Racism in India

As Bengaluru mob strips Tanzanian woman, it's time to ask why bigotry is so ingrained in India

The mob's action was solely driven by the woman's race. What does this say about India?

Bengaluru is India’s city of the twenty-first century. India’s Silicon Valley, it’s often called, drawing upon our penchant for American parallels. Well, here’s another American parallel: racism. On Sunday, a mob assaulted, stripped and paraded a 21-year-old Tanzanian student, later on setting fire to her car as well. Her only fault was that she was passing through the same neighbourhood where, an hour before, a Sudanese student had run over and killed a resident. The enraged mob simply picked on the Tanzanian woman because she was of the same race as the Sudanese driver.

How did the police react? The Deccan Chronicle reported that when the woman approached the police station to register a complaint, she was turned away. Come back when you have the name of the driver, she was told. Later on, a local politician, BS Shankar, even went so far as to justify the violence.

Bosco Kaweesi, Legal Adviser to the All African Students Union in Bengaluru said, in exasperation, “She’s Tanzanian, the man who caused the accident comes from Sudan, they didn’t even know each other."

Pervasive feature

Collective mob justice is a pervasive feature of Indian society. Usually it’s based on religion or caste but, in this case, the identity picked up was race, a feature getting increasingly common as significant numbers of Africans move to India for work or education.

In 2013, Nigerians suffered racist attacks across Goa, even as state Minister Dayanand Mandrekar called them a cancer. So severe was that episode that Nigerian diplomats warned of a backlash back in Nigeria against Indians working there. In 2014, a mob assaulted two Africans at a Metro station in Delhi. The incident, captured on camera, depicted a frightening picture of racism, as the mob tried to get at the two men cowering, ironically, inside a police booth. Earlier in Delhi, a state minister himself led vigilante justice against the city’s African residents.

Bigotry based on skin colour has a chequered past in India. At one level, Indians are obviously racist given how much value we attach to light skin, even propping up a huge cosmetics industry to make Indians fairer – an entire nation of Micheal Jacksons. Language and pop culture reflect that as well. One of Bollywood’s evergreen songs tells of how even a “dark-skinned man” can be a good person. Languages like Hindi and Punjabi have their own N-word: habshi.

India’s African elite

Of course, India also does not have the debilitating legacy of western slavery based on race (it was based on caste instead). Black Africans have been a part of India’s elite in centuries past. In the medieval Deccan, for example, people of African-origin were highly-prized as ace sailors and mounted warriors. In the 17th century, the Abyssinian Malik Ambar rose to become the regent of the Ahmadnagar Sulatanate. His army consisted of Marathas, including Maloji, grandfather of Shivaji, and Ambar’s methods of guerrilla warfare came to dominate the Deccan. In 1672, as the Aurangzeb ordered a naval siege on British Bombay, the Mughal fleet was commandeered by a man of African-origin.

Descendants of those Africans who came to India, now make up the Siddi community, also derogatorily called Habshis. After their heyday in medieval India, they now face discrimination for being dark-skinned.

People who have tried to bring attention to India’s frightening culture of majoritarian intolerance over the past year have been shouted down, vilified and mocked. But pushing problems under the carpet usually makes things worse. India has multiple faultlines of bigotry already. To add race to that is an alarming prospect.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.