrageous remarks when, for the first time ever, Twitter censured one of his tweets as “glorifying violence” and blocked it from view. It is good news that Houston police chief criticized Trump for his handling of the ongoing protests and advised him to ‘speak constructively or keep his mouth shut’. And it is indeed welcome news and undeniably powerful imagery when a number of white people join black folks in solidarity.
The discourse this time in the US seems to be that a death like this happens, and they rage about it, then the headlines recede and the world moves on. A few weeks later something else happens and they are outraged again and then they move on, again and that they have to stop this cycle.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 1776, Declaration of Independence! Does all men here mean all humanity? Or white males? A struggle between pragmatism and emancipation? There is a thought that while equality here was itself limited sense, it was more in rebellion against the British crown with reference to representation and taxation. You would hear frequently that the spirit was feebler than the French Declaration. This can be another debate in a historical perspective but is not central to the purpose of my message today. And in spite of this strong foundation of liberty and life, it was only in 1865 that slavery was abolished. Then it was nearly 150 years before white women were allowed to vote and nearly 200 years before universal suffrage became a reality and all African Americans could finally vote.
This in a country which was born out of the concern for equality and liberty. 200 years! The underlying concept was the European philosophy of Enlightenment and a belief in this concept made people like Elizabeth Stanton, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King derive the moral and historical high ground for equality and achieve what they did. And yet the soft underbelly of racial divide is exposed frequently. Obama wrote on the protests that called on a new generation of activists to demand change. An extract, “If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals”.
While there is a rush of empathy and outrage for ‘Black Lives Matter’ in India as well, similar alignment of forces of public at large against caste, class and religious violence in India is largely absent. Is this not performative wokeness? People are more involved in promoting themselves, social media ‘likes’, or selling books and lectures, than about actual deliverables. Should woke be selective? Let me say something which may sound scandalous as the happenings in US go through censure and critique. Not good. The US, as so many other countries, has its undercurrents of racism yet we do not need to show solidarity with them but to learn from them. We in India only embraced these principles 70 years ago and have a long way to cover. There is no gainsaying that the Indian freedom movement and its constitution were more potent attempts for social change; they must be viewed with the perspective that these changes evolved by drawing upon the concepts and wisdom, liberty and equality learnt from the west. Ours not being a natural progression towards a truly free society, we have a long way to go in spite of strong intervention by the governments and politics.
I thought for long whether it was correct to talk of these issues in the same breath, but a lack of empathy for the migrant labourers in our country could not be ignored or sugarcoated. One could see spontaneous outpouring of empathy and angst for ‘Black Lives Matter’. Standing in solidarity with other downtrodden communities seemed so meaningful; why are we not shaken by similar horrific violence right in our midst? Is there a double standard, a hypocrisy? Do privileged Indians speak out with similar alacrity about the apathy of the state towards the plight of migrant labour, violence against lower caste communities and religious mayhem? Lynchings. Police brutality. Absolute denigration of the underprivileged in our everyday life.
It does appear as if true solidarity has been replaced by a performative one. Bereft of sincerity, it is a ride on the bandwagon of a fashionable cultural movement to emulate our western counterparts. Add to that the recent fad of calling out racism with anti-Trump sentiments which is like a new status symbol for Indians.
The comparison between American and Indian affirmative action systems becomes even more interesting upon observing that blacks in the US and lower castes in India share similar histories of discrimination. But there is a difference: in India, the government has legislated quotas and reservations, whereas in the US it is the society at large – including universities and colleges and corporations – which encourage wider participation of minorities through various outreach programmes instead of a quota regime. But have we reached even close to where the US is today? I am not at all speaking against our system of quota and reservations. Those are necessary.
I also do not intend to make this political. Disturbing that they are, I do not want to berate merely the recent happenings in our country alone. What I am talking about is you and me. Us. Have we changed the discourse in these 70 years?
We have countless videos of similar nature in circulation in India. Why is the debate on our stark societal infractions so binary, so politically-motivated. Why is the plight of all the underprivileged not met with the same anguish and pain? Do we need to check if we have a minority of good liberals and a majority of sham liberals? Why this litany of angry or insincere rhetoric from these so called liberals in India flowing with a political colouration?
Violence, physical or verbal, is the norm in India. We have to shred apart our collective subconscious and the explicit political tools which justify all instances of violence and indignities. Why have the gross cases of inequality and execution of repressive actions become so invisible to the privileged? Would the average Indian upper caste or class respond with the same empathy and shock to any institutional murder of a lower caste or underprivileged class person? Examples abound. I will steer clear from naming instances as most of these incidents have assumed a political prism. My point is that numerous instances exist but the debate is derailed in some form of political one-upmanship.
Genuine empathy can never be zero-sum and so outrage over injustice in India and the US are not mutually exclusive, so a comparison between them is not reductionist. The asymmetry with which these incidents of violence are received, the selectiveness with which people react, are good indicators for comparison. Just as black lives are treated as less valuable, are Dalit lives more disposable?
In India, we have another problem. Our colonial legacy has conditioned us to emulate the west and racism is no exception. Consider the treatment frequently meted out to African and even North-East Indian students in the rest of India.
We conveniently ignore the fact that we, all the educated well-to-do, benefit from a power structure that oppresses all those on lower levels of a forced socio-cultural hierarchy. Take for example, our police. No one can deny the police have a tough job. But they are peace officers, to protect all of us. But what is the lasting image of police during the migrant labourers’ crisis and that of others with no means to survive without daily work? The baton and the lathi. Those not privileged enough are the ones who bear the brunt of police brutality. The ‘order’ in ‘law and order’ does not mean the deadly suppression of underprivileged people; when will it start to mean transformation to a society so we can all feel free and safe to live in peace with each other?
Let me make a reference to the book Sapiens by Yuval Harari. Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of landscape, animals and perceivable racial differences and on the other hand, the imagined reality of nations, corporations, religions. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful. One such imagined reality is equality of all humans, universal liberty and demolition of racial divides.
Intersubjectives exist for good reason. Laws exist for the benefit of society but they are made up by humans. Money is useless on its own, but if we say it holds value, it does. Gods and nations are some of the most powerful coordination technologies out there, allowing Sapiens to work, trust, and even die for complete strangers. Unlike all other species, humans can cooperate in flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That is why we rule the world. I quote, “Humans have no natural rights, just as animals have no natural rights. But don’t tell that to our servants, lest they murder us at night.” Existence of human rights is a result of growth of intersubjectivity constructed by humans themselves.
We in India have to construct a new imagined reality for ourselves. We have to keep repeating it till becomes a powerful force like so many other imagined realities of our world. Instead of perfunctory sympathy and performative resistance, we ought to learn from the bravery and resilience of all those on the frontlines of this fight. To do justice to the communities protesting this oppression the world over, we need to do more than just pay lip service to these movements and take up the fight against systemic casteism and classism and racism here in India. We have to dismantle the structures of power that keep us from reimagining a collective future.
The all-pervading caste system in India has its roots in some form of racism or colourism in the past; the caste system has been institutionalized in India since ancient times. In later medieval period it was called in question by Muslim invaders and later Christian missionaries, providing an alternative to the Dalits who converted to Islam and Christianity to get rid of the curse. But the system of discrimination was actually cemented as the rulers in medieval period as well as the Britishers were lighter skinned. We as people have not been motivated enough to impugn the clear divisions along caste or racial lines. But the issue is largely intersectional. The oppression people face due to casteism is paired with, and magnified, by gender, social status, financial status and education. Despite the longevity of the issue, why is the civil society not seriously beginning to dismantle entrenched discriminations?
The presumption of equality is a manufactured belief, agreed upon among reasonable persons for a practical political purpose; it is based not on some natural fact that all humans are truly equal but on an attempt to eliminate the risk of destructive disagreement that would arise when natural inequalities are used as a justification to rule or dominate. Only equality can be agreed to be an undoubted right on which to found government. So far so good. But this manufactured belief must pervade and overwhelm our thinking too, our mind sets, for it to totally eliminate the periodic fissures between races, castes, classes, religions.
Movements against beliefs held over centuries must start to gain momentum if Indian society has to head strongly towards a more inclusive and progressive future. Many organizations centre their education initiatives on younger generations, because they are the future, open-minded and willing to change their imagined beliefs which we can also call their worldview. Most of the activists leading movements against obvious disparities are based in cities and while their work could be a vehicle for change and liberation, those in remote rural villages, especially young women, are not necessarily granted the same opportunities. Effective and lasting change for the entire country will only be made possible when everybody is liberated from the deeply-ingrained societal racism.
Friends, India is not at all immune to the disease of racism and inequality. The conversation I am trying to provoke now on inequality is one which is either sidestepped or lost in a maze of politics. It can be difficult, but it is a conversation we need to have with our children, our neighbours, our co-workers, our classmates, our community and our leaders. We need it to happen and we need it to start now.
Former General Manager, Integral Rail Coach Factory, Chennai