Tag Archives: Caste

What is a Racist?


What is a Racist? Why Moral Progress Hinges on Getting the Answer Right

The making of India’s modernity

The making of India’s modernity

Reviewed publication: Arnold, D. 2015. Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 9780226269375

In terms of thematic exploration, David Arnold’s book on technological modernity in colonial India, which covers the period between the 1880s and the 1960s, is seminal. In the current historiography, there is hardly any book which includes sewing machine, bicycle, rice mill, and typewriter in one single account that tells us the story of modern India that unfolded at the intersections of technology, state and society.1

Two important aspects related to the theoretical positioning of the book need brief comments. One relates to the scale of technology; and two, the scale of history and history writing.

Technology: A function of scale & site of social issues

On the first: the book makes a very pertinent claim that “Technology did not need to be big to be significant, audible, visible, and everyday” (10). Arnold claims that much of the existing historiography in South Asia has remained focussed on railways, irrigation (and very recently on telegraph) as main technological movers of the nineteenth century. Against this, he presents his justification of studying “everyday technologies” because “they frequently possessed an intimacy, a companionable association with family life and domestic existence, which bigger machines lacked” (11-12).

Arnold rightly observes that the little that exists on the history of technology, which includes his own earlier works, has remained focussed on big-scale technology. They explore the big politics of imperialism, nationalism and capitalism. There is, therefore, a need to look at small-scale technologies. However, intimacies, domesticities, and other such quotidian markers/formations are not necessarily a function of the scale of technologies. If a group of girls riding on bicycles sang away, quite literally, their free-spirited pedalling across the serene landscape as one towards love and freedom which no one should try to stop (the famous song main chali, main chali from the movie Padosan, 1968) then almost two decades earlier a song picturised in a railway carriage amusingly chronicled the enactment of some other everyday practices such as sleeping, playing cards and not least eating (the song rail mein jiya mora from the movie Ankhen, 1950). Further, Bhojpuri folksongs from the early twentieth century on railways and steamships (the big technologies) very vividly depicted the intimate everyday relationship around conjugality, family life, and domestic existence (or lack of it).

The argument that technology did not need to be big to be significant is absolutely valid, but equally true (and I assume Arnold will agree as he himself uses Nirad Chaudhuri’s reminiscences of the sound of steamers, pp17-18) is that the ‘everyday’ does not need to be necessarily located in something that is plebeian, subaltern, and small. Everyday is not a function of scale. Railways and sewing machines were both part of the same everyday – at individual and social levels. And the colonialists/corporatists displayed the same kind of prejudices in relation to both: as Singer agents thought Indians incapable to use their machines, so did the agents of railway companies a few decades earlier. If Singer claimed to have helped Indians move towards better civilization, so did the power of steam.

Influenced by the ‘social construction of technology’ theory (SCOT), Arnold’s second theoretical intervention is to rescue the social history of these technologies, which were all imported in their provenance, from an instrumental relationship of transfer and diffusion from the West to the East. This relates to the scale of history and history writing in which he admits of not looking at the technical make-up of the machine, but in exploring how they became part of the social and political processes of change in specific localities; how in India they became carriers as well as sites of issues such as race, class and gender (12).

All technologies and commodities covered in this study were global in their reach and introduced in India largely but not exclusively through the network of imperialism, but their ‘creative appropriation’ in different settings gave them context-specific meanings. It is the context of the social which is at the heart of this book, which ties the global, the imperial and the local in an un-formulaic way. Given the ascendancy of formulaic ways of doing global history through connections and comparisons, I find this approach of not letting the ‘social’ go adrift refreshingly important (see the brief comment on 38). Once again, it must be stated that the cultural adaptation of technology is not specific to small or big.

Global technologies & colonial state

The foreignness of these technologies invariably leads Arnold to raise the question of their relation with colonial state power. Most of the big and small technologies were thought of first serving the state power. He says, unlike western societies where commerce, industry, and civil society played a more dominant role in fashioning technological modernity, in India the colonial state remained the leading user and publicist of these technologies (148).

Bicycles were distributed to help policing, typewriters in government offices and courts to speed up administrative work and efficiency, cars and telephones to speed up the movement of administrative personnel and information. The state was not the producer; in fact, within the ironic relationship between imperial protectionism and laissez-faire, American products (Singer sewing machines, Remington typewriters and Ford automobiles) dominated the Indian market. But the state significantly benefitted from this. These technologies strengthened the ‘inner life of the state’. And they did so in phases. During the Second World War, for instance, the expansionary nature of the state in terms of being able to regulate the usages of these technologies was quite marked.

Yet this is only one part of the story. The social and political re-calibration of these technologies to either subvert the state power or to question the existing social identity was equally important and forceful, which Arnold lucidly demonstrates. Women working for communist organisations and low-caste villagers using bicycles, typewriters used for disseminating anti-colonial nationalist aspirations – they all point at colonial control that was leaky if not absent. They all show that the life of technology was beyond the simplistic control of the state. They all indicate that different social groups used these technologies to articulate the idea of modernity and modern self-hood.

Nature of technological modernity

What are the axes and scope of this technological modernity? Exploration of race, gender and class is obviously one way of knowing the nature of this modernity, which this book like many others especially on a colonial society, does. Numbers definitely are not on the side of showing the ‘quantitative’ axes of this modernity. In spite of the rapidity with which these commodities became part of Indian life, they were still used rather sparsely if compared with figures of other countries. Arnold is aware of this dilemma and hence the way out for him is to underscore the social, experiential and utopian articulations of this modernity. The mix of social life captured through visuals, literary works and films is interesting. The articulation of this modernity is tied to the manifold effects these different technologies produced on diverse social groups and classes.

Moving beyond the state and the enterprising initiatives of some Indians selling, part manufacturing, repairing, and assembling these products, Arnold leads us into the world of users and consumers. Did new technology such as sewing machines and typewriters require new skills? Who were the people that moved in to operate them? Did they lead to displacement of existing groups and skills? One gets glimpses of answers into these questions. Bicycles empowered rural folk and elite women; typewriters mainly remained within the confines of Anglo-Indian women in offices and scribal Indian men outside the courts; rice mills took away the work of poor women; and sewing machines tapped into the existing skills of darzis, but also became part of the reformist discourse on ‘new women/new domesticity’ of the late nineteenth century. The last enlarged the scope of domestic work for women.

Yet, many of the answers to the question of modernity are just about at the exploratory level. Bicycle races fitted into the notion of Bengali manliness, but did it also contribute to the emergence of a new sensibility and aesthetics of landscape, space and movement, and if yes, how? Did the new modernity based upon widespread use of sewing machines create a new culture of mass production and consumption? Was it linked to, if any, the emergence of new ‘modern’ fashion? How did the earlier individualized notion of work which darzis performed on the veranda of their masters/employers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transform into a shop based work culture of the later period, in which these people were not the owners of their tools? Did technological modernity bring alienation and firmer labour control? Passages from literary sources on sewing machines (141-42), and work-related changes brought about by rice mills (134-40), are illuminating sections.

Typewriters brought bureaucratic utility and speed; it “transformed bureaucratic work regimes”; transformed the “ways in which novelists, journalists, politicians, and administrators pursued their daily work”, but exactly how is not clear (56-7). I would imagine for a long time the typewriter functioned as a ‘copying machine’ producing the ‘fair’ and ‘official’ version of hand-written letters, petitions, judgements, news, and even academic theses. In fact, this was true for early day computers as well (people wrote on the paper and got it ‘typed’ with the only but significant difference of editing on the screen, which theoretically meant fewer errors in the final print, but only theoretically). It has only very recently happened that the machine has become an accompaniment of the user in the same way as her lunch box or smart phone are. The question remains how did the typewriter change, or not, the processes of thinking, reading, writing, and reporting. Everyday Technology can mark the beginning of a more systematic tapping into sources to unearth the complex social relationships around these technologies.

Conflict and resistance

If modernity is a product of conflictual claim and counter-claim making, then the history of technological modernity should also reflect the same – conflicts between social groups and classes. Arnold says that “there is little evidence of significant cultural resistance to sewing machines” (49), but what about resistance based upon capital and skill? Did the traditional catchment of darzis’ work and clientele suffer because now women started sewing at home (and quite massively, with vernacular magazines publishing essays on how to sew different types of materials) or did the expanding market compensate for it (pp. 50-51)? The competitive clerical job market revolved around the skill of typewriting; what kind of social conflicts did it lead to? Arnold prefers to look at the history of interaction between technology and society through assimilation and acculturation; I wonder if there is more to be said about conflicts and dissonances; to be fair, they are not absent (most directly to be seen in the sections on traffic and roads, 162-64 and 167-71), but not adequately presented either.

Based largely on the biases for big technologies, Arnold revisits the temporal divide of technological modernity in India. For him, seemingly it was not the period of the 1830s-1850s that saw railways, steamers, and telegraph creating a modern India (a bias that has its obvious origins in colonial claims), but rather the period between 1905 and 1914 – marked by the Swadeshi movement – that constituted the technological watershed. Not only had the influx of everyday commodities started in this period but also the imaginaries of modern India. It is this extensive engagement with technology in both its supporting and opposing viewpoints (ranging between Saha and Nehru on one side and Gandhi on the other), that Arnold sees the constitution of modernity. The study of India’s modernity – derivative or otherwise – is being constantly traced from the times of the ‘Bengal Renaissance’ to that of the railways, Macaulay, census, ghore/bahire, and hybrid Bengali cuisines. Now it has reached the shores of everyday machines, technologies and commodities. If it is a mere addition to the set of ideas on how Indians thought of themselves to be ‘modern’, or a potential new framework that would recast the historiographical thinking, is too early to say.

Make in India

Finally, at least in two ways, this book reverberates with contemporary Indian politics over technology, and the social perception of Indian skill, and thus unwittingly adds an interesting historical layer to it. Foreign capital and the current governmental slogan of ‘Make in India’ are not very far from how American firms like Dunlop promoted their products as “made in India, by Indians, for Indians” (100). There is no dichotomy between nationalistic manufacturing boost that this present government is spearheading (with the logo of the lion) and the inflow of foreign capital. In fact, the mechanical robust lion can only survive with a financial begging bowl in his mouth. Arnold’s treatment of the Swadeshi phase shows historical antecedents. Second, from repairing cycles on street pavements to that of fixing typewriters (and in the current age of unlocking and repairing all sorts of mobile phones), this book tells us that there is a serious history to be told about how India has achieved its worldwide status of ‘jugaad economy’. The production of many a commodity was stifled under colonialism – is this the reason that the skill got channelized into fixing, assembling, repairing and selling, but not innovatively producing?

Nitin Sinha, Senior Research Fellow, Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin (nitin.sinha@zmo.de).

Is the United Nations racist?

Is the United Nations racist?

Ramesh Thakur
JULY 19, 2013 02:27 IST | UPDATED: AUGUST 16, 2016 19:20 IST

Western countries occupy almost all powerful and big-budget posts in the organisation, and sadly developing countries, despite their numbers, have allowed the bias to persist

Ask it quietly, but ask it we must. Is the United Nations racist, either deliberately or unconsciously? Many years ago, the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, universally admired as one of the brightest and best U.N. officials, was pulled out of the Balkans because the Europeans would not accept a non-European as head of the U.N. mission there. This despite the fact that in personality, outlook and ways of thinking, he was more European than most Europeans. Their stance might have had credibility if, by the same logic, Europeans excused themselves from serving as heads of U.N. missions outside Europe. In fact, westerners dominate this category.

Double standards

We have seen the same double standard, rooted in the belief in the innate superiority of the westerners, in the choice of the chief executives of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The former is always headed by an American. On any objective measure, the U.S. nominee last year would not have made it to the short list against the other two main candidates from Africa and Latin America. But under the cosy EU-U.S. arrangement, the American candidate got the job. This causes neither Americans nor Europeans to blush when they lecture others on good governance norms.

When Dominique Strauss-Kahn had to resign in the wake of a sex scandal, his successor as IMF chief was another French nominee. Again without blushes, where all the years previously they had justified the self-serving arrangements on grounds of how well Europe had done economically, this time it was because only a European could understand the grave crisis afflicting the eurozone and lead the IMF.

The position of U.N. Secretary-General (SG) is protected against such shenanigans by the rotation principle whereby each continent gets its turn for the top job. But almost all the top U.N. posts after that, at the ranks of deputy, under and assistant secretary-general, are within the personal discretion of the SG to fill. The same applies to the large number of his special representatives and envoys.

Unlike the parliamentary system of government, the top ranks of this international civil service are not filled by career officials. Instead the practice is closer to the U.S. system where the President gets to choose his own senior people. But in the U.S. system, senior appointments, including ambassadors, are subject to independent confirmation by the Senate. The U.N. practice does not have any comparable check on whimsical and unsuitable appointments.

>Ban Ki-moon has been commendably conscious of and good at appointing women to the senior ranks. But both he and the system are yet to be sensitised to the fact that the top-level under-representation of non-westerners is even worse. The situation persists not just because western donor countries use money power and are more focussed in lobbying for their nationals. An even more telling explanation is that the developing countries fail to act in pursuit of their collective interest, are not equally committed to backing their own, and do not wish to jeopardise their own individual chances of a cushy U.N. post.

Remarkably, many commentators seem to believe that the alleged waste, inefficiency and corruption in the U.N. system is rooted partly in affirmative action policies that prioritise incompetent and unqualified personnel from developing countries in recruitment and promotion. When I looked into the statistics almost a decade ago, I was astonished at the reality as compared to the myth. Almost all the powerful and big-budget senior posts in the Secretariat and in the U.N. system are filled by westerners, including peacekeeping, political and humanitarian affairs, management, development and environment programmes, children’s fund, refugees, etc. I suspect that for the same ability, qualifications and experience, western U.N. officials can expect to retire two ranks higher than the rest.

Asians contribute about half the U.N.’s total peacekeepers and one-quarter of its regular and peacekeeping budget (although most of this comes just from Japan). They have also suffered around one-quarter of total U.N. peacekeeping deaths. Yet a decade ago, two-thirds of senior peacekeeping officials were westerners. In the U.N. Secretariat overall, Asians comprised a mere 17 per cent of senior U.N. staff at the grades of director and above. This for a continent that accounts for well over half the world’s population, is not short of experienced and sophisticated diplomats, and has many high achievers. Between them, Canada and the U.S. had the same number of senior staff in the Secretariat as all of Asia, when they account for 5 per cent and 60 per cent of the world’s population respectively.

I no longer have access to U.N. data and cannot guess what the numbers might be today. But another set of figures is publicly available. A decade ago, Asians comprised a mere 12 per cent of high-level representatives. Today, according to the list available on the U.N. website, of the total of 94 special representatives/envoys of the SG, 16 per cent are Asian, 30 per cent African (almost all dealing with African crises), 2 per cent from Latin America and the Caribbean: and 52 per cent from Europe, North America and Australia with nine out of ten of them dealing with non-western and global problems. This is like western scholarship. If you are western, you can tackle any topic or region. If you are non-western, you are expected to inhabit the intellectual ghetto of your own country or continent.

Consider three specific examples. To avoid being misunderstood: my comments do not apply to particular individuals. I am interested only in the patterns of over and under-representation and the consequences for the U.N.’s legitimacy and effectiveness. We would have been rightly outraged if the first two heads of U.N. Women had been men, no matter how capable the individual might have been.

Why is there no matching outrage and unacceptability when the head of the Development Program is a westerner? No matter how well intentioned, they cannot possibly know the political and social imperatives driving development strategies and policies. This is compounded by having an American as a special adviser on development goals. A practising economist from a developing country would be an infinitely superior choice, instead of people whose knowledge of development is derived from books or as an aid donor. The developing-country background and experiences of Mahbub-ul Haq and Amartya Sen were crucial, not incidental, to the emergence and enduring appeal of the notion of human development.

The only part of the system that has its global headquarters in Asia is the U.N. University. Only one of its six chiefs to date has been Asian, when equity and justice would have seen only one non-Asian. On every table of university rankings, the Asian universities (although not, alas, Indian universities) have made the most dramatic progress. Asian university presidents and vice chancellors must be doing something right. How then to explain the bias against them?

Or take a third example, the responsibility to protect (R2P). The likely sites and targets of intervention in the foreseeable future will be developing countries. It is their people who will suffer if mass atrocities being committed are not stopped, or if geopolitical and commercial interventions are masked in humanitarian language. Conversely, people in developing countries will primarily benefit if interventions are motivated mainly by humanitarian concerns and executed responsibly. The interveners can come from advanced and/or developing countries. Conversations on R2P should occur therefore first among the civil societies and governments of developing countries, and secondly between developing and advanced countries.

Norm hijacked

And the SG’s special adviser on R2P should be a powerful (public) intellectual from the global South. Instead we have had an American and now a Canadian. This is not going to help as sentiment firms that the norm, in whose origins Africans (Kofi Annan, Francis Deng, Mohamed Sahnoun) have played the most crucial roles, is being hijacked and appropriated by the West to serve the old and discredited humanitarian intervention agenda, or to pursue regime change (Libya, Syria).

Why, with numbers to put a stop to it, do developing countries put up with such clear and heavy bias and permit it to persist? One dispiriting answer might be that a particularly insidious consequence of the century of European colonialism is that non-westerners have themselves internalised the sense of racial superiority of westerners. My own extensive experience suggests that the immigration, customs and security officials in developing countries are more obviously racist than in the West.

Part of India’s national identity is the self-belief in being a champion of developing countries. Is it prepared to take the lead in demanding an explanation-cum-correction of this anomaly in the U.N. system?

(Ramesh Thakur, a former senior U.N. official, is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University)

‘India Is Racist, And Happy About It’

‘India Is Racist, And Happy About It’


A Black American’s first-hand experience of footpath India: no one even wants to change

In spite of friendship and love in private spaces, the Delhi public literally stops and stares. It is harrowing to constantly have children and adults tease, taunt, pick, poke and peer at you from the corner of their eyes, denying their own humanity as well as mine. Their aggressive, crude curiosity threatens to dominate unless disarmed by kindness, or met with equal aggression.

Once I stood gazing at the giraffes at the Lucknow Zoo only to turn and see 50-odd families gawking at me rather than the exhibit. Parents abruptly withdrew infants that inquisitively wandered towards me. I felt like an exotic African creature-cum-spectacle, stirring fear and awe. Even my attempts to beguile the public through simple greetings or smiles are often not reciprocated. Instead, the look of wonder swells as if this were all part of the act and we were all playing our parts.

Racism is never a personal experience. Racism in India is systematic and independent of the presence of foreigners of any hue. This climate permits and promotes this lawlessness and disdain for dark skin. Most Indian pop icons have light-damn-near-white skin. Several stars even promote skin-bleaching creams that promise to improve one’s popularity and career success. Matrimonial ads boast of fair, v. fair and v. very fair skin alongside foreign visas and advanced university degrees. Moreover, each time I visit one of Delhi’s clubhouses, I notice that I am the darkest person not wearing a work uniform. It’s unfair and ugly.

Discrimination in Delhi surpasses the denial of courtesy. I have been denied visas, apartments, entrance to discos, attentiveness, kindness and the benefit of doubt. Further, the lack of neighbourliness exceeds what locals describe as normal for a capital already known for its coldness.

My partner is white and I am black, facts of which the Indian public reminds us daily. Bank associates have denied me chai, while falling over to please my white friend. Mall shop attendants have denied me attentiveness, while mobbing my partner. Who knows what else is more quietly denied?

“An African has come,” a guard announced over the intercom as I showed up. Whites are afforded the luxury of their own names, but this careful attention to my presence was not new. ATM guards stand and salute my white friend, while one guard actually asked me why I had come to the bank machine as if I might have said that I was taking over his shift.

It is shocking that people wear liberalism as a sign of modernity, yet revert to ultraconservatism when actually faced with difference. Cyberbullies have threatened my life on my YouTube videos that capture local gawking and eve-teasing. I was even fired from an international school for talking about homosociality in Africa on YouTube, and addressing a class about homophobia against kids after a student called me a ‘fag’.

Outside of specific anchors of discourse such as Reservations, there is no consensus that discrimination is a redeemable social ill. This is the real issue with discrimination in India: her own citizens suffer and we are only encouraged to ignore situations that make us all feel powerless. Be it the mute-witnesses seeing racial difference for the first time, kids learning racism from their folks, or the blacks and northeasterners who feel victimised by the public, few operate from a position that believes in change.

Living in India was a childhood dream that deepened with my growing understanding of India and America’s unique, shared history of non-violent revolution. Yet, in most nations, the path of ending gender, race and class discrimination is unpaved. In India, this path is still rural and rocky as if this nation has not decided the road even worthy. It is a footpath that we are left to tread individually.

(The writer is a Black American PhD student at the Delhi School of Economics.)


Race and Caste

Race and caste

Online edition of India’s National Newspaper
Saturday, March 10, 2001 | By Andre Beteille

AS A student of anthropology in Calcutta in the 1950s, I was recommended a book written by the well-known physical anthropologist, M.F. Ashley Montagu, some of whose other works we also had to study. The book to which I now refer was entitled “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race”. Ashley Montagu had overstated his case somewhat, but the basic point he was making, that the widely-used concept of race was politically pernicious and scientifically anomalous, had come to be generally accepted among anthropologists by the middle of the 20th century.

Some anthropologists attended to the political mischief caused by the idea of race while others exposed its scientific ambiguities. The most notable among the latter was Franz Boas, widely regarded as the father of American anthropology. In his book, “Race, Language and Culture”, he established conclusively with a wealth of empirical material the distinction between race which is a biological category with physical markers and social groupings based on language, religion, nationality, style of life or status. Boas’s conclusion may be regarded as the settled opinion on the subject among professional anthropologists the world over.

“Race, Language and Culture”, published in 1940, was the culmination of systematic and painstaking research by two or three generations of anthropologists. In the 19th century, when anthropology was still largely an amateur pursuit, the concept of race was widely and loosely use to cover virtually every kind of social grouping. One read about the Aryan race, the Semitic race and the Irish race. The influential French writer Count Gobineau even proposed that the different social classes in France were composed of different races. In fact, race and class were linked together in Europe even before attempts were made to link race with caste in India. Pseudo-scientific theories of race abounded in late 19th and early 20th century in Europe and America. They made no small contribution to Hitler’s disastrous racial policies in Germany. Although the English, the French and the Americans adopted a self-consciously virtuous attitude after 1945, they too produced an abundance of pseudo-scientific theories of race before World War II.

At about the same period of time, the Indian Civil Service counted a fair number of amateur anthropologists in its ranks. Some of them have left behind valuable accounts of the tribes and castes in India. Others took an interest in race that at times amounted to an obsession. The obsessive ones found evidence of race wherever they looked. Their main confusion was between race and language, and they wrote freely about the `Aryan race’ and the `Dravidian race’. Some treated Hindus and Muslims as belonging to different races, and others expressed similar views about the upper and the lower castes. These views, based on a confusion of categories, are now regarded as worthless from the scientific point of view.

It is not as if there was no serious scientific effort by the ICS anthropologists to study the racial composition of the Indian population. Several of them attended to the problem with patience and care, combining the study of physical features with that of social customs. The most notable was Sir Herbert Risley who produced a comprehensive classification of the races of India into seven types. But the principal `racial types’ in his classification – Aryan, Dravidian, Aryo-Dravidian and Mongolo- Dravidian – were linguistic or regional categories in disguise and not racial categories at all. The subsequent classification by B.S. Guha, made in connection with the census of 1931, was less ambitious, for it did not speak of `racial types’ but only of `racial elements’ in the population of the country.

In the mid-1950s when I was a student of anthropology, most anthropologists had lost interest in the racial classification of the Indian population. Although there were many different racial elements in it, it was difficult, if not impossible, to sort them out into distinct racial groups. In the 1970s, I took some initiative on behalf of Oxford University Press to update Guha’s work on racial elements. I approached a number of physical anthropologists, but they either declined or said that they would do it but failed to deliver. I am now convinced that identifying the races in the population of India will be an exercise in futility.

Despite all the hard work done by anthropologists from Boas onward, the idea of race dies hard in the popular imagination. That is understandable. What is neither understandable nor excusable is the attempt by the United Nations to revive and expand the idea of race, ostensibly to combat the many forms of social and political discrimination prevalent in the world. It is sad but true that many forms of invidious discrimination do prevail in the contemporary world. But to assimilate or even relate them all to `racial discrimination’ will be an act of political and moral irresponsibility.

Not content with condemning racism and racial discrimination, the U.N. now wants to take on `racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’. It has in its wisdom decided to expand the meeting of racial discrimination to accommodate exclusion or preference `based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin’. In doing so it is bound to give a new lease of life to the old and discredited notion of race current a hundred years ago. By flying in the face of the distinctions between race, language and culture, it is seeking to undo the conclusions reached by the researches of several generations of anthropologists.

Interested parties within and outside the U.N. would like to bring caste discrimination in general and the practice of untouchability in particular within the purview of racial discrimination. The practice of untouchability is indeed reprehensible and must be condemned by one and all; but that does not mean that we should now begin to regard it as a form of racial discrimination. The Scheduled Castes of India taken together are no more a race than are the Brahmins taken together. Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination.

In the past, some groups claimed superior rights on the ground that they belonged to the Aryan race or the Teutonic race. The anthropologists rejected such claims on two grounds: first, on the ground that within the same human species no race is superior to any other; but also on the ground that there is no such thing as an Aryan race or a Teutonic race. We cannot throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is misused for asserting social superiority and bring it in again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed. The metaphor of race is a dangerous weapon whether it is used for asserting white supremacy or for making demands on behalf of disadvantaged groups.

If discrimination against disadvantaged castes can be defined as a form of racial discrimination, there is no reason why discrimination, real or alleged, against religious or linguistic minorities cannot be phrased in exactly the same terms. The Muslims and other religious minorities will claim that they too, and not just backward castes, are victims of racial discrimination. The initiative taken by the U.N. is bound to encourage precisely that kind of claim.

The U.N. initiative will open up a Pandora’s box of allegations of racial discrimination throughout the world. The latitudinarian attitude of the U.N. will encourage religious and other `ethnic’ minorities to make allegations of racial discrimination not only in India, but everywhere. The Catholics in Northern Ireland can claim that they too are victims of racial discrimination. The French Canadians, whose grievances are real enough, can also make the same claim. One can multiply examples from every corner of the world. By treating caste discrimination as a form of racial discrimination and, by implication, caste as a form of race, the U.N. is turning its back on established scientific opinion. One can only guess under what kind of pressure it is doing so. Treating caste as a form of race is politically mischievous; what is worse, it is scientifically nonsensical.

The Truth in Black & White

The Truth in Black & White


Illustration: Namaah / Arré

Six Racist and Reductionist Ideas

Six Racist And Reductionist Ideas Propagated By Kancha Ilaiah

Poulasta Chakraborty – Jan 21, 2016, 12:45 am


Kancha Ilaiah is controversial due to his views on Indian, and more specifically Hindu society as well as its history – both of which are very bizarre.

Kancha Ilaiah is the epitome of what one can call a controversial scholar, although the ‘scholar’ part can be debated. Nevertheless his book ‘Why I am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy’was listed as a millennium book by one of the country’s leading newspapers, “The Pioneer”.

He is at present serving as Director of the Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) in Hyderabad. Previously he served as an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Osmania University.

The things that make Ilaiah controversial are his views on Indian, and more specifically Hindu society as well as its history – both of which are very bizarre. He is an intellectual inspiration to many Dalit associations like the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) and the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) whose members promote his ideas, calling for a civil war which will lead to the demise of Hinduism itself.

These ideas stem from Ilaiah’s ‘scholarly‘ views on Hindu traditions, most of which are elucidated in his most notable work ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’. Given below are five such scholarly views:

1. Through the pages 88-95 of his bookWhy I am Not a Hindu’, in the chapter titled ‘The Brahmanical Gods And Goddesses’, Professor Ilaiah explains how all Hindu gods have made the subduing of Dalits their primary purpose.

While Brahma is a light-skinned Aryan, Vishnu is coloured blue to represent the mixed race that might have emerged out of the cross-breeding between white-skinned Aryans and dark-skinned Dravidian Dalit-Bahujans.

Finally Shiva is shown to be dark because he resembles a “tribal” and the purpose of creating Shiva was to mislead the indigenous pre-Aryan inhabitants of India. In Ilaiah’s words –

Certainly the creation of the images of Shiva and Parvathi was instrumental in creating a consent base among the tribals….These two images were successfully used to subdue the tribals.

Most scholarly works penned by the likes of RC Majumdar and PV Kane are of the view that Hinduism is a synthesis of indigenous tribal practices and belief systems which were incorporated over a long period of time.

One wouldn’t have been surprised if these statements were made during the late 19th or early 20thcentury India by colonial historians who gave rise to the Aryan Invasion Theory.

But it is disappointing to see a scholar who prides himself as an Ambedkarite making such points since Dr Ambedkar himself debunked the Aryan-Dravidian school of thought in a scholarly manner.

2. In page 124 of the book, Iliah gives his insight into another aspect of Hindu society:

Among ‘upper’ castes, when a woman dies, if a man weeps loudly, such a man is said to be unmanly.

It is quite hard to believe that people will be concerned with someone’s manliness during a moment of personal grief. One can clearly find many cases in the past and present where ‘upper-caste’ men expressed their grief quite openly at the loss of a dear kin. It is unusual and peculiar to see one demarcating emotional reactions on the basis of caste.

3. In page-100 of the aforementioned book he gives his view on the Mahabharata:

The Mahabharatha narrative itself was built on a very strong Kautilyan imagination….The hundred Kauravas stood against brahminical dharma and represented Dalit Bahujans, the majority; whereas the five Pandavas stood for brahminical dharma and represented the brahminical minority.

Now of course one has the right to interpret an epic in any manner he/she wishes to but the said interpretation needs to be based on proper citations.Most readers of the Mahabharata know that the said war pits two branches of the same family against each other. The opponents practised the same religious tradition, resided in the same area, spoke the same language and shared the same ethnicity.

So Professor Ilaiah needs to state how he saw the war as Dalits vs Brahmins.

4. And this is the Professor’s understanding of Krishna:

..The Brahmins needed to project a person who could rebuild a consent system to contain the Yadava revolts. The Brahmins created an image of one who was said to have been born and brought up among the Yadavas themselves.

They worked out the strategy of creating a Krishna who was born in a Kshatriya family and brought up in a Yadava family. The young Krishna grows up in a Yadava culture, but the political Krishna never identifies himself with Yadava culture.

In no single incident did he stand by the Dalit Bahujans. It did not matter whether his beloved was a Yadava-Radha, or whether the other Gopikas were Yadavas. All his legal wives were Kshatriya women.

If Mr Ilaiah had read the Mahabharata he would have realised that Krishna was the son of Vasudeva and Devaki who belonged to the Vrishni clan of Yadavas from Mathura. And his foster-father Nanda was head of the Gokul Mandal which was one of the most powerful branches of Yadavas.

Hence Krishna was born as well as raised in a Yadava family, so again Professor Ilaiah has to mention how he came to this conclusion. Also as many students of history should know, in the medieval era Krishna as well as Rama, Shiva and the Devi were used as symbols by the Bhakti poets regardless of caste to oppose social discrimination.

That being said Kancha Ilaiah is free to believe in his interpretation.

5. Regarding the practice of cremation prevalent among most Hindus, here is the good professor’s standpoint:

Cremation  is  an unscientific  method  of  dealing  with  dead  bodies  because it  leaves  no history  in  the  form  of  fossils…Brahminism must have evolved this practice in ancient India as the Hindus killed several Dalit Bahujans who had revolted against them to destroy evidence of torture and murder….

It seems Professor Ilaiah is unaware that the Buddha himself was cremated and that cremation was a popular practice in the ancient world (unless Ilaiah believes all ancients were Brahmins).

Regarding it being scientific one of the most ardent advocates for replacing burial with cremation in the West around the late nineteenth century was Sir Henry Thompson, a surgeon and physician to the Queen Victoria, whose main reason for doing so was that “it was becoming a necessary sanitary precaution against the propagation of disease among a population daily growing larger in relation to the area it occupied”.

Now it is better to let scientific experts debate the efficacy of cremation but the view Mr Ilaiah holds that it was done to destroy evidence itself lacks the evidence to back it.  Going by that logic, even Buddhism is guilty of destroying evidence.

6. On the issue of the rising popularity of women priests trained by the Arya Samaj to regulate traditional Hindu rituals this quote from Kancha Ilaiah might interest the readers:

Turning non-Brahmin women into Sanskrit-chanting vegetarians cannot in any way be termed progress. In trying to follow in the path of Brahmins, these women are actually regressing, says Ilaiah. “I liken the Arya Samaj luring these women into their fold to ‘Hitlerite Aryanism’ where women were indoctrinated into Nazi values.

Again this sort of statement is a rehashing of the age-old but debunked Aryan-Dravidian school of thought without citing a single credible source.

In conclusion Kancha Ilaiah can hold onto any belief he wishes but one must wonder the damage that can be caused by supplanting such racist ideas in academia, where it can have negative consequences. Due to such views, many of the present day ‘Bahujan’ students view Indian history as that of a war between Aryan Brahmins and Dalits which does nothing but engender more conflicts and create more unrest.


The Violence of Caste

The violence of caste: Why I have changed my name to Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

‘I thought this is the best way to tell the Brahmin: I am now no longer interested in working to reform your spiritual culture.’

May 27, 2016 · 03:15 pm  Updated Jan 03, 2017 · 03:02 pm | 

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana burnt my effigies, gave condemnation statements and came to my office at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University Hyderabad, under the guidance of IV Krishna Rao, Chairman of the Andhra Pradesh Brahmin Corporation. He is a former chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh.

On May 16, about 15 men were sent to my office, apparently by Rao, and they later went and issued false statements of half truths about me in Telugu news papers. These men, claiming to be Brahmins, made calls to my office and threatened that they will do to me what Parashurama of their ancestry had done to the kshatriyas with his powerful axe. The story of Brahmin Parashurama killing hundreds of kshatriyas in a mythological story is not so well known. But it is a dreadful story.

A case was filed against me at Saroor Nagar Police Station of Hyderabad under IPC sections 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion) and 298 (uttering, words, etc. with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person) on May 26, 2016.

However, forming a militant Brahmin caste associations is a new phenomenon, after the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at New Delhi in 2014. The trend gets expressed where even the regional parties are in power. This militancy of Brahmins as a community has increased in the country threatening the freedom of speech of the nation itself.

Why now?

Why all this against me at this time? While speaking at the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, a wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on May 14, 2016, at Vijayawada (Amaravathi), I said:

“The Brahmins as a community have not contributed anything to the production process of the Indian nation. Even now their role in the basic human survival based productive activity is not there. On the country, they constructed a spiritual theory that repeatedly tells people that production is pollution.”

To this kind of Brahmin aggression, the Dalit-Bahujan, Adivasi organisations, including some of the Left organisations responded by organising counter protests and meetings on subsequent days.

At a significant meeting organised at the Puchalapally Sundarayya Vigyna Kendram on May 21, I released my poem.


O Brahmins of Bharath and the World
You want to crucify me
Knowing that I can’t resurrect,
As I am not Jesus Christ.
But, I will follow that Star,
As I am an Indian shepherd.
I will not destroy your temples
But, I will destroy all our shackles,
As I follow only the God of Equality.
Good, you tell all lies about me
You abuse me as Iligadu
I do not abuse the abuser,
But, lay down my life for the abused.
I turn my inside out
I am now Ilaiah Shepherd
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.

I know that many Brahmin men, and also some women, have been very angry with me ever since I wrote Why I am Not a Hindu. They think that it is a direct attack on their historical hegemony and control. They are also upset with my books Post-Hindu-IndiaBuffalo Nationalism and Untouchable God. These books are meant to transform India and I can understand the feelings of Brahmins cutting across their so called political ideologies.

Despite Gautama Buddha providing an alternative to the Brahminical set-up, nothing – not even the present democratic set up – has overthrown their hegemony. In fact, the present democratic set- up has given them global visibility, connectivity, cultural arrogance, as no Dalit-Bahujan or Shudra upper caste communities have acquired a grip over English language in the modern market. Their control over Sanskrit, which they defined as their God’s language, also remains unshaken. The Dalit-Bahujan reformers tried all methods but could not shake the Brahminical control in key areas of spiritual, social and economic systems.

A time has come where the Dalit-Bahujans should connect to the world on their own, because they cannot be controlled any longer.

A linguistic hegemony

No nation can survive without the basic production of food, service goods and cultural instruments. Those who are involved in these occupations do not depend any more on those castes that did not – and do not – do any fundamental productive work. These castes only have hatred towards the productive soil and mud but they consider it a matter of their right that they should take a bigger share of the food that is produced out of the labour of those they look down upon.

The productive class needs to begin by adopting names in a language that allows them to connect with each other and thus enjoy social respectability they have been denied.

The Brahmins adopted Sanskrit names like Sharma, Shastry, Chaturvedi, Upadhyay and so on. With those Sanskritic names, they established pan Indian connectivity. But the Dalit-Bahujans were left to live without having any dignified names – be it their first, second or last names. They have no pan Indian identity and hence no connectivity between one region and the other, largely because their occupations are known by different linguistic terms.

The only way left for the Dalit-Bahujans in the globalised world is to trump Sanskrit with English. Though not many among them are well educated in English language, they must adopt and own English as their language – in all aspects, from their names to addressing God in their prayers. Let their prayers be to a God of equality, as against the Brahmin gods of inequality.

The Dalit-Bahujan masses must begin to pray to the Universal God, leaving aside other local or national gods, who are assumed to not to understand English when you worship them in that language. As the Brahmin’s right to worship their god in Sanskrit is accepted, our right to pray to our English-knowing God in English has to be fully respected. Otherwise we must prepare for a show down. No priestly force in the world has said that even God has to live in a particular so-called national borders. Only the Brahmins of India constructed even God or gods as national and are threatening those who believe in The God, who is said to have created the whole universe, as anti-national. This primitive thinking of these forces needs to be fought with all the might at the Dalit-Bahujan command.

It’s all in a name

As a first step in this spiritual and cultural revolution, the Dalit-Bahujan masses must add their present or ancestral occupational names to their existing or new name – but in English translation. As I come from a shepherding family, I have suffixed ‘Shepherd’ to my name. I thought this is the best way to tell the Brahmin: I am now no longer interested in working to reform your spiritual culture. I join the universal brotherhood/sisterhood and remain more nationalist than you by rooting myself in the great productive occupational heritage of my ancestors. You have no business to teach me nationalism.

A believer in God of Equality is a better nationalist than those worship gods that breed inequality. The Brahmins did that all along. My ancestors suffered every ignominy because of that inhuman culture. I uplifted their spirits by adding a universally understandable language name to my existing name. Now ancestral occupation is globally notified.

The farming communities can become Mr and Mrs Tiller, Dalits can have names like Mr and Ms Cobbler, Tanner, Shoemaker. Thus pot makers can have names like Potter, Iron and gold smiths can become Smith. Thus the marginalised communities could all have English names – from Washerman to Fisherman.

In this mode of names, the productive occupation becomes globally respectable and dignified. Our indignity gets washed away by clean waters. Our children at once become globally loveable. Once we shift out of the caste rot and begin to be known by the glorious productive occupation of each one of us, God will love us more, as s/he loves all producers more than people who eat without producing food.

A day will come when even the Brahmins of the whole world will come and join hands in turning the mud into food. All our women, irrespective of caste, have suffered and continue to suffer untouchability during menstruation and child birth because of the procreative mud that comes out of their body. They will smile and bring up our children in a healthy atmosphere of equality. The world, then, will be glorious and that is what is known as “The Kingdom of God”. God Bless India.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.

It is White Modi Versus Black People

Why Race is Not a “Social Construct”

Why Race is Not a “Social Construct”

Greg Johnson

Translations: CzechFrenchSlovakSpanish

Leonardo da Vinci,Study of a skull, between 1510 and 1511








Race realism is one of the intellectual foundations of White Nationalism. Race realism is the thesis that racial differences are objective facts of nature, which pre-exist human consciousness, human society, and even the human race itself—since there were different species and subspecies before mankind emerged. 

Nature must be understood in contrast to conventions—like human languages and laws—which do not exist independent of human consciousness and society.

As objective facts of nature, racial differences cannot be safely ignored. Nor can natural racial differences be transformed simply by altering legal or linguistic conventions. Conventions can only alter racial realities by guiding human action to change nature itself. For instance, if we institute eugenic or dysgenic incentives, this will change the genes of future generations.

The opposite of race realism is the idea of the “social construction of race,” which holds that racial differences are not objective facts but rather shared social conventions, which may vary from time to time and from place to place, like languages and table manners.

The social construction of race is one of the intellectual foundations of racial egalitarianism, for if race is socially constructed, then so is racial inequality. This offers the possibility that racial inequality can be replaced with equality simply by altering social conventions, like laws and language.

The Basis of Race Realism 

Negro from a painting attributed to Annibale Carracci, ca. 1580s

The basis of race realism is sense experience. Different races appear different from one another. Different subraces appear different from one another. Racially mixed children appear different from pure specimens. Even races that appear superficially similar—like Australian aborigines and African blacks—appear to be different on closer inspection. Careful observers do not confuse the two. Racial differences are not just a matter of “skin color,” but of morphology and behavior as well, all of which can be observed empirically.[1]

Note that I do not claim that racial realism is based in science. People were aware of racial differences long before the emergence of science. Science comes along only later, to explain observable racial differences. Scientific theories are, moreover, verified or falsified based on their ability to explain observed racial differences. Observable racial differences are, therefore, the Alpha and the Omega of racial science. Thus the foundation of race realism is sense experience, not scientific theorizing.

This is important to understand, because it implies that problems with theories of race do not in any way alter the perceptible differences between races.

It is also important to understand that race realism is the default, common-sense position of all mankind. We observe differences between races, subraces, and hybrids—human and otherwise—before we learn words to communicate and classify them, and before we create theories to explain them.

I vividly remember my first experience of a non-white: a waiter in the dining car of a train. I was 4 or 5 years old. I was especially taken by the contrast in color between the back and the front of the man’s hands. When he went away, I asked my mother what I had seen, and she told me that he was not just a white man turned brown, but a different kind of man called a “Negro.” But I already saw the differences before I was told the name and explanation. Indeed, I asked for an explanation because I saw the differences. My mother and I certainly did not construct the differences that were apparent to all.

Given that race realism is the default, common-sense position, proponents of social constructivism need to offer arguments for their claim. In this essay, I criticize four arguments for the social construction of race, which I characterize as follows: (1) the argument from the social construction of knowledge in general; (2) the argument from changing racial classifications; (3) the argument from continua; and (4) the argument from the silence of science. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is this a “scholarly” survey and critique.[2] I chose these arguments simply because they are commonly used in middle-brow online debates. I conclude by treating the thesis of the social construction of race as a social construct itself, exposing the political agenda and power relations behind social constructivism.

1. The Social Construction of Knowledge in General

Wild Men and Wild Pigs, illustration from, Le Livre et le vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, France 1420

One argument for the social construction of race is a simple deduction from the general thesis that “All knowledge is socially constructed.” This is a philosophical thesis about the relationship between mind and reality, which holds that there is no single correct account of any aspect of reality, but rather a plurality of equally valid accounts which are relative to the contingent circumstances of different communities. For instance, there is the scientific account of the origin of the species, and there is the Biblical account, both of which are products of different communities, and there is no neutral standpoint or criterion that allows us to claim that one approach is better or truer than another.

I believe that this sort of relativism is philosophically incoherent in itself.[3] But it also fails as a justification of the social construction of race because, in a sense, it proves too much. For if everything is a social construct, the concept loses all utility. Social construction only makes sense if there is a contrast term, namely objective natural facts.

But if everything is a social construct, then we have to ask: is the social construct racemore like the social construct money or the social construct gravity? Because it is in society’s power to change money, but it is not in our power to change gravity. A philosopher who defends the idea that gravity is a social construct still leaves the lecture hall by the door rather than the window because he knows that one ignores some social constructs at one’s own risk.

The social constructivist clearly wants race to be like money rather than gravity, but if everything is a social construct, he needs to offer an additional argument to prove that racial inequalities can be abolished by social fiat.

2. Changing Racial Classifications

One of the most common arguments for the social construction of race is along the following lines: (1) If racial differences are real, then racial classification schemes will not vary from time to time and place to place. (2) Racial classification schemes vary from time to time and place to place. For instance, the same mixed race individual might be considered black or white in different places and at different times.[4] Therefore, racial differences are not real. And, since racial differences are either real or social constructs, they must be social constructs.

This argument has two main problems.

The first premise is simply false because it elides the distinction between reality and opinion. Racial differences can be perfectly real, but people’s opinions about racial differences can vary widely. Since human beings are fallible, there can be many opinions about one and the same fact. But that does not make the facts any less objective. It just proves that people frequently fail to be as objective as the facts.

The oft-cited example of varying standards of blackness proves nothing about racial realities. First, the very idea of categorizing mixed-race individuals as black or white is problematic, simply because they are mixed. Given that they are neither black nor white, it is not surprising that people make different decisions if they have to classify them as one or the other. Thus it may be arbitrary social convention to say that Barack Obama is a black man. But it is an objective fact of nature that he had a white mother and a black father and is therefore half white and half black.

3. Cutting the Continuum

Another common argument for the social construction of race, and of knowledge in general, depends on the distinction between differences of degree and differences of kind, and runs as follows. (1) If racial differences are real differences of kind, then there should not be a continuum of intermediate types. (2) There are continuua of intermediate types between races. Therefore, there is only one human race, and distinctions between races are not found in nature but constructed by human beings. We carve up the continuum. Nature does not come separated into different kinds.[5]

There are two major problems with this argument.

The first premise strikes me as highly dubious: just because there are continua in nature does not mean that there are no real distinctions between parts of a given continuum. In terms of color, red may shade off into orange, and different cultures might have different words for colors and make finer or grosser distinctions between them. But does this mean that there are no real, observable differences between, say, red and blue?

Evolutionary theory posits the common origin and evolutionary continuity of all life on earth. Does that continuity mean, therefore, that there are no real differences between mammals and birds, or birds and reptiles, or nematodes and human beings? Is the difference between dinosaurs and humans merely a “social construct”? Did dinosaurs not exist before human beings were around to “socially construct” them?

If race is a social construct, is the human race as a whole a “social construct” too? What then is society? What is society made up of before the social construction of the human race? Is society also a social construct, which would seem to get us into an infinite regress (society is a social construct of a social construct of a social construct . . .)? Or is society not a social construct? Is it just a fact of nature? Is it just here? Then why can’t other things be facts of nature, like human beings and dinosaurs?

The second premise is also problematic. Anthropologists claim that all human races descend from common ancestors. But at different points in time, the five distinct human races—Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Congoid, Capoid, and Australoid—branched off and differentiated themselves from both their common ancestors and one another. After developing in isolation for enough time to attain distinctive traits, these races then came into contact with one another and gave rise to mixed populations.[6] But the existence of racially mixed individuals no more overthrows the real distinction between races than the existence of green paint refutes the existence of blue and yellow paint.[7]

4. The Silence of Science

Another common claim of the social constructivists is to claim that science does not give adequate support to the idea of real racial distinctions, thus social constructivism is true. The argument runs as follows. (1) If there are real racial differences, then science will explain them. (2) Science has not explained racial differences. Therefore, there are no real racial differences. Since racial differences are either real or socially constructed, race is a social construct.

This argument has four grave problems.

First, race realism is based on observed racial differences, not on scientific theories of race. Human beings perceived racial differences long before the emergence of science, and we perceive them still, even those of us who are entirely innocent of racial science (as most social constructivists happen to be). Thus the first premise is simply false: the reality of race does not depend on the success or failure of scientific theoriesof race. Theories may rise and fall, but observable differences remain.

As for the second premise: scientists would beg to differ.[8] We can determine the race of an individual from the morpoholgical or genetic analysis of a single bone or strand of hair.

Of course, the social constructivists are not exactly clear about what constitutes the failure of science to explain race, but they generally insinuate that science has either (1) failed to come up with a single differentiating trait possessed by all members of a race and not possessed by other races,[9] or (2) that no such theory has attained universal acceptance.

But the demand for a single essential differentiating trait for each race is arbitrary. Nature does not have to conform to our demands. And the fact that a theory does not attain universal acceptance has nothing to do with its truth, given the variability and fallibility of human opinions. Frankly, I believe that most social constructivists are intellectually dishonest. Thus no theory of objective racial differences will ever gain universal assent, no matter how well founded it may be.

Another problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that science is a process that unfolds over time. Thus even if the second premise were true, the conclusion does not follow, simply because science might not have come up with the correct account just yet. But wait.

A final problem with this argument is its assumption that in the absence of a scientific explanation of race, the only alternative is social constructivism. In fact, the default position is race realism based on empirical observation, which does not depend upon scientific explanation at all.

Social Constructivism as Social Construct 

Social constructivists typically do not limit their thesis to race. Many claim that all knowledge is a social construct, or even that reality itself is a social construct. Thus it is fair to ask: is social constructivism itself a social construct? If social constructivism is a social construct, this has three important implications:

  1. Like all social constructs, social constructivism is the product of a unique set of historically contingent circumstances.
  2. Since every society is divided into the rulers and the ruled, every social construct will be marked by the agenda of those who hold power.
  3. If social constructivism is a social construct, not a natural fact, its acceptance or rejection is not based on reason and nature but on social incentives: moral and political commitment for the true believers — brainwashing, greed, and fear for the rest.

Social constructivism has a long philosophical pedigree, but today it functions as the metaphysical postulate of egalitarian social engineering projects to equalize the races by revolutionizing European defined and dominated societies. Of course, this revolution cannot produce racial equality, but it can create a new racial hierarchy in which Europeans are subordinate. Social constructivism thus serves the interests of a new emerging social elite, an alliance of rootless plutocrats, non-whites, sexual minorities, and other outsiders, in which the organized Jewish community is the senior and guiding partner. Thus social constructivism is an element of what Kevin MacDonald calls the “culture of critique”: the critique and overthrow of European civilization by Jewish-inspired and dominated intellectual movements like Marxism, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, feminism, deconstructionism, and most forms of postmodernism.[10]

These movements are characterized by pseudo-science, obscurantism, and crass ethno-political advocacy. They acquired their influence not through reason and science but through the subversion of the educational, cultural, and political institutions of European societies. They perpetuate their influence though the indoctrination of the impressionable and the suppression of dissent.

Thus social constructivism cannot be defeated merely by criticizing its astonishingly poor arguments, which in large part are merely tools of self-conscious and cynical deception. If you lop off one argument, the hydra just sprouts another.

Instead, social constructivism must be defeated on its own terms: by altering the social conditions that give rise to it; by changing who rules this society; by disempowering and silencing its advocates just as they disempower and silence their critics. In short, social constructivism must be socially deconstructed and replaced by a new cultural and political hegemony that is aligned with reason, reality, and white interests. And we can do that in good conscience, because social constructivism is a false and pernicious ideology, nothing more.

Race realism is the default position of common sense. It is, moreover, supported by the best biological science. There is no good case for the social construction of race. It would be truer to say that society is a racial construct, meaning that society is the creation of human beings, who exist as part of nature and whose biological traits shape and constrain society and culture. But once society is established, social conventions shape the underlying race by instituting eugenic and dysgenic breeding incentives or simply by legislating the extermination of entire groups. Nature comes before culture, but once culture exists, it turns back on and modifies nature.[11] Only in this specific sense can one say that race is a (partial) social “construct,” although it would be better to drop the misleading language of construction altogether.


1. An excellent basic textbook on race distinguished in terms of observable, morphological features which remains valid to this day is Carleton S. Coon, The Living Races of Man (New York: Random House, 1965). The book is particularly valuable for its many photographs illustrating typical racial, subracial, and hybrid types.

2. For a more comprehensive survey of the case for race realism and against social constructivism, see Richard McCulloch, “Race: Reality and Denial,” The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 4 (Winter 2002–2003): 5–26, http://toqonline.com/archives/v2n4/TOQv2n4McCulloch.pdf

3. See Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism(Oxford: Clarendon, 2007).

4. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct,’” The Atlantic, May 15, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/what-we-mean-when-we-say-race-is-a-social-construct/275872/

5. An underlying assumption of this argument is that to truly know objective reality, the mind must be passive and reality must simply inscribe itself upon it. Thus if the mind is in any way active in the process of gaining knowledge, we no longer know objective reality but only human constructs. Ayn Rand offers a reductio ad absurdum of this argument, although she mistakenly applies it to Kant: “[Kant’s] argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them” (Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” in For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Random House, 1961), p. 33.

6. For an accessible account of racial evolution that remains valid today, see Carleton S. Coon, The Origin of Races (New York: Knopf, 1962). See also Coon’s The Living Races of Man.

7. John R. Baker makes this point in his Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 100.

8. For a simple and compelling summary of the science of race, see J. Philippe Rushton, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective, 2nd special abridged edition (Port Huron, Michigan: Charles Darwin Research Institute, 2000).

9. See Joseph L. Graves, Jr., “The Biological Case against Race,” American Outlook, Spring 2002, p. 31.

10. Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998).

11. For a recent and compelling account of genetic and cultural co-evolution, see Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 2009).


Caste Across the Kalapani

Caste across the kalapani


The long struggle to outlaw caste-based discrimination in the UK finally succeeds.

The recently activated Section 9(5)(a) of the Equality Act 2010 prohibits caste discrimination in the UK, where B R Ambedkar, an icon of the anti-caste struggle, spent formative years as a student at the London School of Economics between 1916 and 1923. Photo: flickr / liitsMeanwhile, the British Government investigated just how prevalent caste-based discrimination was in the UK. It commissioned the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) to study the issue, and promised to consider the evidence before taking any final decisions on the matter. The NIESR’s study  was published in December 2010, two months after the Equality Act 2010 came into force. Its findings largely agreed with those of a joint study by the Anti-Caste Discrimination Alliance (ACDA) and several UK universities, reaffirming that caste-based discrimination, harassment and bullying occur in employment, education and social services in the UK. However, despite the weight of these findings and pressure from human rights activists, the UK government delayed its final decision. Frustrated activist groups such as the ACDA then voiced their discontent internationally, submitting a report on caste discrimination in the UK to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which promptly urged the government to bring activate Section 9(5)(a) and “amend it to provide for caste to be an aspect of race”.

‘Back to the caste system’

Anti-caste activists’ efforts did not go unchallenged. Many ‘upper caste’ British Hindu groups, and also some British policymakers, argued that caste discrimination did not exist outside Southasia, that it was confined to private (but not public) relations, or that legal amendments would not solve the problem. Other objections that caste discrimination only affects a small segment of British society, and so does not require special legal or political protection dismissed the fact that if equality is to be meaningful, it needs to be institutionalised for all, regardless of their numbers. Some even claimed that the ban on discrimination on grounds of ‘race, religion and belief’ would suffice to protect Dalits and other ‘low castes’, insinuating that caste discrimination was an inter-ethnic or inter-faith phenomenon and not, as it really is, the oppression of a minority within communities of more or less uniform faith, ethnicity and ancestral belonging.

Although the anti-caste movement (and also the caste-apologist movement) in the UK is largely driven by members of the Indian diaspora, caste-based discrimination is neither exclusively nor inherently Indian. It also exists among other Southasian religious and cultural communities – Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist and even Christians, from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and elsewhere – many of whom, consciously or subconsciously, negotiate social relations along the lines of caste, although the specific terminologies and degrees of discrimination vary. There is little discussion and activism related to caste questions amongst other Southasian diasporic communities because they have yet to confront the issue, not because the Indian diaspora is the only one affected.

Whilst the government pondered the amendment, the first case of employment discrimination on the basis of caste, Begraj vs Heer Manak Solicitors, in which a Dalit husband and his ‘upper caste’ wife accused an upper-caste Southasian they had worked for of discrimination, humiliation and harassment, was brought before a British court in August 2011. The case was a litmus test for how caste discrimination could be addressed legally in the absence of the recognition of caste as an aspect of race. After two years of proceedings, however, the case collapsed when Heer Manak Solicitors’ laywers claimed that a private visit to the presiding judge by two police officers following an attack against an anti-caste activist could unfairly bias her judgement. The judge recused herself, leaving the Begrajs’ lawyer to lament the fact that the couple was left “without a fair conclusion to their serious complaints of caste-based discrimination, victimisation and harassment.” The case served to show that without specific legal recognition of caste-based discrimination, its victims were left with little recourse.

On 1 March 2013, a few days after the Begraj vs Heer Manak Solicitors trial collapsed, and more than three years after deferring a decision on Section 9(5)(a), the UK government finally released a ministerial statement on tackling caste discrimination. The Department for Culture, Media and Sports expressed the government’s preference for an educational campaign meant to discourage caste discrimination (named ‘Talk for A Change’) over legislative protection. This came as no surprise given the apparent view of the Conservative Party – which is currently part of the ruling coalition alongside the Liberal Democrats – that more anti-discrimination legislation means more red tape and higher legal costs that could discourage business. The government seemed to be ignoring the findings of the independent study it had itself commissioned, which provided legitimate grounds for supporting anti-caste discrimination legislation.

By ignoring calls for such legislation, the government served the interests of capital and of powerful factions within the British Asian community. Hindu groups such as the Hindu Forum of Britain, Hindu Council UK, and the National Hindu Students’ Forum, which claim to represent the country’s hundreds of thousands of Hindus, have persistently denied the existence, impact and relevance of caste-based discrimination in the UK. Unsurprisingly, most of the groups opposing Section 9(5)(a) – which have united under the banner of the Alliance for Hindu Organisations UK (AHO) – are strongholds of the ‘upper’ castes. The AHO’s power is understandable: Of the thousands of cultural and religious organisations represented by the AHO, most are led by British Indians, often identified as Britain’s ‘model minority’, with some of the highest education rates, lowest unemployment rates, and high average income and wealth. This ‘model minority’ status and socio-political power has made the demands of British Indians, a large segment of whom are ‘upper caste’, particularly dear to the country’s leaders.

Despite the efficiency and influence of ‘upper caste’ lobbying groups, Dalit and anti-caste groups such as the Dalit Solidarity Network, Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, CasteWatch UK and others continued their campaign. The legal manoeuvring was far from over. Merely three days after the ministerial statement, the issue of caste discrimination was debated in the House of Lords, Britain’s upper house. Hours later, the House voted in favour of amending the Equality Act 2010, with even 22 Liberal Democrat and nine Conservative peers supporting the amendment in a departure from their parties’ stance. Suddenly the campaign against caste discrimination, for many years the unwanted stepchild of equality politics in the UK, received new impetus. The House of Lords debate forced policymakers, academics and the media to rethink their view of caste as something limited to Southasia. The lack of engagement with Southasian diasporas on this issue had created an indifference that fostered both the perpetuation and invisibility of the caste system. And Southasian diasporas were complicit in this social silence.

Almost a month after being passed by the House of Lords – ironically itself a symbol of class segregation, elitism and inherited aristocratic privilege in the UK – Section 9(5)(a) was brought before the House of Commons, which had rejected the amendment in a prior vote and which again voted it down on 16 April by 307 votes to 243. The amendment seemed doomed to failure. Interestingly, addressing the House that same day, the UK’s Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Jo Swinson, stated that “there are a range of views within those [British Asian] communities that are very, very concerned about the possibility of actually increasing stigma through using legislation to try to deal with this particular issue.”

Swindon’s views, and presumably also those of the government, were precisely those voiced by the AHO, which had released a statement on their website on 12 April, four days before the vote in the House of Commons, entitled ‘Don’t take us back to the caste system’. The statement argued that talking about caste, whether from an anti-casteist or casteist point of view, would only reaffirm casteist ideology in today’s supposedly post-caste environment. Exchange the term ‘caste’ with ‘race’, and the analogy to discredited racial discourses was obvious.

Summed up, the AHO’s prime stated concern was that the British Hindu community would be labelled as ‘institutionally discriminatory’. Yet the real fear seemed to be that ‘revoking’ caste identities through legislative action would undo both caste privilege and caste subordination, which go hand in hand. Groups such as the AHO argued that caste-blindness can lead to post-castesist societies, but failed to understand that the inability to legally acknowledge and redress caste-based discrimination is partly responsible for Britain’s lack of effective tools to combat it. As many progressive scholars and activists have made clear, caste ideology does not simply wither away with the progress of time and migration to new locations, but loses its power only when it is recognised and socially criticised for what it is.

Colonial concerns

Britain’s historical relationship with caste is marked by Orientalist curiosity, exotification, abhorrence and exploitation. British colonialists in India saw the caste system as antithetical to modernity, an example of the supposed barbarism and backwardness of Southasian people. As such, it was frequently used to justify the racial, cultural, economic and political subjugation of Southasian Hindus, and to produce the racist images and notions of Southasian people, cultures and religions that still prevail today. Colonial ethnography aimed to locate, map and classify caste, while colonial policymakers attempted, through legal and political measures, to give it structure and form that could be exploited for purposes of power and control. By doing so, colonial rule substantially influenced the indigenous practice of caste, adding new meanings and rationale to existing conceptions. Britain’s encounter with the caste system was not passive: the policies of the Empire shaped caste while simultaneously being shaped by it, with both historic and contemporary consequences.

This is not to say that the caste system was any more humane prior to its reconfiguration under European colonialism. It was not. Nor were the British the only ones to exploit the system; the Mughals, among others, did the same well before them, and there certainly were and are many ‘native’ beneficiaries who cannot be absolved of culpability. However, we should remember the intimate relationship between caste and the Empire, and hence its descendant, the UK. That relationship, and subsequent questions of responsibility, has never been seriously considered in the UK. The campaign for legally recognising caste discrimination in the UK could help sensitise the British public to the history of the Empire. But it remains to be seen if Britain will ever admit and apologise for its role in managing the caste system. As it is, British policymakers did not seem aware of the historical significance of their deliberation on caste in the UK.

Other complex questions also remain. Most concerns of the ‘upper caste’ opponents of Section 9(5)(a) concerned their self-interested preservation of privileges. Some of their criticisms, however, demand further attention due to the specific nature of the power relationships they concern. The worry that certain notions of ‘backwardness’ projected onto non-European people and cultures for centuries will again be enshrined in law cannot be easily dismissed. There is a genuine fear in the UK, shared by many feminist and anti-racist activists in the Global South, that, in the words of Cambridge lecturer Priyamvada Gopal, “xenophobes, racists or even just ‘muscular’ liberals” could misappropriate anti-caste critique to advance racist agendas. To avoid the risk of being condescending, racist and paternalistic, all those involved in the UK’s caste debate must ask: How do we prevent the discussion from reinforcing racist and Orientalist assumptions of the cultural superiority of European ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment’ over non-European ‘backwardness’? How do we prevent genuine anti-oppression movements from being misused to serve neo-colonial agendas? How do we keep ‘non-British’ culture from being devalued and being framed as a problem? And, most importantly, how do we struggle against the notion that assimilation is the only solution to integration?

Britain and beyond

Less than a week after the House of Commons rejected Section 9(5)(a), it was again debated in the House of Lords. A tug of war emerged between the two Houses, with opposing opinions and interests. On 22 April, the House of Lords rejected the government’s stated position, reiterating its support for Section 9(5)(a), in a 181 to 168 vote. The next day, for the third time, the amendment was put to the vote in the House of Commons.

Anti-caste campaigners expected another disappointment, but were determined to defend their cause. After more than ten years of work, there was just too much to lose. On Tuesday, 23 April, buses full of activists from across the UK arrived at Parliament Square in London to join a protest involving the DNS, CasteWatch UK, Indian Christian Concern, Voices of Dalit International, the Federation of Ambedkarite Buddhist Organisations UK, and others.

That afternoon, at about 3 pm, the protestors received unexpected news from the House of Commons: the government had used its ministerial power to prepare Section 9(5)(a) for legal implementation, merely a week after it had been rejected to the outrage of protestors assembled in the same square. The protest turned into a street party.

The motives behind the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s unexpected U-turn are so far unknown, and might take years to uncover and understand. Meanwhile, the government’s delayed intervention means that almost nothing can now stop the process of enforcing legislation against caste-based discrimination. The British Secretary of State must now take steps to include caste as an aspect of race, and hence ban caste discrimination, within two months of the enactment of the Enterprise Regulatory and Reform Act 2013, which comes into force on 25 June 2013 and will include changes to competition policy and employment law.

Although outlawing caste-based discrimination will not eliminate the caste system per se, it will provide protection to its victims and help restore their dignity. Educational programmes like those previously proposed by the government and some Hindu organisations are commendable, but would not do enough to provide justice. They may bear fruit many years, if not decades, down the line, but the caste discrimination that continues to occur in the UK today demands, both as immediate redress and future deterrent, the enforcement of anti-caste law. The new law gives victims of caste discrimination a strong incentive to speak out, and could also challenge ‘upper caste’ groups’ claims to power and representation within the British Asian community.

Beyond the UK, the activation of Section 9(5)(1) is also a milestone in the global struggle for caste justice. It marks the first time that caste-based discrimination has been legally recognised and banned outside of Southasia. Equally significant is that for the first time ever, including in Southasia, caste has been recognised alongside colour, nationality, and ethnic or national origin as a component of race.  The new law abandons the concept of caste as being peculiar to Southasia in favour of a transnational, globalised view. Ideally, this will further internationalise the issue, and encourage calls for similar legislation in other states with significant Southasian communities. The attention generated by Section 9(5)(1) may even bring the UK and the world closer to acknowledging the former Empire’s responsibility in exploiting and shaping systems of caste and race oppression in its former colonies.

This revolutionary legislation has even alarmed the Indian government. Although India outlawed caste discrimination decades ago, its anti-caste laws have been not been applied pro-actively or effectively. The Indian government has strongly opposed any comparison between caste-based and race-based discrimination, which it considers to fall under two separate categories. This goes against the views of many activists, scholars and institutions, including the UN and several Western governments, who argue that caste is universally understood to be based upon birth, and believed to be biologically and physically manifest and measurable; hence casteism, like racism, is a form of discrimination based on descent. Casteism’s effects on its victims also closely mirror those of racist discrimination: residential segregation, social stigma, lack of access to education and social mobility, under-representation at all levels of power and trade, and similar forms of violence. There is no reason that a Dalit woman should have inferior legal protection from discrimination than, say, a black woman.

Yet the Government of India’s displeasure with the potential activation of Section 9(5)(a) was strong enough for it to directly communicate its objection to the British delegation at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2010, and to raise the issue again at the European Union-India Human Rights Dialogue in 2013. India had long championed outlawing all discrimination based on descent, including that based on caste, including under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which it signed in 1967. However, following apparent concerns over the Convention’s strict reporting obligations, which would have required much more serious action against caste violence and discrimination within its own borders, in the mid-1990s the Government of India changed its stance on recognising caste as an aspect of race. As India’s counterproductive involvement in the debate over Section 9(5)(a) illustrates, the struggle for global caste justice is far from over on either side of the kalapani.

Sinthujan Varatharajah is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a researcher on Islam and Muslim communities in France, Belgium and Switzerland for Euro-Islam. Follow him on twitter @varathas 

Blackness in Brown Spaces


Blackness in brown spaces


Despite historical linkages, Africans in Southasia endure prejudice and institutional discrimination.

After visiting a friend’s birthday party in southwest New Delhi in late September 2014, international students Yohan Koumba Daouda and Mapaga Yannis from Gabon and Guira Fallal from Burkina Faso boarded a Yellow Line train at the Chhatarpur station. They were on their way home to the southeast suburb of Noida. Thirteen subway stops later, they were being hounded by a mob of more than a hundred young Indians in a major metro station near the centre of the city. What had happened?

According to the young black men, who are engineering students at Amity Institute of Information Technology and Sharda University in New Delhi, some of the Indian passengers started taking photos of them and mocking them on board the subway train. The students felt as if they embodied a ‘human zoo’ for the Indians around them. One of the African students asked the group to stop taking pictures of them. A verbal scuffle unfolded which continued until the students disembarked to change trains at the Rajiv Chowk station. Amidst allegations that the international students had sexually harassed an Indian woman, the Indian crowd’s anger escalated.

A lone security officer intervened and escorted the students to an empty police booth inside Rajiv Chowk station, where they sought shelter. But the size of the mostly Indian male lynch mob grew by the minute and the students found themselves surrounded. Minutes later, they were forced to climb on top of the police booth for their own safety. The mob started to smash the glass façade of the police booth before thrashing the defenceless students for several minutes with sticks and iron rods. Local police didn’t intervene until backup arrived. Two of the African students sustained serious injuries, and one had to be hospitalised and operated on.

The young men’s ordeal was captured by dozens of mobile-phone cameras and made the headlines the next day. The images reveal that a sizable number of people who were present chose to either film the sensational incident or idly stand by. There were only few who tried to protect the black students from the lynch mob. Chants of ‘bharat mata ki jai’ (victory to Mother India) accompanied the raging crowd and provided a sinister soundtrack for the video recordings that have received hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. It is clear that the mob wasn’t just attempting to lynch three African students in one of Delhi’s main metro stations. They were marking their opposition to racial diversity. However, the question that dominated Indian media after the incident was whether the country has a race problem rather than how to problematise India’s current racial status quo and the ideology that supports it. ‘Is India racist?’ was a question raised by many, but conclusive answers weren’t offered.

Similarly, many Indian news outlets spent more time deliberating on how this violence was unleashed rather than on assessing its impact and what it reveals about Indian society. From the Indian standpoint, the ‘causes’ of the mob’s rage range from allegations of anti-Indian remarks to the harassment of an Indian woman by the black students. The Times of India (TOI) even declared that the students were intoxicated as they returned from the birthday party. In other words, the TOI implicitly sought to shift the blame onto the African students and away from the mob of Indians. Similar comments and accusations were evident on the social media as well. These allegations were given more credibility, air time and print space than the perspectives of the three students. For them and many African students, immigrants and refugees in India, this is clearly an issue of racism.

Old ties
Although modern-day India is largely known as a country of emigration that has given birth to old and new diasporas, the region has historically been a migratory destination as well. This phenomenon has continued in the post-Independence period, as India remains an attractive destination for migrants, refugees and international students alike, particularly from the global South. Today, it is home to more than 10,000 students from a number of African countries, who account for up to 13 percent of India’s foreign student population. In 2012, the largest such contingent in India was reported to be from Sudan, totalling 4759 students, followed by Nigeria with 2339 students, and Kenya with 1038 students. These numbers have steadily risen in subsequent years. The Kenyan High Commissioner, for example, estimated that just one year later the number of Kenyan students had more than tripled to 3500 students.

Historic ties between former British colonies – later Commonwealth states and members of the Non-Alignment Movement – have played an important role in shaping global South-South relationships between African and Asian states. The foundation for these relations can be traced to the Bandung Conference of 1955, which later enhanced people’s mobility and institutional ties between many of the newly decolonised states. With the rise of China and other ‘third-world’ states, India’s position as a sought-after student destination for African students was challenged. As a result, India witnessed a stark decline in the numbers of African students enrolling in its higher-education institutions.

In 2007, the Indian government aimed to reverse this trend – considered a loss in terms of lucrative revenue and soft-power – by investing millions into collaboration programmes with higher-education institutions in Africa. Indian colleges and universities launched aggressive recruitment programmes across the continent, particularly in eastern Africa, that projected India as a place with great academic opportunities. Following the India-Africa Forum Summit of 2008, the Indian government started to hand out thousands of scholarships to African students through the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and other government-funded programmes. These measures, in addition to simple visa requirements, lower tuition fees compared to Western institutions, and a reputed and established English-language higher-education system, helped India re-emerge on the map for international students. Subsequently, growing number of African students from Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Somalia came to study in Indian universities.

Students, however, make up a relatively small segment of the African communities living in the region. Today, the population of people of African descent in India, and Southasia as a whole, numbers in the hundreds of thousands. The roots of Africa’s pluralistic diasporas in Southasia can be traced to 13th century CE, much earlier than the recent labour and educational migration might suggest. And that merely represents the part that is recorded. Historic migration from Africa to Southasia was to a large degree violently enforced by the east African slave trade, whose subjects – predominantly east-African Muslims – arrived as slave soldiers, palace guards, bodyguards, domestic servants, bureaucrats, clerks, labourers, musicians or concubines. But African migration was multifaceted. Over the decades, east African traders and sailors also maintained close trade relations across the Indian Ocean and freely settled on the Subcontinent as well.

In more recent history, European colonisers sometimes brought black slaves from their African and South American colonies to the Asian ones to work under similarly oppressive conditions. In the case of Sri Lanka, African slave soldiers were used by the Portuguese to defeat its native rulers and conquer the island. Similar tactics were previously also employed by Mughal emperors, who used entire regiments of black soldiers in their armies. Though black lives resided, for the most part, at the margins of the region’s vast social landscape, some former slaves were able to climb the social ladder and become part of Southasia’s ruling elite, unlike in most other African diaspora in history. One prominent example is Ethiopian-born Malik Ambar, who raised an army in the Deccan region that fought successful battles against the armies of Mughal emperors. The descendants of these immigrants and slaves, Afro-Southasians, are today known as Makranis in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, Siddis and Jamburs in the Indian state of Gujarat, or the Kaffirs in central Sri Lanka. Pakistan is home to the largest Afro-Southasian population, with as many as 250,000 located primarily on the country’s Makran coast. Thus, black presence in Southasia is a part of the region’s history. Afro-Southasians aren’t strangers or foreigners; they are Southasian as much as any other racial or ethnic group in this diverse region.

Between the margins and mainstream
Despite the historic presence of Afro-Southasian elites, and the great number of interracial marriages, cultural transfers, adaptations and assimilations that took place over centuries, the majority of Afro-Southasians today live on the social margins. They experience racial discrimination by state institutions and in the wider society. In India, the Afro-Indian population, known as Siddis, is classified as a Scheduled Tribe, and therefore benefit from wide-ranging affirmative action programmes that aim to reverse structural forms of discrimination against Dalits, Adivasis and other oppressed groups. But their presence, histories and cultures continue to be overlooked and neglected. They are viewed as ‘foreign’, and are displaced from our narratives, writings and consciousness. And when they are mentioned, it is almost always problematic: they are exoticised and fetishised by an upper middle-class and upper-caste audience keen to ‘explore’ the surface of ‘racial difference’ on the Subcontinent. But, black presence in Southasia cannot be reduced to stories of historic or contemporary immigration and slavery alone.

Indigenous blackness exists and predates more recent migration movements. It is embodied, for instance, by the Andamanese people of the India-administered Andaman Islands. Their histories and settlements are ancient and outdate the majority of other Southasian groups. However, they remain largely invisible from mainland discussions about black Southasians and the racial and ethnic diversity of the region. We may from time to time hear stories about the destruction of indigenous lands or state-facilitated and racially-charged ‘human safaris’ on ‘remote’ islands. But even then, their presence is distant from and external to the Subcontinent’s mainland population.

But discussions about blackness in Southasia go beyond ethnic blackness. The so-called ‘politics of blackness’ – a politics based on common interests and international solidarity with ethnically black communities – exists in Southasia as well, and has taken root over centuries in areas most people would never seek to discover or locate it. Some of the region’s Dalits, for example, have come to connect with the experience of black struggles in the US and elsewhere. These relatively new trajectories of identification and solidarity are built upon shared experiences of historic oppression, enslavement and resistance. They have given birth to political and intellectual groups like the Dalit Panthers, formed in 1972, who organised in ways similar to activists of the Black Power movement in the US. Their legacy deeply influenced today’s Dalit-intellectual consciousness and navigated many towards a form of ‘black consciousness’. Similarly, Dravidian-language speakers are also sometimes brought up in discussions by some black internationalists academics and activists as possibly closely related to Africans. This, however, has less to do with constructing a ‘black-Dravidian’ consciousness than it does with presenting a counter narrative to dominant ideas centred on Indo-Aryan heritage. Over the decades, ‘blackness’ has grown to become a platform for some to locate their lived experiences and build political identities and solidarity movements that surpass the limits of Southasia’s geography, ethnic and racial paradigms as well as its so-called ‘Indo-Aryan’ narratives.

As most Afro-Southasian communities today live – with the exception of Pakistan – in impoverished conditions in rural and isolated areas, their presence remains largely peripheral to the mainstream Southasian understandings of self and other. In Pakistan, however, many Makranis live in country’s largest city, Karachi, where their profile is relatively more elevated than elsewhere in the Subcontinent. Some Makranis have made a name for themselves as excellent athletes and even represented Pakistan during international sporting events. However, while their narratives may be marginally more public, racial discrimination continues to be a reality for many Makranis.

Into the heartland  

The wave of postcolonial migration from African states to India brought relatively small, yet noticeable, demographic changes to what appeared on the surface to be a largely homogenous brown space of the urban heartland. The increasing numbers of black peoples, specifically students, was no longer marginal in terms of geography, and had become central to the imagination of the nation. A large majority of them settled in India’s northern and western regions, where questions of race are marked and negotiated differently than in India’s south or northeast. These settlement patterns are directly linked to Indian higher-education recruitment efforts on the continent. The northern and western regions are, in many ways, the centre of political, economic and cultural power and hegemony in India. These regions most strongly influence what constitutes ‘Indianness’, ‘brownness’ and ‘desiness’, and who exist outside these categories. African students and migrants who live in the south and other parts of the country also face racism, but the dynamics and degree differ. So when assessing racism in the region, it is important to avoid homogenising people’s experiences, as well as their historic relationships to difference, particularly blackness.

Urban India has had to deal with a form of ‘racial difference’ that it continues to consider ‘foreign’ and ‘other’ despite longstanding ties to the African continent. The current dynamics between majority brown and minority black communities go beyond mere perceived difference; they are related to widespread ideas of racial supremacy and inferiority. Anti-blackness has a complex legacy in Southasia and is deeply entrenched with notions of caste, language and geography. This comes as no surprise. In India, racial ideology builds upon centuries-old myths that have little correlation to the genetic and cultural plurality as well as the historic relations among its people. The myth of the Aryan and Dravidian divide, promulgated during colonialism, feeds into these distorted ideas and functions as a de facto racial truth – an imagined legacy which bears no resemblance with reality or scientific evidence. In the present context, it is this legacy that many people take pride in and draw upon to construct ideas around sameness and difference.

Today’s African communities in India differ from earlier Afro-Southasians in the sense that they are no longer part of a structurally disadvantaged and geographically isolated native population, but rather a relatively mobile middle class that can access socioeconomic territory shared by the growing Indian urban middle class. Their increasing upward mobility puts them in a competitive position vis-à-vis the Indian middle class and its future aspirations. Thus, their presence is viewed as economically threatening in addition to being a ‘disturbance’ to dominant racial ideas.

If we consider the case of the three African students, it also points to the intersection of race and sexuality, specifically in terms of stereotypes surrounding black masculinity. These racial tropes have historically been used primarily by white people – but also brown people – to vilify, oppress and marginalise black communities, and particularly to target black men as sexual predators. The allegations made by some in the mob at the Delhi Metro platform correspond with sociocultural ideas of womanhood and the role of the ‘Indian woman’ in relation to others, particularly foreigners and especially black men. Their bodies are metaphors and symbols of nationhood, purity and integrity. The aim of policing Indian women’s behaviour and relationships is to prevent ‘contamination’ caused by intermingling with outsiders along both racial or caste lines. The Indian nation is built upon both caste and racial segregation, and thus fears the breaking down of these barriers that have so far regulated the pillars of its pluralistic societies.

It is also important to consider the gendered politics of anti-blackness in Southasia with regard to black women. Black women in India are often, as elsewhere, hypersexualised and victims of sexual harassment and abuse. This experience of racial and gender violence greatly amplifies their vulnerabilities in India and Southasia as a whole. African women have reported instances of being ‘mistaken’ for prostitutes and subjected to humiliating treatment by the Indian police, who often raid black neighbourhoods on suspicions of illicit sex work and drug dealing. Some black women have been detained merely based on racial and gender prejudice. In January 2014, for instance, Aam Aadmi Party’s Cabinet Minister Somnath Bharti instructed a raid in a Delhi neighbourhood, in which a group of Ugandan and Nigerian women were detained. The women were accused of being involved in a ‘sex and drug racket’ and were forced to take urine tests in public. These racial and gender tropes projected upon the black female body circulate widely and contribute to the widespread discrimination and violence black women face. Undocumented black women such as refugees from Somalia or Uganda are potentially at even greater risk as they have little to no legal protection. Their stories remain disproportionally absent in most reporting on the experiences of Africans in Southasia.

Recurring violence

The brown mob’s Hindu nationalist chant of ‘bharat mata ki jai’ while attacking the three helpless students in the crowded Delhi metro station underlines the modus operandi of the attackers: to mark difference and belonging, ‘us’ from ‘them’. The attack falls into a pattern of violence, and even lynching, that have historically been employed to subjugate particular populations, especially women, Dalits, Adivasis, queer people and others across the Subcontinent. These public spectacles are aimed at teaching individuals and groups about their place in a specific social setup. The attack on the black students is just one of a number of similar incidents of violent racism to occur in India. There are many more that have gone unnoticed as a result of deliberate institutional and social silencing. News coverage may draw attention to a few cases, making them seem exceptional, and thereby preventing sensitisation and development of an active consciousness around the everyday violence that inhabits Southasian social spaces.

In June 2013, 21 Congolese students from Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar, Punjab, were arrested after an altercation with a group of Indian men at a local bus stop. While the media was quick to report the cause of the arrest as resistance by the foreign students to police investigation of a theft, the young Congolese men provided a different story. According to them, the incident was triggered after the use of a racial epithet. But the alternative account was largely ignored by the Indian media. In this case, a Congolese student was attacked by a group of Indian men which led to a scuffle between the student’s friends and the Indians. When the police finally arrived, none of the Indian men involved were arrested or taken to court, and only the Congolese students were imprisoned.

A year prior to this incident, 23-year-old Burundian student of computer science Yannick Nihangaza was brutally assaulted by a group of Indian students in Jalandhar – which included the son of a superintendent of police – to such an extent that he was in coma for more than two years. He was beaten and stoned by his attackers and left to die on the roadside. The assailants did not face arrest until two months after the attack. Meanwhile, Nihanganza had to be put on life support and later, in June 2014, airlifted back to Burundi while still in critical condition. The state government of Punjab covered the costs of transport and treatment at the risk of losing face for its inaction and disregard for Nihangaza’s plight. Days later, in early July, two years after the attack, the young Burundian student succumbed to his injuries.

The victims of both these attacks attended Lovely Professional University, one of the many Indian higher-education institutions that have actively recruited and advertised to students in Africa. But the university has shown no signs of being responsible or accountable toward its black students. In both cases, allegations of racism were quickly rejected by the Indian authorities. Local and national governing bodies saw no need to name ‘racism’ as the primary motivation for the violence. Instead, they preferred to deflect and externalise the issue, or silence it all together. The state showed no interest in a discourse that could lead to national introspection. It also had no intention of giving attention to an issue that could risk India’s hard-fought position in a highly competitive market for international students. After all, the Indian state is keen to protect this business model.

The pattern of violence directed at blacks in India and the apathy it garners is indicative of a deeply racialised state and society where there is an active negation of racial discrimination. Indeed, racism is something that is often thought of as inherently foreign to Indians and Southasia as a whole. When raised, the issue is discursively limited to white tourists or exchange students without consideration of the experiences of Afro-Southasians, Adivasis, Dalits, Dravidians, non-white international students, refugees and immigrants. Their stories are often overlooked despite the great need for critical examination of racism and xenophobia, as well as the hierarchies that exist at the margins of society.

Racism enacted against dark-skinned Southasians is also linked to notions of caste. For many Southasians, dark skin gets conflated with lower-caste origin, although there are several examples that run counter to this association. This distinct caste narrative predates much of European colonialism and intersects with issues of race, ethnicity, gender, economy and culture. However, there is an absence of constructive discussion about what prejudice against dark-skinned Southasians constitutes, and how people negotiate it when experienced. This prejudice – the violence related to it – takes a disproportionate toll on women’s bodies, and has manifested in a variety of ways in private and public spheres. One of the most notable examples is that of the multi-billion dollar ‘beauty industry’. Popularly known for an abundance of ‘fair skin’ products, the industry has essentially promoted an appreciation for whiteness, thereby simultaneously committing to notions of anti-blackness. In the age of ‘Fair & Lovely’ and ‘Fair and Handsome’, time is spent deliberating on Southasian aspirations to whiteness and distancing from blackness rather than considering the negative repercussions of these ideas on society.

The experiences of racial discrimination against people from India’s northeastern states are also worth considering. Their situation is often overlooked in the context of the majority population’s relations with other racial, ethnic or caste groups. In 2012, a hoax SMS was circulated widely announcing attacks against people from the Northeast. The fear of violence led to an exodus of tens of thousands of Northeasterners from cities and towns across India to their home states for safety. More recently, a Manipuri student was assaulted in Bangalore in October 2014, just one of several racially-motivated attacks against people from the Northeast. People from the region have been subjected to a long history of racial and sexual violence, both in India’s mainland communities and by the Indian Army in their home states. Unlike the African students and immigrants, and similar to Afro-Southasians, they are also Indian citizens.

The racial and ethnic hierarchies underpinning such violence exist within and outside, and circulate globally through the production of racialised knowledge that reinforces and maintains the privileging of certain bodies over others. White Europeans are thereby placed on top of a broader system of racial hierarchy that pushes black bodies to the very bottom. Anti-black animus provides the foundation for most forms of racism. Since blackness itself cannot be separated from historical experiences of slavery, colonialism and economic exploitation, anti-black racism goes much deeper than simply being a response to ‘racial difference’. Brown Southasians have inhabited ambiguous positions in this hierarchy depending on the context, and have in some instances internalised the logic of dominant racial structures and reproduced them. Though Southasian forms of anti-black racism existed prior to the European colonialism, today they are very much informed by that encounter, and find articulation in the large and growing Southasian diaspora.

Double standards

While Indians ask themselves whether racism is part of their society, and while the Indian state is vehement in its dismissal of allegations of institutional racism, it is important to recognise the hypocrisy at play.

In 2009, there were several attacks on Indian students in Australia.  The Indian government at the time reacted with outrage and was quick to make claims about racism, discrimination and inequality in response to the violence against its citizens. Then Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh wasn’t shy in directly expressing his concerns to his Australian counterpart Kevin Rudd and to condemn the apparent wave of racist assaults. The issue was not downplayed or covered up by the authorities as in the cases of racist violence against non-citizen black students in India. Instead, Manmohan Singh and the Congress-led government went head on and confronted Australian authorities. This led to an unprecedented bilateral crisis between both countries. The Indian government launched an investigation, issued a travel alert for Indian students in Australia and held bilateral discussions, while warnings of a possible informal boycott of Australia were issued by sections of India’s urban middle-class and predominantly upper-caste population. Mainstream media in India covered the attacks extensively, dedicated entire talk shows to it and were later accused of stirring a national hysteria. Protests were held in India and Australia which drew large crowds of middle-class Indians and their supporters. The affair garnered international attention and stained Australia’s reputation as a prime destination for international students, particularly those coming from Asia.

The Australian government, for its part, felt compelled to react quickly. They intervened, condemned the incidents, and made arrangements to safeguard Indian students from further attacks. This came as no surprise. The international student sector amounts to Australia’s third largest export earner, totalling USD 10 billion in 2007-2008. Australia’s market for international students primarily draws upon Asian countries, attracting thousands of students from across the continent. At that time, there were more than 90,000 Indian students enrolled in Australian higher-education institutions – many more than the current number of students from the African continent in India. Australia’s economic interests, therefore, rendered the issue a high priority for the state, which could not simply dismiss the accusations and had to tackle the evolving bilateral crisis in order to safeguard the country’s reputation as friendly and welcoming country for international students. In other words, rather than being driven by benevolence or a commitment to anti-racism, the Australian response was driven by economic imperatives.

While India identified racism in the attacks against its citizens abroad in 2009, it has refused to acknowledge the racism faced by black students and others in India. Though African embassies occasionally released statements following attacks against its citizens in India, none of these have led to high-level discussions that could push India to take action. With little interest among the parties involved to politicise the attacks, the plight of black students and immigrants today remains largely unresolved and underreported.

It is worth noting that in one case, however, the wave of violent anti-black racism in India did produce a significant reaction. Following the arrest of the 21 Congolese students in June 2013, anti-Southasian violence erupted in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, resulting in injuries for one Indian man and property damage for several Southasian merchants. The violence reflected an expression of rage and frustration about impunity, institutional complicity and silencing with regard to anti-black racism in India. It also illustrates the interconnection between historically-rooted black and brown presence in both continents and the complex and often loaded relationships they are founded upon, which were often informed by colonial encounters.

When Yohan Koumba Daouda, Mapaga Yannis and Guira Fallal boarded the Yellow Line in the Delhi Metro last September, they didn’t expect to be met by the rage of a brown mob. Neither did they think that their journey would end up with them in a hospital and later on national and international television screens. What the three students encountered that day in India’s capital, however, was more than just a mere lynch mob, which is seen in parts of India on occasion. Their experience revealed the underlying structures of violence in Indian society and the Indian state’s complicity in maintaining and co-producing them. The episode of violence was a public spectacle that made national headlines and led to occasional discussions, but the focus quickly diverted the moment another sensational news story came on the scene.

While events like these may capture short-lived attention, the everyday violence of racism is much more subtle, insidious and easy to negate and deny. It rarely makes the news and doesn’t lead to public debates, or institutional acknowledgements or redress, despite the fact that racism plays a crucial role in the region’s sociopolitical landscape and manifests regularly through a complex web of intersecting forms of oppression. Today, Indians still ask rhetorical questions about their society’s racism rather than seek to confront the structures of violence that it is built around and thrives on. In the meantime, the everyday encounters of discrimination, subordination and violence faced by racialised groups in India remain largely unacknowledged and displaced.

Sinthujan Varatharajah is a PhD student in political geography at University College London, University of London. He holds a Masters in Race, Ethnicity and Postcolonial Studies from the London School of Economics. His research focuses on race, caste, space, asylum policies, migration and postcoloniality. He can be followed on Twitter @varathas.

stories from: Skin | Colour | Race | Caste – Made in India

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