‘We need to question ourselves’ Opinion from India


Indians cannot convincingly complain about others’ racism while keeping quiet about the racism within


by Karan Thapar


I wonder if Harbhajan Singh knows the English proverb ‘a case of the pot calling the kettle black’? I ask because that’s the first thought that occurred to me when I read his tweets and heard his interviews criticizing a Jet Airways pilot Bernd Hoesslin for allegedly calling an Indian passenger “you bloody Indian” and, reportedly, physically assaulting a lady and a disabled man.


The English aphorism raises the question ‘what gives you the right to criticize someone when you’ve been guilty of something similar’? By equating the critic with the person being criticized it suggests he’s no better. It also alludes to a certain hypocrisy or double standard.


In 2008, during a cricket tour of Australia, Harbhajan Singh was accused of calling Andrew Symonds a monkey. Even if not in Indian eyes, in Australian this is undoubted racist abuse. After a gap of several days the Indian side claimed Harbhajan Singh had used the Punjabi swear-word ‘maa ki’.  The ICC accepted this although the Australian media reported that Harbhajan Singh had also been photographed making monkey-like scratching gestures.


At the time Sharad Pawar, who was president of BCCI, was quoted to have said that “if the charges are not dropped the team would come back to India.” Many saw this as an attempt to blackmail the ICC into dropping charges. Pawar also said the Indian side would not accept new evidence against Harbhajan Singh.


Not only was Mr. Pawar roundly criticized for these two statements but it led some to believe India was using its cricketing muscle and, perhaps, throwing its financial weight to rescue Harbhajan Singh.


Justice Hansen, who wrote the report that settled the matter, said that this had done “serious disservice to the game”. In India, the Business Standard commented: “This is no way in which India’s cricketing establishment should be conducting itself.” As the Hindu bluntly put it, Indian cricket “lost goodwill”.


That the Indian establishment would defend an erring cricket player is, I suppose, not surprising even if it’s regrettable. When cricketers are considered national ambassadors this is bound to happen. But what was truly surprising, utterly wrong and certainly inexplicable was Sharad Pawar’s insistence that “generally hindustani racist kabhi nahin ho sakta.”


I’m sorry, but that’s simply not true. We are, sadly, amongst the most racist people in the world.


As a society we simply don’t understand how despicable racism is. Colour consciousness pervades our attitudes, determines our behaviour and has, possibly, become part of our tradition. We see nothing wrong in advertising for fair brides, calling our own citizens from the North East ‘chinkies’ and dismissing the whole of South India as ‘kale madrasis’. When challenged we claim we do not mean to be offensive. It’s only light-hearted banter!


This, no doubt, is why our government refuses to recognize the repeated attacks on Africans as racism. Whilst the African Heads of Mission called the recent episode in Greater Noida “xenophobic and racial”, the MEA spokesperson insisted it was “a criminal act triggered following the untimely death of a young student under suspicious circumstances.” Not only was the government in denial but, worse, it tried to create a link and, therefore, an explanation between the mysterious death of an Indian student and the appalling attack on innocent uninvolved Africans.  This was despite the fact Abhinandan Singh, the Additional Superintendent of Police in Greater Noida, had already said there was no evidence that any Africans  were involved in the student’s death.


Recently, when Indians in America were victims of racial assaults, we angrily questioned Donald Trump’s silence whilst deprecating the rise of racist sentiment in the United States. Shortly thereafter, when Africans were attacked in India, we refused to accept it was racism and few complained about the Prime Minister’s silence.


How conveniently we forget our own behaviour when we become victims of racism. Not for a moment am I defending the Jet Airways pilot. His alleged behaviour was indefensible and, if proven, must be strongly punished. But this is also a moment to raise questions about ourselves. Can we really complain about other people’s racism whilst continuing to be racist ourselves?


At the least it’s moral hypocrisy to complain about the mote in another’s eyes whilst blithely ignoring the beam in your own. This, in a nutshell, is my comment on Harbhajan Singh. Of course, he has the right to draw the Prime Minister’s attention to Bernd Hoesslin’s alleged behaviour. In fact, we all do. But does he have the moral standing to do so?


Unfortunately, the media did not see fit to raise this question though it had easy access to Harbhajan Singh. I wish they had. It would certainly have been appropriate to do so. But now, perhaps, it’s a question Harbhajan Singh might ask himself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *