Monkey Business

(A shorter version of this appeared in The Times of India, 11.01.08)

While it is clear to anyone who watched TV coverage of cricket in Sydney that the umpires and Aussie players combined to steal the test match, I’m not sure that deep rooted, historic, and still prevalent Indian racism against people who are dark skinned, adivasi/indegenous or dalit, should be hidden under a shield of national pride and honour.

This is not Bhajji’s failing alone. Whether he repeated the word ‘monkey’ in Sydney or not is a contentious issue, specially as there is no hard evidence for it either way. But there is little doubt that racism in India is a nationwide curse, a leftover from Arya and Brahminic concepts of superiority, aided, abetted and reinforced by British colonialism and cashed in on by multinational corporations of today that never hesitate to sell the virtues of whiteness through a variety of powders, creams and innuendo.

The latest and ugliest proof came in Baroda when the Caribbean-African blood in Andrew Symonds rightly went on the boil as spectators went into monkey taunt mode, deriding a bewildered Symonds for nothing more than his physical appearance. The fact that those who taunted him were themselves people of colour, albeit those who have internalized the aesthetics of whiteness, must have made the jibes harder to understand or bear. Why did our cricketers not distance themselves from the crowd ? Or show immediate solidarity with Symonds by loudly condemning the crowd behaviour? If they had, perhaps Sydney would never have happened. Perhaps even Steve Bucknor (himself Caribbean) would not have given unconscious vent to his own anti-Indian bias because he would have gained respect for cricketers who had used their demi-god status to speak out in time against racism and thus nipped it in the bud.

All of this is not to forgive the on-field behaviour of the Aussies or the blatant bias of umpires who think that Australians are incapable of making false claims. Sadly Bucknor and Benson are not the only umpires in world cricket who, regardless of the colour of their own skin, seem to implicitly believe that cricketers from the developed world are more trustworthy than their counterparts from the developing world.

What is racism? It need not pertain only to issues of race. It is essentially an act of gross generalization born out of abject ignorance through which an entire community is tarred by a process of caricature and reduction. When the deeds of some Muslims lead to an assumption that all Muslims are terrorists, when all Jews are seen as money-minded, or all Hindus are regarded as devious, or all Sikhs become the butt of jokes that belittle their intelligence, we are surely immersed in the quagmire of racism. And if we understand that for thousands of years the dominant religion in our land has imposed a caste system that sanctioned the subjugation of an entire people to slavery and kept them from acquiring either property or knowledge, we will understand what racism really means.

I agree that Bhajji alone should not be in the dock for it. It is a sin we have to collectively expiate by first recognizing that racism does in fact exist and flourish in this country, as indeed it does in most parts of the world including and specially in Australia, a land that slaughtered hundreds of thousands of aborigines and stole children from their parents to bring them up white.

That a person of colour at last found place in an otherwise all-white Australian cricket team may be seen as a tribute to the many anti-racist campaigns that have been waged in that land once populated by aborigines, but it is a commonplace even in racist America that the first all-white bastions to fall were in the arena of sports and entertainment. It is only when people who have been subjugated and abused begin to breach the glass ceiling of economic and political power that change can be hailed as significant.

Meanwhile it is quite possible for the token non-white in a team to absorb and internalize the boorishness of his teammates, where the naked desire to “win” at any cost overrides any sense of decency and justice. But is this just an Aussie trait? Is it not what we in India have been thirsting for, that ever elusive “killer instinct”?

The real problem is that nationalism is the mirror image of racism, and those who believe in “my country right or wrong” are close cousins of those who believe in “my skin colour right or wrong”, “my religion right or wrong” or “my caste right or wrong”.

As for monkeys, we are either all monkeys, or as is more accurate, we are all former monkeys who have degenerated into homo-sapiens, the only species on earth that has taken concrete steps (no pun intended) towards destroying the very planet it occupies.

A little humility about this may be the best cure for racism.

Anand Patwardhan
Jan. 8, 2008

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