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The Hidden Injuries of Race: A Response to Lawrence Liang: Rijul Kochhar

August 24, 2012

Guest post by RIJUL KOCHHAR

Turn on the television any given day now, and you will be greeted by the news-media in unison informing you about the psychosis of fear—“north east fear/scare” is a useful shorthand—that seems to have gripped some of our fellow citizens. The numerous characterizations, all of which are variations on a theme, are not only ill-informed, they are also wholly inadequate and directionless. What does it mean to say that north-easterners are in the grip of fear, running away herd-like to their corners of the home-world? The bovine image, though useful in the sense of visualizing the sheer numbers involved, doesn’t allow us to think beyond.

This piece is an attempt in that direction. The fear is real, it is palpable on the railway platforms and at airports of major cities, and it surely has had the potency to disrupt a large number of people in the steps and motions of their daily lives. Others, including on Kafila, have written about the contentious issue of borders and migrants, of numbers and mutable identities; The Hindu has featured a series of interesting articles under the Sunday Story section, delineating the central role of information-technology and communication—technology whose role itself has radically transmuted amidst the last few months of the troubles, where we have seen the emergence of the cellphone screen as the new, unchartered frontier of radical, affective simulacra. Fingers have been raised, especially by our ever-articulate military-intelligence-scholarly community, against the customary foreign hand, and many of their accusations, might, in the days ahead, speak their own truth.

I am more interested in a different issue here, one that seeks to make all of us culpable. It is an attempt to converse with Lawrence Liang’s admirable piece regarding belongingness in the city, the idea of integration in a substantive sense, as opposed to the ‘lip-service’ we see being bandied about these days. In one way, this is tied up with the idea of alienation, and to a further extreme, anomie. It is this entity that I wish to explore further here. Lawrence writes in his piece, “While there has been a lot of lip service in the last few days to Bangalore being a hospitable city, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that we may have bestowed the tag on ourselves in a moment of self-conceit. Perhaps it is a much more tenuous compact based on benefits gained from migrant labour without the grant of full cultural citizenship. And perhaps it is time to ask if years of having to deal with quotidian humiliations, passive aggression directed at cultural practices (dress, food, sexuality) is what is responsible for Bangalore’s failure to instill a sense of belonging among migrants.

The problem, however, is this: it isn’t merely cultural integration, or the lack of it, that explains the spark-like burst of exodus of the past few days; the issue, merely, of hospitability, of belonging, of the ‘right not to be treated as strangers’. There is something, it seems to me, much more pernicious, much more ordinarily sinister at play, which has lit the powder-keg of flight. This is the everyday game of collective recognition and selective disregard that those who are ‘different’ must endure (and often, in turn, participate in). This is the manufacture of marginalization in the nuances of daily life, and its best instances may be experienced on the streets. Yesterday, after a haircut, I was on my way home when I stopped by the local grocer’s for some sunday topping-up of essentials. The scene is a man with visibly mongoloid features, walking past me, hailing an autorickshaw, seeking to hire it till the nearest metro station; the auto-wallah has seen him approach, but ignores the presence of the man; the next moment, he drives off to the exact same destination with another customer, leaving our protagonist in the wake of dust and indignity. This is the indignity of non-recognition, the everyday artefact that is so corrosive to so many amongst us in so many of its different permutations; this is the sharp, stinging acid in the social fabric of cities that those of us who do not fit the bill of the norms of performance and appearance must endure. Chinki, tribal, easy-women, snake-eaters, dirty, animals—this is the cosmos of awful indignity that our fellow citizens suffer, and it is with this in mind that we may better approach the wholly inadequate ‘fear-psychosis’ that seems to have gripped a large number of people who happen to belong to a particular corner of the cartographic field. Fear, as a collective phenomenon, then arises as the festering wound of everyday life—as the blade that has hacked–away any possibility of allowing for the setting down of roots in a place. It is at this level that we are all culpable, for we have not developed the skills necessary to live with difference. I use the word ‘skill’ advisedly, and I shall return to it subsequently.

In early 2001, the eminent sociologist Andre Beteille wrote, what seems to me, a misguided piece on race, caste and discrimination. This was a time when the UN and concerned groups, in an effort to combat manufactured deprivation and social alienation, sought to broaden our understanding of racism by incorporating within its rubric not only deprivation born of biology, but also of social discrimination of other kinds which shared an affinity with racism. The aim, it seemed, was to shock and shame the practitioners and preservers of discrimination—whatever its form—into relinquishing their practices; this was sought to be achieved by capitalizing on the infamy of racism—in that sense, it was a political act. The aim was also to provide victims a collective, strong and common platform to raise their voices against the dominating discursiveness of awesome, often hidden, power. Beteille’s essential argument, however, was that science had effectively debunked the ideas and problematics of race; that scientific opinion on the matter was settled: race was merely a biological category peppered with physical markers and possessing scientific ‘ambiguities’; it was hived-off forcefully from the social categories and deprivations arising out of language, religion, styles of life and status. Any attempts to combine these categories, or to even interrogate their unlikely commonalities were apocalyptically warned-off by the sociologist as dangerous, ‘worthless’ and ‘scientifically nonsense’: “In doing so [the UN] is bound to give a new lease of life to the old and discredited notion of race current a hundred years ago…I am now convinced that identifying the races in the population of India will be an exercise in futility” (emphasis added).

But things are never so simple as the fantastic, clearly demarcated categories of elementary anthropology. What we are witnessing today with the mass-exodus of persons eastwards is the culmination of this process of the intermingling of biological racism and social discrimination—a culmination that Beteille off-handedly dismissed as popular prejudice which was, however, unscientific and unpardonable when it came to the UN; it is indeed the proverbial coming-home-to-roost of the unresolved problems of ‘race, language and culture’ that Beteille so triumphantly suggested to be resolved anthropologically. What we are seeing today with the ‘north-east scare’ is a culmination born in the womb of everyday life, where social and cultural discrimination is predicated upon a very directly visible physical racism, with both circulating in the experience of the everyday. What may be scientifically bunkum may still be socially potent (a potency that the UN sought to neuter), and the precipitate of a collective racism against the north-east, now culminating in the exodus of people home, is a compelling, if late, reminder of the perils of being unable to live with physical and cultural difference. The apotheosis of this collective, banal racism was seen so flagrantly during the Chinese premier’s visit last year, when ‘north-eastern looking’ people were prevented from even being proximate to the leader’s residence at the ITC-Maurya/Taj-Palace luxury complex out of fear that they may protest in support of the cause of Tibet. If the corridors of power and the arms of the state sanction such abusive instances of corrosive action (instances that may be ethnographically recorded and infinitely replicated in the nooks and crannies of urban life), is it difficult to imagine the sheer violence of the quotidian? The ‘metaphor of race’ is, indeed, a dangerous weapon; more so when—in the hubristic celebration of scientific opinion—we forget its corrosive effects on the milieu I’m trying to portray here as the social. What people think with categories, and what they do with them in lived life, is just as vital.

For years now, as opportunities and the ease of travel have brought thousands of seasonal migrants to this nation’s cities and towns, we have not kept up the bargain of recognition. This is the recognition of difference, of that oft-abused word, diversity. That recognition is limited, tragically, to the cottage-industry of self-congratulation, the oil that lubricates the wheels of the nation as an imagined utopia—that wondrous miracle, scarcely imaginable, of cultural complexity—where statistics take the place of substantive experience. In reality, however, an unending cycle seems to have been initiated—the vicious back and forth of wounding insult, and as a response, a desperate refuge in cliques comprising similar members. At its most obnoxiously obvious, we witness this in the opposition of the wounding discourse of ‘chinki’, pitted against the self-preserving mechanism of the ‘ghettoes’ of the north-east—witnessed so painfully and obviously in our classrooms and workplaces. That opposition, in turn, has rent the social fabric of everyday life in our self-avowedly cosmopolitan cities, and in the gaping chasm of that fabric we may find the receding face of the ‘idea of India’. Perhaps that idea was always wanting; perhaps it was a flawed one. Which is why, the loud voices in parliament exhorting people to ‘come back’ to ‘us’ and be a ‘part of one India’ are so mistaken. The problem is not of return, of ‘us’ and ‘them’, and the wholeness of ‘one’. The problem is not of home and belonging. The problem is the manufactured marginalization of daily life, which so many amongst us have experienced, vicariously or brazenly. In the wake of that problem, of that experience of the everyday, is it so difficult to understand the motives and methods of flight?

This manufactured marginalization born of selective disregard is now inscribed and performed at the level of the body, even as it draws its life-blood from embodied experience. Those who ‘look’ different are, as in this latest instance, the bearers of stigma, for not only are they different, not only do they not belong, but also they are ocularly awkward in many parts of geographic India. This is the racism of everyday life, and the brutality of pervasive fear that seems to grip a certain group is the direct result, not of some psychosis, but of their experience of having lived with that silent violence. This is the violence that emanates from the milieu that forgoes the skill of living together, of togetherness. Some of its manifestations—concurrent then on the linguistic frontier—I bore witness to during my childhood and adolescent years in Assam, when Biharis were sought to be driven out, often buffeted by the spell of rumours and vituperative vapidity, through the threat of physical violence. The point, however, is that preceding that violence or its threat is another form of all-pervasive, quotidian, banal violence: the violence born of our inability to adjust with, accommodate to, or live in the shadow of, difference. It is for this reason that piecemeal efforts at integration or improving the belongingness-quotient are bound to fail, for what is wanting is a skill that is at a much more fundamental level of social life—the practice of the rituals of togetherness, and the skills required to cooperate in the wake of difference.

And it is that skill that another sociologist, Richard Sennett, has spent his lifetime delineating. In the latest addition to his oeuvre, Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, Sennett argues that community life of the herd is the easier option; that real cooperation which connects communities requires dedication and skilled effort (technê), not unlike a craft—this is the effort of man as homo faber or the maker of things. In times of crises, the rituals of this skill fall apart; it is only with time, and after careful, focussed, skilled and cooperative effort, that the socius of complexity is forged afresh. This is a complexity of cooperation born of ‘practical activity’, which, unlike collusion or coercion, stands on the fundament of mutual benefit and foregrounds the idea of mutual pleasure—it is the key-stone of managing conflict. Its one central result, vital for our purposes here, is that ‘such cooperation sustains social groups across the misfortunes and upheavals of time’. Sennett is no starry-eyed sentimentalist, even if he is optimistic about the human condition’s capacity to work out newer rituals of cooperation that allow humans to live together despite differences. Which is why, forging a sense of belonging in the aftermath of this eastward flight requires us to rethink newer ways of actively engaging with those who are ‘different’, beyond the mere ethics that demand this cooperation. A beginning to that effort, then, seem to me to be the recognition of the problem: the everyday humiliation and indignity of embodied experience that many of us are subject to in infinite permutations—an experience which is corrosive to the palliative of shared experience that each one of us, migrant and indigene, are witness to in our cities of desire and violence

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Natasha permalink
    August 24, 2012 10:56 PM

    When the Chinese president was in Delhi, some hostels in DU where students from the northeastern states live were shut early and cops were posted outside. Students were really upset, but how do they vent out? Start shouting from the rooftops? “We have nothing to do with the Chinese prez, let us out of the hostel, we got to buy some evening snack.”

    Some individuals took it personally, making them resent the ‘Indian’ government early on when they are still in college. They are the ‘magic seeds’, and if they do harm later, who is to blame. All their life they have been told repeatedly, every day on the streets, that “you are not Indian.” Delhi police anyway think everybody from the Northeast is from Tibet.

    People from the Northeast try their best to blend in with the mainstream. But those in ‘mainland’ India tend to push them back, while at the same time asking them to join in. Shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. There is a severe form of hypocrisy at play.

  2. Inasu/poet-writer/Paris permalink
    August 25, 2012 12:08 AM

    The disturbances in Bangalore reveal a number of socio-cultural problems India will have to face in the future. Liberalisation, rapid urbanisation and concentration of services and resources in the major urban centers will compel the population from across the entire nation to congragate towards them. It is a foregone conclusion that more and more young
    people will flock to the cities- seeking job opportunities, wanting to aquire new skills, searching for personal fulfilment and above all to enjoy the “anonymity” and “freedom” that
    only urban agglomeration can provide. Given the nature of India as a mosaic of different languages, religions, ethnies. culrural practices, food habits, etc., like Bangalore, (which
    rose from an idyllic garden city for holidayers ,to a bustling IT business centre) Hyderabad,
    Coimbatore, Kochi, Trivandrum. Kanpur. Ahmedabad, etc are going to face the same dilemma in one way or another. Linguististic chauvinism, colour discrimination and religious
    hatred are not the solutions. The custodians of Kannada culture and traditions may well
    bear in mind that the price to pay for having India’s IT capital in the state is “TOLERATING”
    the DIFFERENCE and eventually ACCEPTING it, which is very much in the larger Indian
    cultural tradition, As for those who fled out of fear, speading undue panic has no meaning
    in complex socio-cultural context like India’s.

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