INDIA: Ending discrimination and populism is a must to eliminate racial discrimination

By Dr. Divya Padmanabhan

March 21 marks the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination worldwide. The day was first observed in 1966, and continues to be observed annually since then. The theme for this year is ‘Mitigating and countering rising nationalist populism and extreme supremacist ideologies’.

While many countries are fighting the recent surge in supremacist ideologies, India is one of the countries facing immediate and long lasting implications of the dangerous surge. Set to elect a new government in the summer of 2019, it is a make or break moment for the country.

India is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, and has ratified it with some reservations. The question of race in India often translates into issues of discrimination based on caste, ethnic groups, minority groups and perceived racial differences. Though discrimination on the basis of birth has always been very evident, requiring laws like The Scheduled Castes And Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 to protect the victims, the Indian government has always tried to differentiate it from ‘racism’, insisting that it is an internal matter.

That debate aside, in the age of social media, the discriminations have become far more evident- both in the form of hate speech and real hate crimes and violence, like mob lynching in the name of cow protection, which serve to intimidate and create or deepen animosity between groups/ communities.

This deeply resonates with a 2018 report by the UN Special Rapporteur highlighting the increasing nationalist ideologies that ‘pose a sobering threat to racial equality by fueling discrimination, intolerance and the creation of institutions and structures that will have enduring legacies of racial exclusion’ (emphasis mine) and that ‘in its most dangerous variants, populism deploys a monolithic, exclusionary vision of who qualifies as “the people.”’

The real dangers of the ascending nationalist populism thus include direct threats and intimidation of people who do not fit into the ‘right’ category, as well as institutional weakening of those bodies meant to protect and provide justice. Furthermore, nationalist ideology also creates the notion of a suffering majority. It propagates the idea that in a multicultural setup, by trying to accommodate everyone, the people who get the least are the majority. The interests of the minority are hence set up as oppositional and disadvantageous to the self-proclaimed majority. Hence, ‘when nationalist populists appropriate the language of democratic legitimacy and representation of “the people”, this language masks exclusionary and typically racialized conceptions of the nation that are at odds with liberal conceptions of democracy’. Think of all the ‘at stake’ slogans and the rift is abundantly clear.

It is easy to sit in your comfortable apartment and think that you don’t have a role to play in this at all. But all it requires is to look at the names of your neighbors. As it is, our buddies and partners are not just a matter of chance. They are picked from a given set of people, often a homogeneous same caste-class-religion group in India.

If one goes further, it becomes very apparent that micro-aggression has become part of our daily lives. In cases of road rage, all the verbal abuse will be racist and gendered. As I write this piece, there are media reports about authorities removing certain chapters- including one on caste struggles for rights- from a class 9 history textbook. This is followed by another news that funding for Women’s Studies programmes in Indian universities is already shrinking, and won’t be enough for them to even survive. If you are wondering how this is relevant to racial discrimination, the answer is that ultimately it all comes down to visibility and representation in societies- who gets represented, and why.

We have seen attempts to erase and re-write history, and a fundamental part of that is whom we see as belonging to the nation. While the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination ensures that all human beings have equal rights, it allows states to have autonomy when it comes to making different rules for its citizens versus non-citizens. In the Indian context, this has become contested with the recent citizenship register in Assam, which puts the future of the Muslim minority groups at stake. With no clear roadmap ahead, the coming elections will only add to the uncertainty and risk. With a possible image of a non-citizen created, it will be easy for populist groups to argue that the lack of jobs, overpopulation and all sorts of problems are created by the ‘other’. Though this is not a new strategy in itself, the easy access to online media today presents significant dangers.

To arrive at any solution to this, both state and non-state actors have a role to play in either generating or legitimizing, even if by silence, a continuing process of non-discrimination. In cases of violations, it is often difficult to find consolidated information to make sense of an overall picture. Campaigns such as halt the hate or the lesser known ones such as #colourmeright, #unstereotype by Brooke Bond Red Label (I do have issues with Unilever, as a side note!) are significant in that they allow us to understand in a nutshell the magnitude of the problem. One can argue about the representativeness or credibility of sources. Yet, such platforms offer us a comprehensive picture of what we’re facing today.

We definitely need our institutions to work towards equality and justice, which is what they are there for. We need them to be responsible, transparent and quick. But expecting that from over-burdened, pressured, under-staffed institutions, even if they had the best of intentions, would be unrealistic. A complete overhaul of the system would be ideal, but till then we must create our own inroads- whether it be through protests, writings or just by not being silent. By being our own gatekeeper, we could choose to reclaim our rights and voice out our needs.

The significance of a day such as this, is a reminder to voice out our opinions. In an age where our timelines, twitter and blog feeds suggest to us stories that we may be interested in based on tracking our reading history, even the simple reiteration of equality and justice is significant. The more we reiterate, the more our voices and words get visibility. We encourage others along with ourselves to stop and think for a moment about the mainstream populist narrative, and the problematic notion of society that it springs up. In the present Indian context, with emerging vigilant groups and collective mobs, it’s becoming clear that a collective oppositional voice needs to be heard. It is through collective action that we can be a part of the solution to the problems of human rights violations and discrimination. Racist attitudes are a vicious cycle- from perceiving skin color and features as inferior, to viewing certain population sharing looks, religion, gender as the ‘people’, to lack of representation of minorities and ultimately policy level discriminators such as refusal to recognize caste as a form of racism. Racism hence needs proactive action from all sectors. From the everyday acts of resisting discrimination to calling out policies, politics, institutional lapses and biases, the ways to combat racism are multiple. Rather than framing it as an issue which should be solely a matter of policymakers and human rights defenders, by viewing racism as an ongoing issue in everyday life, we can recognize its pervasiveness, and that would be the first step towards its elimination.

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About the Author: Divya Padmanabhan is an academic based in Hong Kong. She can be contacted at