Roar writer Sayali Marathe and guest contributor Rhea Kher on the selective activism of Indians, and why it must be addressed.
The recent murder of George Floyd in the United States has started a global wave of social media activism. It has sparked outrage, giving rise to posts against racism and people showing their absolute shock and horror at the systemic nature of police brutality. Indians around the world have made their opinions on the matter heard.
However, others have been quick to point out the selective outrage voiced by certain communities that acknowledge police brutality in the United States but refused to do so in India, including celebrities and the general public. Celebrities and influencers in India have the power to influence public opinion in India. By choosing the route of selective and performative activism, Indians have chosen to ignore cases of police brutality and discrimination against minorities in their own country. A similar case of police brutality occurred in the state of Rajasthan a few days after the murder of George Floyd – yet this news of a police officer torturing a man, pressing his leg against the man’s neck, was overlooked.
One incident could start a revolution in India, a country tens of thousands of miles from the epicentre of the situation; the other didn’t even make the front page, let alone a headline.
This difference in reactions is abhorrent. The glamourisation of American news is the result of Indians having been under the influence of American culture for the past 29 years, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the liberalisation of the Indian economy, the fetishisation and glorification of Western countries began, and Indians took to following Western culture without a second thought – a consequence of Indian colonial history.
This led Indian celebrities and the general public to express their support for protests in America. Similar support was not offered for the protests against the inherently discriminatory and xenophobic Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizenship between December 2019 and February 2020. The fear amongst the Indian population of speaking out against political issues in India stems from potential legal repercussions. If a person, be they a celebrity or activist, with unpopular or non-mainstream views speaks out they are likely to be arrested under the sedition law – one of the remainders of British colonial rule.
The British Raj first introduced the law in 1870 in order to curb the “revolution and dissent against colonial rule”. Recently, India has used a variation of the sedition law called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) multiple times to curb freedom of expression and dissent against the ruling party, the Bhartiya Janta Party, and its controversial acts, such as the CAA and NRC. The UAPA gives the government unchecked power and allows them to declare anyone a “terrorist” on unreasonable grounds or without proof. As a result of the UAPA and sedition law, activism is impossible. Stan Swamy, a priest, spoke out against the police abuse faced by tribal people and was slapped with charges forcing him to cease his documentation.
The existence of the sedition law and UAPA have resulted in widespread ignorance of issues related to casteism and colourism. The notions of the latter have bled into the former in India, with many believing that people of a lower caste are darker than those of an upper-caste. This modern interpretation of caste is also a remnant of colonial history which views upper-caste Hindus as pure and thus fairer-skinned, while those of a lower-caste are viewed as inferior, and thus darker-skinned. The caste system which used to be malleable and fluid in pre-colonial times is now a rigid social system that breeds discrimination.
For many generations, Indians have grown up around influences that promote having fairer skin. Whether it be Bollywood songs with lines such as “White white face dekhe, dilwa beating fast” (My heart beats faster after seeing your white face) or passed-down home remedies for how to have fairer skin, the population has been conditioned to believe that having fairer skin is better. This narrative establishes the superiority of Brahmins over the lower-castes. Many black people have spoken out against the racism they have faced in India as residents and tourists.
The celebrities speaking out against racism in the US have been marketing fairness creams in India for decades. In fact, India has one of the biggest fairness cream markets in the world. The existence of a fairness cream market normalises and justifies the discrimination and issues that plague lower-castes and makes them invisible in the mainstream.
Indians need to break away from the ancient ideas which plague their society to this day and stand together against discrimination. Although India is such a large country, with over a billion diverse people, many of them are still marginalised on the basis of their sex, caste, creed, religion, and socio-economic background. With so many denominations, the only people safe from discrimination are upper-caste Hindu men. The remainder will continue to be reduced to a number and ridiculed beyond measure unless we dismantle old structures that feed into a perpetual loop of discrimination.