The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other unarmed black civilians in the US have sparked a rage that is contagious. Cities as far as London, Berlin, Melbourne, and Tokyo have seen huge demonstrations in solidarity with the growing Black Lives Matter uprising in the US. Meanwhile, in India we are still trying to work out how to respond.
One response circulating in elite circles is what journalist Rana Ayyub calls “weari[ing] the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag as a fashion accessory”: posting or tweeting about the movement in order to opportunistically cash in on its moral and cultural capital. Please don’t do this: better responses are possible. Ask yourself these five questions to figure out if you actually support the principles of the movement and learn to put your support, if any, to work.
1. Am I personally anti-black or racist?
This shouldn’t be an easy question. Personal racism does not just mean a straightforward revulsion towards black people or minorities (and yes, this includes religious and caste minorities too). It includes stereotyping, implicit bias, whitewashing, exoticising, purity politics, endogamy and much more that is deeply embedded into our socialisation.
This type of racism can’t just be tackled in one individual’s mind: reversing it requires anti-racist education to be institutionalised in schools and families from a young age. Black activists in the US have been doing this work with campaigns to mandate Black History Month in schools each February and to create classroom resources for teaching about difference.
But in India, parents and teachers are unlikely to teach acceptance to children when most Indian adults themselves are notoriously racist. Indian cricketers derogatorily call black colleagues “kalu,” Indian entertainers are fairness cream salespeople and mobs going after African residents in Delhi may well be led by Indian politicians.
Indians abroad, cushioned in caste privilege and enjoying the benefits wrought by anti-racist struggles, now increasingly side with white supremacist leaders like US President Donald Trump. Indeed, at this moment of global uprising, many see India’s most visible icon of justice – Gandhi – as standing on the wrong side of anti-black racism. Protestors targeting Gandhi’s statue right alongside the statues of slaveholders should remind us that interrogating and undoing all types of personal racism is a simple prerequisite to saying black lives matter.
2. Do I turn a blind eye to anti-minority violence at home?
The second question to ask yourself is: do I think minorities’ lives in my own country matter? There has rarely been a time when this question has been more urgent in India than now. From encounter killings to custodial death and torture, from drastic over-policing to arrest without trial, from everyday harassment to being disappeared, the burden of police violence in India falls squarely on minorities.
A 2019 survey showed that 50% of police personnel in India believe Muslims are more likely to commit crimes, and it shows.
Just months ago, Delhi police joined Hindutva supporters to attack the city’s Muslims, following a decades-old pattern of police working as enforcers of majoritarian might rather than law. Indeed, just as George Floyd’ lynching became a viral video, so too did a clip of Faizan, the young Muslim man savagely beaten by the police on the roadside and made to sing the national anthem. For Faizan and the many other Muslims thus murdered, there have been no protests, no arrests, no charges, no dismissals, and no outrage.
Dalits and Adivasis similarly know the police mainly as collaborators in upper-caste violence. Rather than registering cases against caste Hindu offenders, police are more likely to themselves detain, brutalise, extort, rape, and mass murder minorities. Just Google “Dalit lynched” and you’ll see headlines no less horrific than if you Google “African American lynched.”
So don’t chant George Floyd’s name if you don’t care about Jitu Khatik (the 26-year-old Dalit man who died in Rajasthan police custody in February), and don’t talk about black incarceration if you don’t mention the dozens of Muslims being arbitrarily arrested during a pandemic.
3. Can I question the existence of police, prisons, army, and other instruments of state violence?
For all those who want to say black lives matter but then continue to “patriotically” support the Indian police force, army, prisons and anti-terror laws, I’ve got bad news. The strands of the Black Lives Matter movement that are quickly becoming dominant are not striving only for minority civil rights or against racist police, not demanding just the arrest of offending officers, and not calling at all for police retraining and legal reform: instead, they are calling for the abolition of policing and incarceration altogether.
Just as abolitionists of slavery “believed that slavery could not be fixed or reformed [but] needed to be abolished”, so too today’s abolitionists aren’t trying to reform policing and prisons (themselves byproducts of slavery) but to “shrink [them] into non-existence” because they see that institutionalised punishment does not make us more safe. They argue that repackaging the problems of poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and addiction as “crime” only amounts to “treating the symptom instead of the disease” and that too with a treatment (caging and state violence) often worse than the disease itself.
This is why the demand coming from the streets of Minneapolis (where Floyd was murdered) and from countles s other American cities is to defund and disband the police, replacing it with community-based public safety measures.
In India, where half the public condones police violence even before a trial, abolition seems like a laughable idea. Even the other half isn’t calling to shrink the scope of policing. Well-meaning NGOs put out reports insisting that strengthening the rule of law requires building India’s police capacities. Journalists bemoan how India only has 144 police personnel per 100,000 people, falling short of the United Nation’s recommendation of 222. Even Human Rights Watch calls for higher police budgets. The entire discussion focuses on how to increase India’s investment in policing.
But this misses the fact that policing isn’t just about the police: it’s about the use of force to enforce an existing order. By that definition, policing in India – by paramilitary, military, jailers, and sanctioned vigilante groups – already enjoys better funding than education, welfare schemes, and public health do. So even though abolition is inconceivable in India at the moment, yet if you dare not conceive it, you can’t lay claim to this movement.
4. Do I think poverty is moral, natural, or normal?
Abolition seeks not just to end policing but to also end the unequal society that necessitates policing in the first place. This is why Americans in the streets are making what we’d see in India as “economic” demands rather than just “human rights” demands, calling to defund institutions of punishment and to instead invest public money in schools, hospitals, housing, social security, and work for all, especially marginalised citizens.
Protestors point out that up to 40% of many US cities’ budgets go to policing, an amount larger than what is spent on violence and substance abuse prevention, mental health, affordable housing and schools put together. How much safer could communities be if this money was invested in residents rather than armed patrollers?
Meanwhile in India, Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis are the poorest of every rung of the poor: they already “can’t breathe” in India even before the police or mobs get to them. So by all means, say that black lives matter – but only if nine people owning as much wealth as half the country infuriates you, and only if India spending 9% of its budget on the military and only 3% on health is also the target of your ire. But if India’s system of hereditary poverty and disinvestment from minorities does not morally horrify you, then you aren’t an ally.
5. Am I afraid of revolutionary demands and antagonistic action?
The current protests in the US have been compared to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in India: both saw a largely young crowd of protestors, widespread dissent from big cities to small towns, majority groups coming out in solidarity, and a brutal reception from police and politicians. However, despite cosmetic similarities the two protests differ in essentials.
Unlike the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act whose demands were primarily defensive (remove this law and return to the existing order), Black Lives Matter’s demands have been offensive (change the existing order by abolishing policing). Even when some factions of the movement call for reform, others immediately propose revolutionary alternatives for direct mass accountability.
The tactics of Black Lives Matter are also revolutionary, drawing on both the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King Jr. and the militancy of the Black Panthers. This is why the most potent symbols of today’s movement are all moments of collective law-breaking, whether it is the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd Precinct on fire, slaveholder Edward Colston’s statue being thrown in the harbour in England, or protestors throwing tear gas back at the US National Guard outside the White House.
These images sit in stark contrast to the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act as symbolised by a peaceful sit-in at Shaheen Bagh, a tactic that put protestors in the defensive position while allowing the government to dominate media coverage and demobilise public support. All this points to an urgent need to rethink the watered-down version of satyagraha (as a sit in without antagonism or leverage) which now comes all too naturally to us.
However, if you prefer law and order to dissent and justice, and want the appearance of a revolutionary without taking on the labours and risks of one, don’t say black lives matter.
Aparna Gopalan is PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Harvard University. Her research and writing focuses on the reproduction of inequality and poverty in rural India.