Are we racists

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Updated: Feb 16 2014, 07:22am hrs
Death from racism is even more painfully shameful in a heterogeneous country like India. We can only empathise with the heavy heart Nidos parents are carrying. We pride ourselves about Indias tricolour flag bringing unity in diversity and ours being the worlds most spiritual society, but in the face of regional discrimination in our everyday life, everything becomes hogwash.

A colleague of mine visiting Kolkata on research work was telling me that after a wonderful dinner at a restaurant in Park Street, when the restaurant manager approached her, she spoke appreciatively. The manager was very happy and asked where she has come from. She replied Bangalore, when the next words he whispered totally shocked her, Kolkata could be better if there were no indecent Biharis spoiling the city. The irony was that she was from Bihar. Having grown up as a Bengali in West Bengal, I can vouch for such culturally racist sentiments. Marwaris are offensively referred to as Mero, Biharis as Khotta, Oriyas as Ure and all south Indians as Madrasis. When I look at other states, similar codifications apply; North-Easterners are Chinkis, Keralites are Kurkurias. In Karnataka, the derogatory words for Tamilians are Konga or Pandi, Tamilians call Andhraites Kolty and Kannadigas Kalli and all north Indians as Setu. Whereas the word bhaiyya is respectful in north India, for states south of the Vindhyas, its a belittling reference to north Indians.

From retail distributors in Pune, I have heard gripes about the alleged parochial arm-twisting in Maharashtra that has frightened away all Biharis whod actually been their low-cost labour base. It seems workers from Bihar are very sincere, hardworking and dedicated. Theyd come without families, and distributors gave them room and board next to the godown where several of them stayed together. They were willing to work day and night, whenever required. Local distributors unhappily said Maharashtra is not allowing outsiders to come because of high local unemployment. They also say that as locals have to return to their families at night, distributors dont have the all-time loading-unloading facility any longer. Whatever may be the business implication for the distributors, for people from Bihar, the situation amounts to preventing their fundamental right to work anywhere in India. At the same time, its exploitation of labour and social discrimination that leads to fostering hatred among fellow Indians.

When you look at Indias heterogeneous perspective, there are many areas that can potentially divide us. Take arranged marriages as the indicator of whats acceptable. First comes religion, then caste, language, then state of origin. Its very clear that no family will arrange a marriage with someone speaking a different language. The exception Ive noticed is among Rajputs where the ruler stratum is the most important factor. Whether the bride or groom comes from Rajasthan, Nepal, Bengal, Gujarat, Karnataka or Manipur does not matter so long as the social lineage is from the ruling family, although in independent India, nobody has any ruling powers any more. Other areas critical in arranged marriages are matching family status in terms of economic power and what the boy and, nowadays, the girl earns. Matching the education level matters, as that anticipates the couples money-earning capacity and long-term compatibility. A most denigrating factor is checking the colour of skin, which purportedly determines beauty. All marriage advertisements look for a fair person, while a dark-skinned person describes himself/herself as wheatish-complexioned.

Inter-state, cross-communal marriages between persons speaking different languages or having different religious beliefs can happen only in a love marriage. So aside from race, religion, caste or language, we subscribe to divisions of the rich and poor, literacy-illiteracy, lower to higher education, social status of men and women in jobs, being a native from a northern, western, southern or eastern state, social standing of being a member of a family which is in politics, industry owner, independent businessman, trader, armed forces, educators, priests, working in corporate, MNC company, having a government job, or professionals like doctors, lawyers or tailors and carpenters. So many ingredients are available in our country to express our racism.

The race problem is not limited to India alone. In spite of being part of the European Union, the different countries in Europe rarely identify with one another as Europeans. All may have the same skin colour, but each nation has its own language, so no unity. Significantly, a historical residue can create such strong hatred that a whole race was about to be obliterated. Since the 12th century, when the Pope declared that Catholics are prohibited from lending money, people turned to Jews for their economic requirement. Borrowers are either unable to pay back or lenders take their advantage, but the cumulative result was hatred institutionalised against the Jewish society. Nazi Hitlers Final Solution strategy to exterminate Jews expressed blatant racism propagated by the state. Even in different economic difficulties, racism can be expressed. After World War II, the French were very negative with Italians and Spaniards. After six decades, this feeling is almost repaired, although if somebody is doing something the wrong way, I still hear comments like, Why are you working stupidly like a Portugese

A controversial survey done across three decades in 80 countries and mapped by The Washington Post, put India at the number two position after Jordan among the worlds most racist countries. The accuracy of this survey is being questioned. As addressing African-origin people as black or negro is taboo in the US, you have to call them African-Americans, so would any American openly express bias TV debaters vehemently argue for and against Indians being racists. Its a pity that our education system is so archaic that children are still not taught to appreciate the diversity of our different states, language, religion, food habits and social culture of the country in a positive way. Unless that happens, extreme discrimination that killed Nido will always be there.

Shombit Sengupta is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence (www.shiningconsulting .com)