The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Big dad of discrimination
- Protecting India’s pride is fine, but don’t bury home truths

You’re an insect, stay down where you have always been — an upper caste MBBS student to a scheduled caste junior at AIIMS

Indians can be worse than whites when it comes to discrimination against blacks — Samantha Naokeme, Nigerian student at Delhi’s Jesus and Mary College

Jan. 19: Before raising a stink over the bullying of Shilpa Shetty in Big Brother House, ministers Anand Sharma and Priya Ranjan Das Munshi may have done well to pause and sniff the air at home.

When it comes to discrimination on grounds of birth or colour of skin, India doesn’t exactly smell of roses.

It took a trend-bucking Prime Minister to end years of official hedging on the subject last month.

“Dalits have faced a unique discrimination in our society that is fundamentally different from the problems of minority groups in general. The only parallel to the practice of untouchability was apartheid,” Manmohan Singh told a “Dalit-minority international conference” in Delhi on December 27.

“There is still (such) discrimination….”

Technically, the two are different — apartheid was official policy in South Africa while caste bias in India is not.

Also, scholars, politicians and bureaucrats are ever ready to split hairs about whether “caste” can be equated with “race” — though many believe the origins of the caste system did lie in varna, the colour of people’s skin.

What Singh was emphasising, though, was how caste oppression is a part of life in India, as shown by the lynching of a Dalit family of four in Maharashtra after they were paraded naked and the two women among them raped.

There can be no dispute, however, that Samantha’s bitter experience had to do with her skin colour. The final-year student, a member of the Delhi University girls’ basketball team, says she is now “used to” hearing people scream “Michael Jordan” the moment she steps on court.

“They see a black basketball player and they draw the association with Jordan. I am clearly being recognised by my colour,” she said.

A 2004 survey in South Africa’s Guateng region revealed that 37 per cent of its 3 lakh Indians, compared with only 19 per cent of the whites, would prefer a return to apartheid.

Racist or not, the colour bias exists across Indian society, as a glance at newspaper matrimonial ads would show.

Might the “dusky” Shilpa have faced taunts in Mumbai similar to the “she’s a dog” remark by Danielle Lloyd' The Bollywood grapevine has it that the duskier Bipasha Basu was snubbed as a “kali billi” (black cat) on a set.

An industry source played it down as “normal bitching between two actresses”.

Sharma and Das Munshi, too, might have been less san-ctimonious if they had stopped to think whether Lloyd’s comments might be deemed the sort of bullying that is normally expected on — and may be the whole point of — a reality show.

Bollywood has been no stranger to racial stereotyping, either, with all south Indians (often seen as racially different from the “Aryan” upper-caste northerners) once dubbed “Madrasis”. One such character, played by Mehmood in Padosan, is taunted with “kala re ja re ja re” in a hit number lip-synced by the “hero” and sung by a chum.

To Satinder Meena, recipient of the “insect” jibe at his AIIMS hostel after winning a game of table tennis, the brouhaha over Big Brother is, at best, “ironical”.

After The Telegraph last year exposed how SC/ST students were abused at the premier institute, the Prime Minister had got a three-member probe set up. A member of the panel said today: “Our findings completely corroborate those of your newspaper. The situation in AIIMS is scary, and a lot needs to be done.”

To the government, till Singh took the lid off, Dalit oppression had been an “internal matter”. This line was used to repeatedly block Dalit efforts to raise the issue at global anti-racism forums.

To be fair to Das Munshi and Sharma, they, like most educated Indians, would agree such discrimination exists. What prevents a public admission is “national prestige”.

The Indian thin skin about how the country is seen by the world — especially the white West — is reflected in the BJP reaction: “The PM’s statement is unfortunate and denigrates India’s reputation abroad.”

Defending the Prime Minister’s remarks, Congress spokesman A.M. Singhvi had said: “The UPA government does not believe in an ostrich-like approach of ignoring reality. We can’t find the cure unless we admit the malady.”

His colleagues might learn from the British, protesting in thousands to cure what they see as a national canker.

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