Bharatiya Janata Party leader Tarun Vijay went on a television panel on Friday to argue that Indians are not racist. Ironically, the Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament managed to display every aspect of racism that seems deeply embedded in the Indian psyche. During the show and in a number of defensive tweets posted in the aftermath, Vijay claimed that Indians do not discriminate against dark people because they worship the “black” Krishna and made a deeply problematic statement that if Indians were racist, they would not live with South Indians.
The BJP probably thought that Vijay’s experience made him the right person to go on an Al Jazeera programme – he is the president of the India-Africa Parliamentary Friendship Group. Panelists on the show were discussing the recent mob violence against African students in Greater Noida, which the Indian government has refused to recognise as racial despite a statement from African envoys calling it “xenophobic”.
Indian photographer Mahesh Shantaram, who has been documenting the lives of Africans in India, asked Vijay why people abroad are saying that India is racist. After first questioning his nationality – prompting Shantaram to brandish his Indian passport on air – Vijay launched into his defence. Watch Vijay’s comments at the 7-minute mark here.
“If we were racist, why would have... all the entire South – you know, Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them? We have blacks... black people around us. You are denying your own nation, you are denying your own ancestry, you are denying your own history, you are denying your own culture… and you are trying to be good. That’s very bad.”— Tarun Vijay
There are several problems with that defence.
First, the co-existence of people of different skin tones does not mean racism doesn’t exist. The United States, with African-Americans and Hispanics forming a significant portion of the population could make the same claim, but that would not mean it does not have a race problem.
Further, the even more troublesome portion of the statement echoes what has long been a critique of the BJP’s Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan worldview, the idea that the core of India is the North Indian cowbelt and all other cultures, such as South Indians are simply being tolerated within the union. “If we were racist,” Vijay said, “why do we live with them?”
As the comments turned into news, Vijay realised how they were being picked up and took to Twitter to try and defend himself.
“In many parts of the nation, we have different people, in colour and never ever we had any discrimination against them. My words perhaps were not enough to convey this,” he tweeted, apologising to those who felt he spoke “differently from he meant”.
The BJP leader claimed he meant to convey how Indians did not perpetrate racism even though the country has people with different colour and culture. “I can die, but how can I ridicule my own culture, my own people and my own nation? Think before you misinterpret my badly framed sentence,” he said, claiming that he never called South Indians “black”.
Black and white
Vijay claims he was not able to frame his thoughts clearly, and apologised if anyone took offence to that. But his defence falls into some of the same pitfalls that his original statement tumbled into, albeit while avoiding the mistake of framing “we Indians” to mean just North India.
For starters, Vijay acknowledges that there are people of different colour and culture across India, yet claims we “never ever” had “any discrimination against them.” This in a country where fairness creams are a Rs 3,000-crore industry, where people from India’s North East are frequently asked to prove their nationality and where the belief that Africans – a broad term that lumps people from various countries into the same racial basket – are all cannibals continues to be depressingly pervasive.
In fact, Vijay claims India has no discrimination at all, a curious assertion in a country still battling deep caste and religious divisions. But even if one gives him the benefit of doubt that he is only referring to racial discrimination, it is still a meaningless claim.
Vijay is, in fact, known for taking up various cultural causes from caste discrimination to the plight of those in the North-East. Would he really tell the parents of an Arunachal student who was called names and beaten to death in Delhi that there is no racism in the country? Could he seriously argue that the “Madrasi” stereotype is a benign cultural generalisation? That the preference for fair skin is not itself evidence of discrimination?
The most hackeneyed of Vijay’s defences it the insistence that the oppressed cannot be an oppressor. “We were the first to oppose any racism and were in fact victims of racist British,” he tweeted. Just because India was subject to a racial, colonial occupation does not mean its own culture is not prone to problematic divisions itself.
It is important to remember that all of this discussion comes in the aftermath of horrific scenes in Greater Noida, where rumours of cannibalism led to mob violence against African students who are often the target of discrimination. India’s refusal to acknowledge even the possibility of racism in that incident led to this awkward defence from Vijay. Would this entire conversation have gone differently if the government was willing to honestly examine the points put forward by the envoys from African nations?