Sunday, May 31, 2009

Please resist racism ... of any kind

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Students being beaten up in Australia! Were the attacks racist? Even from the initial sketchy descriptions, I was sure the attacks were racist. The news and images took me back in time to Leeds, Yorkshire, England, during 1990-93.

My visa read "Accompanying wife". Kalpana had won an open merit Commonwealth scholarship to do her Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at the University of Leeds. We landed at Heathrow airport, with its arrogant immigration officers (white and Asian).

We were then dumped in a bed & breakfast cubby-hole in a cold, wet and miserably damp London. Outside, I saw the statues of the imperialist and racist, Cecil Rhodes, and the murderer of Jallianwala Bagh, Reginald Dyer. Clinging to the fire of Shahid Bhagat Singh, close to my heart, I prepared for the worst.

Now it's recession, and I can empathise with the anxiety of the jobless in Australia. For authentic information from Indian sources and students in Australia about what's happening in Melbourne and elsewhere see the website of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia (FISA), which was set up in 2002. According to FISA, more than 500 (!!!) incidents against Asians have taken place during the last seven years.

When we stayed in Leeds in 1990, the UK and USA had got together to attack Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait. Anyone, whose face even remotely resembled Saddam's with his beard, was targeted in Leeds, which is next door to Bradford, with its highly visible Asian, more precisely Pakistani Muslim population.

Within the first weeks of shopping in July 1990 at the Leeds city centre, we knew that we must avoid going out on Friday and Saturday evenings. The weekly salaries were paid in the markets, latest by 6pm. Then the favourite sport of "Paki-bashing" would begin. First, the lager louts would down some beers with a "vindaloo" or "curry". Then they would pick upon the Asians -- Indians, Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, who ran the restaurants that served the cheap vindaloo and hot curry -- all of whom were tarred with the derogatory "Paki!" brush.

That branding took me back to the Mumbai of the 1970s. Then, the Shiv Sena fanatics branded all south Indians as "madrasis" or "lungiwalas" and all Hindi-speaking north Indians as "bhaiyyas". Sadly, in the Noughties of the 21st century, the MNS goons hound north Indians across Maharashtra in a macabre repeat. (All PR and Corp Comm professionals, please note the usage "brand".)

Sheer ignorance drives racists to hate

I vaguely felt it then, but I am certain of it now: it is sheer ignorance; whether they are white teenagers in Melbourne, Victoria, of 2009; white lager louts in Leeds, Yorkshire, of 1990; or son-of-the-soil Marathi-speaking shiv sainiks in Mumbai of the 1970s; all these persons are driven to hate by sheer ignorance.

First, they are un-educated, though they may possess degrees. Second, they are afraid of the "outsider" or the "foreigner". Third, they do not act on their own and are prey to racist propaganda. They are supported by political parties or fringe groups, no matter how tiny. And above all, they have the secret sympathy and hidden support of the local police, many of whom also subscribe to the narrow blinkered mindset and harbour hate for the intrepid migrant.

Walking down the back-to-back terraces of Woodsley, Burley and Autumn Grove in Leeds, I recall the pinch-cold faces peering out from the bedrooms above. First, hit the spit of hate; then "Sorry, mate!" with a sly smirk that said, "Damn, I missed me Paki!" target. Walking down the city centre, that spit of hate would come spattering down from the West Yorkshire buses. And always the "Sorry!" with that smirk.

Outside the Leeds Kirkgate open market, standing near the bus-stop, one cold and wet, grey and muggy day, the only reason I missed getting bashed up was that I was wearing the typical black Gannon overcoat, worn by the local police, which I had bought at the second-hand Oxfam store. So the thugs mistook me for a cop!

But hundreds of Asians in England had not been as lucky as me. I have a detailed file and carefully collected clippings of racist attacks on Asians, some of them fatal. And always the police managed to cover them up. But at least the British government has admitted the existence of racism and sincerely struggles to cope with it. Now Australia must face up to the bitter truth of racism too.

Vivek Pinto, my school-mate from St Mary's, Byculla, Mumbai, who's currently in Tokyo thinks the racism in Australia is, to use a cliche, only the tip of the racial iceberg. He had sent me an NYT link long ago, before the current explosion of racism: "What Color is that Baby?" (NYT, 11 May 2009), by Bob Herbert, an op-ed columnist.

I recall with love and affection

Were all my experiences of Leeds and Yorkshire, so bitter and racist? Certainly not! I recall with love and affection:
- Rev. Paul King and the International Student Evening at Emmanuel Church every Wednesday;
- the wonderful teachers at the Fourman Nursery and Mrs. Burgess of Rosebank school, where our daughter Pallavi learned "me" English for the first time;
- the peace "Not in Our Name" marchers in London, resisting the mounted police of the rottweiler Maggie Thatcher;
- the gentle Simon Welsh and Ron Strong of Unipol Leeds, house-hunters on our behalf in Leeds;
- Ann Heilmann, annotating her feminist studies;
- the dignified old folk sing-song-ing, "Tra, la, love ..." in me open market;
- Peter Coltman's homely offer to learn on his "Typing Tutor"; and
- the always warmth of the Leeds Central Library, free with ten books to borrow at a time, where I discovered how the English dreaded Shivaji, calling him "mountain rat", and feared Kanoji Angre, branding him "pirate".

And how ever, how much, can I thank the ever-gracious Ekbote family (Sunalini, Anjali, and the late Mr. Ekbote) of Leeds for the unasked warmth with which they invited us to their hearth and held us to their hearts? And the Banhattis of York: Rajeev and Seema, Baba and the late Aaee, Ruchi and later Suhrud? For me, these two families made the "Cold and Wet" of England human and the subtle racism bearable; and re-assured me that the welcome "Heat and Dust" of India could not be far behind. ("If winter comes, can spring be far behind?" sang Shelley.)

Were all my experiences in Mumbai tarnished by the Shiv Sena? Certainly not! I recall with love, affection and solidarity:
- the wonderful comrades working with Prabhakar Sanzgiri, Madan Naik and Dr. Vivek Monteiro at Kaju Tekdi, Bhandup;
- the late "Feriwala" Francis and Bhabhi and their children Jyoti, Rajesh and the late Ladis;
- my Vistas friends at the Centre for Education and Documentation (CED), Mumbai, behind Regal Cinema and the Taj Hotel;
- the Mukadam of Manmad with his walrus moustache learning me the "bara-khadi" of Marathi; and
- my four years of rural apprenticeship in Pathardi, where I fell in love with the Marathi-speaking people.

So I survived.

So have dreaming migrants in the past. So will bold migrants today. And daring migrants to come tomorrow. We shall overcome. We are not afraid. We shall resist the cruelties and harassment, and beatings and the discrimination of the racists ... of all colours.

Other lands, other struggles, other experiences

As and when I pick up other experiences and sharing, I'll keep updating under this section. The first piece is by Aparna Das-Sadukhan, my student from SIMC, Pune, who as "Ketchup Girl" is respected for her blog, "Life and Times of a Cha Lover". She stays in Sydney, Australia, and shares her experiences and views in her post, "My two pence on curry bashing". (4 June 2009). Note the subtle racism, unlike the beating and bashing, many other Indians are receiving.

Mohan Sinha from the old Maharashtra Herald, Pune, thinks it's pure envy: despite the recession, the Indians are doing reasonably well, while the Australians suffer. See his post: "The Ugly Australian, it's just envy, mate!" (5 June 2009).

I'll keep adding more as you send them and I get them.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, India, Sunday, 31st May 2009.


Gauri Gharpure said...

it still fails me how one can hold his own in the face of such bitterness.. courage, patience? not sure. don't remember many moments when I was marked out for who i am. such a lovely article

Joe Pinto said...

Vivek Pinto, my school-mate from St Mary's High School, Mazagaon, Mumbai, in the 1960s, thanked me for including his link in my blog. In a personal email, he went on to narrate his own experience of racism in Tokyo, Japan:


"No one would suspect that the Japanese (not all by any means), like the Australians, are as racist as they come.

"Many a foreigner is completely taken in by the polite bow (which is a Japanese custom, similar to the Indian custom of namaste) by a Japanese, when they meet a foreign tourist.

"Once the foreign tourist becomes a 'temporary or permanent resident', the horror of the subtle and not-so-subtle Japanese form of racism begins. I speak from my sad experience, yet one can't be bitter as it corrodes the soul.

"Let me give you one instance: Tokyo a metropolis of 13 million people has one of the world's best metro systems. It would be difficult to find any form of litter within.

"However, invariably, when I have found a seat in these underground trains and there is another seat vacant next to me, no one would dare come and occupy the vacant seat next to me!

"Ask yourself, or better still pose the question to the readers: How does it make you feel inside? Devastating. The train is packed to its gills; there are standees all around you.

"Yes, my friend, devastating; there is no other word to describe the racism. It drives you insane. And yet one cannot get paranoid. There is so much beauty in Japan that it makes your anger melt. You seek comfort in that beauty and the many remarkable things that one can experience in Japan."


Please narrate your own experiences. They do not have to be only from places that are outside India. The discrimination faced by us within India, a geographical region that is far more diverse than Europe or USA or the Asia Pacific region, can be just as shattering.

Yet, we shall overcome. We shall not be scared.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Joe Pinto said...

Shashidhar Nanjundaiah, a former director at SIMC, writes:

"Dear Joe,

"You hit the nail on the h...

"I've seen African and Asian students in Pune, and other cities, jeered at, called names and much, much more. Those students should thank their stars they don't follow our local language(s)!

"But the menace is not prevalent only within our country, Joe. Even abroad, many Indians seem to be forced by habit to discriminate (and disparage) between people even where locals don't.

"Our caste and class systems have become convenient methods of looking down upon people. I guess it just hurts when others show us the mirror by sampling it on us.

"I believe racism, in a physical and tangible way, surfaces in developed countries when covert and sly methods are the only available means to show anger and frustration against a successful section of the population.

"Hatred by majority Americans against Indian-Americans (the most affluent of all communities there, and a community growing in geometric proportions) has grown substantially after the job-outsourcing phenomenon. That hatred often surfaces as contemptuous behaviour.

"So, to begin at home, like all good charity, can we resist ourselves?"

Warmly, Shashi.


Thank you, Shashi. I agree. When we point a finger at others, three of our own fingers point back at us.

Warm regards,
- Joe.

Smita said...

Sir, I read the NYT op-ed "What Color is That Baby". What a coincidence that in Delhi a similar occurrence took place. A girl student,Shanno, studying in a government school, died of the punishment meted out to her by her teacher. Around the same time, another girl student, Akkriti, studying at the prestigious Modern School died due to medical negligence on part of the school authorities.
While Akkriti's family can claim to have received justice in some form due to the Chief Minister's intervention and suspension of those responsible, Shanno's poor family awaits (in)justice.

The Ketchup Girl said...

i have shared my experience on butkintu....

I completely agree with your thoughts- to resist racism of any kind.

Joe Pinto said...

Mohan Sinha thinks it's envy that's driving some Aussies to racism. See:

Joe Pinto said...

The Ketchup Girl has her say, "My two pence on curry bashing" on her blog, "Life & Times of a Cha Lover"