Colour matters. In India, it matters a lot. We knew that much before the recent attacks on people who are being described as African nationals.We knew that just on the basis of the persistence of fairness cream commercials, including those for men.
But black lives don't matter. For we must admit that not all people from Africa are insulted, jeered at, called all kinds of horrid names and every now and then beaten up and even killed. It is only those of a certain colour that we Indians seem to hate.
A hot topic that fizzles out soon
Over the last week or so, after Masonda Ketanda Olivier, a teacher from the Congo, was beaten to death following a fight over an auto-rickshaw in Delhi on May 20, the treatment of Africans in India has become the subject of much discussion. This is not the first time the issue has come to the forefront, though. It comes up each time there is such an incident – in Delhi, Goa, Bengaluru, or Hyderabad, just to name a few places.
Each time, there is a lot of talk and heated debates about racism in India, but then we move on – to the next bit of “breaking news.” The ignorance about the people we are abusing and beating up, however, remains a constant.
This ignorance is seen even in the manner in which the media reports such incidents.
Most newspaper reports, for instance, don't even bother to give us the full names of the victims or mention the countries to which they belong. For us, they are all "Africans".
But Africa is not a country; it is a continent. Many Indias would fit into Africa. Yet, routinely, everyone from that vast continent of 54 countries, each with unique histories, different political regimes and distinct societies, is lumped together under the sweeping rubric – African.
Not all these so-called Africans fit the image we have of them. There are many white people in Africa. These are African, too, but we don't think of them as such. Those living in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt aren’t black either, so they too don't fit into our notion of Africans.
As far as the average Indian is concerned, African means black.
Racism is a fact in India, no matter how hard our ministers try to deny it. Only a "minor scuffle," tweeted VK Singh – the Minister of State for External Affairs, no less – in reference to the attack on a group of citizens of various African countries in South Delhi.
The man who gave currency to the term "presstitutes" predictably blames the media for all this fuss. “Why is the media doing this?” he said, in a second tweet. "As responsible citizens, let us question them and their motives."
So question the media, but not the embedded racist attitudes in Indian society, he seems to suggest.
This is not to say that the media’s reportage of these incidents has been above reproach.
Apart from routinely using the words “African nationals” to describe all the victims, in the headline as well as in the copy, we are now starting to get reports of people from Africa involved in incidents of violence.
On Monday, the assault on a taxi driver by “Africans” was making news (and in Scroll too). Does every scuffle between passengers and taxi or auto drivers get media attention? And if it had, would the headline specify whether Gujaratis Bengalis, Punjabis, or other residents of any other Indian state had beaten them up?
The assault made it to the front page of the Delhi edition of the Times of India. It was the second lead story, with a large headline and a subhed promising "full coverage" on Page 2. Meanwhile, another attack that left an Uber driver dead in Noida was pushed to the corner of the page – because the assailants were Indians, not Africans.
Intolerance for the 'other'
While Singh tried to obfuscate reality, Goa's tourism minister Dilip Parulekar is clear about what should be done. Deport Africans, within a month, he suggests, because Nigerians (at least he recognises one nationality) are a "problem" in Goa.
And why should so-called African nationals be deported? Because they sell drugs and indulge in “unwanted things", according to Parulekar.
But even Africans who’re going about their own business without indulging in these so-called unwanted things are unsafe. On May 26, when at least seven African nationals – from Nigeria and Uganda, to name some of the countries – were injured in a series of attacks in Delhi's Chhatarpur, here’s how a resident of the area had reacted.
"They dress provocatively and are out on the streets till late in the night, drinking and creating a ruckus,” he was quoted as saying. “Even if they are not fighting, the way they speak makes it seem like they are having a fight. This is not our culture and it is very difficult for us to accept it."
What his grouses were has often been said about people from the North East of India, or from South India, whose language people in Delhi don’t understand and respect even less, or for poor people, or basically, for anyone who is not us.
But now that these attacks on people from Africa have made it to the international press, our government worries about the country's image.
The response of our Minister of State for Tourism and Culture, Mahesh Sharma, to the incidents of violence was: "India is a large country and such incidents will give it a bad name to India." He had followed this up with: “Even Africa is not safe.”
Sharma should stop worrying. India already has a bad name, because it cannot hide the inability of our society to accept people who look different, behave different and who are different.
Over the last two years, the public discourse of insisting that everyone has to conform to a narrow definition of being Indian and acceptable behavior has given greater credence to those who believe they are within their rights to force this through violence.
Violence of this kind can increase when it finds either direct endorsement from the top, or silence instead of an expression of regret or a reprimand.
Has anyone in government, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, made a statement that such behaviour is unacceptable? Has any leading public figure had the courage to acknowledge that we are a deeply racist society, and then go on to address the problem?
We should not be surprised that no one holding office today has the qualities of statesmanship that demand such a response. And we should, collectively and individually, be ashamed of the kind of society into which we are turning.