Sunday, May 25, 2014

A new era, and a wild card for India

There has been much analysis already of India's mammoth general elections and its new dispensation, specially the enigmatic new prime minister.  Most of analysis seems to range from gung-ho cheerleading from BJP supporters or desperate, now-the-deluge- hand-wringing from India's 'progressives. As a centrist, who leans right on fiscal matters but left on social ones, I have found both unsatisfactory and incomplete. More importantly, as someone who can write in English but has roots deep in India's rural heartland, and relies on a network of Hindi language news sources, local politicians, journalists and activists to get a sense of the grassroots, some of the analysis - and indeed political reactions and predictions - has felt quite distant from what I observed during my visit to India in April.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Modi - and it is important to distinguish this from the larger party - ran a tight, energetic, efficient, tireless campaign. BJP has shown itself riven by factions, centred often around strong personalities, but Modi early in the campaign seemed to circumvent, and in later stages, sweep all the factions along in his wake. Much kudos to his team that were able to manage the internal politics and divisions of the party.

While I may be seen as overly optimistic, this may bode well for governance of India. One criticism of Modi has been his authoritarian style, one that may work perhaps for a chief minister but will fail when confronting the mind-boggling diversity of interests a prime minister must address. His campaign's ability to rein in, manage and carry along the often very disparate elements of the BJP and its allies may be an indicator that Modi is not nearly as much of a solo player as many in the media have made him out to be.  

Secondly, I was struck by the positive tone of the BJP campaign. The 'achchhe din aane wale hain" (good days are coming) slogan may have sounded cheesy to metropolitan ears, but by focussing on quotidian but necessary needs - education, irrigation, welfare of the girl child - it appealed to those in small towns and villages who struggle to access even the most basic services and products a functioning state should provide. In comparison, the Congress television campaigns focussed on the past, seemed to be more about receiving largesse rather than tools of empowerment, and in one particularly tin-eared instance featured a Sikh 'farmer' lauding the party. A focus on past achievements is most unlikely to win support, specially amongst a predominantly youthful population focussed more on the future. 

It is also worth noting here that BJP also brought in an online code of conduct for its less than media savvy party rank-and-file in 2013. This rag-tag band of supporters led by some party members had caused immense PR damage, attacking and abusing anyone they felt was the 'enemy.'  In doing so, they often relied on grotesque sexist, caste-ist and sectarian abuse, demonstrating to critics the veracity of the party's (and Modi's) hateful underbelly.  Modi's team was smart to rein them in and limit the damage they could have caused in the months leading up to the elections. (Full disclosure: I was also attacked by these keyboard warriors for a period of about 10 months. I have been most surprised that they have gone dormant since mid-2013). 

However, without minimizing BJP's achievement in running a stellar political campaign, it is also necessary to note that circumstances were finally appropriate for a change in dispensation. I had expected the 2009 polls to push forward an anti-Congress shift: a youthful demographic with huge percentage desperate for development, education, jobs and with hopes for the future seemed quite unlikely to accept privileged heirs to various political and business dynasties as the face of change (led by Rahul Gandhi). I was wrong then, but perhaps the tipping point had not been reached, and in 2009, BJP was a deeply divided party that could not marshal a campaign, much less a government. The internecine rivalries were such that various party leaders worked harder to ensure the loss of their own candidates than to attempt winning the election. 

Both party discipline and demographic change within the voters combined this time to deliver a BJP electoral victory. Here it is crucial to note that the UPA-II was mortally wounded not only by the many scams, absymal economic policies, lack of governance and an increasingly hubristic attitude to the voter. UPA-II's attitude to popular movements ranging from Anna Hazare's Lokpal/anti-corruption demonstrations to the post-Delhi gang rape student protests was more reminiscent of colonial action than anything undertaken by elected representatives. It was also - far more than many 'progressive' analysts are willing to accept - hurt by the Gandhi clan!

Sonia Gandhi's super-PM-ship may have been possible in a time before social media and the dizzying array of small, regional, traditional and electronic media outlets. But the constant attempts to blame UPA-II for lack of governance while crediting her with any tiny positive decision or PR victory resulted in making her look dictatorial, albeit benignly so. Congress - better than any other party - should remember, after the Emergency, that the Indian voter may look for a strong leader but is not very amenable to dictatorial ones. Her inept son, Rahul Gandhi, fell into similar patterns, publicly tearing up bills tabled in the parliament, flaunting not his 'moral' credentials but rather his arrogant contempt for a parliamentary democracy. 

Priyanka, who has till now played the constant politico-familial bridesmaid, may have been hyped by the media, but her arrogance turned off more voters in the Hindi heartland than Congress (and their press enablers) are willing to believe. It is also delusional to believe that her much hyped resemblance to Indira Gandhi carries much resonance with voters who are mostly under the age of thirty, and thus have little memory - fond or otherwise - of that leader. 

What I was struck by most, however, was the levels of personalised resentment against the Gandhi clan.  In 2014, for many average voters - the storekeepers, farmers, taxi drivers, students who comprise the unstable but growing lower-middle class - the Gandhi clan had become a symbol of not only arrogance and entitlement, but rapacious greed. I was also struck by the numbers who expressed disdain for a dynastic structure of power, insisting that they wanted leaders who had 'done something' rather than 'part of a family.' A corollary to this is the rejection of the politics of largess, where populist hand-outs can win votes. This may well be a result of changes in economic and literacy levels of the population, but for me, it seems to be a positive development. 

In many ways, the Varanasi election can provide an insight into Modi's - and BJP's - success. The city lies in a primarily rural belt that has been long ignored by the Delhi administration, and battered by caste-ist politics of the likes of SP and BSP. Despite the numbers of religious tourists, and its location as a regional centre for education, medicine, business, Varanasi has seen little development, much corruption, and almost criminal neglect by both state and central administrations. Sadly, even then, Varanasi has received more attention that the neighbouring towns and villages, where poverty can reach sub-Saharan levels, there is little difference between political leaders and mob bosses, and police, district administration, judiciary and politicians collude to pillage the land with near impunity. Indeed, in most instances, there is little difference between the government in the area and the criminals. 

Few in the media noted that part of the Modi-mania in the streets of Varanasi and elsewhere in the country was also equally about desperation. At least in Purvanchal, there is a sense of utter desperation and despair, and many are willing to accept any change, because they believe they are already living the worst.

Varanasi is also in many ways a microcosm of India. It is one of the most sacred sites for Hindus and attracts millions of religious tourists. Just beyond the city limits, Sarnath continues to be a crucial Buddhist sacred site. It also boasts of the world-famous silk industry, now in an advanced state of decay, and almost entirely composed of Muslim weavers. The city also has neighbourhoods that have been historically dominated by communities from various parts of India, drawn there for its religious significance and settled within the city boundaries for centuries. It is worth noting that despite the platitudes about Varanasi's pluralism - and secularism - in much of Indian press, the communities do not always co-exist without tensions. Economic scarcity and political manipulation have in recent decades added to these inter-community tensions. 

The 2014 elections marked a big change for Varanasi, the surrounding region, and by extension for the country. The Congress candidate was a well-known mobster, known for violent crime. The AAP candidate offered a middle-class 'new' option but was seen in the city as Congress's B-team, specially amongst many of the middle-class. Modi - who received rapturous welcome from many - was received circumspectly by the numerous Muslim voters in the city. His reputation - and the lingering stain of 2002 Gujarat riots - made that inevitable. But for the first time in many election cycles, many in the city and the region dared to hope that political attention may lead to positive changes.

However now the city waits - much like the country - divided between wild hopes and guarded ones, but also with fear amongst some and palpable worry. In Varanasi, Modi has made specific promises for development of the city. He has also reached out - not in the vote-bank way of Congress, SP and BSP - to the Muslim community. While he has refused the facile symbolic political gestures such as visiting the Gyan Vaapi mosque, he has promised 24-hour power supply to the weavers, as well as twinning them with the industry in Surat. As a sound-bite generator, this makes little news. But for those of us who know how desperately the weaving community needs assistance, this holds out a ray of hope. 

There is also talk (unconfirmed) of a PMO office branch in the city, suggesting that Modi will be spending at least some of his time in the city and far from the rarified confines of Lutyen's Delhi. In the days since the elections results were announced, the city has been on knife-edge, waiting with bated breath for 'change' to begin, and every bulldozer, every crane heading to a public site is seen as a symbol of that change. There is a sense of anticipation, hope, a barely suppressed shiver of excitement that I - for one - cannot remember from before. 

Therein also lies the danger: Modi has promised 'good days,' and we all know these can't be delivered overnight. And yet, he will need to deliver, and fast. In many ways, he has much leeway specially in areas like Varanasi, Purvanchal and much of the non-metropolitan India that has been so ignored and depleted that any change will be gratefully accepted. At the same time, he is faced with a young, clamouring population that may fast run out of patience if the promised changes are not visible soon. 

Then there is Modi himself. Hero and villain, depending on who speaks. Messiah for his fans, the veritable face of evil for his detractors. Despite his many appearances on television, there is little public sense of the man himself. His track record as chief minister is mixed, albeit better than most others (although given many of India's chief ministers, this may be a particularly low bar). 

I have written about Modi before, and while I am (still) not a fan, I do not believe his prime ministership will spell the end of India, or indeed marks the country's transformation into a fascist dictatorship. A majority he has been given makes his path easier to push through some of his governance agenda but I doubt his government will lead to sectarian pogroms as many seem to predict. But then again, I have been called an incurable optimist by many. I choose to remain so, specially when it comes to India, and even now when the country has thrown up a wild card.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Surviving Casual Racism: I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends

Last month, I posted this piece on casual racism. Many of you read and commented on it, here and various social media platform.  I also posted the piece on my FB wall where it had a more intimate, disturbing, and yet ultimately heartening reception. It also became a sort of learning experience and an odd measure of the people in my life. I had been planning on writing a follow up piece but as some of you will know (from my twitter feed), another unexpected and hurtful incident occurred yesterday. In many ways, it cemented what I had written about in my original piece. But it also threw into stark relief what I have noticed and learned in the last few weeks. So here are some of thse new insights:

First, for some odd reason, racism hurts more than sexism does. I am not quite sure why this is the case, but increasingly I feel that it is linked to growing up in an environment where I did not face racism on a daily basis. As a female child in India, sexism was, and still is, part of my life from the earliest moments of consciousness, and I learned from many people - both male and female - to identify it and resist it.

Racism, however, was something quite academic. I knew about it, I even experienced it indirectly and structurally as a colonial legacy, but I never faced it on an individual level until I landed in New York City as a sixteen year old. Because I came to individuated racism late, I experience and resist it differently:

1. I notice it and I lack the ability to ignore it
2. I am more hurt by it as I don't guard against racism as vigilantly as against sexism, mostly because I don't expect it and so am baffled each time.
3. I have increasingly lower tolerance for racism. But I also have increasingly lower tolerance for all forms of injustice.  I thought age would inure me, but instead it seems to make me less patient. Perhaps 'intimations of mortality' urge me to fight this more desperately because I know I have increasingly less time to do so.

Secondly, I realised that until recently, I would not speak about racism except to friends who were, like me, people of colour. I didn't feel comfortable enough speaking about racism to white friends, mostly because I didn't want them to pity me.

In this sense, racism is like many other forms of intimate violence. The humiliation and pain of being reduced, othered, and dehumanised is so great that I felt that I could only share the feeling and seek support amongst other victims.

Yet posting the piece last month has opened up a new, and in many ways, liberating and empowering world for me. Yes, writing the piece has meant I lost a couple of friends - mostly people I didn't know that well and who felt that the piece was 'attacking' them personally. In one case, someone I have not seen for twenty years took issue with the piece on facebook and demonstrated just how embedded racism can be.

On the other hand, writing openly about racism I face in my daily life, mostly in small gestures and words, also blasted open the doors to other conversations. Many friends wrote and messaged to offer support and unconditional love. In the last month, I have had conversations about racism with many white friends, discussing the insidious ways racism turns up. In all these cases, I have been fortunate to find allies who want to listen, understand, find ways to support me, and try to change things at their own individual levels.

I had long worried that speaking openly about daily racism may be seen by white friends as 'drama' or 'over reaction.' Instead I had a friend point out that I regularly 'hid' the racism I experience, and asked me why I did so.  It was only after that conversation, I realised that he is right: I do hide racist incidents, and for multiple reasons.

The humiliation seems never ending and acute, and talking about a racist incident revives the trauma of living it.

In an odd way, telling white friends about racist incidents makes me feel less than equal to them. Even as I write this, I can intellectually recognise it as a victim's reasoning, similar in some ways as that of abuse survivors.

Experiencing racism makes me feel 'dirty,' even though it isn't my fault. Experiencing racism makes me question myself and makes me wonder if I 'deserve' it. It heightens every insecurity I have about my achievements and experience. Each racist incident - no matter how small and unthinking - reminds me that regardless of my experiences and achievements, I can be reduced and dehumanised on basis of my skin colour. It also makes me paranoid and makes me question what white colleagues, friends, bosses 'really' think of me.

In addition, recounting it to white friends, makes me feel the humiliation all over again, because it is something they never have to face, never have to experience. It is a privilege they have that I will never be able to access, and speaking to them, the structural imbalance of power between us threatens to overturn whatever sense of equality we share.

In turn that recognition of inequality threatens any friendship we have. After all, aren't friendships made and shared amongst equals? Can we still be friends if we are unequal, at an intrinsic biological level?

Yet the past month of discussing racism openly with white friends has been illuminating. Speaking about the humiliation of racist experiences has dissipated some of the shame and anger. I have also been consistently surprised, heartened and comforted by the support I have found.

I have also found that the cliche about speaking up in relationships matters. While racism is something my white friends don't experience in their daily lives, they are not oblivious that I face it. All they need from me is trust that they stand on my side. And they need me - not always - but at times, to tell them how to fight my corner. They are already staunch allies, they just need to know how they can protect, help and nourish me.

I don't have race privilege and never will. On the other hand, I have a hell of a lot of friends who do have that privilege who recognise and question it, acknowledge the injustice, and most importantly, stand by me as equals. Not on racial grounds, but as humans.

If I were the religious sort, I would say, that is a blessing! 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

An Open Letter to White Friends: How Not to be a Racist (Even Unconsciously)

Dear friends,
As my friends, you are part of a group that is international, diverse, and for most part, extraordinarily liberal. In some ways, you are probably more open to difference than the rest of society and therefore, in many ways, at the cutting edge of social change. And yet, just as many men who adore their wives and daughters but can still be deeply misogynist, being friends with me - an obvious woman of colour - does not mean you automatically stop behaving in ways that is racist.

Note: this does not mean that you ARE racist. But it does mean that sometimes the things you say or do are racist. And no, you don't have to burn crosses in my lawn or make up a lynch mob to be racist. Being oblivious to historic inequalities, disparate privileges, and or how these impact my daily life is also racist (and therefore damaging). So is repeating and replicating behaviour that confirms historical power inequities.]

In a friendship, we like to believe we are equals.

Unfortunately, a love for pinot grigio or an understanding of Italian Futurism does not automatically erase structural inequalities that some of us have to face, and fight, on a daily basis. This also means that unthinkingly racist acts, or acts that have a long racist history, the same acts that we face as micro-aggressions on a daily basis, are supremely hurtful when performed by you.

As your non-white friend who deals with racial micro-aggressions (and sometimes macro ones) on a daily basis, it is not excessive to expect friends - of any colour or background - should be a safe space for me. But our friendship also means that the unthinking acts of micro-aggression hurt more coming from you than from a random stranger.

However, I realise that levels of invisible social, cultural and psychological privilege that Western societies offer to its white citizens means that you probably have not ever thought about how you behaviour can come off as racist - or indeed hurtful because of the implicit racism - so here are a few pointers:

1. Understand that your seemingly innocent acts can be triggers. Most non-white people have a few centuries of embedded memory and their own lifetime of experience of inequality and prejudice. We grew up with this and live with it. And no, this is not 'playing the victim' or 'using the race card.' It is just my daily, normal life.

This lived experience and memory means your actions will have larger significance and import, often in ways you do not understand. This also means that what may count as 'banter' and 'fun' to you may well be quite hurtful to me.

There is a simple way to deal with this: stop, observe and listen.

2. Realise that a lot of what we use as normal terminology has deep racist roots. You may never have had to deal with these words as dehumanising, or with demeaning terms and images, but your non-white friends  have and do on a daily basis. So terms and actions that seem 'normal fun' to you can be not only deeply racist, but also horribly hurtful.

3. When a nonwhite friend calls you out for racist behaviour, it obviously hurts your image of yourself. Especially if you think of yourself as liberal and 'non-racist.'

However, chances are that your one act that has actually been called out has been the final proverbial one to 'break the camel's back.' Most non-white people are so accustomed to racist acts and speech on a daily basis that unless something really stands out, most of us won't protest. Many of us make the choice between social interaction, friendship, even love, and demanding equality and human dignity on a daily basis.

And yes, that does means I choose - on a regular basis - how much prejudiced humiliation I can take from you in exchange for being your friend. Yes, I am sure that sounds terrible to you but it is a choice I make in order to live, work, love, in a society that systemically devalues me for the colour of my skin.

We make this choice not because we don't hurt. It is just that if we protested every act of prejudice in our daily lives, we would not get through a single day. If we insisted that we be treated equally at every moment we are demeaned, we would not survive a single hour. We would not have a single friend, colleague or boss who would be white. We would be forced to limit our existence in a closed ghetto, with all its corollaries of material, social, emotional and psychological poverty. (And then we would be blamed for closing ourselves off!)

So when you ARE called out on behaving in a racist way, realise that your behaviour or speech has been unconsciously hurtful for a long time before your friend spoke up. Chances are you have been hurtful for much longer than you imagine, recognise or are able to accept.  You should not be feeling hurt that your friend called out your racism, but horrified that they have been forced to do so.

4. If your non-white friend does call you out on something, try and stop yourself from (1) announcing that you are NOT racist; (2) explain how you are part Asian/African/Native American/Hispanic - these are not free passes for prejudice; (2) demand that they educate you on what you did/said to offend them, all the while declaring that they 'misunderstood' you.  Yes, defensiveness is an instinctive response and an understandable one. But it is also the least useful of responses.

Yes, being told that you are bigoted hurts. But being the daily target of bigotry hurts a HELL OF A LOT MORE. And racist behaviour or speech does not have to stem from active prejudice. So much prejudiced behaviour and speech is normalised and acceptable that few of us who are not on the receiving end of the hatred are even aware of the how much bigotry marks our daily existence.

Also understand that it isn't your non-white friend's job to explain and educate you. If you care about that friendship/relationship (or not being racist), it is your job to LEARN the innumerable ways in which racism is normalised in our daily existence and try not to repeat those.

5. One final pointer: 'race blindness' is actually a form of racism. Refusing to acknowledge that your non-white friends have different (and often horrifically damaging) experiences does not make you non-racist. It actually reinforces your racial privilege. All too often 'race blindness' is also used as a mechanism for saying and doing things that are racist and hurtful but with a comforting fig leaf of being socially acceptable. If this is you, then stop!

Structural racism means that even if you went to the same schools, make the same amount of money, live in the same neighbourhoods, and shop in the same stores, your non-white friend is treated differently. Not because of an innate ability but because of how they look. A lifetime of being treated differently means that your non-white friend looks at things you take for granted (bars, immigration counters, designer shops) very differently. What may be a small, normal, indulgence for you - like a trip to the spa - may well be a point of stress or fear for them. Refusing to acknowledge this difference does not make you non-racist. It makes you insensitive and callous!

Yes, acknowledging this inequality will likely make you uncomfortable. Recognising that you have privilege based on the colour of your skin IS uncomfortable. Or it should be! But the way to deal with the discomfort is not to wish it away or argue that you don't have the privilege. Or pretend a non-existent equality because that erases your 'friend's' life and experience.

The way you deal with the discomfort is by consciously and actively recognising those structural inequalities that your non-white friend lives on a daily basis. You can't wish the discomfort away...in any case, it will be a negligible fraction of what your non-white friend lives with on a daily basis. What you can do is recognise, acknowledge, accept the difference. And what you should do is introspect and question yourself on the ways your behaviour reflects, replicates and sustains small forms of bigotry. To you those may be negligible but to others, who cope with those micro-aggressions daily, those form a huge, overwhelming edifice of prejudice.

In many ways the world has moved forward even in the last few decades. It is increasingly difficult to remain in racially exclusive enclaves. Diversity - of language, race, ethnicity - is increasingly our 'normal' in our workplaces, our social networks, our homes and our bedrooms.

But the diversity also means that old rules of behaviour and speech don't work any more. That is also good! Yes, it is uncomfortable (and will continue to be so for a long time) to accept that your behaviour and speech must change. Change - and improvement - is always born of discomfort and its recognition.

None of us is perfect or born knowing everything. We go through life learning and changing. The fact that you have a non-white friend is a good starting point: it means that you are at least open to learning and changing.

With affection,
Your non-white friend