India is a vast and multicultural nation. It defied experts’ predictions of imminent fragmentation within years of its independence. Despite having a multitude of faiths, cultures, languages, castes and sub-castes, the Indian Union has stood the test of time. Indeed, in many ways, it has been able to shake off the provincialism and feudalism that existed in the form of 562 princely states and emerged as a unified, cohesive entity.
The above paragraph shows the prevalent opinion about the diverse cultures in India and its status as a unified nation. Schoolchildren and grown-ups alike are incessantly exposed to terms like “Unity in Diversity” et al. But while most Indians take pride in the fact that it is a tolerant state (and indeed it is to a large extent), deep seated prejudices and stereotypes paint a very different picture in many cases.
Reports of ill treatment towards visitors/students from north-east India and Africa have become commonplace. Tribal areas across the country have seen very few rewards of modern-day development, even after 70 years of independence. The north eastern states, till a few months ago, were connected to the rest of India by just a single bridge on the Brahmaputra. A new one has since been built. There is disproportionately low coverage of news from the north-east in mainstream media. One example is that the gruesome 1983 Nellie Massacre (with 2100 deaths) in Assam remains relatively unknown, while the 2002 Gujarat riots with a death toll of about 2000 people has been at the frontline of news reporting for the past two decades.
While one may be excused to think that these are isolated incidents that are not a reflection of our collective psyche, such incidents are too many to be isolated and too frequent to be coincidental.
In this article, we’ll start with exploring the basic tenets of Indian mythology and historical factors in search of some reasons for intolerance in our society. Then, we’ll move on to the post-Independence era to understand why such behaviour has not yet been rooted out despite tremendous improvement in education levels across the country. Ultimately, we’ll try to find ways to bring about a much-needed change.
Colour and Caste: An unholy correlation
Skin colour has assumed diabolical proportions in India’s caste ridden society. I wish I could say this was not always so. This particular narrative can be seen not only in our history but in myths as well. Consider the following points:
- The Sanskrit word for caste is “varna”, which means the colour of one’s skin. It indicates that the caste system as a division of social classes based on skin colour, though this might just be a correlation rather than causation.
- While the caste system was supposedly based on a system for division of labour, we can see around us that the so-called upper castes in India are predominantly fair-skinned and so-called lower castes dark skinned. This leads me to question the very basis on which the caste system was formed.
- In Ramayana, the Asuras were dark skinned people and have been depicted as such in all visual representations (artwork, serials, paintings, etc.). However, Lord Rama, though said to be dark skinned, has always been represented as fair or with a bluish hue. In this context, contemporary usage has relegated the Asuras to the evil side, further reinforcing discrimination based on colour. A recent example of this bias in action was the blockbuster movie, Baahubali, in which the antagonist was dark skinned, while the protagonist was fair skinned.
- Lord Krishna, although dark skinned (Krishna means “black, dark” in Sanskrit) has also been portrayed as blue skinned and not dark skinned.
The burgeoning market for fairness creams and demands of fair brides/grooms in matrimonial pages signify that the general populace of India is much more interested in a fair skin, perhaps disproportionately so. In a deeply religious country like India, a case can be made that such myths have impacted common perceptions of caste and skin colour.
Foreign Rule and the fascination for fair skin
During a nearly 300-year British rule in the subcontinent, the perception of superiority of fair skinned people was reinforced not just at a social level but as a matter of policy. The concept of “White Man’s Burden” was much touted across the world at this time as an excuse for rampant colonialism.
During these years, one can conjecture that caste system became even more rigid and inter-caste mobility grew even more constrained. A social order that put British citizens at the top and dark skinned Shudras at the bottom can be blamed for a further stagnation of society on the caste front.
Post-1947, much has been done to bring marginalized populations in the mainstream. The controversial Reservation Policy (Affirmative Action) was instituted with similar aims. A detailed discussion of the policy is not the subject of this article, but suffice it to say that the twin aims of social justice and voter appeasement were the root causes behind it. Regardless of reservation, there are areas of the country that have not benefited from the economic miracle India has experienced in the past decades.
The north eastern frontier states like Manipur remain alienated (courtesy: AFSPA) and devoid of large scale development projects like power plants, expressways, steel plants, etc. The Kashmir valley is another such restive area where the promises made by the Constitution to the citizens of India seem to fade into irrelevance, whatever the reasons.
When Indians are subjected to racial taunts and abuse in Australia, the whole country loses its collective mind. But when the same happens to an African here, we are curiously silent.
Any person with oriental or mongoloid features is branded a “Chinki”, not just by the uneducated poor but also in university campuses across the country. Nobody shows the least bit of interest in understanding or even reading about the differences in the details. A person with oriental features in India may be Ladhakhi, Tibetan, Nepali, Sikkimese, Naga, Manipuri, Gorkha, Garo, Khasi, Jaintiya, Bhutia, Kuki, Nyishi, Bodo or a large number of other minorities. The least we can do is call them Indians. But we don’t care about such differences, that’s why they are all “Chinkis”. It is a travesty that the inhabitants of sensitive frontier states which are India’s first line of defence against foreign aggression should be alienated in such a manner.
There might be a bit of hyperbole in the above paragraphs, all of these things happen regularly in varying intensities.
The Silver Lining
The aim of this article is not to be as bleak as a Franz Kafka novel, but to question the status quo. If things had once been wrong, they are slowly been put to right. Social activists like Medha Patkar, Soni Sori, etc. have raised their voices and are being heard in the national discourse. Infrastructure projects in the north-east are finally picking up speed, whether as a response to feared Chinese aggression or for development or maybe both. The judiciary has done its duty in defence of the Constitution and the laws of the land in a manner that gives hope to even the most distraught people. All this is happening as India welcomes a new era, that of technology and data-driven solutions.
But while the efforts to eradicate prejudices have been underway for quite some time, it needs to gain momentum. It falls upon the media outlets to cover stories not just in the metropolises, but also in the far reaches of the nation. Atrocities in Assam need to have the same coverage as those in Delhi or Mumbai. Television, films and other vehicles of popular imagination have to help bring marginalized communities into the mainstream. Along with programmes about Lord Rama defeating Ravana, we need to have programmes which show Birsa Munda’s struggle against the British or the Social Reform Movement of Jotirao Phule.
The next generation of decision makers is studying in schools right now. Along with the exploits of Gulliver, they can also read about how Kailash Satyarthi worked incessantly against child labour. Along with plays of Shakespeare, they should be taught the history of the struggles of the Naga people. Only by bringing the otherwise marginalized communities in the common discourse can this alienation be ended.
Once we start doing that, India will gradually earn the right to be called a multicultural country which will truly be on a path to achieve “Unity in Diversity”.