What ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement means for India and South Asia

The institutional murder of George Floyd achieved what even a global pandemic could not -  it created a furor against systemic inequalities in the United States that regularly devalues the lives of the marginalized

Akshat Singh Jun 17, 2020

The institutional murder of George Floyd achieved what even a global pandemic could not -  it created a furor against systemic inequalities in the United States that regularly devalues the lives of the marginalized. While the dimensions of this marginalization drift between racial and class axes in the US, in South Asia the issue is further complicated. Millenia-old caste-based hierarchies, colonially-inspired colourism, and a nonchalant acceptance of state brutality come together to manufacture a unique brand of transnational apathy. Given how socially motivated ‘othering’ and state-sponsored brutality create an explosive duo - as in the case of Floyd - it is important to look at these two elements in the context of South Asia.

Like the United States, one of the most significant facets of ‘othering’ in South Asia is guided by colour. The irony is not lost when citizens who respond to the clarion calls of racial equality by the West, also glorify the colour ‘corrected’ visages of celebrities on TV. While the popular narrative of ‘fair is good’ is peddled by multimillion industries, this representation is reflective of a much harsher reality- being fair is advantageous. 

In a study conducted in 2015, researchers found how being fair positively affected career progression in India. Most respondents’ claims that discussions around colour are ‘tacit’ lay testimony to the fact that there is even a lack of conversation around this topic, let alone consciousness. Colour, in South Asia, is often interred with regional identities which increases the possibility to be othered by the majority greatly. 

In Delhi, dark-skinned citizens from South India and citizens from the Northeast may be branded as outsiders and face several social challenges. 

On the other side of the border, Pakistan seems to be the torchbearer of the colonial myth of the fair-skinned ruler, as is exemplified by the political dominance of the Punjabis and the complete rejection of a dark-skinned Bengali leader as was seen in 1971 in what is now Bangladesh. 

While colourism is visually discernible, caste-based discrimination is tacit. Maintaining existing social hierarchies requires complete knowledge of one’s own place and the relative position of others. Thus, othering is not a result of implicit biases and cultural differences; instead, it becomes a sought-out objective. In structural terms, hence, it is comparable to slavery wherein people are brandished to establish the limits of their humanity. 

It is thus no surprise that Dalits in India are both more incarcerated and are more likely to have heinous crimes committed against them. After all, the institutions are not manned by heavenly guardians but individuals who are products of their own social realities.

When these realities turn decision-makers of tomorrow into vassals of bias, it is obvious why rationality bears the brunt. In a study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in In 2019, 30 percent policemen felt that mob lynching is a natural response to cow slaughter; 50 percent of the policemen felt that Muslims are more likely to commit a crime; and a whopping 80 percent felt that using violence to extract a confession is acceptable. In the words of Indian author and political activist Arundhati Roy, hence a policeman responsible for maintaining peace does so even if that peace comes at the cost of upholding repressive structures.

The problem of police brutality is not limited to biases but also extends to severe structural deficiencies. The existing policing code in India is inspired by the British code of 1861 which was implemented in the aftermath of the revolution of 1857. The problem with using a colonial code to govern a democratic citizenry is self-evident. The code through its politicization of the police force makes the department dependent on politicians and at the same time gives police impunity through section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). This means that police excess is hardly reported, the reported cases hardly sent to trial and the ones at trial hardly result in a conviction. Moreover, the police force is severely resource-constrained. Economist Shruti Rajagopalan notes that India has 129 policemen per 100,000 citizens - about half a million lesser than the UN recommended a number of 222. The system is clearly broken.

It is clear why a police force severely limited in resources and training, immune from any accountability, and riddled with social biases, is comfortable with flogging minorities and shooting those who pose a threat to ‘law and order’. The 'Black Lives Matter' movement has shown us that order cannot prevail by trudging on the necks of the downtrodden and that laws are only as important as the citizens they are written for. This message inspires hope in a society where bovine lives take precedence over humanity. It is a call for developing a conscience which values dignity. But, most importantly, the movement is reflective of the possibilities that moving from catatonia of indifference can entail.
(The writer is Research Assistant, Department of Economics, Columbia University, New York. He can be contacted at as5828@columbia.edu)


i Sims, Cynthia, and Malar Hirudayaraj. “The Impact of Colorism on the Career Aspirations and Career Opportunities of Women in India.” Advances in Developing Human Resources 18, no. 1 (2015): 38–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/1523422315616339.
ii Vetticad, Anna. “Let's Talk about Racism: North Indians Are 'Gora-Chitta', Dark Skin Is for the South.” Hindustan Times, May 24, 2017. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/lets-talk-about-racism-you-look-south-indian-but-your-sister-looks-indian/story4DgxcpTrZPC7db9rqziWgM.html.
iii CSDS and Common Cause. “Status of Policing in Inia report 2019: Policy adequacy an working conditions., https://www.csds.in/uploads/custom_files/1566973059_Status_of_Policing_in_India_Report_2019_by_Common_Cause_and_CSDS.pdf
iv Ambedkar, B. R., S. Anand, Arundhati Roy, Santarāma, and Gandhi. Annihilation of Caste: the Annotated Critical Edition. London: Verso, 2016.
v Chouhan, Karan. “Police Reforms against Custodial Violence in India: Past and Present”. International Jounral of Law Management and Humanities, 5, no.1 (2015): 1-8.
vi ibid
vii Rajagopalan, Shruti. “State Capacity Freed Is State Capacity Built.” Livemint, December 11, 2017. https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/cVnodqEYEF2Uiua2nxQ2oN/State-capacity-freed-is-state-capacity-built.html.

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