By Jeethu Cherian
I remember once, a few years ago, a friend and I were conversing. I was speaking in Malayalam and she in Tamil. Both of us could definitely have spoken in English, but we didn’t. It was our choice. A north-Indian acquaintance passing through heard us speak and asked us if we were from the same place. Understandable that he couldn’t understand the difference between the two languages – but it was what he said later that struck us. When we said no, we are from Kerala and Tamil Nadu and both of us were speaking in our mother tongues, he said: ‘Ah! That doesn’t matter! You are all madarasis!’
While I just stood surprised as to how to respond (as many of us do when a north Indian still calls any south Indian ‘madarasi’), my friend immediately said: “Well! The British have come and gone, but apparently your geography and history lessons haven’t been upgraded! You, my friend, should go back to school!” She smiled and just left. That was kind of a mic-drop moment…
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. For most Indians, speaking on racism usually revolves around how they face racism from ‘the West’. When you talk about inequality, that usually is about caste-based discrimination or the rural versus urban divide – and as complicated and harsh a reality those are, I think in a country with at least four different races, it is time that people openly acknowledge that racism within Indians does exist.
It can be as in your face as calling south Indians madarasi or a northeasterner chinki, or it can be as slight as saying ‘oh, you don’t look like a south Indian’. It can be as blatant as asking for ‘fair-skinned’ brides in matrimonial ads even during these ‘modern’ times, or as simple as saying any non-familiar name is ‘too complicated’. It can be as loud as saying Hindi must be imposed on the whole country and anyone who doesn’t want to learn is ‘anti-national’; or as obvious as the fact that there are only two language options (Hindi and English) in the examinations set for choosing the bureaucrats of the country – this, in a hugely diverse country where almost six in every 10 people, do not identify Hindi as their first language or mother tongue. [So, this means, any non-Hindi speaker has to work extra hard in learning English well, because there wouldn’t be another option]. But it can also be as subtle as ‘deciding’ what the right way of saying saree or dosa or even sambar is. And, no, it isn’t the south Indian way of pronunciation, despite the fact that dosa and sambar are food from the south; and can there ever be a right way of saying ‘saree’, the one thing that is quintessentially ‘Indian’?
I can take a joke on my race, region and religion as well as the next person. While this piece seems as a call out against all north Indians – it is not. My best friends are north Indians and I have yet to come across people who can be as balanced and inclusive as they are; and some of my best years I’ve had have been living in Delhi. I have also been fortunate to have worked at some of the most inclusive organizations – both national and international. And I do know for a fact that south Indians can be racists too. Ask a non-Mumbaiker how they might be made to feel at times, or how complex life can get for a north Indian migrant in the south – to the point of refusing to speak Hindi or English even if you know the language.
But in the end, I believe that we all are nice, good people, and since we do carry biases, we make mistakes like everyone else. Us Indians must simply agree that there must be conversations about the deeply ingrained cultural superiority complex. It cannot simply revolve around discussions on Hindi or caste. Wider discourses must be had – and the first step is in acknowledging that cultural differences in our country –between the west and the east, between the north and the south –do exist, but never is one better than the other. Moving forward, organizations while sensitizing on gender must also ensure that dialogues on diversity and inclusivity includes racial and regional aspects too.
The author is the founder of Silence to Heal, a support group for sexual assault survivors. Views expressed are personal.