Why we like to be racially victimised

(This column was published in DNA edition dated April 14, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

The hysteria that gripped the Indian media for much of last year over alleged racist attacks on Indians in Australia has given way in recent weeks and months to a more nuanced commentary. What induced this sudden infusion of balance and sobriety, which were so conspicuously missing in the earlier frenzied narrative, was perhaps the realisation that at least a few recent instances of attacks on Indians were perpetrated by other Indians in that country – for profit or, as happened in one case, on a passing whim.

Additionally, recent incidents of street violence in Australian cities against people of other ethnicities and nationalities – in one case, a wheel-chair-bound Canadian and, in another, a Scottish tourist who was left in a coma after being battered by kids as young as 13 – have challenged the storyline that fed on the ‘all-Aussies-are-racists’ stereotype. If white men were also being bashed up, surely it must mean that Australian street gangs were racially undiscriminating equal-opportunity purveyors of violence!

That reading comes close to official Australian characterisation of the attacks on Indians: that they were ‘opportunistic’ street crimes, not racially motivated assaults, and that Indian students accounted for a disproportionately large share of the victims because of other social circumstances. But the temptation to portray Australian officials in KKK outfits proved irresistible: it gave us a sense of moral righteousness, which liberated us from dealing with the many-layered nature of reality. In a perverse sort of way, we wanted them to be racial attacks, because they made for a gripping black-and-white narrative. 

That’s not to say that Indians abroad don’t ever face racial discrimination. However, there is something about the victimisation of Indians abroad that renders us more combustible as a nation when their experiences are packaged with a racial element. We may be wholly insensitive to rather more glaring instances of discrimination – based on religion, caste, language or other considerations – in our own backyards; but if even one Indian abroad faces a disquieting experience, and we suspect (even without evidence) that it’s racially motivated, we summon up endless empathy and respond as if it were a personal attack on (or a slight to) all 1.1 billion of us.

The downside of a racially obsessed narrative is that it desensitises us to other forms of discrimination that Indians, among others, face overseas. Just last fortnight, Rashmika Patel, a 44-year-old Indian woman migrant worker in Australia, won a landmark civil action suit against her employer on charges of sexual assault. Although it’s true that her identity as a non-English speaking Indian working as a low-wage fruit picker rendered her additionally vulnerable to exploitation, it was her identity as a woman that was primarily violated. Yet, her triumph, at great personal cost, in securing civil redress hasn’t found particular resonance back home.

Another case last fortnight, involving an Indian in Hong Kong, offers a richly ironic twist to a story of racial discrimination. Baldev Singh came to Hong Kong in 2006, claiming he was a victim of torture in India, but his bad luck seemed to following him across the seas: last year, he was beaten up by Hong Kong police officers following a seaside altercation, and faced charges of drunk and disorderly conduct and assaulting police officers.  He was subsequently acquitted on all counts, and has filed a complaint against police abuse.

What these two cases additionally illustrate is that when Indians overseas do face exploitation or discrimination, they sometimes have access to legal redress mechanisms in a way that they perhaps may not have had back home.  And despite the disquieting experience of exploitation and discrimination that they face on foreign soils, many still opt to stay on owing to quality-of-life considerations, particularly when compared to how things are back home.



About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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