Anti-racism protests erupted across the world since 25 May. These were solidarity actions against the brutal murder of 46-year-old black man, George Floyd in Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA. Thousands of people stepped on to streets in all continents shouting slogans and carrying placards. Surprisingly, there was no noise here, faint or loud, against such a barbaric act. The deafening silence of political class as well as civil society in India merits some scrutiny.
Why did people march on the streets in thousands with their masks on, defying physical distancing during this deadly pandemic? The incident of 25th May was too heart-wrenching for people to remain unmoved. The blood-chilling words that shook the conscience of people across the world and stirred them to protest are worth-recalling here to comprehend the depravity, insanity and barbarity involved in the crime.
As the white police officer pinned down George Floyd to the pavement with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, Floyd said, ‘please, please, I cannot breathe’. The officer, in the height of cruelty, tells Floyd to ‘relax’. Floyd pleads, ‘I can’t breathe, please, the knee on my neck’. The officer continued to hold him down with his knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to be precise; as Floyd begged for water. Floyd cried, “My stomach hurts, my neck hurts, please, please, I can’t breathe”. After a while, Floyd lay motionless under the officer’s knee. The passers-by watching the incident were heard pleading with the policemen to move off Floyd.
The dying, crying and pleading words of Floyd moved people out of their isolation and social distancing on to the streets in protest against this gruesome incident. The placards and festoons read ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘I can’t breathe’, ‘Justice for Floyd’. The crowds surged spontaneously as they had experienced similar cruelties on black people, and minorities in their countries. The people could relate those incidents in their respective countries to that of Floyd.
For instance, in Australia, the protesters compared the murder of Floyd with the death Dunghutti man David Dungay in 2015. He died in the Long Bay prison in the hands of prison guards restraining him. Dungay’s final words, “I can’t breathe” echoed in the demonstration and blended with Floyd’s last words. In Palestine, an autistic unarmed person was gunned down. Protestors conflated the local crime with Floyd’s death. ‘Enough is Enough’ was another slogan that drew people en masse to the streets.
There are two issues to be examined and addressed by peace-loving, justice and equality- oriented people across the world. One, the extreme prejudice, hatred and violence against ‘the other’ in any country; second is co-creating mechanisms for proscribing misperception of legitimacy of majoritarianism, and undermining of minorities. This social misperception is exacerbated by the opportunistic populist politics pandering to majorities in the democratic game of number. Such political leadership and trends may fetch electoral dividends in the short term but will have deleterious effects on a society in the long run
The white majority in America will do well to remember the profound statement made by a pastor and author in their country, Richard Warner, “a lie does not become truth, wrong does not become right, and evil does not become good, just because it is accepted by the majority”. Majority is one of several mechanisms of taking a decision in a democracy including in elections. It does not legitimise or sanctify any action or reaction. If this basic principle is lost on people, it will lead to denial of rights and justice to many, the so-called minority.
This is precisely what is happening in the world. Blacks in the West are in minority and they are ‘the other’. They were brought to the United States as slaves. So, they are supposed to be inferior to the white majority. Not only at home, in their colonial exploits abroad, the German kultur or America’s Whiteman’s burden, urged by the poet Rudyard Kipling lent a civilising-mission for colonial invasions and post-colonial interventions.
The process of otherising certain segments of society takes various forms from country to country. Blacks in America, Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, indigenous people in Australia, religious minorities in Asian countries, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, are victims of ‘otherisation’. Their conditions become far worse when the political elite, mainly the right-wing populists wheedle the so-called majority for electoral gains. The majority then feels legitimised in unleashing injustices and violence against the minorities.
If electoral majority is not turned into social domination over the minorities, we will have greater social harmony. The electoral majority should be constructed in each election on political issues, not on sameness of ascriptive identities like race, religion, caste and ethnicity. Society should be constructed on the principle of pluralism, which comprises and compliments diversities, and encourages the spirit of accommodation.
Why was there no noise from India as a part of solidarity to the protests in USA and elsewhere? There is more than one reason for such silence. India is facing multiple challenges at present. First, the corona pandemic that is causing social and economic disruptions and terrible health consequences. Second, the cyclones affecting states like Odisha, West Bengal and Maharashtra. Third, the Chinese incursions into Indian territories. Fourth, the unabated terrorist acts in Kashmir continue to engage India’s military and para-military force, and occupy the political leadership. Fifth, which is the ruling party’s grand electoral strategy, is the consolidation of majority through a couple of Acts recently passed. This is holding back the support for minorities elsewhere.
Just before the pandemic, the anti-CAA protests were snowballing across the country. The protesters were seen to be supporters of Muslim minorities and supported by the Opposition parties, most of them. Any protest that could be organisd had to be done by the Opposition. With the economy crippled at both micro and national level, opposition fragmented, the lock-down gradually lifting, the virus prowling and attacking all over in the densest country of the world, a solidarity protest becomes an untenable proposition.
On the other hand, the ruling-BJP in India is supportive of the present US Administration led by Donald Trump. So, any protest by the ruling party here, even in the name of justice is unlikely.
It is, however, a sad commentary on an India, that not only philosophically prides in upholding dignity, social justice and equality, but has demonstrated in 70-odd years of it existence that it can stand by these principles. Why then is this silence when the entire world is raging against this cruelty in USA? It is time to introspect as a Nation!