It’s been heartening to see the outrage of many Indian intellectuals and celebrities over police brutality in the US against black Americans. They really do care about justice and racial equality in the US, where the White House is currently surrounded by protesters, where police stations have been set on fire, the National Guard called into many cities, where celebrities, including some anchors at Fox News, have called out the police officer who killed a black man named George Floyd by choking him on a pavement in public view.
These recent incidents in the world’s most powerful democracy are a reminder of the great institutional racism in the US. Blacks’ lives are, indeed, more vulnerable on every parameter that determines a citizen’s contract with the State. Because of a complex set of reasons, including no health insurance and the nature of the work they do, a higher percentage of people of colour have died from coronavirus that has also struck hard in parts of the US.
The protests in the US have in places turned violent, yet the community has not been ostracised at this inflection point but receives messages of solidarity. The capacity of African-Americans to organise themselves in loud protest is possibly a legacy of the civil rights movement in that country that began in the 1950s and in the 1960s won important legislative victories, including giving them the same citizenship rights that white Americans took for granted.
The US has since then had a black President in Barack Obama and the most dizzyingly famous television personality in Oprah Winfrey. Black Americans are big movie stars, sports icons, performers, actors, musicians, and they have left their imprint on popular culture. But racial discrimination persists, particularly in the police and judicial system (often with homicidal outcomes) and in housing and employment. Yet, what is also noteworthy is that in the face of recent outrages, the black community can also make itself heard and seen and gets a lot of support from outside its community (including as we have seen from some Indians).
In the world’s largest democracy, for all its systemic prejudices, many Indian Muslims have done phenomenally well in cinema and risen to be superstars. The nation’s largest minority has high visibility as actors, performers, singers, composers and lyricists and many are superb athletes, in sports ranging from tennis to cricket and hockey.
Unlike black Americans, Indian Muslims do not have the terrible history of slavery; on the contrary, there has always been a middle class. Yet, with a few exceptions, influential Indian Muslims whose voices would count do not speak out on outrages and hate crimes against the minority community, except in sanitised general terms.
In very recent times, India had its own version of a civil rights movement when students and women of the minority community began sit-ins to protest the CAA, that many believe is taking away the idea of equal citizenship. That movement was organic and spontaneous, but the coronavirus lockdown has provided the occasion to arrest those who were participating or active in organising protests.
As citizens continue to be arrested, often under laws that were designed to increase police power to fight terrorism, the anti-CAA movement is being crushed and criminalised without too much ado about it. Non-Muslims who participated have also been put into the dragnet, effectively as an example to those who would in future dare to challenge the State.
As the nation’s largest minority community sees it, what is unfolding in the backdrop of the lockdown is both unjust and cruel. Their children, the students who were holding up placards of the Indian Constitution are being told that their participation in a protest is criminal. Muslim women, always being exhorted to come forward and claim rights, are being vilified for doing just that.
Then there is the matter of even more visible police brutality that has so outraged the citizens of the world’s most powerful democracy. It seems to have had no lasting impact on the psyche in the world’s most populous democracy. Take the video, verified by fact checkers that showed policemen in Jafrabad, north-east Delhi, on February 24, when riots broke out in the national capital at sites where anti-CAA sit-ins were taking place. The police in the verified video are beating five Muslim men lying on the ground and shouting at them that here, take this if you want azadi, here take this beating and sing the National Anthem. Media reports inform us that after the police thrashing, one victim’s leg was broken, another’s hand, the third needed stitches on the head. One of the victims in the video, Faizan, later died in hospital. He was 24.
Yes, the US is racist, but there are voices that are enraged and ready to call it out too. It is entirely possible that big Muslim stars in India find it risky to protest too loudly as the consequences could be bad for business, potentially invite the wrath of the State and may present them as Muslims first and Indian heroes second.
But if we are equating processes in India with those confronted by African-Americans in the US, we must look beyond the Hindu-Muslim binary and note that Dalit and Adivasi figures do not even reach the first step towards any kind of all-India stardom and prominence. They are almost missing from the media, that shapes narratives, and from the pan-Indian popular culture. We have not even allowed them into our imagination, beyond paying lip service to Dr Ambedkar and analysing the vote strength of Dalit politicians.
We are communal and casteist and not even ashamed of it. At times, we are also racist towards our own citizens from the north-east states and as displayed in our obsession with fair skin.
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