By the time this appears in print, the contretemps over Harbhajan Singh, Andrew Symonds and the use of the words “monkey” or “monkey man” on the cricket field will probably have been resolved. Nevertheless, let’s first get that issue out of the way.
Unlike many Indians, I believe that Symonds had reason to be upset when he was taunted by spectators in India, when he was called a monkey, and when people in the stands made monkey-like noises to annoy him. This goes way beyond the line and there’s no doubt that India owes him an apology.
But, were the spectators taunting him because he is part-black? That’s more difficult to answer. My guess is that Symonds gets called a monkey because of his tendency to smear a white gel on his lips which—and I am sorry to say this—gives him a slightly simian appearance. The spectators were reacting, I guess, to his rather unusual form of face paint, not to his race. If he had been yellow, green, brown or even blue, he would have evoked the same response.
Besides, Indians don’t—on the whole—use “monkey” as a racial epithet in the way that Westerners do (“jungle-bunny” is a common British slur for black people) and tend not to be racist on the sporting field. Way back in the 1960s (when he got engaged to starlet Anju Mahendru) Gary Sobers was treated like a king in India. By the 1970s, we all worshipped Muhammad Ali. When Pele visited India during that decade he received a warm welcome. Nor do the West Indians complain of racism when they tour India. Men like Brian Lara and Viv Richards (who went on to father a child with the actor Neena Gupta—nobody commented on the race issue) are treated like gods.
Identity crisis: The taunts against Symonds probably have more to do with his white lip gel than his mixed race . (Mick Tsikas / Reuters)
So, yes, spectators may have behaved badly with Symonds but it was not about race.
Having got that out of the way, let’s tackle the big question: Are Indians racist?
You bet we are.
We are, first of all, an extraordinarily colour conscious people. In traditional families, the best bride is a fair girl and a dark child is an object of shame or pity. (When I was born, my outraged mother did not speak to my grandfather for weeks in protest against his first reaction to my baby pictures which was, that I was dark and bald—as indeed I have remained.) Often we are more colour conscious than we need to be: Both Amitabh Bachchan and Shatrughan Sinha were turned down by producers in the 1970s on the grounds that they were not fair enough. A few film-makers took the risk and both ended up as big stars.
But while we may have changed our attitudes to colour, we are still stubbornly racist. Like Brits and Americans, we are willing to treat black people differently if they are famous sports stars or movie idols. But we are less willing to mix with black people of no great distinction.
Speak to any African student in New Delhi and you will hear stories of the most appalling discrimination. They find it hard to rent houses—places that were on the market suddenly turn out to be full when landlords discover that the potential tenants are black. Rarely are they invited to people’s homes and some even find that taxi-drivers and scooterwallahs are unwilling to accept their custom.
Nor is our racism restricted to our own country. Indians abroad can be even more racist. Within the UK Indian/Pakistani community, many of its more prosperous members flinch from being called black. They have no desire to be clubbed with West Indians and a completely bogus term “Asian”—which means Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi but excludes the rest of Asia—has been invented to describe them. When many Indians in the UK started voting Conservative in the 1980s it was at least partly because the Conservative party treated them as honorary white people (sun-tanned Jews perhaps) while Labour believed in the old Afro-Asian commonality.
In East Africa, one reason why the Gujaratis were hated so much (they were mostly evicted between 1968 to 1972 from Kenya and Uganda) was because black people regarded them as racists who thought they were better than indigenous Africans. Few of the rich Sindhis in Nigeria have any Nigerian friends. And one of Nelson Mandela’s greatest achievements was to blunt black hostility of South African Indians—who were often seen as lackeys of the apartheid regime.
Things are not much better in the Caribbean. When I was in Guyana over a decade ago, there was so much tension between the Indians and the blacks that I actually felt unsafe. In Trinidad, a few years ago, our Indian driver shocked a busload of journos by puncturing our praises of Brian Lara by saying that he did not support the West Indian cricket team because it consisted of “10 niggers and Chanderpaul”. (I’m sorry but that’s the word he used; we finished our drive in horrified silence.) Many West Indian critics suggest that at least some of V.S. Naipaul’s loathing of Trinidad is prompted by his disdain for the people he calls “negroes”. (Matters were not helped when Naipaul published A Turn In the South in which he suggested that perhaps the old white racists in the US South had not been so bad, the poor dears.)
So let’s treat the cricket controversy at three levels.
One: Spectators behaved badly with Symonds. Two: But they were not being racist (and the Australian cricketers are liars and cheats anyway). And three: We are a deeply racist society. And it’s time we came to terms with that.
(Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org)