Tarun Vijay, Note Gandhi Was Listed As Black Student Last Year

Published: April 12, 2017 11:28 IST
"If we were racist, why would we have all the entire south - which is complete, you know Tamil, you know Kerala, you know Karnataka and Andhra - why do we live with them? We have blacks, black people around us."
- Tarun Vijay

Tarun Vijay has been rebuked for suggesting that racism does not now and never has existed in India. One of the interesting assumptions of Mr. Vijay's remarks, for which he has since apologized, is that some Indians are black and others are not. He evidently places himself in the non-black category. Mr. Vijay has doubtless been brushing up on the history of race relations in India since the fracas erupted and he will have come to appreciate the irony of his comments, since there was a time not long ago when many Europeans regarded all Indians as black. They used other racial terms as well, but from the early modern period and into the twentieth century, Europeans frequently referred to Indians as blacks, regardless of complexion. Of course, European writers referred to neither Africans nor Indians exclusively as black and also called numerous other peoples black (in the Americas, for example, or the South Pacific). The very fluidity of the term was what enhanced its appeal to the European observer: the opportunity to generalize about the exotic Orient increased if one was prepared to think of the Ottoman, the Arab, and the Indian as different markers on a continuum of darkness.

The legacy of this history continues into the present, often in benign ways. Last year, an exhibition on Black History Month at University College London, which likes to claim Gandhi as an alumnus, included the Mahatma in its list of illustrious black students. Nothing sinister was intended: Gandhi was being celebrated as a distinguished black former student. One wonders what Gandhi himself would have made of the honour. His views on race seemed to evolve over time and to move beyond the thoughts he expressed in South Africa, but I would not wheel him out, as Vijay also does, as a spokesperson for enlightened attitudes to race. Perhaps someone ought to have reminded the organizers of the unfortunate remarks about Africans that he uttered in the early phase of his political career.
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Last year, an exhibition on Black History Month at University College London included Mahatma Gandhi in its list of illustrious black students

Commentators on race may be curious to learn that in the ancient world Greek and Roman authors were sometimes confused about the distinction between Indians and Ethiopians. To Greek writers, "India" and "Ethiopia" did not necessarily refer to the modern countries that we think about today, and "Ethiopia", especially, could refer to any number of areas outside of Greece, including Arabia or South Asia. The geographical uncertainty was accompanied by speculation about the complexions of Ethiopians and Indians. Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE, wrote that Indians were "all black-skinned, like the Ethiopians". He said, "Their semen, too, which they ejaculate into the women, is not white like other men's, but black like their skin, and resembles in this respect that of the Ethiopians." Strabo, in the first century, thought that southern Indians resembled Ethiopians and northern Indians looked like Egyptians. Arrian, the historian of Alexander the Great, said something similar about southern Indians. Already, some two thousand years ago, Greek and Roman writers were comparing East Africans and Indians on the basis of their complexions and exploring the possibility of contact between the two peoples.

Speculation about the race of Indians continued into the early modern period. In the eighteenth century, Edward Ives wrote about the area around Madras, "The natives on this coast are black but of different shades. Both men and women have long shining black hair, which has not the least tendency to wool like that of the Guinea Negroes. You cannot affront them more, than to call them by the name of negroe, as they conceive it implies an idea of slavery." To Ives, the Indians were black, but simply did not wish to called "negroes" because of the imputation of slavery. We cannot say precisely what term Ives is translating into "negroe", but at least in his representation, Indians are not happy to be compared to African slaves. Large numbers of Ethiopians were, incidentally, brought to India as slaves from the fourteenth century onwards. Ethiopian slaves were imported into India during the Mughal period, and numerous Habshi slaves are attested in Gujarat, Bengal, and the Deccan. Dilawar Khan and Malik Ambar are two of the famous examples, and there were scores of others.
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BJP's Tarun Vijay had said, 'If we were racist, would we live with South Indians'

The long-standing confusion between Ethiopia and India, which persisted despite extensive contact between eastern Africa and western India, led to the promulgation of some fantastic theories in the British period. William Jones, the most brilliant Orientalist of his generation, said in the late eighteenth century that Ethiopians and Indians "were peopled or colonized by the same extraordinary race". On the basis of a perceived racial similarity between mountain-dwellers in Bihar and Bengal, on the one hand, and the inhabitants of Abyssinia, on the other, he suggested that Indians and Ethiopians (later he also included Egyptians in this group) were originally one and the same race. Francis Wilford, another British writer, made even more fanciful claims than Jones. Wilford, who retired from the army in 1794, settled in Benares and was married to an Indian woman, Khanum Bibi Sahib. He wrote extensively about ancient migrations between India and African, and no small part of his evidence came from ostensible racial similarities between Indians, Ethiopians, and Egyptians. He also quoted at length from texts that he believed were the Puranas but which were in fact contemporary fabrications. Wilford was the victim of an elaborate hoax played on him by Pandit Vidyananda, who invented verses and passed them off as ancient to the unsuspecting Wilford. Vidyananda must have been a composer of some talent, since on one occasion he composed no fewer than 12,000 new verses and offered them to Wilford as corroboration of his theories.

The history of race and race relations in the British colonial period is complicated, but it teaches us that talking about race in a South Asian context, as indeed in other contexts, is a challenging business. Colonial India was the heir to old prejudices based on caste, religion, and ethnic origin as well as racist discourses and practices from Europe. These prejudices and discourses continue to play an unfortunate role in Indian society today. Ask the ambassadors of 44 African countries who formally complained last week that the Indian government had not taken "sufficient and visible deterring measures" to protect Africans in India and who referred to attacks on Africans as "xenophobic and racial".

Phiroze Vasunia is Professor of Greek at University College London and the author, most recently, of 'The Classics and Colonial India' (Oxford, 2013)

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