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It needed a top diplomat to point us towards ourselves when we think 'racism', which I will use here interchangeably with 'discrimination'.
In the wake of the gurudwara attack in Wisconsin, USA, there has been a lot of commentary about Indians becoming the latest target of hate crimes all over the world. In fact, we are in a sweet spot of feeling victimised as a nation. Indians have been attacked in Australia, US, UK and in a few other places. We accused the Norwegians of racism when they took two kids, allegedly because the children shared a bed with those parents. A golf coach is asked to remove his turban for a security check. We have hinted darkly at such insidious behaviour when Italian marines shot dead two Indian fishermen believing them to be Somalian pirates. Shah Rukh Khan gets a pat down, and with Meera Shankar or Hardeep Puri we are out there right away, all a-bloom in righteous indignation. We are savouring our new status, clearly.
Recently, a senior Indian diplomat was harangued by reporters - as we are wont to do, and I'm the last one to apologise for this - about what the government was doing to prevent Indians from being victims of racist attacks. The diplomat, who I would love to name but can't (because of confidentiality rules) thought for a bit and said, "Do you know of the Burundi student who was attacked in Punjab?" Yannick Nihangaza, a student from Burundi studying in a private university in Punjab was brutally attacked, stabbed and left for dead on the roadside on April 21. He has been in a coma since, and with virtually irreversible brain damage, his chances of recovery are slim.
Most of his attackers have been arrested, but only after the media highlighted the case. Yet that is not the point. The diplomat said he had to interact regularly with African students in India and the regularity with which these students reported racial harassment and discrimination by the average Indian was shameful in the extreme. As India attempts to increase its footprint in Africa, by inviting African students to Indian universities, we need to make sure these students don't go back thinking, "That's the last time I'm coming to this country. "
Similar reactions are reported from white people, who come here as tourists, students, workers, what have you. At the TOI, we battled against government prejudice when we wanted to keep on an American girl as a reporter. "She's white American, and she wants to stay and work in India?" thundered a disbelieving immigration official before stamping 'No'. White women are harassed regularly for being white, because the Indian male, fed on a diet of bad Hollywood, grows up with the notions that they can be objects for easy sexual gratification.
Similar reactions are reported by Indians from our North-East, whether it is a student being killed over a TV remote in Bangalore or Mizos and Manipuris being picked up as Tibetans - as the Indian authorities 'prepared' New Delhi for the BRICS summit in March this year - not to speak of girls being molested by gangs of young men. Now we are seeing Northeastern people being hounded out of cities in southern India, in apparent retaliation against Bodo violence against Muslims in Assam, it appears.
We practise political casteism, which is a heinous form of discrimination, yet protest vehemently every time the UN tries to pin a racist tag on us. The practice of discrimination is as much a threat to India's national security as lack of economic progress.
It's time to have a national dialogue on discrimination, specially if we use a tagline like "vasudheivakutumbakam" for the Incredible India campaign. We could start with MEA's public diplomacy division, which has been a fairly successful public outreach effort by the government. Inclusiveness and multiculturalism are casually bandied about by Indian diplomats - let's start the practice inside India. Think university programmes, think incentivising student bodies in universities which have foreign students, reward best practices.
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) could take forward a campaign of emphasising de-discrimination, using new, innovative approaches. There is no dearth of ideas or innovation in this country, especially when you step out of the South Block cloisters. That's a darn sight more useful than the same old dance performance. Let's do some national good.
Most important, we need to squarely face up to the fact that we are one of the most discriminating societies in the world. It's not enough here to say that China is ahead of us, or Japan, or Australia or European countries. For us, multiculturalism is not a luxury, it's a national security imperative. Let's celebrate difference.
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