A racist turn in Bengaluru
Less than four months after an Australian man was violently harassed for sporting a tattoo of an Indian goddess, Bengaluru is in the news again, for sinking to new lows of bigotry and vigilantism. This time it was a Tanzanian woman at the receiving end of mob fury. It all reportedly began with an accident in which a Sudanese national drove his car over a 35-year-old woman, killing her. A mob quickly gathered, determined to mete out instant justice. When he managed to flee, his car was burnt down. Half an hour later, a Tanzanian student who happened to be passing by with her friends stopped by to inquire what was going on. The mob turned its ire on her and her three friends even though they were in no way connected to the Sudanese man involved in the accident — other than being, in the eyes of the mob, of the same race as the Sudanese, African. She was chased, assaulted, and had her clothes torn by the mob before being rescued. Her car, too, was torched. The incident occurred on Sunday, but the police did not register a complaint until Tuesday. The lackadaisical response of the law and order machinery prompted the Tanzanian High Commission to register a protest with the Indian government. This, in turn, prompted External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to write to Karnataka Chief Minister K. Siddaramaiah. By Thursday, four suspects had been arrested and investigations are currently on.
The entire episode raises a disturbing question: is it any longer possible, or even plausible, to express shock at what has happened? Such acts of violence are not peculiar to Bengaluru alone. Indeed, something like this did happen, not too long ago, in Delhi. Under the controversial guidance of a Law Minister of the State, African women were branded as ‘prostitutes’ and molested in a ‘midnight raid’. The Bengaluru mob, too, seems to have given free rein to racism. The repeated targeting of Africans suggests a case of pathological colourism — discrimination and hostility directed against dark-skinned people. Indians’ cultural preference for fair skin is well known, and amply attested by the vast market for fairness creams. It is quite common to find people remark admiringly on how ‘fair’ a newborn baby is. And matrimonial advertisements are notorious for seeking ‘fair’ brides. However, to reduce the depressing message from this episide to skin colour alone would be to underestimate the discrimination and violence in India against those who are visibly ‘different’. Some years ago, Bengaluru saw an exodus of young people from northeastern India residing in the city after rumours spread of violence targeting them. In the national capital, even as the megalopolis becomes more cosmopolitan, the periodicity of assaults on residents from the northeast is such that there appears to be a pattern. Certainly, both the citizenry and the law and order machinery need to be sensitised to the prejudices. But the task can only be achieved if strong political expression is given to the essential value of diversity and tolerance.