The Aam Aadmi Party’s
vigilantism over the drug and prostitution rackets allegedly run by African
students in Delhi has opened a window into the minds of both its supporters and
its detractors. The scene of action, fittingly enough, was Khidki village,
which suddenly shot into prominence in the subcontinent and beyond. This was
where Somnath Bharti, AAP’s former Delhi law minister, conducted the now
notorious midnight raids on the houses of African expatriates, and unauthorised
screenings for drugs.
Many from New Delhi and elsewhere who had barely heard of Khidki descended upon it in the aftermath of the “racist vigilantism”, to see the “backward” brown creatures that inhabit the area, tucked away in one of the armpits of the cosmopolitan National Capital Region.
Khidki is older than all the malls and multiplexes of the NCR, all its universities; older than the nation’s bequeathed capital New Delhi; older than the nation; older than the idea of the national and, for that matter, older than the idea of India.
Khidki is older than all the malls and multiplexes of the NCR, all its universities; older than the nation’s bequeathed capital New Delhi; older than the nation; older than the idea of the national and, for that matter, older than the idea of India. For all its antiquity, however, yuppies who claim to have a thing for brown heritage would rather live in some sector of Gurgaon or Noida. Who wants to live in “Khidki village”?
Outsiders (the non-village kind) from New Delhi refer to it as an urban village. There is a certain hipness about the tag as it prepares the ground for using the area as a creative arts canvas by hip folks whose dads won’t allow their own authorised neighbourhoods to be used for similar creative projects.
Khidki and its extension have not yet earned the hip and cool tag associated with another, similar largely unauthorised village agglomerate, Shahpur Jat, a haunt of whites and brown yuppies with disposable cash. Creativity, experimentation, urban village—the brochures are full of such terms, marking it out as a social calendar hotspot. The elite’s art studios bloom here, feeding on low rents and the insecurity of unauthorised colonies. Inequality helps stretch the urban canvas—creative arts indeed.
What about the residents? They live there. They call it home and have been calling it home much before six other villages were destroyed to make way for what is the New Delhi of the Union of India. Some people have roots, live in communities, and do come into their own without the fashionable beam of urban anomy.
The Khidki episode about Somnath Bharti’s nocturnal activism has made monsters-at-large out of the minister and the villagers. In circles whose voice comes most alive in European jargon, this has been called the cheap politics of “othering”. There have been worse displays of animus against African people, including outright violence and at least one instance of vilification by a Goa minister.
Liberal India swung into typical damage control mode immediately afterwards. It included round after round of sanctimonious condemnation of racism against Africans. Television knows its constituency of self-congratulation well, and followed it up with various talk shows themed around various versions of “Are we racists?”. Invariably, it concluded that some bad apples are. “I love you” notes to Nigerians abounded at the end of such shows, which also discussed the racism faced by desis abroad. The racism NRI desis show in their promised land and many desis show in the subcontinent can only be matched by the alarm raised when one of the brown elite gets paid back in the same coin in some white land.
A certain section of the metropolitan janata now takes upward mobility for granted, and with India taking a “greater role” on the world stage, more of these people have white friends and acquaintances than ever before. Just when elite desis and their white compadres seemed to have reached non-racist nirvana—imagining themselves part of some universal brotherhood of idea, commerce, commodity and romance exchange—the other desis let this emancipated side down. This is the source of embarrassment. Not themselves, but those who share their skin colour and give the whole team a bad name.
During the Raj, this class of embarrassed browns was well-known and clearly distinguished itself from the uncivilised browns, though the rising tide of anti-colonial sentiment made such embarrassment less fashionable for some time. After the 1990s, however, the rise in the anger of brown consumer elites at the racism they face abroad is matched by their condemnation of it at home. This is one real contribution of GDP growth and internationalisation of commodity markets. With India rising and shining, and anti-colonialism being passé, the time is ripe for a more public display of embarrassment. The audience is the white world and the self-image the desi liberal has created for himself and almost believes in. They would hate to be confused with other browns.
But the backward browns have shown an explicit racism that makes our home-grown world citizens shudder. What about implicit patterns of behaviour? It is harder to track down but when that is done, it says a lot about the people practising it. What do you do about people whose public face is “ultra-liberal” while implicit in their behaviour are exactly the qualities they bad-mouth the “backward” for every day? When you have such a class lecturing on prejudice at every opportunity, the result is farce of a poor quality, which needs to be exposed for what it is.
Too many are condemning the backward from their self-constructed pedestals. When we’re all naked, and the liberal gives up the pretension of wearing ultra-fine clothes, we can start talking truth. We can have a dialogue.
What constitutes the world of the world citizen? It is mentally—if not physically—located in a temperate zone, OECD, white-Caucasian country. Thus the mental canvas of the world citizen is not so big after all. It is hard to map it in detail, but some things give us clues.
The free choice these world citizens exercise in marriage, romance and sex can be revealing. With increasing numbers of non-browns coming to the subcontinent and a correspondingly increasing number of browns going abroad, some foreign-brown liaisons are happening. Now close your eyes and picture such a couple. Note the colour of the foreigner in the frame. It is less likely to be African or African-American. The “cute” or the “angelic” partner, sadly, is likely to be from the same races whose mental worlds shape the world view of the brown liberal: typically French or Anglo.
One in eight Americans is black. More than one in six is non-white (including Latinos, not including other browns). Now think of people you may know or have heard of who have married Americans. Normal human interaction without any colour prejudice or special colour affinity would have resulted in one in six such marriages being with non-whites. Is that the case? Hell, no. Is that the case even among those who would declare that in their post-racist world, love runs blind? Hell, no.
If you ask them individually, they might say their choice of white is incidental. It could well have been someone black. But it hardly ever is. Their “non-prejudiced” choice is so predictable that it takes away all suspense. Many such individual choices hide behind the mask of politically correct speech.
This closely parallels the marriage choices of “I don’t believe in caste” types. Individually, they would burn the sacred thread (if a male) and/or denounce the “caste system”. But their choices speak louder than their speeches. The cosmopolitan Savarna liberal usually leads a schizophrenic existence.
Let us come back to the subcontinent. Darker Africans have been coming to many parts of the subcontinent in recent years. A large number of them are students. The Indian Council for Cultural Relations offers 900 specialised scholarships for students from African countries. There are thousands of African students in the institutions of the NCR. Incidentally, African students consider Kochi, a city without the intellectual pretensions of New Delhi, safe. Many of these students are here purely on merit, enrolled in the NCR’s premier institutions. But when it comes to campus-coupling of browns with foreigners (especially in vogue among liberal circles of elite institutions), whites rule the roost.
African students may be in advanced biology, Kathak, journalism, architecture, literature, history, sociology, urban planning, or even gender studies, but they are no match. I stress the liberal and elite bit, as these are the spaces from where the most strident chants against racism typically come, along with pronouncements of standing above differences of race, caste, colour and such markers.
For the “radical” and “liberated”, neither African nor East Asian students form a part of their desirable cohort, for purposes of campus romance or intimacy. Those from Manipur or Nagaland are similarly excluded. In the desirability and companion categories, whites win hands down. Desirability is as much about how one’s views oneself as it is about the desirable one out there.
What is the source of such desire and choice? Does it have something to do with fantasies tied to the awe that power evokes in certain minds? More often than not, it comes from a weak bond with one’s living environment, developing into a hatred of things associated with one’s own community. This journey away from the self is couched in the celebratory notion of “liberation”: a journey involving progress towards a universal human “love-in”. It suits whites very well.
White Caucasians on campus suddenly find themselves punching way above their weight. The white in skin is acutely aware of his/her “market value” in postcolonial lands, among the increasing tribe of brown bodies with trying-hard-to-be-white minds. This makes life relatively easy for the gora who only has to show a little interest in things native and might even learn a native phrase or two.
Before they can show
that off, the coconut native is already trying to impress by showing off
his/her acquaintance with all things white—culture (pop and sophisticated),
stories, sitcoms, epistemologies, myths, histories, and nuances, with some
half-baked critique thrown in to avoid appearing too eager. Gone are the
politically correct measures of mutual compatibility based on mutual respect; otherwise
the East Asian and African students would not be so undesirable even among the
“liberated” and the “radical”. For the coconut, the next best thing after a
white body with a white mind is a fellow brown body with a white mind. Certain
urban agglomerations offer
excellent refuges for browns to explore their mutually shared whiteness. They are also the elite, fatafat English types, even with browns of the same mother tongue.
The ex-colony is indeed an unfortunate place. There is always a lingering infection at the head, because the vernacular non-elites could never quite take over. The transfer of power happened so that the production of brown bodies with white minds could go on. It’s not quite Macaulay because Macaulay’s children looked like buffoons to the other browns and they themselves had few illusions of reciprocal equality with the whites. Now, the illusion of reciprocal equality with whites is strong. Alienated from their own communities, they need to maintain self-respect by these means.
Their ubiquity in media and academia gives them an inordinate influence over the aspirational dreams of ordinary people. The new buffoons have turned the joke on the people. It must be a supreme irony that some of these “liberated” browns lecture us other browns on agency, structures of power, media representation, feminism, politics of culture, indigeneity, even equality.
This privileged position of whites is not peculiar to browns. Data from millions of users of the popular US dating website OKCupid suggest the same.
Disproportionately high (as in higher than population percentages) desirability of whites as partners cuts across most non-white races, except African-Americans. The data also reveal that this special desirability is not reciprocated by whites to any non-white group. One non-white person probably gets tantalisingly close to the origins of disproportionate desire by a description.
This person talked about growing up primarily with white narratives and depictions of white people and felt as if she was “in a movie” when she was romancing a white. From the lists of “hottest actors” to “sexiest actresses”, from fiction to philosophy, they cast a deep shadow on the mind. African-Americans, having to live with the reality of whiteness, as opposed to the nurtured fantasy about whiteness, have no illusions. They are confident enough to have a spine to hold them straight without white crutches.
The conservative in brown-land at least makes a clear preference. They probably like neither white nor black. For the liberal, among the itinerant foreigners who come for study and pleasure, it is mostly the white that gets intimate attention, with others largely avoided. But the enlightened and the liberated are loath to admit they too are products of the dominant world view of white-worship. That boils down to racial preference and does not sound nice. Liberated believers are certain that dominant world views only affect the mindless hoi polloi. But the facts show they are not outside the circle of dominance. Such demonstrations can be heart wrenching as it threatens the ground beneath their feet, the ground they had fashioned into a pedestal to preach to others from. All kinds of desperate and verbose ego defences come up, aided by jargonised bluster.
Those who are busy condemning the people of Khidki stress that some residents had even uttered the “N-word”. It was. The N-word was also used to build brown-black solidarity against racism and the anti-communist witch-hunt in the United States of America. One does not expect yuppie anti-racists to have heard about the song “Negro bhai amar, Paul Robeson” that Kamal Sarkar composed based on Najim Hikmet’s verses, a most popular song the legendary folk-singer Hemango Biswas sang often.
For that matter, N-word vigilantes probably have not heard of Paul Robeson. For them, history started with 1991. One might add that the song inspired more people in the subcontinent to develop anti-racist views as well as a critique of the American state than nouveau knee-jerk correctness about the N-word and other white speech-forms can ever evoke.
The particular charge that comes with the N-word has a certain context. Ashis Nandy has repeatedly taught us one thing: to take people’s categories seriously. Grounded social and cultural literacy is not to be expected from those who think only white people’s categories have meaning. The class of browns whose cosmopolitanism almost always translates into a greater understanding of nuances and contexts from white lands than things back home (they don’t like to be tied down to the concept of home) possibly don’t realise the incongruity of charging the people of Khidki with using the N-word.
Having gained adulthood by being consumers of Anglo-American public discourse and pop trivia, they often forget that their books, TV shows, webpages and magazines are part of their bubble-existence. The problem happens when they venture out into the real world and use their bubble-derived notions and categories to judge that. While exquisitely literate about the ‘N-word, they would probably not be able to name even 10 derogatory terms used to refer to dalits. This is no sign of enlightened purity or post-casteism or castelessness but a sort of super-privilege by which everyday categories and realities are shut out of their lives.
These are the people who are stomping all over Khidki residents with a righteous indignation. The browns are in an unfortunate situation. Those most divorced from reality increasingly are the narrative-peddlers and chroniclers of the social tensions and cultural flux that are a part of their everyday lives.
The reality is that hundreds of African students stay in the Khidki area. The same cannot be said of most “respectable” yuppie locations in New Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon. It is worth noting that areas without African “ghettos” are typically places where Khidki-haters like to live. Whites are treated differently. Maybe they would have been treated differently in Khidki, too. But wouldn’t those who criticise the Khidki residents also treat them differently? The backward Khidki-wallas do not hide their feelings. They have not (yet) learned the language and style of appearing to be non-racist. The backward often responds with equal alienation to black and white. Others who hide their selective alienation, having learned not to let feelings and subjectivities be publicly known, use their ill-deserved pedestal to preach against racism.
The Khidki incident has given rise to many paeans on the diversity of New Delhi and how the “othering” of Africans is a blot on its cosmopolitan image. This “othering”, a category dutifully imported from continental discourse, is a non-issue.
The problem is segregation. That is a broader issue than Africans. It is also about who is typically rounded up by police when a car is stolen, or who must have an ID card or has to register at the local police station because one happens to work as a domestic help in a upscale area. Just because these browns do not have an explicit skin-marker does not make the treatment to which they are subjected any different.
It is not a simple blind spot. What are the predictable triggers of righteous indignation? Why does it parallel what would trigger indignation in a supposedly post-racist Euro-American society? Why are our daily segregations, born in the belly of our society, not similarly newsworthy? Whose yardsticks of social realities have we borrowed to assess our own? What makes us choose among the segregations? What is the rank-order in our heads? From where did we import this hierarchy?
By choosing to privilege one kind of segregation over another, which audience are we signalling to? What does this tacitly self-congratulatory “anti-racism” vis-à-vis the silence over daily segregations tell us about ourselves?