The recent killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers in the United States, triggered massive protests against systemic racism across the world. Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died on 25 May after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, handcuffed and pinned him to the ground by kneeling on his neck. Several Indians—including famous personalities who are not otherwise known to take public political stances—condemned the oppression of African Americans that Floydʼs death symbolised and voiced their support for the protests in the US.
In contrast, oppressive structures that enable casteism are seldom condemned or even acknowledged in India’s mainstream discourse. Many have noted that discrimination against marginalised communities, especially the Dalit and Muslim communities, does not get a fraction of this attention in India. For instance, between November 2019 and March 2020, multiple accounts of police brutality emerged during the recent countrywide movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. But these accounts, too, were largely met with silence, as have been countless caste atrocities of oppressed-caste Indians, which have surged significantly in the lockdown to combat coronavirus.
In an interview with the media platform Dalit Camera, the activist and author Arundhati Roy discussed questions about Indian society that the response to Floyd’s killing has evoked, as well as the prevalence of racism and casteism in the country, among other issues. While commenting on the pulling down of the statue of a slave trade owner as a part of the protests sparked by Floyd’s death in the US, she said such a move was impossible in present day India. “We are very far away from the day when statues like these will be removed or pulled down. We are at the stage when they are being installed and celebrated.”
Dalit Camera: How do we stand or support the movement in the US and how does one show solidarity to people protesting in India?
Arundhati Roy: I’m assuming that you mean the massive protests that have erupted over the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd—the latest in a series of killings of African Americans by white American police. I would say that the best way of supporting that movement is to understand where it comes from, first of all. The history of slavery, racism, the civil rights movement—it’s successes and failures. The crude as well as subtle ways in which African Americans in North America are brutalised, incarcerated, disenfranchised within the framework of “democracy.” And to understand the role that the majority of the Indian community in the US has played in all of this. Who has it traditionally aligned itself with? The answers will tell us a lot about our own society. We can only support that really grand show of rage across cultures and communities that is happening there if we address our own values and actions with some degree of honesty. We ourselves live in a pretty sick society that seems incapable of feelings of sisterhood, brotherhood, solidarity …
DC: Is there a similarity between the ideologies and practices of the Ku Klux Klan in the US and the caste Hindus organising cow vigilantes in India?
AR: Of course there are similarities. The difference is that the Ku Klux Klan had a somewhat different sense of theatre when they conducted their killings. Like the RSS today, in its time, the Klan used to be amongst the most influential organisations in the US. Its members had penetrated all public institutions including the police and the judiciary. Klan killings were never just killings—they were ritual performances meant to convey terror and teach lessons. This is as true of the lynching of Black people by the KKK as it is of the lynching of Dalits and Muslims by Hindu vigilantes. Remember Surekha Bhotmange and her family? Of course Surekha Bhotmange and George Floyd [are] very different people with different struggles. She and her family were massacred by people from her own village. The cop Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd with a great sense of theatre. He had one hand in his pocket and his knee on Floyd’s neck. He had help. He had other cops keeping guard. He had an audience. He knew he was being filmed. He did it anyway. Because he believed he had protection and impunity. At the moment, White supremacists and Hindu supremacists both have sympathisers (to put it politely)—occupying high office. So both are on a roll.
DC: We see Indians trending #blacklivesmatter but in this very country we find continuous attack on Blacks? How does Indians see blacks or what stereotype do we Indian have of them?
AR: Look at the Indian obsession with fair skin. It is one of the most sickening things about us. If you watch Bollywood movies you’d imagine India was a country of white folks. Indian racism towards Black people is almost worse than white peoples’ racism. It’s unbelievable. I’ve seen it happen on the streets when I’ve been with Black friends. And sometimes it comes from people whose skin colour is really no different! Rarely have I been so enraged and ashamed. That racism has manifested in outright attacks. In 2014, soon after the Aam Aadmi Party won a massive mandate in the Delhi elections, the [Delhi] Law Minister Somnath Bharti led a group of people on a midnight raid, a group of Congolese and Ugandan women were physically attacked and humiliated in Khirki for being involved with “immoral and illegal activities.” In 2017, African students were attacked and beaten by a vigilante mob in Greater NOIDA, charged with selling drugs. But racism in India is vast and varied. Who can forget the BJP member of parliament Tarun Vijay’s defense of racism after the NOIDA attack—“If we were racist, why would the entire South —you know the Tamils, you know Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra—why do we live with them?” Why do they live with us? He should tell us black South Indian folks. I’d like to know his reasons.
DC: When African Americans argued #blacklivesmatter, Asians argued #asianlivesmatter, and whites argued #alllivesmatter …
AR: That is a sly way of draining the politics out of what is being said by resorting to meaningless truisms. Asians and Whites are not being murdered, incarcerated, disenfranchised and impoverished in the US in the way African Americans are. Ever since slavery in the US ended there has been a concerted effort to violently hobble, hold down and enslave African Americans in other ways that appear to fit into the social contract and legal framework of a democracy. The international story of American Imperialism and war—the genocide in Vietnam, Japan, Iraq, Afghanistan is a separate story … I don’t think that is what #asianlivesmatter and #alllives matter are referring to.
DC: When Dalits say #dalitlivesmatter. Does it not appropriate and undermine the struggle of Black people over centuries? Is the #dalitlivesmatter movement above racism?
AR: Casteism and racism though they have different histories, are not different except that casteism claims some kind of divine mandate. So, I think to say that #dalitlivesmatter appropriates the struggle of Black people over centuries is a bit harsh. I think it is an attempt to make common cause, and to seek solidarity and some of the light from Black Lives Matter, a movement that by the very fact that it is taking place in the US, is more powerful, more visible than any other. In India, casteism has flown under the radar of international scrutiny for so long—a Project of Unseeing, helped along by even the best known, most respected intellectuals and academics.
Having said that—nobody is above racism. It takes different forms in different places. In South Africa, for example, there is xenophobia from Black South Africans towards Nigerians and Africans from other African countries. And as we know, caste oppression, Brahminism, is practiced by every caste that oppresses the caste below it and that goes all the way down the ladder even within the political category of “Dalit” as you yourself have experienced in your own struggles. Stare at anything long enough and it will always turn out to be more complicated than the rhetoric around it. But rhetoric is important. It provides a framework for people to organise their thoughts.