Student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
The politics of the body is perhaps the most immediate and intimate form of taming enacted upon the individual. Various forces exert great control over what you do with your body, what your body is allowed to become, and how your body is imagined. In light of this, it is crucial that we take note of the fading distinction between biology and culture. Culture studies how the individual interacts and relates with his or her surroundings. The body should not be studied in isolation from it’s environment for environmental conditions exercise significant control over the development of the body and how the body is perceived; from height differences, body hair growth, skin color to even a probability of developing an eating disorder and much more. Racism is strongly concerned with the politics of the body and yet is mostly looked at and understood through the framework of biology. It is not enough to denounce race as a social construct that has no basis in biology. We must take a step further to ask what is a social construct and recognize the scope for understanding biology as a dynamic component of this social construct. We must acknowledge the difference in bodies and locate this difference in the wider conceptual framework of culture.
There is an undeniable, deep-rooted fetish for a fair complexion lingering around in parts of the Indian society. This obsession pleads a strong allegiance to bramhanical ideology designed upon a perceived intuition of purity and impurity. I remember a professor wryly commenting that a fair complexion almost serves as a certificate of good morality and a heightened sense of hygiene out here. The disturbing, strange combination of bramhanism, capitalism, and patriarchy can be observed in most beauty product advertisements, Hindi films, and well, every Indian television show ever. A dark complexioned woman is unthinkable. God forbid, if we do come across such a protagonist, how will she get married? Going by the cheerful matrimonial advertisements glaring at us in the newspaper every day, I feel quite concerned about the prospects of indecent, un-fair complexioned women. Perhaps, the most amusing advertisement that comes to mind is Fair & Lovely’s: “Equal-Equal”. A young woman, unwilling to get married at an early stage in her career has an inspiring epiphany when her friend hands her a tube of a beauty product that will help her look fairer. Because you deserve empowerment, with your Fair & Lovely face!
And it is crucial to draw the link between brahmanical morality and racism for fair skin plays an integral role in the imagination of a pure Brahmin body. The description of the horrific attack on the Tanzanian woman who was raped and paraded sends shivers down one’s spine. Yet, what was more daunting was the manner in which the bystanders reacted to the situation taking place before their eyes. Needless to say, an attack on the “impure” dark complexioned body does not evoke significant outrage. And when it does, it is because such attacks are embarrassing for the nation, and not because they are representative of an ideology that vehemently encourages one to view particular bodies as lesser human beings.
The Bhaiyas and Biharis of metropolitan cities are more often than not viewed as illiterate, unhygienic, and “cheap” individuals who have come to take away the jobs of hard working, deserving citizens. To be called a ‘Bihari’ is akin to be insulted in many parts of the country. Over the years, there has been a mass migration from parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to bigger cities for better economic opportunities. The economic conflict between migrant workers and domestic workers takes place along a split labor market. Due to their economic vulnerability, migrants have a tendency to accept lesser wages for jobs thus creating the necessary conditions for a split labor market. In this context, the market has been split along ethnic lines between the superior Maharashtrians and the stupid, immoral Bhaiyas and Biharis. Economic conflict has taken the appearance of ethnic conflict. It is interesting to note that migrants, almost universally, are looked at with an eye of great suspicion and disapproval. From Trump wishing to build a wall to stop Mexicans from entering to UKIP’s parochial campaigning about how Britain is tired of globalization and the EU, the narrative concerning migrant workers follows a pattern of similar tropes. The curious difference being that in India, the aggressiveness against migrant workers is unleashed upon not citizens of other countries but of economically backward states. Yet, one rarely sees the rickshaw-burning Shiva Sena’s nationalism being questioned.
The stereotypical imagination of India as nation finds expression in cricket and Bollywood. “All of India” identifies with the glamorous nepotism of the Hindi film industry and the Indian cricket team which has come to serve as a proxy for the Indian army. Unsurprisingly enough, the North-east is absent from both the domains that exercise monopoly-like power on designing the “Indian” identity. Stereotypes are important, for they possess ideological power. Individuals who don’t fit into the mainstream are constantly asked to reaffirm their patriotism. Small eyes and an inability to speak Hindi disallow the conventional images from accommodating citizens of the North East. They are either deemed to be citizens of China, or worse, dangerous naxalites trying to overthrow the Indian state. The conflict ridden North East contains “valuable”, “scarce” resources that the state is trying to sell off to multinational corporations for the development of the nation of course. This devious reluctance to accommodate the North East has horrific consequences. For how many Indian citizens could be lynched for having an unusual hair cut?
It is unnerving to think about inequality, to say the least. And, it is important to realize that how we think about inequality is inevitably a function of our position in the hierarchy. For, how society reacts to an individual is rooted in the individual’s social location. It has been observed that the racist narrative works very well for market forces at various junctures in history. Any entity in a position of power does all it can to sustain itself and racism can serve as an effective mechanism to hoard privilege. Perhaps, we only observe the same in India: from an ethnically split labor market to the mainstream imagination of the “Indian” identity and it’s inherent casteist, bramhanical character.