I had never heard of a bar called Urban Pind until I was asked to sign a petition calling for its boycott. I visit Delhi rarely, and by the time I visit Greater Kailash next, Urban Pind may have made way for an ethnic chai-shop called Rural Hind, for all I care. But exploring a bit, I found that my friends were angry because the bar had denied entry to a 29-year-old Indian woman who did not have the “right” profile. The woman did not look like an expat (read white); coming as she did from Nagaland, in the eyes of the club’s bouncers, she probably did not look Indian enough either.
What does an Indian look like? Earlier in June, I saw an Indian play in London called Dangalnama (The Book of Riots), a chronicle of the brutal violence between the massacre of Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the riots that followed the bomb blasts and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992-93. One of the actors in the play looked like he came from the North-East. I had thought nothing of it, but after the play ended, the friend I saw the play with told me that the people sitting behind her referred to the actor as Chinese. “But he is an Indian,” she told me, which of course he was. My friend is not an Indian, but for her, the actor’s looks or ethnicity were irrelevant. The overseas Indians behind us had already judged the actor, his outward appearance prevailing over his real identity.
Back in 1986-87, when I worked under the editorship of S. Nihal Singh at the now-defunct newspaper, the Indian Post, our national roving correspondent Dina Vakil went to the North-East, writing about the sense of isolation and alienation in that region. Vakil had met Gegong Apang in the early years of his long innings as the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Post boasted of state-of-the-art technology, and politicians often dropped by to look at our operations. That day, a prominent leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party was visiting us. He took one look at the illustration of Apang accompanying the piece, now laid out on the page, and asked: “Who’s this Japo (sic)?”
To see other Indians as foreigners is hardly new. (Don’t we know people who refer to Indian Muslims as “Pakistanis”?) Sanjoy Hazarika has described how Indians see those who live beyond Bengal—as strangers of the mist—even if they are in our midst; they are us. “They” don’t look Indian only if we assume that the one billion Indians look alike.
Our inability to see someone who looks different as one of our own is where discrimination begins, ultimately leading us towards separateness. The consequences can be catastrophic. How did the manager at the bar decide that someone had the “right” profile and someone else did not? Running a private business, the manager may decide whom to admit and whom not to let in. But economic literature shows how stupid it is to turn away customers because they look different. It may even be illegal.
Laws become necessary because the line dividing casual discrimination and blatant racism is surprisingly thin, and it begins with profiling. That may be inevitable in the current terror-ridden environment, but perceptions feed profiles. And there’s enough pseudo-science suggesting that long-held perceptions create patterns people believe in. Those patterns establish stereotypes which, in turn, harden our view, leading us to discriminate. That discrimination divides people, and we establish hierarchies in our mind. And when someone challenges that hierarchy—and why shouldn’t anyone?— those in a privileged position turn violent, defending their interests.
The result can be extreme: South Africa establishing pass laws to keep blacks out of urban centres. Rioters in India going armed with voters lists, looking for people with particular-sounding names, to attack them and their homes. The Khmer Rouge singling out those who speak French, wear spectacles, or have smooth hands (suggesting a privileged, urban, intellectual background). Hutus going after Tutsis in Rwanda after a radio station calls them cockroaches to be exterminated. Or what Bosnian Serbs did to Muslims in Srebrenica.
Such violence is not what the bouncer and the club manager in Delhi intend; they merely want to give the bar a particular “feel”. But even if that violence is far-fetched, acquiescing with discrimination makes dehumanization acceptable, making stereotypes easier to establish. “Dangalnama” is a logical, if not inevitable, next step.
Identities are fluid and often imagined. We are what we choose to be, not what a passport tells us, nor how we look, what we eat, and where we pray, if at all. All of us carry multiple identities, determined often by our politics, our careers, the friends we surround ourselves with, and the people we love.
All of which makes India less bland; and that’s why all doors should be wide open.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org