Shilpa Shetty turned the lens on British racism. But bigotry is part of being Indian too, says Shivam Vij
Like many other students from Africa, John Patrick Ojwando chose to come to India, to Mysore, for higher education as it was cheaper here than in Europe or the US. Ojwando is from Kenya, which has a large Indian population, and so he thought India wouldn’t seem too foreign. But it was only when he arrived here that he realised just how much of an outsider Indians could make him feel, and that Indians in India were in fact plainly racist.
That persistent gaze on the street that Ojwando faced, people assured him, came from curiosity. After all, many he met didn’t even know where Kenya was. The name-calling followed: strangers and even people known to him would call him a monkey. “When even English-speaking people behave like this, I don’t see how you could say it comes from any kind of curiosity,” Ojwando says. He learned soon enough to call ‘curiosity’ by its proper name: there were landlords who wouldn’t rent out rooms to Africans and there were parents who wouldn’t approve of their daughters going out with Black men. “It surely is racism when people refuse to sit next to you in a bus, when people you don’t know sneer at you, and when you’re pointed out to kids and called a ‘negro’.”
All of this, Ojwando admits, is subtler than the insulting, sometimes violent behaviour understood as racism in the West. “But Indians are caught in the middle, they look up to the Whites and look down on the Blacks. They clearly see themselves as being in between.”
Ojwando did make efforts to bring the large numbers of Africans in India’s metros together to speak out against the treatment they receive, but he met with little success. “A friend wouldn’t go to college because of how he was treated he just studied at home and turned up for the exams. Most Africans say they just want to complete their courses and go back home.”
Surf to Neo Sports any evening and watch the commercial with the Black man panting for water after a chilli-laden meal. No Indian lets him have any. “It’s tough being a West Indian in India,” says the baseline — not just West Indians, but all Africans in India would agree. There’s a debate on over whether the ads are racist, particularly because there is now a similar ad to further the spirit of competition; the Sri Lankans are the new target.
It is the unwritten dharma of being Indian: it’s not the shape of the nose or the proportions of the body, it is complexion that is the first marker of the Indian idea of beauty. And it’s not just Fair & Lovely cream or its male equivalent: the fairness obsession is everywhere. Most Tamils may be dark but their film heroines have, as a rule, to be fair. Bollywood has long romanticised fair skin: the words gora-gora have been part of the lyrics of countless Hindi movie songs. So when Bipasha Basu made a mark in Bollywood, her dusky appeal was a news story: for once a woman’s complexion didn’t stand in the way of her becoming a sex symbol. But Basu hasn’t brought on the skin-tone revolution: India’s matrimonial pages still have the word ‘fair’ all over them, and the candidates advertised as ‘wheatish’ may in reality be darker than wheat.
But racism is not just about skin colour, a lot of other physiological stereotypes come into play. For students from the Northeast, the ‘chinky’ taunt is a daily ordeal. A Sikkimese student at Delhi University, who does not want to be named, says that one day when he had had enough, he hit out and beat up an offender for it. Ladakh is not in the Northeast, but Ladakhi student Mutasif Husain Khan faces the torment too. “Just looking a certain way automatically makes you a second class citizen,” he says. “Wherever you go, they never take you seriously.” Worse, girl students from the Northeast face sexual harassment from passersby, from fellow students, sometimes even from their landlords, as being from the Northeast singles them out as game.
The obsession with fairness even found a mention in a sermon of the yoga guru Baba Ramdev: “Drink milk and you will be white as milk,” he once said. “Drink Coca-Cola and you will be that colour.” Valuing fairness of skin is part of Hindu ideas of ritual purity; after all, the word ‘varna’ — which comprises the four orders of humanity supposed to have been ordained by the Creator — literally means colour. Jati, or caste, is a concept within the varna system — justification enough for the caste system to be considered racism. At the United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism in 2001, Europe apologised for slavery but the Indian government fought tooth and nail to prevent caste from being included as racism, even as dalit activists put forward a strong petition that it be so termed.
Sociologist TK Oomen rubbishes the notion that upper castes are fair and lower castes and dalits dark. “As a generalisation, it has too many exceptions,” he says. “There is absolutely no evidence to support this. Besides, would fair skin be a guarantee that a Muslim in India would not be discriminated against?”
The connotation of fair as superior is reinforced by the contentious Aryan invasion theory, which is also cause for a North-South divide. The mistrust between north Indians and those who hail from the states south of the Vindhyas is based on skin colour, merely articulated in linguistic parochialism.
Fairness is relative, and so is racism. Actor Shilpa Shetty is quite light-skinned, and it is curious that the British TV star Jade Goody, whose grandfather is said to be of Caribbean origin, should have questioned Shetty’s hygiene during the recently contentious Celebrity Big Brother. Whether the comments were orchestrated drama or a comparison with crude British working-class culture, they provided multicultural Britain with the sort of opportunity to see itself in the mirror that no reality TV show in India has done so far.