ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

On 'Difference': Delhi

I have been watching, with an increasing sense of anger, disbelief, and dismay at the unfolding story of the recent violence against Africans living in Khirki, an urban village in Saket, in Delhi. I have read, and re-read, some of the reports, aghast not merely at the extent of ugly violence (spitting on, and stoning people) but by the fact that a newly elected law minister (Somnath Bharti) led this lynching. Even more horrifying is the fact that the new Chief Minister of the state, Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the ‘common man’, has endorsed his minister’s actions in no uncertain terms.  If state sponsored lynching, and intolerance of difference, is going to be the order of the day I shudder to think where we are headed.

Yesterday as I sat seething in freezing Cologne, agitatedly discussing this with others online, a Malayali friend sent me a link to Kumar Vishvas’s (member of the National Executive of the Aam Aadmi Party) supposedly “humorous” video on ‘Keral ki kaali-peeli nurses’ [‘the black-yellow nurses of Kerala]. The few minutes on the YouTube video expresses Vishvas’s relief that their sexier northern counterparts had replaced the anxiety producing black nurses from Kerala. And so on and on goes this sexist ‘comedy’ act, which casts aspersions on ‘blackness’, Malayalis, and women alike. Furious though it made me, what struck me is how reminiscent it was of my years of growing up in Delhi in the 1960s and ‘70s. The instant access, and power of circulation of electronic media sometimes magnifies the impact of what one sees and reads these days. Yet the memory of racialised slurs that one routinely heard (kaali kalooti being the choicest of the lot); southern languages caricatured (you all say ‘endra pondra’ don’t you); and hilarity at the strange food habits of the ‘the south’ (all Madraasis eat ‘idli-dosa-sambar’, don’t they) is still quite fresh in my mind. As also the reactive contempt I felt, over time, towards those, known universally to most from the southern states as “Hindikkar” (the Hindi wallahs ) at whose hands one suffered such ignominy.

In the early 1980s, when I was ready to start university life, my immediate next-door neighbours, and now friends for more than three decades, were from Nagaland.  And soon after that in my university years I had friends from Assam, Nagaland and Mizoram. And it was then that I began to realise the intense hostility that the ‘Hindikkar’ had towards people from the North Eastern states. The ‘black’ Madraasis were but a mere pushover, easily cowed down by vicious abuse that masqueraded as humour; but they could be pushed around, and for the most part they made compliant tenants. In Jan Sanghi Delhi, that is what mattered the most. The North East was a different ball game altogether. The abuse against “Chinkees” (as they are routinely referred to, even today) while reproducing the usual ignorant, and ridiculous, stereotypes about food and language, was also about typecasting that isn’t at all dissimilar from that of the African people in south Delhi. Everyone was immoral -  the women “loose”, and therefore available; the men, drug addicts. The increased violence in Delhi against young women from the North Eastern states is something that has received some media attention, thanks mainly to the protests organised by university students in the city. Yet what hasn’t ever been addressed in any of the political discussions that I know of is the manner in which ‘regions’ are produced, ‘othered’, and vilified. In a national capital, with large numbers of people from different parts of the country, cutting across class, caste and religious difference, this political silence is appalling. As much as it is telling.  So much so that even on campuses like Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), in meetings organised by radical students’ groups, the continuous demand is “Hindi mein bolo” (speak in Hindi). This, notwithstanding the fact, that the campus has substantial numbers of students from such diverse linguistic regions as Kerala, Bengal, Kashmir, Andhra, Assam, Mizoram or Tamilnadu, to name just a few. Hindi’s linguistic imperialism, cutting across political difference in Delhi, is to my mind just a small, though frightening, sign of populist politics. What is alarming is how natural this demand is made to seem.

Intolerance, and fear of difference, is at the heart of most forms of violence. The utterly reprehensible attack on Africans, and other foreigners, in Delhi speaks volumes about Indian xenophobia and racism.  Yet this is also the time to actively engage, and counter, the long history of violence and othering, based on differences of language and region in India, that has accompanied the birth of the ‘Nation’.  In a decisive election year when the Hindu right will play up precisely these kinds of differences, it is extremely urgent to remain vigilant against populism and its proto fascist tendencies. 

About Author

G. Arunima ( is a historian by training, and teaches at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has researched and written on different areas of social and cultural history, including family and kinship; aesthetics and visuality; and more recently religion and faith practices.
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