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.