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Black Lives Matter Should Inspire a Challenge to Caste and Religious Oppression in India

Solidarity from India with anti-racist protesters in the United States is hollow if the same critical scrutiny isn't applied to oppression and police brutality in India itself.

Indian military patrol the streets in Srinagar, Kashmir, India, 2008. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images)

When the anti-racist protests erupted in the United States, social media in India was filled with expressions of solidarity for Black Lives Matter. But there has been hardly any self-critical scrutiny of racism or the abuses of the police in India itself. Although police brutality and impunity are familiar concepts in India, the country’s middle class has rarely made noise about it.

Racism against black people is present in Indian society: in 2014, a mob tried to lynch three African students in a crowded Delhi Metro station, and Indian politicians have made statements branding Africans as drug dealers and sex workers. There has also been a long history of harassment and discrimination against Indians who are considered racially different from dominant communities.

On the North Indian Plain, people casually refer to those with darker skin — particularly from the country’s southern regions — as “madrasi” or “kala/kali.” Yet South Indians can also engage in the same kind of behavior against people from the northeast, calling them Chinese, Nepali, “chinki,” etc. Many studies have documented the discrimination against those from the northeastern regions and Muslims in housing and employment.

This has been compounded by the pandemic: taking a leaf from Donald Trump’s book, the Indian right has labeled COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” and anyone with features perceived as Chinese is liable for scapegoating.

None of these incidents of racial prejudice and profiling should be seen in isolation. Such “othering” is deeply rooted across Indian society, and linked to social and political power. Racism is not just a question of one’s appearance: it draws its strength from political and economic institutions.

India also grapples with caste and religious prejudice, embedded in a long history of colonialism. Any dominant community will tend to behave in a similar way towards vulnerable groups, if it has the power and privilege to do so. The question is why.

Structural Prejudice

Just as in the United States, where racism is built up around a core of wage inequality, residential segregation, and other forms of discrimination, in India, the distribution of wealth and opportunities constitutes the foundation of racism and casteism.

It is not merely an aesthetic question of beauty standards: prejudice is firmly embedded in the graded hierarchies of Indian society. Who can own land, who can enter temples, etc. — these are the basic questions. From birth, a person’s ascribed caste, religion, or tribe determines their opportunities in life; their access to education, health and employment, and even the nature of their social life.

In the United States, racism against African Americans has clear roots in the history of slavery. After the Civil War, Reconstruction-era terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) first emerged as an attempt to perpetuate white supremacy after emancipation and prevent black Americans from obtaining civil rights.

In India, too, the dominant castes began forming their own militias, such as the Ranvir Sena in the 1990s, in response to the struggle of Dalit sharecroppers and agricultural laborers for land, which had begun to gather momentum in Bihar. Like the KKK, their motivation was to uphold their social dominance over land and other resources, and curtail the political enfranchisement of the lower castes.

The United States has a long history of police violence, and the bias of police forces against African-American communities is notorious, as Vijay Prashad has pointed out:

Each year in the United States, more than a thousand people are killed by the police; African Americans are three times more likely to be killed by the police than whites, and African Americans who are killed by police are more likely to be unarmed than whites. Most of these killings are not associated with serious crime. Astoundingly, 99 percent of the officers who kill a civilian are not charged with a crime.

There are striking echoes of this in the experience of people from India’s Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim communities. Deaths while in custody and harassment by police officers are a source of torment to them, and they find their complaints falling on deaf ears.

The Indian legal system bears down heavily upon these communities. Dalits make up 16.6 percent of the total population, but account for 21.6 percent of those in prison. Adivasi are also disproportionately represented: 8.6 percent of the population, but 11.8 percent of prisoners. The gap is widest for Muslims, who are 14.2 percent of the population, but 19.7 percent of prisoners. Deeply rooted prejudices of caste and religion shape the administration of justice in India, just as racial prejudice shapes the system in the United States.

Instilling Fear

Nor is police brutality simply a question of individual officers carrying out acts of violence. The deployment of such brutality serves to maintain the power structure, instilling a sense of fear and keeping minority communities in their place at the bottom of society.

There have been multiple cases of mass killings by state security forces, from the Hashimpura massacre of forty-two Muslims in Meerut in 1987, to the killing of five Adivasis in Muthanga in 2003. Studies have shown that Dalit children frequently suffer from an inferiority complex that is fostered in them by the wider society from an early age, including feelings of fear that are induced by the actions of police.

Racism is built on dispossession. Ashok Kumar, author of the book Monopsony Capitalism, noted recently that there were two forms of dispossession in the United States: the European settlers displaced and killed native Americans to secure access to their land; and forcibly brought over slaves from Africa, not for their land but for their labor. In the case of India, these forms of displacement for indigenous communities have been combined.

These communities have been repeatedly uprooted for the huge mineral endowments beneath their homes, tearing up traditional societies and cultures, handicrafts, and languages. The skills that indigenous people acquired over the course of centuries no longer have any material value: they are left with their bodies alone to sell. Artists and hunters are converted into building workers and rickshaw pullers — an easily exploitable reserve army of labor without any political voice.

The liberal and postmodern trap of individualizing social problems has helped the ruling class to maintain the status quo. Instead of questioning the social process that creates racism, we are supposed to find an individual hero. But a black capitalist who exploits workers — including black workers — should not be labeled as a savior.

In much the same way, a Dalit entrepreneur might be a PR success for the capitalist order, supposedly showing how diverse and inclusive the system is. However, it makes no difference to the conditions of life for poor Dalit workers. It is important to challenge the oppressive structure that divides India between haves and have-nots.

A Universal Struggle

My own experience of growing up in India as a woman with darker skin was difficult. I regularly heard “jokes” about whether I would be visible at night or not (sometimes even in the most progressive spaces). Relatives would suggest the use of cosmetics and homemade remedies to lighten my skin and make it “fair.”

For a person of my age and color, it seemed like an affliction or disease. Indian cinema and pop music equated white skin with beauty and dark skin with ugliness. I was fortunate enough to have a family that did not surrender to this social pressure. But this is far more than an individual, atomized experience — we are looking at a wider problem.

Why would a country with a majority non-white population have decided to embrace this obsession with whiter skin? Is it a legacy of colonialism? In part, yes. As in the rest of the world, Europeans projected themselves as a superior race during the colonial period.

But the story of colorism in India predates British colonial rule. We can find traces of it in Hindu mythology, where a white goddess (Durga) slays a black demon (Mahishasura), for example. There are many cases of white and black skin color representing good and evil, respectively, in Hindu texts.

There are various explanations for this, such as the Aryan invasion theory and the appropriation of indigenous deities into the Hindu fold. Without going into these questions in detail, we should acknowledge that Indian society was nurturing a preference for white skin even before the period of European domination.

At the core of casteism, there is a duality of pollution and purity: on the one hand, those doing unclean jobs (scavenging, tanning, sweeping, cremating, etc.) or laboring in the mud; and on the other, those doing jobs with minimum physical labor (Brahmins, Rajputs, and others). This hierarchy of bodily purity and cleanliness goes hand in hand with a colorist prism.

Racism and casteism are products of an ideology that rests on accumulation for the few and dispossession for the many. The United States and India alike have been built on the blood and sweat of working-class people: black or Latino, Muslim, and tribal or Dalit. They all aspire to liberation from the shackles of poverty to which their ancestors were also tied.

Many of those with brown skin speaking out for black lives abroad pay no heed when a group of men in Uttar Pradesh shoot a seveteen-year-old Dalit boy dead in his home, supposedly for entering a Hindu temple. When migrant laborers die on the road while walking back home, Indian celebrities don’t speak up. It’s easier to “show solidarity” with a distant cause than it is to challenge the social order from which your own privilege derives.