Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India

By Harsh Mander

Click here to buy Looking Away

In our world today, there is much which has become globalized—the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the films we watch, the songs we dance to, and the social networking sites on which we compulsively exhibit our lives in real time. But, in my travels during the past decade, I have discovered something else which has also become globalized—prejudice. Specifically, prejudice in drawing-room conversations among middle-class people about Muslims. In every city in every country in the world, where Muslims are not in a majority, be it Copenhagen, New York, London, Delhi or Ahmedabad, the conversation over dinner is likely, at some point, to veer to the subject of Muslims. And the dominant view of many people—otherwise affable, educated and liberal—is that Muslims mean trouble, big trouble!

Above all, according to this new globalized ‘common sense’, Muslims are sympathetic to violence. Indeed, they are the most violent people in the world. People admit that not all Muslims actively engage in violent activities, but they insist that all—or almost all—‘within their hearts’ subscribe to bloodshed and revenge. They are convinced that most Muslims are fundamentalist by socialization and teaching. Their religion teaches violence. It is ferociously intolerant and hostile to every other faith. It is also regressive, and subjugates women behind veils and encourages families to breed large populations to ultimately submerge the peaceable communities in which they live.

These ‘global’ conversations not only make such sweeping, profoundly unjust and false generalizations, they also homogenize a vast segment of humanity, failing to recognize enormous differences of gender, class, nationality, language and ethnicity among Muslim people in every country and on the planet. Even an otherwise liberal Barack Obama reaches out to address what he describes un- problematically as the ‘Muslim world’, this fictionalized homogenized entity which is believed to think and act in unison, and mostly in ways which are dangerous for the rest of the world.

It is for this reason that if I was writing a history of the new India of today, I would regard its second defining feature, apart from the exile of the poor from the conscience of people of privilege, to be the legitimization of prejudice among the middle classes. This display of open bigotry in many ways would have been unthinkable during my childhood and youth. In another dramatic overturning of long-held collective beliefs, just like ‘greed is good’, it is as though, now, ‘prejudice is fine’. After Narendra Modi’s election in May 2014 to India’s prime ministerial office, a friend wrote to me, ‘I thought up to now that the middle class felt entitled to aspiration, learning from diasporic fantasies. But what I did not know was how there is a sense of entitlement about Hindutva. I find that chilling.’


There are many targets of the new unapologetic and vocal chauvinism of urban, middle-class people in India today, and these are not just Muslims—slum residents, migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, domestic helps, the undifferentiated underclass in general, ‘reservation- wallah’ upstart Dalit officers and leaders, people from ethnically diverse parts of India like the Northeast and Africans residing in India, are some of their easiest marks.

I have watched the shallow cosmopolitan veneer of India’s capital city, Delhi, where I live, mouldering and peeling, and reveal an ugly, chauvinist, majoritarian population uneasy with difference. Young people from distant corners of the country—and, indeed, from far countries of the world—converge on the metropolis to study and find work. But they have to soon learn to live with suspicion, hostility, condescension and stereotyping as a way of life in this unwelcoming city of opportunities.

On a cold winter night in mid-January 2014, a minister in the Delhi government, Somnath Bharti, led a group of citizens into the houses of African women in Khirki Extension, a crowded, inexpensive settlement in south Delhi, claiming that they were peddling drugs and running a prostitution racket. The women were manhandled, searched and humiliated. Brenda Semakula, a twenty-six-year-old Ugandan hairstylist speaking to Aditi Malhotra of the Wall Street Journal, said heartbreakingly, ‘I feel like we are not liked in this country.’

The bullying of the African women and the police by the minister won him a great deal of support, feeding into racist stereotypes of drug-using and sex-selling immigrant Africans. It is little wonder that a disturbing study by two Swedish economists on racial tolerance in countries around the globe—in which they asked respondents if they would be willing to live with a neighbour who is racially different from them—found India the second-most racially intolerant among the eighty countries they surveyed. The cosmopolitan veneer of the capital cracked one more time on 29 January 2014 after the murder of Nido Taniam, a young first- year graduate student from Arunachal Pradesh, by men in a Lajpat Nagar marketplace who were taunting him for his appearance and hairstyle. This tore open, like a festering wound, the long-suppressed, collective anguish of young people from Northeast India. They staged angry demonstrations before police stations and at Jantar Mantar, speaking out about rampant sexual harassment and violence faced by young women from the Northeast, random hate-fuelled violence against Northeastern young men, barbs by classmates, work colleagues, landlords and strangers, and bias in police stations, classrooms and, surprisingly, hospitals. The cold, uncomfortable word they used to describe the discrimination that they routinely face was ‘racism’.

Their grief mounted further when a fourteen-year-old Manipuri girl working as a domestic help was raped in Munirka in south Delhi as she was returning from a medical store. The rapist, her landlord’s son, was photographed by some private closed-circuit cameras as he cruelly dragged her along, and led to his arrest. But we soon discovered to our dismay that Munirka has a khap panchayat which met along with members of the local Residents’ Welfare Association and, instead of condemning the rape perpetrated by a young man of their community and finding ways to make the colony safer for women, decided to evict tenants from the Northeast. Their resolution was reportedly to clean up the colony by throwing out from it the Northeastern ‘trash’—the word used was ‘gandagi’. The hurt and anger of the Northeastern residents of Delhi were doused by diplomatic interventions by the local police, who organized meetings between residents who come from the Northeast, members of the khap panchayat, and the Residents’ Welfare Association, who finally agreed to not evict peaceful and law-abiding Northeastern tenants. But the fear remained that there would be a low-key ‘cleansing’ of the area in the way that Khirki Extension was cleared of most of its African residents just months after the racist attacks visited upon them by vigilante residents led by the minister.

The anguish of migrants to the city from India’s Northeast is firstly about the stereotyping to which they are subject. All women from the Northeast are believed to be sexually promiscuous. All men are believed to be drug users and hard drinkers. In Munirka, it was claimed that young men from the Northeast indulge in regular, boisterous, heavy drinking, and use drugs. It is as though people from other communities, including the local Gujjar and Jat youth, do not drink or abuse drugs. Leading newspapers and TV news channels thought nothing of prominently carrying speculative news reports after Nido Taniam’s killing (subsequently proved false) that he may have died not because of assaults fuelled by hate, but the overuse of drugs.

Young people from India’s Northeast also feel wounded by the routine ignorance of mainland Indians about the area, and how they are not regarded as Indians. Classmates and colleagues do not take the trouble to learn and pronounce their names correctly; some assume they are Chinese or Nepali, sometimes actually asking if they need passports to ‘visit India’. Meitei Vaishnavite Hindus from Manipur dream of the day when they can make a pilgrimage to Brindaban in Mathura, but the priests there often bar their entry into the temple, dubbing them ‘malaich’ or unclean foreigners. Textbooks very rarely carry the histories of the Northeastern states. A teacher in a south Delhi college asked how many students had heard of Rani Lakshmibai, and every hand went up. When she asked how many had heard of Rani Gaidinliu, the Naga heroine of India’s freedom struggle, hardly any student responded.

People also bunch all eight states from the Northeast into one, ignoring the enormous linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious diversity within these states. Arunachal Pradesh alone is home to 150 tribes and more languages than any other state in the country. Yet for mainland Indians, all Northeastern residents are just ‘chinkies’. What is long overdue is for all textbooks to include the histories and cultures of the various states in India’s Northeast, underlining their contributions to India’s rich diversity.

The country’s many minorities—religious, ethnic, caste, disabled and sexual, even single women—require a comprehensive anti- discrimination law, one of the many unfulfilled promises of the UPA government which went out of power in 2014. But more importantly, residents of Delhi need to reflect on ways that this city, which welcomed millions of refugees during India’s Partition a few generations ago, should now learn to welcome with friendship and open hearts other peoples from India and the world who come with their dreams to this city and make it their own.


There is not a great deal which daunts me but, more than almost anything else, the one thing which still drives me to anxiety is the prospect of spending an evening with people of my social class— with the extended family, associates of my parents and parents-in- law, friends from boarding school, and former colleagues from the civil service. Because of my decision to leave the Indian Administrative Service after the carnage of 2002 in Gujarat, and my articulated, public positions on secularism and the rights of minorities and the poor, I find that my presence in these gatherings almost invariably spurs discussions around both Muslims and the poor, and the tenor of these conversations is rarely friendly. I try to respond in measured ways; I tell myself that I should be willing to listen and engage, but I find the arguments so rooted in prejudice that reasonable debate becomes impossible. I sometimes find myself unreasonably angry and defensive.

These social schisms went so deep and were so dramatic that, autobiographically, my life falls into two phases, one before and one after 2002. After my public denouncement of the communal carnage of 2002, I lost close to three quarters of my friends and associates of my life before 2002—childhood friends from school and college and from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and some members of the extended family who knew me from my boyhood. So many of them simply cancelled me out of their lives; presumably, they were aggrieved by my public life-choice of joining the ‘wrong’ side. The personal became political, but in an inverse way from that advocated by feminists. So many segments of India’s middle class felt so implacably hostile to the Muslim ‘enemy within’ that defectors to the ‘other’ side were no longer tolerable even as friends who are beyond politics, if such a thing is possible. Of course, the vacuum in my life after 2002 was filled by a magnificent new set of friends and comrades, and my loneliness has healed in part and with time. But the result of the general elections of 2014 has spurred a revival of all the old schisms, this time with an even greater sense of triumphalism.

Sometimes I would appeal in these unsociable social gatherings, especially to elders in the extended family—many of who lived through the trauma of Partition and the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage—that they, better than anyone else, should understand what it means to be members of a demonized minority only because of one’s ‘different’ faith. But they were not convinced; I had sided with the enemy.


In 2005, I shifted to Ahmedabad for nearly a year to work more closely with survivors of the carnage because I saw that their conditions and their access to justice had not altered despite all efforts. This became one of the loneliest phases of my life, because bigotry was flaunted even more openly in the middle classes in that claustrophobically fractured and bigoted city. I survived emotionally because of the affectionate comradeship of my colleagues, the aman pathiks and nyaya pathiks, or peace and justice workers, who were mostly working-class survivors of the carnage, or caring working- class women and men from the Gujarati Hindu communities who chose to stand in solidarity with the survivors.

I realized that the other face of the coin of prejudice, in places where it becomes the common currency of social transactions between dominant and minority communities, is fear. There may or may not be open violence, but pervasive discrimination becomes a way of life, as does an invisible dread. In my record of the carnage, Fear and Forgiveness: The Aftermath of Massacre, I have described that however cruel and brutal the violence which unfolded over those terrible weeks and months in 2002 was—local survivors call it the toofan, or storm—what has been immeasurably more terrifying for me is what followed in the years later. Through sustained social and economic boycott, and geographical and social segregation, the Muslim community has been ‘tamed’ into adjusting to new social relations; to get used to fear and social subordination every day; and forced to settle for second-class citizenship. It was a kind of Dalitization of the Muslims. An unspoken message seemed to have been sent out: ‘We will permit you to live here, but your settlements must be separate, the services in your habitats meagre, and we do not want to hear the sound of the azaan or witness signs of your religious or cultural assertion.’ The ordinary markers of identity of Muslims in mixed public places have been erased. In Ahmedabad, I can easily identify any autorickshaw I am travelling in as belonging to a Muslim because it will not carry any of the religious markers which are so ubiquitous in rickshaws anywhere in the country.

I recall a story which filmmaker Saeed Mirza relates about Bombay in 1984. His mother was in hospital when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. The killing resulted in violent reprisals against the Sikh community. Returning from the hospital even as the city was tense, Saeed hailed a taxi and sat in the front seat. He noticed that markers of religion had been recently uprooted from the dashboard. He looked at the taxi driver whose hair was cropped, and asked him if he was Sikh. The old man shook his head vehemently. But Saeed looked more closely at his forehead, and it clearly showed the tell-tale, inverted ‘V’ of lighter skin; proof that until recently, the man wore a turban.

‘I am a friend,’ Saeed said to him gently. ‘Don’t be afraid of me.’ The old man began to weep. He spoke of how frightened he was. ‘What kind of country is this,’ he sobbed, ‘where I am afraid to be myself?’

All Excerpts

Coming soon   /   View all

Connect with us

Join the Speaking Tiger Books mailing list: