In an interesting – and perhaps entirely Indian – turn of events, the public debate over the attacks on (and the general attitude towards) people from various African countries has shifted from tolerance to assimilation.
This is a peculiarly Indian inflection inasmuch as a great deal of our posturing on tolerance is actually a mask for assimilationist attitudes.
We tolerate those who are willing to submerge their ways of life in the great river of Indic-ness. However, we argue vociferously for the right of Sikh men to wear turbans in New York, and Hindu women to sport the sindoor in Washington.
But as a recent report in The Hindustan Times quite unselfconsciously (or, was it gleefully?) stated in its headline, there has been a “Reaching Out: Africans in Delhi trying to follow the Indian way of life.”
Now, interchange “African” with “Indian” in this headline and you would have an entire month of print and electronic media coverage on the bigotry that Indians are subject to.
Assimilation the only way out
The same newspaper report goes on to say that at a recent meeting of an association of Nigerians in Delhi, members discussed ways to “understand and assimilate into what they call ‘the Indian way of life’ so as to cohabit harmoniously with the locals”. As part of this, the association has been imposing fines of Rs 1,000 on people from the community found to be wearing "inappropriate" clothes. Attire deemed inappropriate includes shorts and singlets.
This self-policing by a tiny and economically marginal minority at risk from constant physical and symbolic violence is entirely understandable. But what does it say about our much-vaunted traditions of accepting difference?
What’s worse, Nigerians in Delhi appear to have adopted self-disciplining as the only form of protection from public violence. An office-holder of the Nigerian association mentioned that its members should understand that if they got in trouble (that is, are beaten up by the locals for being Nigerian), “... Indian law is not likely to favour them”!
The perception that Indian law, or, rather, its administrators, harbour anti-African sentiments is a damning statement about its impartiality. Would Indians subject to harassment in the UK – whose capital city has recently elected a Pakistani-origin mayor – have such little faith in the British legal system? But perhaps visitors from African countries have good reason for concern, both on social as well as legal fronts.
It appears that we are proposing – at least informally – different rules for Africans and Indians (and more so-called acceptable foreigners).
Delhi’s African population appears to think that this is what Indians want and is willing to comply. Ethnic and religious minorities are frequently left with no choice but to make entirely unreasonable concessions in order to secure a measure of safety and survival. But what should be the ethical responsibility of the majority population?
To not protest against calls for assimilation is, at best, to take part in a discourse of civilisational superiority and, at worst, be complicit in a world-view that encourages cultural genocide.
A hypocrisy at play
We protest against dress codes for young women at university campuses, attempts to portray gays and lesbians as mentally ill and perverted and the government’s attempts to stifle political opinion that does not tally with its own – that is, we resist other forms of assimilationist strategies.
But calls to have Nigerians and Congolese and Ghanians act according to so-called Indian sensibilities in order to be treated as human are really no different from saying that women in public spaces who do not “act as women should” deserve to be harassed (or worse).
Assimilationist exhortations deserve unequivocal condemnation because they express a deeply rooted desire for cultural domination by valourising the most conservative forms of cultural practices by passing them off as so-called Indian traditions and values. Would we accept the argument that young women of Indian background should not wear T-shirts and shorts? It is entirely another thing Indian women who don such attire may attract unwelcome attention. However, would our reaction be to say: “do as the men tell you”?
Yet, as far as we are concerned, for Africans in India, this appears to be a good enough solution. It is an opinion so frequently expressed – and by so many – that their despair has, unsurprisingly, translated into self-policing.
A nation’s hubris
The fact is that the current situation has nothing to do with Indian sensibilities and everything to do with an unreconstructed bigotry that is, far too often, presented as a civilisational discourse about our great traditions and capacities for civilised debate and argumentation. References to our supposed argumentative capacities have, of course, become modish of late.
We actually have no such capacity, but only the infinite one of self-aggrandisement. And it does not help that so many well-meaning people have sought to oppose the violence towards African by arguing about how it affects India’s geo-political interests. Would it be okay to be violent towards the African population in India if it did not affect India’s chances of a seat on the United Nations Security Council? Is removal of bigotry not an end in itself? Is the desire to subject difference to our standards of sameness not a malady that ought be treated for its own sake?
To couch the argument in terms of how violence against Africa might affect India’s foreign policy objectives is to endorse a deeply abnormal version of social thinking and behaviour. It is unlikely that we will be able to secure any short-term (or, for that matter, even medium-term) change in our assimilationist mindset by protesting against it. But, to let it pass as an issue of the so-called Indian sentiment is to endorse the most vicious forms of cultural chauvinism masquerading as cultural sensitivity.
It is unlikely that the Africans who come to India are here by choice. Or that if given the choice, they would not prefer to be settled in the West.
To make the best of one’s situation is a human right. However, unlike ordinary citizens of many other countries that receive economically downtrodden populations, we seek to run them into the ground to prove our cultural superiority.
This only masks a deep insecurity about our place in the world. It is bigotry that is reflected in the following unbelievably abject defence of being human that was expressed by one Nigerian resident of Delhi. “People need to understand," he told a newspaper, “that I have not chosen my skin colour, God has made me what I am."
We should hang our heads in shame and sincerely wish for redemption for a civilisation that evokes such utterances.