Untouchability is far worse than slavery, for the latter may be abolished by statute. It will take more than a law to remove this stigma from the people of India. Nothing less than the aroused opinion of the world can do it. -- Dr BR Ambedkar in New York Times, November 30, 1930.
On May 25, in two separate incidents of white racism caught on video, the American nation shook itself out of slumber. The first was the case of a white executive, Amy Cooper, who upon a tiff in the New York Central Park with Christian Cooper, a black birdwatcher, falsely accused him of attacking her. Christian asked her to leash her dog as it was against the rules in the park.
The video of her phone call to the police saying that an African American man was threatening her and her dog was shot by Christian Cooper, went viral. The social media outrage against the racist behaviour of Amy Cooper caught the attention of all. Cooper, who worked as the head of insurance investment wing at Franklin Templeton, got fired based on the company’s zero-tolerance policy on racism. Her dog was taken away for mishandling and choking.
The second incident was that of the choking to death of a black American, George Floyd, by a white policeman in Minneapolis. The incident was videographed and uploaded by a 17-year-old black girl, Darnella Frazier. The arresting white police officer knelt on Floyd's neck for 8 minutes 36 seconds before Floyd became unresponsive.
Daniella was traumatised by the hate backlash online that said she should have got involved in the incident to save Floyd. The incident resuscitated the resistance against discrimination and revived the post-2015 dormant Black Lives Matter movement. The movement was created in 2013 against police brutality and acquittal of a police officer who shot dead an African-American teen, Trayvon Martin.
Widespread protests erupted on the US streets despite a huge scare of the global coronavirus pandemic. The last words of Floyd, ‘I can’t breathe’ have come to become the slogans of protesters. Blacks are now calling out the persisting prejudices and stereotypes against them as looters, criminals and those with unclean bodies. Most noticeable sign of protests is the presence of a significant population of whites joining the protests across America.
Even though one could argue that most of the whites in protests are anti-Trump and their intentions are merely driven ensuing Presidential elections, the scale and magnitude in solidarity of whites with blacks is unprecedented. The generational change in the attitudes in some sections of whites for the black rights and dignity is vivid and stark.
In contrast, India has showed an increasing polarisation between the untouchables and the upper caste in its fight against caste and untouchability. Unfortunately, in the Indian context, protests against any atrocities on untouchables and caste prejudices are seen as the sole responsibility of Dalits and protesters. Take the case of Una flogging incident of July, 2016, in front of a police station in Gujarat, which was videographed and uploaded with impunity by one of the floggers. The outcry was solely of the Dalits and the law to protect Scheduled Caste atrocities is yet to deliver its judgment.
Unfortunately, the assertion of Dalits is often expounded as sectarian and divisive politics in the upper caste lexicon and narratives. The reticent attitude of the urban middle-class elites on issues of caste atrocities and untouchability, and their ‘no-caste claims’ are often bragged as modern urban progressive spaces.
The disregard and denial of issues affecting the dignity and self-respect of the Dalits by the upper caste in the name of ‘progressivism’ is in contradiction with the voices of American whites advocating for rights and dignity of blacks.
The insouciance of Indian social and political elite on caste during the World Conference against Racism in 2001, is indeed a compromise with constitutional morality and a betrayal of normative humanitarian ideals. Upper caste reticence is in consonance with their absence in many of the mobilisations against killings, massacres, rapes and flogging ofdalits.Most vicious of the atrocities such as the rape and murder of Delta Meghwal and Rohit Vemula’s suicide have not stirred the conscience of Indian upper castes.
While Americans braved the global pandemic and appeared in public protests in large numbers, the plight of lakhs of migrants workers trudging home amid lockdown evoked a tepid response back home. What is conspicuously absent in India is the lack of civic consciousness, social and moral obligation among the upper castes who want to secure their false privilege.
The Indian police are under pressure by socially dominant culture, more often arrest the victims, and harass their families and brow-beat them to compromise. There is a resistance from police to invoke the very law created by the Constitution after the abolition of untouchability. Our educated upper castes keep silent or conveniently ignore this social malaise.
Reasons for the generational changes in the USA could be attributed to the evolution of a democratic ethos strongly built in a civic culture promoted by free thinking, free press and critical enquiry of the academicians and intellectuals. In India, public spaces including media and academic circles are characterised by a social morality entangled with Brahmanical values.
Social and castepositioning of the employer dominate the professional ethos both in governmental and private sector set up. While the civic culture of USA is shaped by the modern democratic values, the civic culture in India is still enmeshed in the traditional religious values and guided by regressive caste-influenced morality.
Indian upper caste can still learn from the repentance of white supremacists for their racist discrimination and their social and moral obligation to stand with every black in protest against George Floyd and Amy Cooper cases.
The socially privileged class in India shall rather understand that the equality is not only the right of the untouchables, but also the obligation of the upper castes. If it doesn’t happen soon, we will have a million George Floyd protests unfortunately so, only by the untouchables and victims in India, shaking the foundations of this nation.