“I can’t breathe…”. These were the last words of forty-six-year-old black African American George Floyd. He uttered them when he was being strangled to death by the white American police. His “crime” was his accidental birth in a community that is not a white race.
Similarly, Dalits, Adivasis, lower castes and minority Muslims get strangled in India. Their “crime” is their accidental birth outside twice-born castes. American society does not only strangle George Floyd. Indian society have been, for centuries, strangling George Floyds. The non-Brahmins in India are socially, culturally and economically discriminated.
That is why when Floyd uttered “I can’t breathe”, these words did not sound strange to us. Millions of lower castes and Muslim minority are similarly gasping in pain. They too are uttering the same words in different languages. The mainstream (pliant) Indian media ignores them. It misleads the public by painting India as a “great” civilization. It creates a false binary between the “spiritual” East versus “materialist” West. It tries to build a castle on the decadent social base.
Similarly, most of Indian sociologists, embedded in the establishment, have never accepted the bitter truth. They might again come to refute any comparison between caste and race. They would strongly oppose any argument about Muslims facing institutional discrimination in India.
But people’s movements have never taken them seriously as these sociologists remain preoccupied with presenting India as a harmonious society. As a result, they have already written “obituary” to caste, while caste wars are still happening. They have also opposed reservation for the backward castes, despite the fact that a small population of upper castes monopolize most of jobs. They have put all their energy to prove that Adivasis are part of the Hindu social order. They are never tired of talking of field work and capturing social reality, yet they are hesitant to break the framework of Brahminical ideology.
Just as the black Americans are socially and economically discriminated, so are the lower castes, Adivasis and Muslims in Indian society. Just as the white Americans continue to dominate every institution in the USA, so do the upper castes control the religious and political institutions in India.
Just as a large number of the black Americans live in slums and face poverty, so do Dalits, Adivasis, lower castes, and Muslims. Visit any slum in India, and check the facts if you have any doubt.
Just as the white Americans dominate economy, industry, politics, media, culture and cinema, so do upper castes. For example, how many times have you heard the name of Dalit journalist placed at the helm of affair in the newsroom? How many times have you spotted Muslims in the police, the army and intelligence agency? How many Other Backward Classes (OBCs) professors and lecturers are found at universities?
Racism is durable because the black Americans have little access to resources. Their material deprivation feeds cultural stereotyping. The cultural stereotyping, in turn, puts hurdles in the path of their economic advancement. In sum, one feeds other. It is a vicious cycle. Similarly, caste system and material deprivation of the lower castes are interconnected.
Many people are demanding severe punishment for the killers of George Floyd. The murder deserves severe punishment indeed. But the fight for justice is incomplete without addressing the structural problem. The fight is also not complete if justice is not given to all those George Floyds living in different parts of the world.
That is why, all the victims of mob lynching in India are in fact George Floyds. Landless Dalit laborers killed by feudal caste army are George Floyds. Adivasis who fall victims to the bullets of state repression in central India are comrades of George Floyd. All political prisoners and victims of police encounters and custodial killings are friends of George Floyd.
Just as the community of George Floyd is discriminated by the police and army, so is the Muslim community and other deprived sections in India. It was not just an accident that Muslims were deliberately kept out of the military and police in a “secular” India, soon after the Independence. Similarly, it is not an accident that the home minister of Madras province told the legislative house, after the Independence, that Muslims were not being recruited in the police. In fact, it was not a result of a whim of a particular person but it was a well-designed plan. It was within this plan that a secret circular was drafted and sent to the concerned departments post-1947, stating that Muslims should not be included in the police.
Today Muslims in India comprise just 6 to 7 per cent of the police force in India. But they are over-represented in jail. They are also the main targets of riots and police brutalities. Commission after commission has put the facts on record that the police are communal in their acts. But the police department has not been reformed, the reports of these commissions, instead, are gathering dust.
Similarly, if you are a black American, you are three times more likely to be killed by the police. If you are a Muslim in India, you are several times more likely to be arrested, framed in terror cases and killed in police encounters.
Just as erring police officers can easily go unpunished for attacking the lives and properties of the black Americans, similarly in India one can engineer a riot, demolish a place of worship of a minority community and go unpunished. Sometimes, they are rewarded and voted to power.
That is why I think the cry of “I can’t breathe” is a new slogan for all the oppressed peoples of the world.
In this context, I argue that George Floyd is not only strangled in the USA but he gets strangled elsewhere as well.
George Floyd is strangled in India too.
Abhay Kumar is a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is broadly interested in Minority and Social Justice. His other writings available online at abhaykumar.org. You may write to him at email@example.com