As the world watches the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, it is a reminder that humanity hasn’t woken up to the fact that “We are all born equal”. It is not only in the United States but in every nook and corner of the world there exists a virus more dangerous than SARS-CoV-2 – racism. May be not in the open but silently or deceptively in the minds of many.
The policy of racial superiority is not only influential in today’s political discourses but detrimental to communities, societies and nations worldwide. It caused the two World Wars and wrecked humanity as a whole. Nations recovered and the world limped back to normal within a few years but the devastation caused by the wars is still a lesson not learned nor did it lead to reconciliation between the different races that inhabit our planet.
Racism was the propelling force of imperialist governments and monarchies in the beginning of the 20th century in Europe, which created military alliances and plunged the world into a war of unimaginable proportions, displacement of people, economic deprivation, and more importantly seeded vengeance in the minds of many, one of them being Adolf Hitler.
The Allied nations realised later that the soldier named Hitler, who was temporarily blinded in the Second Battle of Ypres and who broke down when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, did not forget but fought on the notion that the Aryan race would reign supreme. The Hitler blitzkrieg in the battlefields and Auschwitz could have been avoided if he was taught the importance of equality and empathy when he was young or mature enough to understand. His ideals of racial superiority led to the extermination of 6 million Jews, mostly his countrymen, who had progressively contributed to the German economy and state.
Renowned poet Rudyard Kipling’s poem If has a beautiful line that goes: “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch”. The Earth is a pristine creation of the Almighty but the temporary tenants of the planet, which includes all of us, need to realise and assimilate the fact that Equality is a virtue and Racism isn’t. Unfortunately, Kipling was one among the many who endorsed racial superiority and considered the conquest of Afro-Asian countries a White man’s burden.
The Afro-Asian freedom struggles and freedom movements were the direct consequence of racist regimes that exploited and exterminated indigenous tribes, cultures and natural wealth. The trade imbalances by the colonising nations wreaked havoc on the colonised nations but created billionaires in England like Robert Clive, and left the farmers, artisans and craftsmen in India famished, vanquished and obliterated.
A century of racist colonial misdeeds is behind us and previous generations took up arms in protest in some countries, but millions in India embraced non-violence under Gandhi who took on the mightiest empire on earth – Great Britain. As I write this piece, a notification on my screen says that the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol has been toppled and thrown into a river. Colston was a slave trader, his misdeeds caused much pain and agony, which the slaves had to endure simply because of their ethnicity and colour.
Statues are living examples of history that cannot be forgotten or forgiven, but remind the multitudes who walk by of the greatness or importance attached to the personality, living or dead. The call for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes in the University of Cape Town in South Africa has evoked mixed emotions. On one side the Rhodes Scholarships recipients include dynamic leaders like former President Bill Clinton, but on the other hand, Rhodes was the one who tried to overthrow Paul Kruger, the Afrikaner President of the Transvaal province causing the Second Boer War, built a diamond empire by mining diamonds from the African mainland, and raised the financial limits for voting qualifications intentionally to deny voting rights to the Black Africans in South Africa. His policies were in accordance with his belief and conviction that the English man should dominate and rule the world: “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit it is for the human race”.
South Africa, the rainbow nation, offers a landscape of contrasts and a kaleidoscope of many cultural entities. It is one nation that has stood the test of times through centuries of neglect, autocratic rule and Apartheid. Through the 27 years in three different prisons (Robben Island, Pollsmoor and Victor Verster), Nelson Mandela led from behind bars uniting people across the seas and distant lands reminding the world that Justice is Justice no matter the colour of your skin.
It can be easily misconstrued or misunderstood that racism is just between the blacks and white people, but it exists in many structures – boardrooms, private conversations, deceptively or diplomatically in public debates, and most dangerously in the minds that grow, in the thoughts of those who govern, in the vote banks of the politicians and unfortunately in our hearts.
Robert Mugabe was hailed as a hero for changing the destiny of Mozambique, but it turned into a banana republic with economic deprivation and hyperinflation. A person who took on the British, transitioned a colonised nation into an independent one but misruled, mismanaged and bankrupted his country and countrymen. If he is credited with ending the racist policy of the white minority, he left a legacy of violence and political misdeeds as a black supremacist.
It was Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat for a white American and set in motion ‘The Montgomery Bus Boycott’. And decades earlier, it was a lawyer who was thrown out of a first class train compartment in South Africa’s Pietermaritzburg in spite of having a legitimate ticket. The lawyer was Mahatma Gandhi, whose birthday is celebrated today as the International Day of Non-Violence by the United Nations. Both incidents were a result of the racist theories ingrained or indoctrinated in the minds of young men and women for years, which sparked off movements for racial equality and social justice. Gandhi’s struggle and his indomitable spirit withstood years of oppression, brought men and women to the streets as part of the Civil Disobedience Movements in South Africa and India. Rosa Parks became an iconic figure among her countrymen representing freedom and equality.
Being the largest democracy in the world, Indians above the age of 18 exercise their universal adult franchise in choosing their representatives to the local bodies, state assemblies and the Union Parliament, but still the existence and prevalence of the nomenclature called OBCs (Other Backward Castes) is and was racist in thinking and action. One of the cardinal principles of Satyagrahis under Gandhi was to work towards the abolition of untouchability, which was not just a racist practice but unethical and inhuman. It is also interesting to note that many leaders of India emerged from the humblest of backgrounds, such as former Indian Presidents Dr S Radhakrishnan, KR Narayan, and former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri.
The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC reverberates forever with the resounding cries of “We shall overcome” and “I have a dream” and the aspirations of the black man who, according to Martin Luther King, lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity.
A classroom today in any school around the world is a mirror of multiculturalism that can promote open-mindedness and internationalism in order to create opportunities for better understanding among the younger generation to see things in the right perspective and analyse historical events rationally and objectively rather from the nationalistic or ethnic point of view, though that also is important to build up a consensus to arrive at a sensible, sensitive positive conclusion. We need to celebrate our differences to build a world of equality, opportunity and justice.
This might remain a distant dream but the world can become a better place to live rather than a hell for those who cannot afford one square meal a day. Or the 25.9 million amongst us who are refugees, in addition to the 70.8 million forcefully displaced for no fault of theirs but due to the narrow parochial racial and unjust policies of authoritarian states in the garb of democracy, which benefits the few oligarchs and land sharks in governmental authority or the citadels of power. Legislations can remain just on paper if the governmental machinery is weak in implementing policies that can bring about economic and social equality without any racial bias or religious discrimination.
The colours of a rainbow are distinct, unique and above all different and that’s why its beauty is radiant, vibrant and appealing to each eye. Similarly, each colour of a flag represents an attribute or reflects a piece of history that is an integral part of a nation. The tricolour of India embodies courage, sacrifice and progress, the blue, white and red of the French tricolour represents Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, around the blue and yellow of the Brazilian flag is written Ordem e Progresso, meaning Order and Progress. So if our earth were to have a flag, it couldn’t have one colour but all the visible colours of human races to say “Unity in Diversity”.