For all the slightly controversial moments on The Mindy Project TV series, for me, one scene stands out as most memorable. In the episode titled “Mindy Lahiri is a Racist,” the eponymous character’s entire medical practice is under attack for (you guessed it) being racist; a verdict reached through the unfortunate combination of a glowing review by a white supremacist mommy blogger and the practice’s childish refusal to display a poster of a black politician supported by the rival midwives upstairs. Needless to say, Mindy is annoyed. In a public outburst, she cries, “I’m Indian, I can’t be racist.” Close to four years after that episode went to air, it was that statement that first sprung to mind when news of the Tarun Vijay incident reached my ears.
Tarun Vijay Incident
For those unfamiliar with Indian politics, the story is this: earlier this year, a teenage boy in Noida, a suburb on the outer reaches of New Delhi, disappeared for several days before dying suddenly in suspicious circumstances. Rumours circulated that the boy had been socializing with his Nigerian neighbours. These rumours snowballed into further rumours that the neighbours were cannibals who had eaten the boy, which then spiralled into more rumours that they were criminals who had sold him drugs which had eventually killed him. Chaos ensued. A violent rampage broke out across Noida, targeting Nigerian students.
— Irony Of India (@IronyOfIndia_) April 7, 2017
Shortly afterwards, Tarun Vijay, a former federal politician and social commentator within the Hindu right, was invited to participate in a panel discussion by Al Jazeera’s Washington Bureau, during which he was asked whether he thought that Indians may be racially prejudiced against Africans. An incensed Vijay replied that Indians could not be racist, as “if we were racist, why would we have all the entire south…you know Tamil, you know Kerala, you know Karnataka and Andhra…why do we live with them? We have black people around us”.
Vijay’s commentary sparked a powerful backlash. Indians took to social media to express their outrage. Their reactions ranged from indignation at being called ‘black’, to anger at the implication that the South, an economic powerhouse, is merely tolerated within the Indian state. Several commentators also took the opportunity to acknowledge, despite Vijay’s rebuttal, race-related tensions within India.
Denial of Racism in India
In truth, Vijay’s response is nothing out of the ordinary. In the opening paragraphs of his 2015 book on race in India, Professor Duncan McDuie-Ra states, “a great deal of energy goes into strenuously denying that racism exists in India, or upon recognizing that it may exist, stressing that it is not as bad as in other countries.” And it’s true that the very idea of racism in India can be hard to swallow. India is home to a rich tangle of religious, linguistic, cultural and ethnic communities. It’s easy, even preferable, to pretend that everyone peacefully co-exists. But this isn’t always true.
Violence against Northeast Indians living in Delhi is frequent and well-documented, while Africans in India have long reported facing discrimination in their day-to-day lives. Following the most recent attacks, Kolkata-based author Sandip Roy wrote, “Africans are stereotyped as criminals, drug dealers, prostitutes and now, in a new low, cannibals.”
While not everyone agrees that caste-based discrimination can be accurately described as racism (though some think that it can), it is undeniable that in parts of India, the stringent maintenance of caste inflicts gross injustice upon many people. And of course, Vijay’s commentary points directly at India’s troubled relationship with color across the North/South divide.
The narrative that North Indians are (desirably) fair, while South Indians are (undesirably) dark is pervasive in all parts of India. The widely circulated, though still contentious explanation for this is that North Indians are members of the Aryan race, while South Indians are Dravidians. Two races, two colors, one implicitly inferior. Meanwhile, the Hindu right has only exacerbated existing tensions between social groups, whether defined by race, color, ethnicity, religion, caste or language.
Racism & Prejudice In The Diaspora
As an Indian diasporan, for me, the Vijay incident raised further questions about racism and prejudice within Indian communities living outside the homeland. Anti-blackness and casteism is prevalent in many South Asian diasporic communities. So is internalized racism, particularly within those countries in which Indian communities are perceived as a “model minority.”
Anuhya Bobba writes that the model minority discourse can instill Indian-Americans with a superiority complex, leading them to vote for the conservative political parties that vow to keep them out. The Republican Hindu Coalition of New Jersey made headlines for its frankly bizarre fundraiser event for the Trump campaign. Furthermore, the Hindu right, notorious for its xenophobia, has a strong support base in the diaspora.
I can’t help but feel that our inability to forge solidarity with other people of color is perhaps one of the diaspora’s most unfortunate afflictions. In the wake of attacks on Indians in Trump’s America, it’s worth remembering that in the eyes of the white supremacist, we are all the same. Amitava Kumar notes, “the racist’s calling card is ignorance: he cannot discriminate (if that is the right word) between nationalities and religions, between Indians and Saudis and Egyptians, Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs.”
On that note, I leave you with this: following violence against Indian students in Melbourne between 2008 and 2010, Australia was blacklisted by the Indian media for failing to prevent what was perceived as racially motivated violence. I clearly remember visiting India with my family shortly after a wave of attacks, and being asked by relatives whether we still felt safe. For Indians, both at home and in the diaspora, it’s perhaps worth considering extending this same concern to other people; whether Nigerian, North-East Indian, South Indian or Dalit.
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Vidya Ramachandran is a writer and law student at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. She writes on issues of cultural identity and race. Her BA thesis was written on identity and marriage/intimate relationships in the Indian diaspora.