From designer riots to other hate crimes

Has racism raised its ugly head in the UK once again? Did it not go away, all this while? This is the tough question before us, especially after the recent events in Manchester. Interestingly, just last year, at the Manchester Literary Festival, I was taken on a brief tour of the city and told about the difficulties it had faced in the past few decades. Not only were the famous Manchester mills closed down and manufacturing jobs lost, but there was also the tension the city had faced because of its multi-cultural character. Over the years, however, things had calmed down and the city developed a distinct character of its own. And certainly last year, as an Indian wandering around the city, I did not feel insecure, even as I went pub-hopping with another woman writer well in the night. At the literary festival, too, — in which our session was attended mostly by white middle-aged women — there was friendliness and a good discussion. If there was any animosity it was never expressed and the festival was projected as one of the many initiatives through which the city expressed its diversity. However, even during that brief visit it was pointed out to me that thanks to the recent cuts in the overall government funding targeting the youth, there was a renewed restlessness among the marginalised elements. And thus, in the riots last year instigated by youth gangs, Manchester was one of the worst affected cities.
Let us also not forget that during those “designer” riots, crimes were committed, especially arson and looting, without any motive — other than greed, or the desire to conform to gang dictums. Subsequently, there was outrage in the UK at the thought that an amoral culture was taking over, and that the youth was falling prey to it. The meaningless murder of Anuj Bidve on December 26 seemed to provide further evidence that this uncaring feral side to British society could be getting entrenched. Now the mysterious death of Gurdeep Hayer, another student of Indian origin, makes one wonder if this, too, is somehow linked, and whether Indians, as a large, visible and quite wealthy community, are being picked on. Or, as has been suggested, were both Bidve and Hayer merely at the wrong place at the wrong time?
In an island society where often the “outsiders” are blamed for taking away jobs and incomes, race relations can become tenuous. However, unlike the black community which has its own organised and fairly active youth gangs, Indians are by and large peace-loving and because of their hardworking nature, their youth rarely belong to “gangs”. Young Indians are more focused on academics, and it might be no coincidence perhaps that both Bidve and Hayer were students. This is a time of deepening economic turmoil in the UK and perhaps these “hate crimes” have less to do with racism and more to do with the frustration of watching the rise of an Asian superpower and the undeniable success of an immigrant community?
Does this also mean that the Indian community needs to be far more vigilant and vociferous (and non-violent) about any perceived slights, and protect its space vigorously? Or would that be an over-reaction?
Frankly, when the Indian high commission demanded an apology from the BBC over a show in which Indians had allegedly been shown in poor light, I was amused, thinking that once again Indians are demonstrating that they lack a sense of humour, and that we should be gracious, allowing these little episodes pass. After all, the UK is, to a large extent, very politically correct.
But now, after the student deaths, one is beginning to wonder if the Indian high commission is right and we have to fight against any racial stereotyping because any slur on the community can lead to victimisation. I might sound a little paranoid but the tragedies of Bidve and Hayer have certainly made me change my mind. Perhaps Indians have to shed their diffidence so that we do not become, as happened in Australia, easy victims of targeted violence.

A recent report in the Observer newspaper accompanied by a tape, which showed girls from the isolated Jarawa tribe in the Andamans dancing and begging for food from tourists is also something to be handled with sensitivity. The reaction in the two countries has been interesting. While the British media and human rights organisations have been up in arms about how the tribals are being treated worse than animals (as has the Indian media and the concerned Indian NGOs), the Indian authorities have maintained that this is an old tape and that the person who filmed the incident needs to be interrogated and even arrested. It is interesting that the Observer journalist who broke the story also confessed that he did not know how old the tape was but just assumed that it was recent, thanks to the technology involved. Certainly stories like this do not help the image of Indians at home or abroad, but they must be swiftly dealt with — as we cannot hide behind alleged journalistic blunders. In a globalised world, if the image of India takes a constant beating it also has dire consequences for the diaspora.

And the latest in the list of questionable behaviour is the “fatwa”against Salman Rushdie by the Deobandis to prevent him from attending the Jaipur Literary Festival this month, even asking for a life ban. Thus far the Indian government has behaved well and not fallen into the trap of banning Rushdie, as they did ban The Satanic Verses 25 years ago.
While for Rushdie the renewed attention might deliver brisk book sales, being prevented from ever returning to India will be bad news, especially on the eve of the release of his film, Midnight’s Children. Its director Deepa Mehta must be watching this tamasha with a sense of déja vu. The last time she had to deal with an irate Hindu mob was over her film Water — and now it is angry Deobandis.
But many are asking that if Rushdie does attend the literary festival, will the authorities provide him the sort of iron-clad security the British government did? And will that turn the popular festival into a fortress? And again, what will that do to the image of India abroad?

The writer can be contacted at kishwardesai@yahoo.com

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