giriraj singhIndia’s Union minister Giriraj Singh seldom speaks sense. His foot-in-the-mouth reputation rose before 2014 parliamentary elections when he boldly announced that all those who did not vote for Narendra Modi should go to Pakistan. In the event 69% of Indian voters voted against Narendra Modi; Mr. Modi became the Prime Minister by a “wave” among 31% Indians. None from the 69%, as far as I know, went to Pakistan for this reason.

If you ask me, this time the minister did make even more sense when he asked, “If Rajiv Gandhi had married a Nigerian and if she wasn’t white skin, would the Congress accept her as a leader?” 

Good question, Mr. Minister. in its News site reported this piece of news with a BOO.

Giriraj Singh was not being racist. He was only showing up the color prejudice so openly practised in India. My guess is that a foreign-born and black Mrs. Gandhi stood no chance at leading the Congress, or for that matter, any party. There is no question that Sonia Gandhi had an advantage, being even fairer than the light-skinned Kashmiri-Parsi-origin Gandhi family.

Admit it. If she was a Nigerian, Kenyan, or Sudanese, or even a dark skinned South Indian, she stood no chance.

Babu Jagjvan Ram, a black and low-caste Congressman, never stood a chance to be the PM despite his seniority and vast experience; his record of overseeing the Country’s growth to food self-sufficiency, and India winning a war hands down under his political leadership – none of it could promote him to the leading post. His capacity for work was legendary; so was his competence in any field of administration. Nonetheless, to be a Prime Minister in India, he didn’t measure up. He was a black ‘schedule caste‘. In India Schedule caste meant one whose name appeared in a schedule of the Constitution deserving of special reservation for education and jobs and hence subjected to much envy and ridicule.

So was Sitaram Kesri, the decade-long treasurer for the party who became the party president towards the end of his career. Kesri was the first and the last non-Brahmin (and non-‘white’) President of the Indian National Congress in its a hundred-and-ten-year history. Tamilian Kamraj Nadar, the great strategist for the party and trouble shooter for Nehru, never even considered himself for the post.  One might point at HD Deve Gowda, who had a short stint at the top as an obvious exception. He got the lame duck post during the inevitable infighting of coalition politics. “I will come back,” said Gowda, while giving up the chair. He never stood a chance.

Black Dalit KR Narayanan, picked by Indira Gandhi from Indian Foreign Service and put in to politics for a show piece, never reached beyond the status of a junior minister even during her lifetime despite his brilliant record as a diplomat and ambassador.  He was accepted to be the Vice President of India by Congress party with much demur, and was elevated to Presidency by a minority government to keep the hard-talking and harder-hitting ex-Chief election commissioner TN Seshan out of trouble’s way as the President.   Narayanan found no respect in his own Home State, Kerala where, on his presidential visit, Congress Chief K. Karunakaran ignored him.

Because Presidential and governor posts are normally meant to be show pieces, Blacks, low-castes and Muslims and party rebels find a place there just so their silence is guaranteed. The only Christian – Governor PC Alexander – who was considered for President failed to reach the goal post   KR Narayanan rocked the boat when he showed himself to be a President with a mind of his own and thus missed a second term. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, a scientist and one of the most qualified Presidents of the Country, was denied a second term and was ignored after retirement while he moved from school to school enlightening school children with words of wisdom. Kalam died with his boots on – not designing rockets, but lecturing school children on how to be successful in life. Kalam was a Muslim who read the Quran but could also recite the Gita and the Bible, and had supported India’s nuclear tests. Despite the fact that he could be an easy target for Islamic extremists being on the wrong side of their ideology, he moved around unprotected while a couple of policemen played cards in his house in the name of security. Dozens of politicians booted out by voters enjoy maximum ‘Z’ category security with senior police officers attending to their beck and call.

BBC and CNN employ several black news anchors, debate moderators, and reporters. Even Al Jazeera has some. In India, a couple of decades ago a dark-skinned newsreader, the best with his voice and diction, was removed from the assignment by government-owned Door Darshan TV on the ground that he was not visible enough on screen.  Interestingly, BBC viewers did not have the same complaint against (late) Komla Dumor or Zeinab Badawi, or India’s own Geeta Gurumurthy. Dumor, whose life was tragically cut short by a heart attack, is still remembered and celebrated by BBC.  Indian film heroes and heroines are made to look whiter than Scandinavians; darker men and women are reserved for roles of servants and villains. Many Indian travellers joke about Air India employing dark-skinned air hostesses.

kumar-vishwasKumar Vishwas, the National Executive of Aam Admi (‘Common Man’) party that now rules Delhi State raised much mirth among his North Indian audience on a stand-up comedy show two years ago when he said nurses from Kerala are so black that you wouldn’t find their faces on Facebook. With such ugly looks, he said, you can only call them sisters. Chief Minister of Kerala, Oommen Chandy, added insult to injury when he demanded an apology from the joker. The idiot who finds beauty only in colour deserved to be ignored with disdain. Under political pressure he apologized, but the mindset of Vishwas and those who enjoyed the ‘joke’ lay bare.

Keralite themselves are crazy after fairer skin, as are Tamils who tend to be perhaps a shade darker (let me duck, I can see a brick flying at me!) are not any different. The products that brought maximum advertisement revenue for television channels were fairness creams and gels – particularity the ones named Fair and Lovely, Fair and Handsome and Olay whitening cream. Ads showed how if you had darker skin you would be rejected in jobs, cannot win in a dance show, or cannot find a good enough husband. Not-so-fair Shah Rukh Khan earned millions by lying to the gullible television viewers that he was nothing as an actor till he began to use Fair and Handsome and how, after using the cream and getting fairer, he became Badshah (Emperor) of movies. Heavily made-up actresses like Deepika Padukone lipped the same script modified for Fair and Lovely for women.  Another ad showed how a young man won back his lady love’s favours by whitening his genitals! If darker women and men had any complex, such ads made it worse while the creams did nothing to better their job or bridal prospects. Many politicians and spiritual gurus appear on television with so much make up that they look like ghosts.

Many years ago, at Air Force selection board, a fellow applicant pointed at another candidate and whispered to me: “That guy is dumb. He couldn’t bring out a word in the debates. His physical (test) was terrible. But he has OLQ. He will get selected.” OLQ meant Officer Like Quality. The guy he referred to. I agreed, was extremely fair. Thankfully, the officer in charge of selection had better ideas about OLQ and the fair guy was sent back even before the selection process was complete. It must be admitted, however, that more officers in the army and civilian posts in India tend to be fairer while the men under them are darker. In early sixties, in an Air Force Station where I served, airmen (dark and white) would slyly point at a dark-skinned Flight Lieutenant, and ask aside, “Doesn’t he look like a schedule caste? Does he deserve to be an officer?”.  His name, SC Yadav, was interpreted as Schedule Caste Yadav.

Colour of the skin is associated with caste. In Sanskrit, caste is called Varna – colour.

In his novel House of Blue Mangoes, writer-publisher David Davidar tells us the story of a Tamil family of over a century ago that became rich by inventing and marketing a fairness gel. In his fascinating Booker-Prize winning story, “The White Tiger,” Aravind Adiga tells us how a North-Indian feudal boss advises his foreign-returned offspring not to deal with South Indians because, he said, they are all Negroes!  South Indians do not hesitate to shout across the length of the interior of a running bus that there is a ‘Negro’ on board when they spot an African in the bus. When I tell them that Negro has become a derisive expression and that ‘Black is a better word, they look surprised. What can be more insulting than be called black?

A comedy show telecast in Asianet television is about the agony of an African visitor to Kerala after the local characters handed him sand paper when he asked for toilet paper. The actors are as dark skinned as the ‘African’ himself, yet much mirth was produced by projecting the helplessness of the ‘Negro’. Biju Kuttan, a talented comedian in a magazine interview mourned over his bad luck of being born black, but thanks his stars that he found benefactors who invited him perform in comedy shows and later in films. When the television showed graceful  Kerala-born Parvathy Omanakuttan being awarded Miss World Asia & Oceania at the Miss World 2008  pageant, I overheard a neighbour’s wife asking her husband how a South Indian could win a beauty pageant. “Aren’t these Madrasis all Madrasi kaloos?”

Kaloo is a scornful Hindi expression for dark-skinned person. is an obliquely derogatory North-Indian term for all South Indians.

A black man, probably a Nigerian, was accused of eve-teasing an Indian girl and was assaulted and nearly lynched to death in New Delhi.  While the helpless man climbed on to the roof of a shop, he was pelted with stones. A section of the crowd shouted “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”! (Victory to India). Was India at war with black people?

Matrimonial advertisements brazenly ask for fair complexioned brides. What is more racist than that? Nobody cried foul, not even a dark-skinned and hence rejected woman, against thousands of such advertisements that appear in Times of India, Hindustan Times and nearly all vernacular newspapers. Being dark is a matter of shame that has to be kept an open secret and, like the name Voldemort, is not to me mentioned.

In darker-skinned South India (there! I can already spot the flying bricks), a Sudanese student was put to such ridicule that he abandoned his studies in shame and disgust and went home. African students in Chandigarh and Delhi tell similar stories.

In Bangalore, where beautiful native girls sport smooth, shiny black skin, I once noticed a pretty African girl outside a mall squirming with embarrassment as two Indian girls were staring at her and giggling. The girl was only half a shade darker than the Indian girls. In school benches and college desks you would find girls (and some boys) comparing the shade of their arms and arguing who is lighter.

I know of a young father who banned his children from watching the American TV Show ‘That’s So Raven‘. “They are all so black,” explained the father. I decided against pointing out that he wasn’t any whiter. I did mention that I was grateful that he did not stop his children from meeting me – I was certainly a shade darker than the young female character called Raven in the show.

Recently, New Delhi Television (NDTV) ran a series of experimental scenes on colour prejudice in India. Tactfully, Prannoy Roy chose to produce scenes where employers rejected dark-skinned applicants for job interviews conducted in crowded restaurants. “You are not good enough for jobs that need personal appearance. With the colour of your skin, we can only give you a back-office job at best,” was the tenor of the argument of the employers while the applicants pleaded that the colour of the skin hand nothing to do with the job – they were skilled, they had the qualification and experience. The supposed employers wouldn’t relent.  Many of those who heard the loud arguments, not realizing that it was a put-on show, came to the rescue of the dark-skinned interviewees. Nobody pointed out that the biggest front office salesmen of all – the Ambani brothers – are dark skinned.  If Prannoy Roy had chosen to produce scenes where black girls were being rejected in marriage negotiations (a common occurrence in India), I doubt whether the dark girls would have found any backers among the other visitors in the restaurant.

My son used to say that had Africans colonised India in the first place, we would be applying boot polish on our faces and white cream on our shoes. Funny as that suggestion might sound, I believe it was logical. May be history erred when white skins stole a march over the blacks. Indian Gods are black; Draupati, the ideal Mahabharat heroine described as exquisitely beautiful and desired by all the kings of the world was black (‘Krishna’), so was Arjuna, the prime hero of the story of Mahabharata. When Krishna, the God-incarnation and Arjuna, the son of God Indra walked together, wrote the poet, they looked like two black mountains moving in the bright sun. However, our Lord and Masters for several hundred years – including Turkish-Mongolian Mughals – and Dutch-Portuguese-British were light skinned. Thus, darker colour became symbols for the inferior, the subjugated, the lowest in the social rung.

In Sanskrit, the language of the elite and the Brahmins of yore, caste came to be known as varnas. Savarnas – those of good colour – were higher castes and Avarnas (colourless) low castes.

In Northern India, where men and women tend to be somewhat lighter skinned than the Southerners, images of Lord Krishna (the name means Black God) and Lord Rama – the ideal incarnations of Vishnu – are made in white marbles or porcelain though in bhajans (a mixture of eulogies and prayers) their dark or blue complexion is compared with cumulo-nimbus clouds and praised. In Tamil Nadu, the same images used to be made in black granite, but now the devotees paint them in various colours other than black.

I repeat: Giriraj Singh was spot on. If Rajiv Gandhi had married a Nigerian, or a Ghanaian or Kenyan, or even a dark Indian, she stood no chance to be the leader of Congress party.

That is not to say that black or brown men do not receive racial taunts in the West. They do all the time, in the streets, is sports fields, in trains and airplanes. Black teenagers get shot by target practising policemen in the US. In France, where you thought racism is not prevalent, they pushed a black man with ticket out of a train and chanted “We are racist, we are racist, and we like it“.

An Australia-born starlet who came looking for job in Bombay films explained to an interviewer that in Australia she stood no chance because all the girls there were white and beautiful; and that is why she came to India. When a director told her that she was too white for a particular role, she took it to be a compliment and interpreted it as she was too beautiful for the role – never mind that Aishwarya Roy or Priyanka Chopra would not have considered her for a handmaid’s job. Among the educated and the enlightened in the Western Countries, however, there is a growing awareness that beauty can come in any colour, few Indians would come around to that view.  That said, black girls are seldom considered for a beauty pageant. Even Naomi Campbell, the highly paid model complained that she faced discrimination.  In India, if she had tried before she acquired name and fame, she would not even be considered for modelling. A couple of cheer girls who were imported from abroad along with the white ones for IPL (Indian Premier League – series of cricket matches along the lines of football leagues in Europe) were sent back because they were found “unsuitable”. The pay promised was good, and the girls cried when boarding the plane back home. They couldn’t understand – in white-majority countries they had performed, and no fingers were raised. American, French and British fashion catalogues have black models showcasing their apparels and accessories, never an Indian catalogue or multinational’s catalogue printed for Indian buyers.

As a grey-haired and black-skinned old man, I am often invited to house parties and given special respect for my withering age (and for no other reason) when I enter. To my acute embarrassment, children are asked to touch my feet (a curious North Indian custom) in reverence to my birth several decades before theirs.

Then there is the inevitable query that marks the Indian hospitality: “Uncle, what would you have – coffee or tea?”

I will have black tea,” I say mischievously. “Black man, black tea.”

For a few moments there is silence in the reception room. All-round embarrassment hang tense in the air.  If you had elephantiasis on your legs and the swellings are obvious, or even if everyone knew you were a cured Aids victim, would you talk about it? Why would I want to talk about my disgrace, my black complexion, is the unasked question that I could almost hear.

I confess that I continue to be a victim of colour training that I have had from childhood, and I am not entirely free of the apartheid mindset. When children come home from a hot day in the swimming pool, I worry. I note anxiously that they – particularly the girls – have too much tan on their light-brown skin.

An Indian representative in an International forum discussing racism said that we do not have racism, only casteism. As if the change in moniker made any difference. We are born with colour-and-caste prejudice in our blood. Giriraj Singh, the dumb minister took the foot off his mouth for a change and spoke the right thing this one time.

Go ahead and Boo me.


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