Who’s the real racist?

What is racism and when should a national government take up arms against an act of ethnic or colour-based prejudice or discrimination. The issue is worth pondering because in the past week there have been several cases of alleged racism in relation to the Commonwealth Games. In most, India has played the victim and the ministry

of external affairs (MEA), pushed by a hyperactive media, has gone ballistic. In other cases, India has been accused of being the perpetrator and predictably the issue has been buried.
It began with a New Zealand television commentator punning on Sheila Dikshit’s surname. It would have been fine as a party joke or college canteen chatter but on national television, it was in decidedly bad taste. The government of India criticised the remark, which it was within its rights to do; it then boycotted an official lunch hosted by the New Zealand high commissioner in New Delhi and demanded action against the television commentator.
Next, an email circulating among junior functionaries of the Victoria police showed a train passenger getting electrocuted in India and led to a series of comments on how this could be a way to “solve” the Indian student problem in Australia. It must be noted that the story broke in Australian newspapers and only after the Victoria authorities had begun taking remedial steps, including disciplinary action against the offending police constables.
India responded by summoning the Australian high commissioner to South Block. In a statement, the MEA said, “Such an entrenched bias among sections of law enforcers towards the Indian community is a matter of serious concern. Such behaviour and attitudes have no place in any society”.
The third incident got smaller publicity. South African swimmer Roland Schoeman was distracted by the crowd and ended up making a false start in the 50-metres freestyle semi-final. Clearly upset, he assailed spectator behaviour: “It’s an absolute disgrace. There’s a guy in the stands just shouting, shouting, shouting. Someone like that needs to be ejected from this place. It is unacceptable to be at a professional event like this and having people in the stands going on like monkeys”.
The use of the “monkey” word caused a minor controversy. The Commonwealth Games Federation had to step in and say it did not condone “racial slurs or racial behaviour”. Schoeman protested he had pointed to the bad behaviour of one individual and not intended a racist remark.
Of the three incidents recounted above, the one involving Victorian policemen is the most serious. It required the India foreign office to intervene though the MEA statement, as well as media discourse in India, did seem to confuse aberrant behaviour by individuals with institutional prejudice as a matter of government policy. Nowhere in the world are lower-level policemen models of rectitude and enlightened social more. A Jat constable in Haryana may personally abhor dalits and hold the worst possible opinion of them. That is different from the Haryana police as an institution — much less the Haryana government or the government of India — being biased against dalits as a matter of deliberate policy.
It was even more complicated in the case of the New Zealand television commentator. His right to free speech, however perverted, is a matter between him, his employers and the slander and hate laws of his home country. The episode also constituted the acts of a private individual on a news network. Did it really implicate the New Zealand government and merit not turning up at the high commissioner’s lunch? More important, as a democracy, with a free press it is proud of, didn’t India look mighty stupid demanding action against a single journalist, and that too from a national government? This is the thing the world expects China to do, not India.
Finally, come to Schoeman’s remarks. The simian comparison he made was not very different from the manner in which Sunil Gavaskar, writing in his book Sunny Days, described a rambunctious crowd in Kingston (Jamaica) during the fourth test between India and the West Indies in early 1976. Led by Michael Holding, the hosts bowled menacingly and aimed for the batsman’s body. The crowd seemed to love it, in the manner of a Coliseum throng egging on blood-hungry gladiators.
Was Gavaskar racist — or was he just angry at the perceived unfairness of it all?
That aside, at sports events Indians tend to be terrible keepers of spectator etiquette. In 2004, this writer travelled to Athens for the Olympic Games. A doubles match involving tennis stars Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi got Indian fans particularly excited. A joint secretary of the ministry of sports, in Athens on a taxpayer-sponsored junket, got so carried away that each time an Indian player raised his arm to serve, he screamed, “Go Leander, Go Mahesh; Come on India!”
It happened two or three times, with all four players on court turning in the direction of the screeching middle-aged Indian. Eventually, it was pointed out to Mr joint secretary that spectators were expected to maintain complete silence while a player was serving or during a rally. The cheering was to take place strictly after the point. There was a certain difference between a tennis match and a football game. The epithets used to describe Mr Joint Secretary that day in Athens were far worse than “monkey”; and they were all the work of fellow Indians.
A fourth recent fracas arose during the marchpast of nations at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. A Doordarshan commentator described an African contingent in a strange fashion: “Here comes Malawi. It is in Africa. It is one of the world’s least developed countries”.
Predictably, the high commission of Malawi protested. Doordarshan’s director-general wrote back offering an “unconditional apology” and insisting the “derogatory” description was “unintentional” and “inadvertent”. There wasn’t even the remotest suggestion, let alone self-admission, that India’s public broadcaster had been racist. Neither was there any question of the government of Malawi boycotting the Indian high commissioner and asking New Delhi to punish the Doordarshan commentator.
Given this, why is India’s establishment so prickly when comes to claiming offence from white nations in the Commonwealth? Is it exhibiting some deep-seated psychological inadequacy? That nagging suspicion just refuses to go away.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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