~By Tarquin. A few days ago, I had to renew my Indian visa and found myself standing in line in the appropriate Delhi ministry behind a Nigerian. When it came his turn to approach the ‘incharge’ and make his application, the treatment he received was shocking. The lady official’s demeanour changed from moderately friendly to downright hostile.
Her face took on a contorted expression of someone who’d smelt a whiff of something rancid. The Nigerian spoke English with a heavy accent and she told him to come back with a translator. An argument ensued which culminated in the ‘incharge’ shouting at him to, “Go back to your country!”
Afterwards, the Nigerian, who is studying at an Indian university, told me that he has faced virulent racism here. ‘People often shout monkey at me in the street,’ he said. ‘I’m always being harassed by the police. Many times I’ve been asked if I live up a tree.’ (Photo: Shilpa Shetty, Bollywood actress)
It’s hardly the first time I’ve witnessed Indian racism. A few years ago a Punjabi friend who came to stay with me in Hackney was visibly shocked to find so many ‘negroes’ living in my neighbourhood. He asked me in a loud voice in the middle of Broadway Market if they were all ‘prostitutes’. On countless occasions, educated, well off Hindus have made highly offensive remarks to me about Muslims and talked darkly of their presence in Indian society. Just recently, a businessman I interviewed told me that he would never hire ‘one of them’ as a servant because ‘they are dirty’.
A Kashmiri friend who works for an international news agency and recently relocated from Srinagar to Mumbai tells me he’s having a hard time finding a flat. Apparently, several prospective landlords have told him to his face that they will not rent to a Muslim.
Another good illustration of colour prejudice here comes from my wife's cousin, Shikha, who is in the market for a husband at the moment. She went to Goa for the New Year, spent a lot of time in the sun and her skin went 10 shades darker. When she returned home to Jammu, everyone told her that she looked like a 'South Indian' i.e. black. Since then she's been using 'Fair and Lovely' cream on her face, which contains bleach. Look at the matrimonial advertisements here and you will find that everyone is looking for a bride or groom with 'wheatish complexion'. No one ever advertises themselves as beoing as black as coal.
Perhaps all this helps explain why the reaction here in India to the awful way Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty has been treated on the Channel 4 reality show Big Brother in the UK has been fairly quiet. Sure there’s been reaction on the front pages and the airwaves. Indian ministers, always the first here to wade in on an issue where they can easily take the moral high ground at no risk to themselves, have talked of the nation’s sensitivity to ‘discrimination and racial abuse’. Meanwhile a number of Bollywood icons have vented their outrage at how Shilpa has been treated and vocalised support for their girl.
There’s also been talk of what is perceived as an intrinsic racial prejudice that runs through British society. The UK might project itself as a multi-cultural, but the intelligentsia here aren’t buying it. ‘It is no surprise that white people are racist,’ documentary maker Tanuja Chandra told the Hindustan Times. Director Anurag Basu echoed her words: ‘Everyone knows that there is racism in the UK.’
Given India’s colonial past and the harrowing experiences of many of India’s émigrés to the UK, their views hardly seem surprising. But there have been many voices of moderation speaking out as well.
Farrukh Dhondy, a former commissioning editor of Channel 4, wrote in the Times of India that the conflict in the Big Brother house is fairly mild compared to, ‘what I know of the bitchiness, back-stabbing, petty and meaningless rivalry, casteism and racism of Bollywood.’ Thursday’s editorial in the Hindustan Times pointed out ‘that we are no less racist in this country. Discrimination on the basis of colour is ingrained in the psyche of most Indians.’ Friday’s cartoon in the Times also featured a middle class Indian woman telling another, ‘Shilpa’s not a non Agrezi [English] speaking, dark skinned…type from a village. Shilpa’s just like us -- and how can anyone be racist about us!’
Does the fact that racism is a reality elsewhere mean that British Asians shouldn’t speak out when they see injustice? Of course not. But the fact is they have a voice in today’s Britain. A motion against Big Brother has already been tabled in Parliament. Car Phone Warehouse has withdrawn its multi-million pound sponsorship.
That’s clout that the vast majority of Indians can still only dream of.
Take for example the labourers breaking down one of the old buildings in the wealthy Delhi colony where I am living. They spend their days hammering away at roofs and walls with sledgehammers, prepare their meals amidst the rubble, and sleep out on the pavement on hard paving stones. For one day’s work they are paid less than the cost of a Starbuck’s cappuccino.
I went to ask them today what they think of the Shilpa Shetty controversy and discovered that they are Muslims from the state of Gujarat. Many of them fled their homes after fanatical Hindus slaughtered thousands of their co-religionists during the riots of 2000. These labourers know as well as everyone else that the families of the victims are not likely to see justice.
At the mention of Shipla Shetty, their faces lit up and there were murmurs of lustful approval. For them Shilpa is a wetdream cellular goddess whose ample bosom, slim midriff and swaying hips is guaranteed to pack 10 rupee-a-seat cinema halls across India. Trying to explain the concept of Big Brother to these illiterate labourers brought home just how surreal reality TV really is. But I was able to convey to them that Shilpa had been badly treated in my country.
They seemed surprised to hear this and said that a guest should always be honoured and cared for. But when I mentioned that she wasn’t technically a guest and was being paid about £300,000 for her appearance, they looked stunned.
‘For this amount, people can call me whatever they like!’ laughed one.