The Savage Greed of The Civilized

AAP, moral posturing and ordinary racism

(Excerpts from a report of the anti-racist dharna by Shuddhabrata Sengupta in Kafila)

‘The savage greed of the civilized stripped naked its own unashamed inhumanity’

—Africa, Rabindranath Tagore

Delhi Law Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Somnath Bharti’s midnight raid in Khirki village, during which he ordered policemen to search and enter houses, arrest people without warrants, and allegedly said that “black people, who are not like you and me, break laws”—strips naked the unashamed inhumanity of the Aam Aadmi Party regime’s moral posturing. Underneath the holier-than-thou mask of that moral posture lies the unmistakably horrible sneer of the ordinary racist thug. This is the real face of Somnath Bharti. I hope it is a face that the Aam Aadmi Party can turn itself away from.

When Arvind Kejriwal, makes the mistake of trying to defend Somnath Bharti, denying all charges of racism (just as Narendra Modi denies all charges of communalism) he is exposing himself either as a liar (who knows what racism is but is in denial about it) or as a man of very limited political intelligence (who, like most racists, does not understand what racism is when he is confronted with it). In either circumstance, we cannot trust him, or his party, should they persist in this folly, to be the custodians of our city.

If the Aam Aadmi Party does not take the corruption of racism and misogyny within its ranks seriously, why should we believe that now that it is in power, it will take any other form of corruption seriously?

Had even a small fraction of what happened, (cavity searches, public humiliation, name calling) to a few Africans in Khirki that night happened to a few Indian women elsewhere in the world, we would have heard no end of it on television by now. But racism is racism regardless of whether its object is an Indian or Pakistani student in Melbourne, or an Ugandan or Russian woman in Delhi. In all likelihood, in the event that such incidents were to take place, say in Melbourne, some poker faced Australian politician or official from those countries would have said, on record, that the attacks were not ‘racist’ in nature, exactly as Kejriwal, is doing today in Delhi. The Chief Minister of Delhi was handed an occasion to demonstrate his sensitivity on a platter, but he has, as of now blown that opportunity away, and exactly as on an earlier occasion where he had shown that the lives and opinions of Kashmiri people do not matter to him when weighed against the fetish of national interest, so too this time, he has shown us that when it comes to weighing the interests and machismo of his self-righteous constituency against the safety and security of African women in the city, he would rather be with the ordinary racist (in denial of the explicit and implicit racism of the episode) than stand in solidarity with the ordinary victim of ordinary racism.

So what if some of the African women and the transgendered locals were sex workers? (It does not matter to me whether they were or were not, because I believe that sex workers, like all other kinds of workers, are just as entitled to dignity as anyone else). Does the mere suspicion that some people may be sex workers entitle a group of aam aadmis to manhandle and humiliate them, or anyone else who they think fits the description of what they think is a sex worker way past midnight on the streets. Is the moral fibre of anti-corruption crusaders so fragile as to require strengthening through the enactment of sadistic rituals on the bodies of convenient others? Can it be accidental that such ‘others’ just happen to be racial and sexual minorities?

Perhaps this is what Rabindranath Tagore had in mind when he invoked ‘the savage greed of the civilized’ in his poem ‘Africa’. Now that Africa has been called out in the streets of Delhi, we need to recognize the heart of darkness that lurks within this city. This is the darkness of racial prejudice, that every ‘North Eastern’, Burmese and African inhabitant of Delhi knows well, it is the stain of bigotry that every Afghan or Kashmiri Muslim young man or woman faces when looking for a house to rent, it is the slur, the snide remark, that shadows every trans or queer person. This is the real face of the so called ‘moral code’ that Somnath Bharti and his vigilantes are trying to force down our throats. This is why, unless something is done to prevent it now, AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) will rapidly turn into KHAP (Khas Aadmi Party).

Following the recent regrettable rape of a Danish tourist in Central Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had made a statement that linked sexual crime in the city to drugs and prostitution. As we know well by now, sexual assault takes place everywhere—from the confines of families and in the home, in schools, ashrams, army encampments and during festivals that claim to celebrate debate and intellectual activity. In fact, the statistical incidence of sexual assault within the ordinary middle class Indian family home is far greater than in drug-dens, allegedly run by African emigrants. And if the consumption of drugs can, in certain instances, be factors behind cases of sexual assault, so too can an overdose of traditional family values, organized religion and even (as in the Tehelka episode) the right degree of glamorously liberal angst.

Like all racism, Bharti’s prejudice conceals at its heart, a repressed sexual secret—a shameful projection of anxieties about rape on to the bodies of racial others. Racist lynch mobs in the American South were often motivated by a wave of self-righteous rage about transgressions of sexual boundaries and rumors about rape (of white women by black men). In a curious twist of fate, the lynch mob that Somnath Bharti leads and Arvind Kejriwal endorses seems to seek recompense for the rape of a white and brown woman in Delhi by enacting the humiliation of black women, who have nothing to do with the attacks on any woman, anywhere in the city. If that is not racism, then I do not know what is. It is racism, and it is misogyny. I do not know what can be worse than this combination of prejudices.

Many young people from the arts communities, especially young women who live and/or work in Khirki village, and have to walk through its streets on the way to or from work have always told me that they feel safe in Khirki because of the very public presence of young African women, even late into the night. If some residents of Khirki and Malviya Nagar feel threatened by the African presence in their midst, equally there are some who actually feel reassured and comforted by that very presence. If anything, it is the solidarity that many in Khirki feel with its African inhabitants that is more in keeping with this city’s long history.

Somnath Bharti, has violated a long history that Delhi has of being hospitable to people from all parts of the world. By his actions he has demonstrated that it is not the Africans of Khirki, but he and his gang that do not really belong to the city and its traditions. There were African inhabitants in Delhi as long ago as in the 13th Century, and many of them may well have lived where Khirki village stands today. Razia Sultan, who reigned as Delhi’s queen from 1236 to 1240, and whose citadel was very close to Khirki, is rightly remembered with great fondness as one of the few just and compassionate rulers that this city has had in its long history. Raziya had an African consort, Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut, and she fought to protect the dignity of this man, whom she loved (it is rumored that she loved him and another female companion, both of whom had once been slaves) from the racial and sexual prejudices of her courtiers. In the popular imagination Raziya Sultan lost her throne, and her life, because she did not choose to abandon those she loved, regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation, and that is what marks her out as one of the many heroes and martyrs of Delhi.

A few centuries later, we hear of Sidi Miftah, a Habshi (Abyssinian) noble man also known as Habsh (Dark) Khan in the service of Shahjahan, who later in life turned into a majzoob, (a passionate Sufi mystic) and whose memory is immortalized in the Phatak Habsh Khan, situated near Tilak Bazar, Fatehpuri, in the old city. There is even a Siddiyon Ka Masjid (an African mosque) near Filmistan Cinema, just off Karol Bagh. All of these facts are traces of the long African history of Delhi and if we have to find a ethical anchor for this city’s life, which has to be based on inclusivity, hospitality, cosmopolitanism and openness, I would much rather that we find it in the parable of Raziya Sultan’s love for an African man and in the passion of Sidi Miftah than in the moral cancer of Somnath Bharti’s xenophobic and sexist vigilantism.

Thankfully, many people in Delhi have a better sense of its traditions and history of hospitality than Somnath Bharti and his gang. Several young people, artists, performers, teachers, student activists of AISA from JNU, Delhi University and Jamia Millia Islamia, and women active with the AIPWA and other organizations and individuals came together at Jantar Mantar to protest against the racist attack in Khirki village.

If Somnath Bharti said that Africans are ‘not like us’, then he seems to have stumbled upon that a sudden realization that he and his followers are actually members of a species other than human. As far as human beings are concerned, it is a fact that ultimately we are all from Africa because that is where our common ancestors found their humanity. Our species became human in Africa, and that makes Africans of us all, regardless of where in Delhi, or in the world, we choose to anchor ourselves and our histories.

Except, perhaps for some aam aadmi in the city of Delhi who stumbled upon their aadmiyat (manhood) exactly at the point when they also lost their insaniyat (humanity). Unfortunately for Somnath Bharti and Arvind Kejriwal, that is not a process that can ordinarily be described as evolution.