From Ferguson to Pune—The Minority Report: Archit Guha

This is a guest post by ARCHIT GUHA

Prima facie, the grand jury decision in the United States to not indict a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in the murder of a black teenager, Michael Brown, and the flurry of protests that have occurred since the incident in August are distinctly symptomatic of the structural racism that continues to plague the settler colonial nation that institutionalized slavery nearly 500 years ago, but claims to be post-racial today.

What lessons, however, could it hold for a postcolonial nation that has its own history of ethnic and sectarian conflict? Since Narendra Modi has successfully courted the US, and in particular, Barack Obama (whose election was supposed to triumphantly mark the death of racism), it might be worth reflecting on the glaring similarities between two of the largest democracies in the world that count civil rights as one of their constitutional ideals.

Less than a week after the shocking verdict delivered in the Ferguson case, another grand jury decided not to indict a white officer in a case that was caught on videotape. Eric Garner was a 43-year-old asthmatic man who had been apprehended by the New York Police Department—one of the cops performed a chokehold (banned by the NYPD) on him, and Garner died screaming, “I can’t breathe”. Garner was no stranger to law enforcement authorities and the prison system, having been incarcerated in the past. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer, who brazenly choked him, was clearly let off the hook even when all the evidence was stacked up against him. The decision in Garner’s case has led to a rallying cry, “I can’t breathe” directed against the judiciary and the state for not recognizing the racialized tenor that police brutality in the US takes, thereby denying Blacks the legal civil rights they battled long and hard for. The grand jury as a legal mechanism maybe at fault here, but it is worrying that a white police officer can simply rely on guilt and lack of ill intent to win sympathy from a jury—giving ‘white guilt’ a whole new meaning . [ https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2014/12/05/ferguson-eric-garner-show-that-time-get-rid-grand-juries/qGDw7ci78rkrdNNbBpI4XM/story.html ]

It is not merely that racism is alive and well in America, but that race itself is seen as dead—a problem that was solved long ago and does not deserve any further attention. Racial ‘colour-blindness’ has allowed whites to do as they please, without ever having their racist motivations questioned. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva makes a distinction between ‘overt’ and ‘covert’ racism in his research to distinguish the former as more representative of the pre-Civil Rights era and the latter of today, but as we discover the lines between the two are often blurred, even if the racism itself goes entirely unacknowledged.

When Michael Brown was murdered on 9 August this year, African Americans had barely recovered from the death of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black teenager who was shot dead by George Zimmerman, a civilian who simply claimed he was “standing his ground” in self-defence—enough to have him acquitted of murder in 2013.

As the US is waking up the continuing reign of white supremacy, we in India too, have to contend with the forces of Hindutva that surreptitiously shadow the current government. Assertions and celebrations of a “Hindu” national identity continue on a local, national, and international scale, while minority lives are compromised. Shortly after the thumping victory of Narendra Modi, a man who himself was acquitted of the post-Godhra riots, a young Muslim IT professional,Mohsin Shaikh, was beaten to death in Pune on 2 June, by a mob of the Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS), after allegedly derogatory posts about Bal Thackeray and Shivaji had been found on social media, which Shaikh had no role in. It will be hardly surprising if the legal outcome of this case too results in an acquittal for members of the HRS.

Curiously enough, the three young men, Brown, Martin, and Shaikh, were murdered in large part due to their physical appearance according to what their killers said—indicative of the problematic construction of racial and religious difference, and therefore, the precarity of minority lives across two nation-states that closely mirror each other in the rise of neoliberalism and unbridled capitalism, but offer little to no protection for minorities.

Zimmerman and Wilson both claimed that Martin and Brown were physically threatening; Zimmerman stated that the hoodie clad Martin was a “really suspicious guy…who looks like he’s up to no good” while Wilson claimed that Brown had the “most intense aggressive face…like a demon”, also referring to himself as a “five year old holding onto Hulk Hogan”.Without context, these statements appear like a pastiche of well-rehearsed black male stereotypes, but that they could be the primary reasons for the loss of black lives with no consequence is proof of race being fiction, but racism being fact, as anthropologist Audrey Smedley famously suggested.

Zimmerman and Wilson may have invoked fear as the driving force in their decision to pull the trigger, but members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena were decidedly headier in displaying their masculinity, as has been characteristic of the Hindutva bandwagon, SMSing “pehli wicket padli” (the first wicket has fallen), shortly after lynching Shaikh. Shaikh was returning from offering namaaz, with a friend, wearing a skullcap on a street in Pune, when he was confronted by the mob.

The discourse surrounding these incidents might suggest that these are isolated and arbitrary acts of extreme violence, but of course, there are more pernicious historically rooted structural legacies that allow for them to occur, which must be highlighted.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has become a seminal text for demonstrating how the “racial caste” is perpetuated in post-Jim Crow US. According to her, the number of African Americans who are part of the prison system today is higher than the number that were enslaved in 1850, pre-Civil War. The data to show that African American teenagers are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than their white counterparts was released by ProPublica in the wake of the riots in Ferguson immediately following the murder in August.

Similarly, the Sachar Committee Report on the Muslim Community in India, released in 2005, found that Muslims were disproportionately represented in prisons and were inadequately represented in the police force across the country, both at the top and lower levels. More recent data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2012 has found that 21% of prisoners under trial are Muslims. Violence against Muslims is no secret, and the recent Trilokpuri riots reiterated the reality that Muslims are targeted by police on the basis of their religion.

The incarceration and police brutality that marks African-American and Indian Muslims’ lives is representative of the more systemic marginalization of the communities, which is far too often erroneously attributed to poverty. The poverty is often aided and abetted by the government, in fact, as in the case of African Americans who have been victims of a continually weakening public sector. Even in the name of economic development, we continue to bring minority communities into the capitalist fold to ostensibly lift them out of poverty, without ever questioning the discrimination that plagues their everyday lives—it is an indictment of our collective majoritarian supremacy that refuses to question the place of minorities beyond viewing them as demographic statistics and vote banks in electoral democracies.

This is true of not just African Americans and Indian Muslims, but other minority groups across the two countries too—Hispanics, Dalits, and Adivasis are similarly manipulated and stigmatised by the state and society for their socioeconomic predicament. Resistance by these groups too is often termed “terrorism” or “rioting”, as has been the case of the protests following Ferguson.

Majoritarianism has become the hallmark of these two democracies celebrated for their diversity and the common thread running through the narrative of lost lives. It is not just lives, but the voices of minorities too that have been lost in the din of law and order that has progressively and wantonly stifled them into submission—leaving them with little breathing space.

(Archit lived and studied in Portland, one of the most progressive but whitest cities in America. He currently lives and works in Bombay)

8 thoughts on “From Ferguson to Pune—The Minority Report: Archit Guha”

  1. Several independent activists and organizers are calling a protest at the US Embassy Delhi in solidarity with the uprising in Ferguson, New York, and cities and communities across the United States.

    As this article shows, the connections between the criminalization of black and brown bodies in the United States and the criminalization of Muslim, Dalit, and Adivasi bodies in India are too obvious to ignore. The persistent discrimination calls into question the very notions of American and Indian “democracy”, and underscores the need to make connections between anti-racist struggles in the US and anti-racist, anti-caste, anti-communal struggles in India and around the world.

    Event details here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1404828796474525/1406275456329859/?ref=notif&notif_t=like

    Like

    1. Ramray, I didn’t come across your excellent piece earlier, but it just goes to show how embedded we are in systems of oppression. Bas is ummeed par tikke huye hain ki dard aur anyaay ke aage jeet hain.

      Like

  2. A small but very significant fact Mr. Guha forgot to mention. I wonder why?
    Mr. Brown was a CRIMINAL who was trying to flee from the scene after committing a crime . Following video was presented at the trial :
    (Watch how he manhandles the Pakistani store owner from 1:10 to 1:49 min . )

    Like

  3. Thanks for this great article. It is very difficult to feel and sense the loss of people in distress and oppression, only if our faculties of emotions are developed we can think of a just world. How do you think it is possible?

    Like

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