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Indian Support for George Floyd, While We Remain Silent on Violence at Home, Is Hypocritical, Performative Wokeness

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May 30, 2020

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On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man was killed by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. An unarmed and handcuffed Floyd lay on the ground while Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than seven minutes, while Floyd repeatedly told the officers “I can’t breathe” – until he was motionless. Evoking a long line of police murders of unarmed black men and boys in the United States, several bystanders caught the entire Floyd incident on video, which has since been heavily circulated, triggering violent protests and sparking global outrage.

In the days following Floyd’s death, I witnessed a wonderful outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter and anger towards institutionalized racism from my friends and family in India, many of whom have in the past studied or lived in the US. Standing in solidarity with other disenfranchised/minority/systematically targeted communities is absolutely vital now more than ever. But while it’s human to feel shaken by such horrific violence, the Indian reaction to George Floyd’s murder is tainted by hypocrisy and complicity. It calls into question our community’s violent history with both anti-Blackness and Western infatuation. 

My first instinct is to question why so many privileged Indians are quick to speak out about the murder of black people in America but are silent when it comes to the issues of communal and state violence against lower caste communities here. In the last several months, mob lynchings, attacks on students and incidents of Islamophobia, queerphobia and police brutality have been rampant across India. Incredibly graphic, chilling videos of these have circulated here with the same fervour as Floyd’s – but are they met with the same pain? There’s something specific about liberal anger for divisive politics in India – it comes from a distance, it’s mixed with resignation and a lack of surprise, and often it’s mired in privilege that prevents it from being truly personal. 

Violence is almost expected in India. Much of the Global South is still grappling with its colonial legacy that confined it to being “backward and barbaric.” The idea that black and brown bodies are innately predisposed to violence is still shockingly common rhetoric, both in our collective subconscious and as a more explicit political tool. It is used to explain away everything from “black on black” crime, to inevitable communal riots, to the constant state of war in the Middle East. More importantly, in India, the virulent tenacity of caste continues to perpetuate this idea, internalizing and invisibilizing it into our culture. Would the average upper caste/class Indian respond with the same empathy and shock to the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula as they would to George Floyd? 

Empathy is not zero-sum, and outrage over injustice in India and the US are not mutually exclusive. A comparison between them in this context poses problems of its own, and is perhaps reductionist by itself. The way we understand violence in India should not be contingent upon how it’s understood elsewhere, especially the West. Yet we’ve always witnessed the asymmetry with which violence is received – and the selectiveness with which people grieve – around the world. In the same way that black lives are treated as less valuable than white ones, Dalit lives are disposable compared to Brahmin ones. Isolated terrorist attacks in Paris are considered deeply tragic, but regular drone strikes on civilians in Pakistan are rarely acknowledged. The idea of a universal humanity doesn’t apply in such cases – one kind of life (Western, white) is worth protecting, the other feels fungible.

This is further complicated by the fact that many urban Indians are desperate – and conditioned – to emulate the West, and racism is no exception. Both India and the Indian diaspora are steeped in a long history of anti-Blackness. From African students being killed in New Delhi, to kids abrasively using the N-word and other racist slurs for “fun,” dark skin – often a marker of caste as well – has always been culturally disparaged. Aspirations to be fairer, whiter, run so deep that dark skin is frequently met with physical hostility and relentless discrimination.

When Indians take to their social media to speak up against racism in the US (or when a scattered Black Lives Matter march was organized in Delhi in the midst of the revoking of Article 370 on Kashmir), I wonder if a new form of appropriating cultural movements is emerging, one that replaces genuine solidarity and sacrifice with a performative wokeness merely to emulate our Western counterparts. From where we stand, calling out racism and having anti-Trump and pro-BLM sentiments is the new American status symbol that we must look up to, all the while refusing to introspect on our own actions. We conveniently ignore the fact that we, too, benefit from a power structure that oppresses all those on lower levels of a forced sociocultural hierarchy.

For years, thousands of Indian students and activists have spoken out against and fiercely protested the injustices of police brutality and state-led violence. Some have embodied an inclusive, intersectional and revolutionary approach to this struggle. But for the most part, the structures of caste privilege and colourism persist comfortably in India. South Asians – particularly those of Brahminical descent – have long contributed to the anti-Blackness and racism that has led to the present reality for black and dark-skinned people in the US and outside of it. Our reluctance to address this history, while tokenistically supporting the liberation of a community whose oppression we are complicit in, makes us hypocrites.

Instead of perfunctory sympathy and performative resistance, we ought to learn from the bravery and resilience of all those on the frontlines of this fight. To do justice to George Floyd, to the black men and women that were killed before him, and to the communities protesting this oppression, we need to do more than just pay lip service to these movements and take up the fight against systemic casteism, classism and racism here. We should work together to not only decolonize the framework with which we view ourselves and our histories, but also dismantle the structures of power that keep us from reimagining a collective future.

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Written By Paroma Soni

Paroma Soni is a writer, videographer, and editor based in Mumbai. She loves traveling, watching horror movies, and drinking coffee. She’s passionate about politics, human rights, feminism, and social justice.

  1. Saniya

    I completely agree with this, I was speaking about the same thing on Instagram when I came across this article. You hit the right points that have been concerning me for days. ‘JUST FOR SHOW’ -exactly. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Even greater hypocricy

    AND AS ALWAYS , THE RACIAL INJUSTICE AND DISCRIMINATION TOWARDS THE NORTHEASTERN OF INDIA BY THE MAINLAND INDIANS THEMSELVES ALWAYS GETS IGNORED OR OUT OF SPOTLIGHT . I DONT EVEN KNOW WHAT KIND OF JUSTICE WE ARE FIGHTING FOR NOW .

  3. Arpit

    Because unlike you some Indians still remember Sureshbhai Patel incidence. The skinny black guy who didnt speak a lick of English

  4. Aditya

    It’s not hypocritical, all lives matter, If someones’s supports it, nothing wrong with that, at last we all bleed same

  5. Person for decolonizing Intellegensia

    I think this article involves a certain level of cherrypicking and ignores some of the complexities involved in social issues in India. First of all, for the most part, its Indian-Americans who are vocally condemning the incident in the US. The rest of the Indian diaspora is supportive of BLM but as for other commentary, they do not have all the facts since they don’t live in the US and they are right not to give their half-baked opinions on the subject.

    As for social issues in India, its not as simple as “racism”. You have to remember that media reportage in India (and internationally) is heavily biased and in many cases downright incorrect. In cases such as religious violence and issues regarding Kashmir and certain Dalit cases, separating fact from politicised, extrapolated, fiction is hard resulting in fractured stances coming from people. However, whenever cases of racial discrimination against people from the Northeast has come up, especially in recent times, I have not seen abrasive comments (even on the internet) akin to what we are seeing from many Americans in the wake of recent (and unfortunately, past events). There’s still a long way to go in improving race-relations with people of North-eastern-Indian origin and a lot of racial sensitivity education is needed but its not as bad as what International media would like to portray. If there are people who would disagree, please feel free to as this is my personal experience and I’m sure others might have a different take on the subject.

    Which brings us to the next issue. Just because of the geopolitics of India, information warfare regarding events in India is …. high. This is a battle waged in major international media where there aren’t enough Indian readers who have a first hand account of events to sufficiently point out unreliable reporting. So when misleading articles are published in papers like the NYT and WaPo, it goes unchallenged and over time, speculation becomes fact. A lot of journalists who have lost credibility within India for speculative reporting (some of whom have been accused of hate speech and corruption) contribute to these papers where they are able to continue more or less unscathed and end up influencing the Indian diaspora who think that they know everything about India just because their skin is brown.

    I found that many in the Indian diaspora have presumptuously hijacked this movement and have started promoting their own narrative of self victimisation especially by privileged, upper-class self-proclaimed “liberal” Indians. It’s extremely disrespectful to the BLM movement to piggyback and water down the narrative and shift focus from the goals of the main movement. Pls repeat after me privileged Indians, “This is not about me!”.

  6. Parul Mehta

    Very immature writing. Couldn’t even complete reading this BS article

  7. Anonymous

    Thank you for writing this *excellent* article 🙂 Because migrant workers and the poor in India don’t have access to social media and are truly voiceless, there is less incentive to support them. For some of the allies speaking out part of me wonders “why don’t you care as much about those who are in your own country just because they’re not trending on your instagram feed?” – We shouldn’t be in the business of ranking atrocities, but I feel like people who wake up to issues only when it’s the thing all their friends are posting about are implicitly ranking atrocities.

    It’s also easy for Indian celebrities to post in support of the black lives matter because they have nothing to lose; but if they really cared about speaking for the oppressed, they would call out our own government and hold them accountable for police brutality, and stand up for something where they actually have something to lose.

  8. Vignesh

    What is racism.
    When a hard working person in sweat comes near you( sitting in a ac room for 8hrs and board the bus/metro/train). You move away.

    The racism starts there.

  9. Adzlyfe

    It isn’t just for show…the movement against injustice has been ongoing among students etc, this incident has given us an international platform to appeal for justice.

    Fair and lovely company was indeed sued for its racist propaganda.
    It’s the traditional beliefs among people about dark and fair skin that has been polluting the society, against which we have been given an opportunity to speak out

  10. Justin Ch

    Are you kidding?
    What do you say about hypocrisy of commenting on American culture and history, while sitting in Mumbai?
    Do you understand how deep racism is in the US? Do you understand the dehumanization of slaves, same tactics the British used on Indians?
    And you say Brahmins contributed to racism in the US? How?
    Show us the incidents in which Brahmins killed black people? Or enslaved them?
    Take your righteous indignation elsewhere!

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