If there is one pervading emotion that defines us as a country, it is denial. Denial is actually our national sport, but we’re too chicken to admit it, so we pretend it is hockey. Whenever someone is caught with their hand in the bigotry jar, their default reaction is denial. I’m not sexist, I just don’t subscribe to political correctness. It’s not racist if it’s true. In fact, you’re the one spreading hate by implying that my generalisations about a whole group of people are out of line.
Denial isn’t just limited to obnoxious people.
A couple of weeks ago, a car driven by a Somali expatriate ran over and killed a person in a neighbourhood in Bangalore. An hour later, when a vehicle driven by a Tanzanian expat was passing through the same neighbourhood, a mob attacked her, beat her, burnt her car and stripped her, while the police looked on.
That wasn’t even the worst part. When she went to register a first information report, the police told her they would only register one if she produced the Somali man at the police station. You probably know the guy since you’re both black, so why are you hiding him? Use your telepathic black people radar to locate the man, and then convince him to come to the station. Do our job for us and then we might do you a favour and register your complaint. Now go away. We need to tweet some sick puns for all our fans on Twitter.
So when this incident became international news, and various government agencies were shamed into doing their job, everyone and their uncle came out to deny that there was a problem. Miscellaneous politicians, current and former policemen, and assorted busybodies whose sole purpose in life is to find convoluted intellectual explanations for our culture of bigotry told us that the mob which stripped a human of their humanity and reduced them to a mere object of hatred wasn’t really racist, just angry. Well, someone with similar skin colour did something criminal, what were they supposed to do? Stand by and not take the law into their hands? If the Tanzanian national didn’t want to be lynched by an angry mob, she shouldn’t have been doing dangerous and provocative things like driving while being black.
Hiding in our cocoon
The state regularly abandons its more vulnerable citizens to the mercy of mobs, but instead of acknowledging this, we blame the victims. Even in condemnations of the defenders of the lynch mobs, a point that wasn’t stressed enough was irrespective of whether a person on the other end of a mob is guilty, beating them up is a crime too. There is a reason we have laws and courts and a Constitution.
We can’t deal with a problem if we can’t accept its existence. Instead of facing the cold, harsh wind of reality, we choose to remain in our comfortable cocoons of denial. If we can’t see it, then it doesn’t exist. We don’t realise that for those of us who are steeped in privilege, it can be difficult to imagine being trapped in a life that you don’t want to live.
When Rohith Vemula killed himself, he left a suicide note that implied that the constant discrimination he faced had left him with no other recourse than to take his life. That didn’t ruffle fans of the caste system, who interrupted their regular anti-reservation monologue for a bit to let us know that Vemula didn’t kill himself because of oppression, but because he was depressed. They knew what Vemula’s life was like better than Vemula did. He was fine! He was just having a bad day, that’s all. No need for anyone to introspect or anything. Even in death, they tried to deny him agency over himself.
Casteism didn’t end in the previous century. It didn’t stop because you don’t know what your caste is. Even today, there are millions in this country who are reminded of their caste every moment. Those who can’t escape the invisible prison they’ve been put in. But you can’t see that because you’re too busy congratulating yourself for being a good person who doesn’t even care about anyone’s caste.
Sure, you personally don’t discriminate. But the mere fact that in today’s world you can live your life and not know what caste you belong to means you’re immensely privileged. Privilege isn’t simply expressed in monetary terms. You don’t have to possess the ability to luxuriate in a tub full of caviar to be privileged. Your privilege is the advantage that you and those before you have accrued because of your position in the human pecking order.
We get it. You don’t see caste. That’s because you’re not getting run over by your classmates from the upper caste for daring to get more marks than them. You’re not the one being denied entry into a temple because you were born with the wrong surname. You’re not the one blocked from a promotion because the cosy club of casteists running your company don’t want to work with “one of those people”.
You should recognise the fact that if you haven’t faced discrimination yourself, haven’t knowingly perpetuated it or know enough about it to recognise when it happens to other people, your reaction shouldn’t be to deny its existence. Or you can continue to claim that everything is okay because your intentions are pure, despite there being overwhelming evidence to the contrary.