Authored By: Navin Parik & Ruchika Baweja
U.S Black lives matter protests spur calls for India to wake up to its Casteist and Religious discrimination
The discriminatory application of basic structure of constitutions – liberty, equality, secularism have time and again been brought to fore by countries. The line “All men are created equal” enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence is arduous to picture as the reality in the US shows different scenarios.[i] Similarly, in India too, the social, religious and cultural practice of untouchability and intolerance towards each other’s religion continues impeccably despite its prohibition under Article 15 of the Indian Constitution[ii]. The nature of exclusion and marginalization faced by African Americans and Dalit and Minority Indians continues unabated.[iii] Even, the fatal Covid-19 virus sees no barrier between people regardless of their rank, race, caste or age whereas the fatalistic mindset of people continues to pull each other down in the pretext of casteism and racism.
The homicide of unarmed Black American citizen by the police and inequalities in having access to medical care have become well-known divisions during the pandemic in the US.[iv] There is parallel situation in India too, discrimination based on religion and casteism not only exists but flourish under the present government of India that seems to be encouraging it and a citizenry that has welcomed it for convenience. The country that is speedily modernizing day by day, the opportunities for the marginalized group still remain insufficient and they tend to remain the excluded part of society.
The latest killing of George Floyd, an African American man has emphasized on the issue of black empowerment after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes while he was begging for his life and repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe”[v]. Floyd’s killing was a death of a thousand cuts that exposed the racially contort law enforcement machinery of the United States, that is too nimble to arrest, prison and prosecute black people. It has flicker light on how the country’s wretched, racist past is still persistent to hound into its present systems of justice.
Police brutality against African Americans
The killing of George Floyd may have fortunately gathered enormous support for the deprived section of America. But the brutal killing is certainly not the first selective prejudice against such sections. A similar incident took place on July 2014, when Eric Garner, an African-American man was killed by Daniel Pantaleo, New York city police department officer by having him in a chokehold while arresting him despite chokehold being banned in New York city since 1993.[vi] Similarly, in August 2014, Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man, was shot dead by 28-year-old white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for stealing a pack of cigarillos from a shop[vii]. Further this year in February, Ahmaud Arbery, another black man, was murdered by a white father-son duo just because he jogged through a white neighborhood in the town of Georgia.[viii] In another incident Antwon Rose II, a 17-year-old African-American was shot in East Pittsburgh by East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld only for the fact that he tried to run after being caught.[ix]
Pertinently, as per findings in various studies in U.S, Black men in the US receive sentences that are 19.1% longer than those of white men convicted for similar crimes.[x]Surprisingly, the discrimination also persist in job opportunities as studies show that job resumes with traditionally white-sounding names received 50% more callbacks than those with traditionally Black names.[xi]Further, few US studies also shed light on how black workers with the same level of education as that of white workers are less likely to be employed. Once employed, Black individuals earn nearly 25% less than their white counterparts.[xii]
Demystifying India’s struggle against Casteist and Religious discrimination through the prism of Black Lives Matter Protests
It is comprehensible that India certainly needs to address this issue and its acute problems of systemic prejudice alongside police brutality. The protests in America speak to many of the issues that infest India as well such as its infamous selective prejudice against not only Dalits but tribal, Muslims and many other minority groups leading to its economic inequality. There is growing persecution of Muslims and Dalits in India and mounting feelings of Islamophobic and casteist attitudes in families and communities which has time and again led to illegal suppression of victims of the caste-class order. Lynchings of Dalits and Muslims — for supposedly hurting cows or while being exhorted to say “Jai Shri Ram” and “Bharat mataki jai” — have become run on the mill.
The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq and Pehlu Khan is a clear portrayal of the mindset of Indian society. [xiii] Further incidents like “Gaidokat Milk Scandal” add fuel to the fire, wherein the company refused to sell the milk from animal raised by a Dalit.[xiv] Only after protests and the intervention of NGOs and human rights organizations were Dalits allowed to sell their milk to the cooperative. Similarly, a tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. student took place in the Hyderabad Central University who was a member of Ambedkar Students’ Association which fought for the rights of Dalit students on the campus hanged himself, blaming his birth as a “fatal accident”[xv]. Further a landmark case against caste discrimination is currently under litigation in California, where Indian American tech workers of CISCO are accused of discriminating against a colleague belonging to a lower caste[xvi]. Surprisingly, it is a general phenomenon that Dalits in India are excluded from social and public spaces, prevented from drawing water from public facilities, attend the same temples, drink from the same cups in tea stalls, segregated in schools and made to sit at the back of the classrooms. They have been driven into the lowest occupations of society, such as scavengers, sanitation cleaners and a lot more are agricultural workers who are trapped in an inescapable cycle of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and oppression.[xvii]
Awakening the conscience of the Indian Masses over Police Brutality under the garb of Geroge Floyd Row in US
While there is a huge furor in the world over George Floyd’s death involving police brutality, a father-son duo killing in Tuticorin district of India throws light on similar menace conducted by the same force. Shri Jeyaraj and his son Shri Bennicks were arrested on 19 June, 2020 for allegedly keeping their mobile shop open beyond the permitted hours in the state. [xviii] Further the duo was kept in police custody as criminals overnight and the next thing the family hears is that both of them died of brutal torture.
Pertinently, Abraham Mathai, a prominent voice for the rights of Christians and other minorities claims that the custodial deaths are part of ongoing religious persecution of Christians and human rights violation in the Tuticorin area[xix] Although, India is said to be secular under its Constitution but the reality seems farfetched by such ruthless killings. Such killings have also stimulated demand for police reforms in the country. Further it prompted to act on police brutality by educating police officers to respect the human rights guaranteed to all people under the Indian Constitution and to help them value the diversity of communities that prevails in the country.
Initiative pioneered by India Companies
However, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement which has gained attention around the globe, companies in India have been stimulated to reassess their businesses and marketing strategies for indication of discrimination.[xx] Colourism, one of the most prevalent form of discrimination promulgated by the beauty enhancing industries in the subcontinent is seeing a change as these industries have started changing their marketing strategies for the better cause.
Notably, the Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), an Indian subsidy of Unilever PLC had recently announced the change in name of its beauty products. Skin lightening product ‘Fair & Lovely’ (for women) is now rebranded as ‘glow and Lovely’ and Men’s ‘Fair & Lovely’ (for men) as ‘Glow & Handsome’ to remove nomenclature that cultivates stereotypes against people with darker skin complexion.[xxi]
Interestingly, it has also made an impact on other beauty product companies such as Johnson & Johnson which has stopped selling its fairness products under Neutrogena and Clean & Clear brands[xxii]. Similarly, the maker of Ponds said that last year it started replacing words like ‘fairness’, ‘whitening’ and ‘skin-lightening’ with ‘glow’, ‘even tone’, ‘skin clarity’ and ‘radiance’[xxiii]..
From Protests to Policy Solutions
Black Lives Matter movement has flickered a change in Indian society from Bollywood celebrities tweeting support for racial justice in the U.S. to manufacturers putting an end to popular skin-whitening products. The question that strikes one’s mind is whether Indians can support Black Lives Matter movement when we ourselves have numerous prejudices. For decades, both race and caste have been used to segregate the society in many ways to the unfair advantage of certain groups over others.
It is contentious, if nations can cooperate and collaborate on trade and development, there is no reason that they cannot represent in a global dialogue on minority rights through the lens of their religious, cultural and social heritages. They must learn to discover to come to grips with the fact that the mere assertion of a democratic society does not essentially translate in to a free and equal one. Modern democratic superpowers with sizable national wealth, such as the US, India and other countries should be unified to curb the gross human rights violations on such minorities.
George Floyd’s killing was the straw that broke the camel’s back which could be a new beginning for those who were considered as an inferior section of the society. It would be interesting to see whether India’s caste system which is perhaps the world’s longest surviving human constructed social hierarchy changes for the better cause, a change that Ambedkar always dreamt of.
[i] The US Declaration of Independence, 1776, Amendment XIV, Section 1.
[ii]The Constitution of India, 1950, Art.15.
The Constitution of India, 1950, Art.25.
[iii] Rick Atkinson, Why we still care about American Founders, May 11, 2019, available at, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/11/opinion/sunday/history-americas-founders.html(Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[iv] Jose A. Del Real, Robert Samuels and Tim Craig, How the Black Lives Matter movement went mainstream, available at, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/how-the-black-lives-matter-movement-went-mainstream/2020/06/09/201bd6e6-a9c6-11ea-9063-e69bd6520940_story.html(Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[v] Manny Fernandez and Audra D. S. Burch, George Floyd, From ‘I Want to Touch the World’ to ‘I Can’t Breathe’ July 29, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/article/george-floyd-who-is.html (Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[vi] Carl Heastie, Assembly Passes Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, June 8, 2020. available at https://nyassembly.gov/Press/files/20200608a.php.
[viii]Richard Fausset, What We Know About the Shooting Death of AhmaudArbery, June 24, 2020 available at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-shooting-georgia.html(Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[ix] Adeel Hassan, Antwon Rose Shooting: White Police Officer Acquitted in Death of Black Teenager, March 22, 2019, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/22/us/antwon-rose-shooting.html(Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[x]US Sentencing Commision. “Demographic Differences in Sentencing.” Available at https://www.ussc.gov/research/research-reports/demographic-differences-sentencing. (Last Accessed on July. 5, 2020).
[xi]Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. “Discrimination in the Job Market in the United States.” ,available at, https://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/discrimination-job-market-united-states. (Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[xiii] Zainab Sikander, Pehlu Khan died of a heart attack. Perhaps he had it coming with all that beef he ate, August,19, 2019, available at https://theprint.in/opinion/pehlu-khan-died-of-a-heart-attack-perhaps-he-had-it-coming-with-all-that-beef-he-ate/278145/(Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[xiv]“Sagar” Bishwakarma, “General Comments of Country Report for the United Nations Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,” paper prepared by the Academy for Public Upliftment for the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Preparation of NGO Country Report Under the U.N. International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination https://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/globalcaste/caste0801-03.htm#P162_24748(Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[xv] Omer Farooq, Rohith Vemula: The student who died for Dalit rights,January19 2016 available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35349790 (Last accessed on July 24,2020)
[xvi]Rishi Iyengar, California sues Cisco for alleged discrimination against employee because of caste, July 1, 2020 available at https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/01/tech/cisco-lawsuit-caste-discrimination/index.html (Last accessed on July 22, 2020).
[xvii] Paramjit S Judge, Between exclusion and exclusivity: Dalits in Contemporary India available at
http://www.jstor.com/stable/41969444 (Last accessed on 2 August,2020).
[xviii] BBC News, Jeyaraj and Benicks: Five policemen arrested over India custody deaths, July, 2, 2020, available at, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-53260209 (Last accessed on July 22, 2020).
[xix]Vatican News, India: Christian organizations demand probe into killing of 2 men in police custody, July, 1, 2020, available at,https://www.vaticannews.va/en/world/news/2020-07/india-police-brutality-killings-christian-organizations-justice.html (Last accessed on July 25, 2020)
[xx] Lora Jones, Unilever renames Fair & Lovely skin cream after backlash, June, 25, 2020, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53178088.
[xxi] FE Bureau, HUL confirms ‘Fair and Lovely’ to be renamed ‘Glow and Lovely’ July 3, 2020 available at https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/hul-confirms-fair-and-lovely-to-be-renamed-glow-and-lovely/2011808/#:~:text=HUL%20on%20Thursday%20confirmed%20the,blacklivesmatter%20protests%20in%20the%20US.(Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
[xxii] Sharleen Dsouza ,After J&J’s ‘Clean & Clear’, HUL Makes ‘Fair & Lovely’ Move. Will Others Ditch Fairness? June 25 2020, available at,
https://www.bloombergquint.com/business/black-lives-matter-movement-forces-beauty-products-makers-to-change-strategy(Last Accessed July 15, 2020).
The Authors are currently undergraduate students at Institute of Law, Nirma University