Sunday, November 1, 2015

"A Small Matter of Life" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (1 November 2015)

On 20 October, two children in Faridabad, outside Delhi, lost their lives in a fire. Two days earlier, a man whose car broke down in Palm Beach County, Florida, was fired at by a policeman, and was killed. The children were Dalit and the man from Florida was black. In mentioning these two incidents, from either side of the planet, it is to draw attention to the on-going violence against minority communities in India and the United States. 

The Black Lives Matter movement in America has highlighted the recent spate of police-related deaths in the country, the victims of which have been African American. In such incidents, the impunity with which police violence has been dealt with by the judicial system, reveals institutionalized bias against minorities, and those who are black, in particular. This was demonstrated most emblematically in the outcomes of the separate cases involving the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The New York policeman who placed Garner in a chokehold in July 2014, causing his death, was acquitted in December that same year. A month earlier, the policeman who in August 2014 shot and killed Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, had similarly been found not liable

In the recent event cited above, where Floridian Corey Jones was awaiting a tow-truck because his car had broken down, the police claimed that he had been confrontational. While it was true that Jones did have a gun, it later became apparent that he had not fired it. Nevertheless, Jones was shot and killed. Consider, too, that several white Americans with guns have perpetrated mass killings in recent years, and that such occurrences are generally not analysed by the media as acts of racism or terrorism. Even when Dylann Roof shot and killed nine congregants at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina in June this year, the white shooter was treated humanely during his arrest. 

In comparing the police treatment of black people in the States to that of Dalits and other minorities in India, it is rather striking that Jitender Kumar, the father of Vaibhav and Divya, the two children who lost their lives in the Faridabad fire, claimed police negligence following an incident involving members of the Rajput community. As The Hindu (29 October, 2015) reports, “The attack on the Dalit family is being linked to the murder of three members of the Rajput community on October 5 last year. Twelve members of Jitender’s family were named in that case and they are currently in jail”. The article continues to say that “Jitender’s family was threatened with dire consequences if it did not leave the village” and that though “given police security”, the father of the slain children “accused the local police of not taking any action on his complaint”. 

With alarmingly frequency now, one hears of incidents that take place in India where Muslims are targeted based on mere suspicion of flouting the law or custom. Take the September lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh, who had been fatally set upon by a mob for supposedly eating beef despite a state ban against its consumption. Or the more recent incident involving a Muslim barber in Karnataka who refused to shut his practice on a Tuesday, thereby hurting the sentiments of the local Hindu community who do not cut their hair on that day of the week, as reported by the Hindustan Times (28 October, 2015). The barber’s refusal to close shop led to a riot. 
To say that such reactions as a lynching and a riot are extreme detracts attention from the larger issue at hand. In a purportedly secular democracy, how is it that the sentiments, customs, and traditions of the upper caste have come to represent an unquestioned moral hegemony, where said powerful group acts like an affronted minority? To the extent that such moral policing is both enshrined in law and backed by state-surveillance, if not a lynch-mob that can run amok with no legal consequences, speaks to the precarity of rights available to religious and other minorities in the contemporary Indian nation-state. The same can be said of the United States, where even making a clock can lead to the detention of a Muslim youth. This was the case last month when teenager Ahmed Mohamed was suspected of being a bomb-maker because he put together a timepiece at home and brought it to his school in Texas.

In the United States and India, then, both democracies, one is led to wonder about such highly held concepts as equality and the value placed on life where those very concepts seem so fickle.

From The Goan.

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