Friday, 3 March 2017

Being A Minority in an Authoritarian State: Some Thoughts on the Death of Srinivas Kuchibothla

An Indian man was killed in America last week in a racial crime. It is a tragedy and my heart goes out to the victim’s family, left suddenly shattered, trying to make sense of something random and pointless. I could not get the incident out of my mind, and this post developed as I kept thinking about it.
The first point is one which is made very often, yet keeps recurring. In any instance of violence by a white person, whether they kill two people or twenty, the media narrative is always an individual one. Psychological reasons are advanced: this person was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that person was diagnosed with schizophrenia and so on. A brown person killing another may be suffering from PTSD too, especially if American drones killed their families, but the label in such a case is always of terrorism. This is true as much of the so-called ‘liberal’ media as of the conservative one. The presidency of Donald Trump has granted the hooligans of American society greater visibility, but one should keep in mind that the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding justice for racial crimes, started under a different president, who may have been more charming, better read and much more in control of his language, but who did not follow any radically different policy about racial inequality.
The reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and to the Western media representation of crimes committed by brown-skinned people has the potential to upset a lot of Indians. This is because quite a few Indians think of themselves as different from African-Americans and different from Muslims, even though some Indians in America have faced racial profiling ( Because there is an Indian population in America that is better off financially than Muslims and black people, they are more likely to be living in a safer neighbourhood, and so perhaps statistically less likely to face the racial scrutiny and/or everyday oppressions that these people face regularly. But when a racist person enters a public space with the intent to kill, they are not going to distinguish between Hindus, Sikhs or Muslims. To a racist white person, whether you are black, brown or yellow does not really matter.
Note that I said ‘to a racist white person’ and not ‘to a white person’. Not every white person is racist, but that does not mean that racism only exists in individuals, especially individuals who kill, scream abuse or write graffiti. There is also a racism that is endemic to the system, that is inbuilt into the administration and exists beyond individual manifestations. It is this systemic racism that allows white crime to be individual but black crime or brown crime to be a narrative about the nature of the African-American and Muslim communities. It is this endemic racism that allows individual white people to commit crimes, crimes that may then be linked to specific political causes, and still not have their crimes extrapolated to their community at large, as happened in the case of Anders Breivik in Norway. If you are an Indian in America today who feels unsafe because of the colour of their skin, look to the resources of the minorities and the oppressed people. Because whether you like it or not, you are a minority. And that means that you are vulnerable in certain specific ways, that the majority of the country does not have to think about or take into account in their day-to-day lives, and so can dismiss more easily as not existing or not taking any sort of psychological toll.
This might also be a good time to think about the fact that this is how minorities in India feel. In India Muslims worry because you can get killed for visible Muslim practices like wearing a cap ( or eating meat that may or may not have been beef. ( This is not to say that Muslims are afraid only in Modi’s India, just as racial injustice has been happening in America even before Trump. Minorities in large societies, whether they are Muslims, Hindus or Christians, learn that their definitions of survival, prosperity, freedom and choice are always going to be different from those of the majority. They understand that their world is never going to be as fair as that of the majority, and things will not fall in place as easily for them, be it in getting a house to rent, getting an equal education, getting a job, or simply being thought patriotic without having to constantly prove it. That is why they learn and teach their children the practices to survive and thrive. This would be my advice to Indians in America: form alliances. Find the people who fight for the rights of everyone, for equality not just in name but also in practice, for those who protest each time an act of minority oppression occurs. These people are your tribe, and they will help you make some sense of this madness and provide the opportunity to take some form of action, if you so wish.
Which brings me to my final point. An authoritarian government is one in which those who govern (government, administration, police and the legal system) think that they know the answers, and expect the governed to obey. An authoritarian government makes it easier for people with hatred to be more open about that hatred, whether in words or action. Such a system does not have room for dissent or protest. The ultimate act of rebellion in such a system is to ask a question or raise a contradictory point of view. In such a set-up, being a member of the minority is always going to be more difficult, because such administrations tend to define themselves in terms of those who belong and those who are outsiders. And all too often, when outsiders ask questions it is easier to label them ‘traitors’ because they already fit the mould of the outsider. But when enough people speak up, it becomes necessary to acknowledge and address the problem, and that is a worthy goal to strive for. Even as we mourn Srinivas Kuchibothla today, we owe it to his memory and his family to not let such an incident happen easily again.