Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Australian race attacks

This post is primarily concerning the media reaction to these hate-crime incidents in Australia.
The English media takes a theme and then runs after it like a pack of hounds without adding ANY insight into what is going on. Then some get tired of it, turn tail and start blaming ourselves.
This happened with the attacks in Australia.
I noticed two kinds of reactions - along the following lines:
1. Many people who had actually been in Australia started offering advice on how Indians should learn better English, have more white friends and not just have Indian friends and so on.
2. Then some started saying that Indians were racists too. Outlook ran an article titled "Aren't we racists too?". So, the "blame ourselves" phase had started.

Let us address each of these arguments:

Indians do not mingle well
Rediff solicited advice for escaping such attacks. Naturally, you would expect that you will get advice on avoiding some neighborhoods. One person suggested that you pull the door handles of all the cars parked in the road. Because the cars have theft alarms, they will raise a racket and you can run off safely. That is sound advice.
Instead many spent their time advicing that Indians should have white friends; that they only have Indian friends. That they have language issues. One frequent comment was that Indians spoke in Indian languages in public places.
In other words, Indians behaved normally like any other minority - and that is apparently a crime.
The reason such comments come up is because people fail to distinguish between actual crimes and what are, at worst, cultural transgressions. If Australians cannot tolerate people talking in different languages in public places, then the problem is with them - not with Indians. In these situations, some blame "ourselves" mainly because they think we somehow owe a lot to Australians for "letting" us into their precious country.
There is also a class issue here. Some of us do not like the "trash" that make it abroad. We want sophisticated English-speaking, "cool" upper class guys to "represent" India abroad. When we see ordinary people who struggle with English actually travelling with us in flights! Oh, the horror of it! How dare they!

Aren't we racists too?
So, then Outlook had this entire, confusing feature article on how Indians are racists too. I call it confused because most of the time they were talking about the Indian preference for fairness. How is that linked to race? I don't know.
What they WANTED to refer to was discrimination, not racism. It is nobody's argument that India is somehow a country with zero discrimination. In fact we have the ubiquitous caste system.
But these have nothing to do with the Australian race attacks. Why? Because we are talking about the distinction between hate CRIMES and hate speech or discrimination.

When we talk about an issue, we can discuss if it is correct or wrong using three levels:
1. Moral - if by commonly accepted logic, we can decide that an issue is right or wrong.
2. Ethical - if by ethical guidelines of a profession and individual behavior we can judge correct behavior.
3. Legal - if by the law of the land an issue is right or wrong.
Legal definitions are the narrowest and violations of legal standards are worst. This is because legal standards are the most objective and can be "judged" easily.

For example, take the case of adultery. It is held to be morally wrong in most societies. But it is not a crime by law. You cannot prosecute someone for adultery. This is because it is a matter of individual choice.
Recently two news organizations in North India "staged" a burning of Dhoni's effigy after the T20 World Cup loss. Then they filmed it and telecast it as if it were news. This is an ethical violation, but not a legal violation.
The issue of discrimination is similar. While some discrimination is punishable by law, Indians' preference for fairness is a MORAL issue. It is not a legal issue. There is no law that CAN govern a society's collective preferences. It can only be managed through education.
But the Australian attacks on Indians made it a LEGAL issue. By the Australian governing laws themselves, hate speech is different from hate crimes. Most hate speech in developed countries is protected by Freedom of Speech covenants. (Not so in India, but that is for later).
The reason why we are shocked by these attacks is not because Australians harbor racism in their minds or speech. It is because a few criminals actually violated common law and violently attacked other individuals. That is a CRIME - we cannot equate that with whatever we THINK about other people.
In Indian media, I see this confusion and blurring of moral vs legal issues happening all the time. When Ramalinga Raju was caught, some commentators thought this was an ethical issue. It was not. It was a legal issue. He violated the law, not some vaguely defined ethical guideline.
In fact we see this blurring lines all the time - with people confusing moral, subjective determinations with legal determinations. A few years back, an young Anglo-Indian woman was attacked and killed by a few guys in Chennai. She was killed while leaving a pub. This was enough for the magazine Kalki to opine that "while on the one hand the guys were wrong, on the other hand, she was wrong in going to a pub". You see what is wrong with this argument? The "one hand" action was a crime, while the "other hand" was at best a moral determination of Kalki editor. You cannot compare a moral violation with a legal violation.
So, in conclusion, you cannot say "we are racists too" as an answer to Australian crimes. We are not angry with Australians for being racists - we are angry because a few of them are actually committing crimes.

Section 295-A and the Indian Law on Hate Speech

I also believe that the Indian law on hate speech is highly restrictive. It should be more liberal and protect free speech. For example, I don't think Varun Gandhi should have been prosecuted for saying vile things on the campaign trail. Adding to this, was the fact that he was booked under the NSA. That made little sense - you cannot punish people under the National Security Act just for SAYING something.
Let us consider the text of Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code:
Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.-- Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 6[ citizens of India], 7[ by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 8[ three years], or with fine, or with both.]

This is very broad. There are other sections which talk about punishing speech against ethnicities.
While Indian law should vigorously punish hate crimes, the above provision has led to harassment of liberal and secular commentators. For example, actress Kushboo was harassed for talking about pre-marital sex (a few years back) and dragged to the court by the above provision.

I believe that caste-based or color-based feelings can only be removed from a system by education on a long-term. Meanwhile, the only choice left to civil society is to prosecute EFFECTS of such discrimination, such as civil suits and criminal suits on attacks.
The least we can do is not to confuse the debate further by comparing actual crimes with vague thoughts we are supposed to feel guilty about.


S m i t h a said...

damn it! section 295-A is a anti-blasphemy law!! i didnt realize India had one already when in the UN some muslim nations were pushing one.
im depressed now :(

S m i t h a said...

i couldn't resist sending u this link ;)

zrb said...

Too late to respond... but...

What a Australian-Indian friend of mine told...

"The Indians who get beat up are generally those who are the really annoying type... playing loud Hindi music on trains and other public transport..."

I asked her... "don't the Australians do the same thing... don't they play Hip-Hop or Bon Jovi"...

I shouldn't have mentioned Bon Jovi... she started getting ideas about my age. :-D

Her reply... "That doesn't mean you have to do the same. I feel annoyed and so does my mom when we see such Indian kids".

She doesn't like whites... won't date whites... resents working under them... yet she wouldn't let Indian origin Australians enjoy the same freedom white Australians enjoy there.

Somehow... if it is Indians, it is showing off... why???