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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.