Black Princes of India


The recent mob attacks on Blacks in Noida were obvious racist hate crimes. The Indian government unfortunately stated that these should not be called hate crimes until the investigation is over. But when similar crimes take place againsl Indians in the US, even isolated violence by a single drunk man in a bar, the Indian government immediately takes them up as hate crimes. Instead of trying to play down the matter, the government should look closely into xenophobia, for several thousands of African students live in Noida alone, and they no longer feel safe.

This is not the first incident of such racist attacks. Last year, a street mob attacked a Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru. She was stripped, molested and paraded on the street by the mob. This was in apparent retaliation against a road accident in which a car driven by a Sudanese killed an Indian woman. But, apart from the color of the skin, there was no connection between the Tanzanian and the Sudanese. That this flimsy connection was enough speaks volumes for the latent prejudices of the mob. Then, too, the Karnataka government played it down as just a reaction to an accident.

Earlier, in 2014, Somnath Bharti, a minister in the Delhi government, led a late-night raid by a vigilante mob on a house occupied by six Nigerian women, accusing them of peddling drugs, and forcing one of them to give a urine sample on the spot.

Clearly, not only is xenophobia widespread, it is not well understood. In the popular perception, Indians are always the victims of hate crimes, never its perpetrators. One should condemn such repeated incidents, and squarely recognise them as racially motivated hate crimes. Further, there is a need to prevent their repetition by understanding the origins of this xenophobia.

Now, in ancient India there was no bias against a black skin. Even some widely revered deities, Krishna, Shiva, and Kali are black skinned. The very words "krishna" and "kali" mean black (though the latter also relates to time or kala).

Nor was there any racial bias against Blacks in medieval India. The first female Muslim ruler of Delhi, Razia Sultana, had a black, Jamaluddin Yaqut, as a close advisor. He was elevated to high nobility and given the title Amir of Amirs. The two were romantically linked, as reported by Ibn Battuta, who visited Delhi a century later.

This was hardly an isolated case of social mobility for blacks in medieval India. The situation in the Bengal sultanate was similar. Bengal recruited a large number of blacks as "slaves". But they were not "slaves" in the sense of slaves on American plantations. They served the army, and occupied important positions in the court. Eventually, they became kings, the most famous being Barbak Shahzada. They were called habshi-s, a Persian word from the Arabic Habashi for Abyssinians or Ethiopians. Four habshi-s ruled Bengal until 1494.

The situation in the Deccan sultanate, in the south, was similar. Malik Ambar, a habshi, became prime minister of Ahmadnagar. He allied with the Marathas, used rockets to resist the Mughal army, and drove the Moghul emperor Jehangir to desperation. Habshi-s were later called siddi-s (a term of respect), and they eventually even created a kingdom of their own becoming Nawabs of Sachin and Janjira where Malik Ambar had built a fort. The siddi-s (often ethnic Bantus) still survive in large numbers in Karnataka; and though they have embraced different religions today, they till retain the common custom of ancestor worship.

So, what happened? Why and when did Indians turn racist? That happened after colonialism. In the early days of colonialism, William Jones pointed out the similarities between Sanskrit, Pehlavi, Greek and Latin. That quickly led to the Aryan race conjecture, in those days of blatant Western racism, with the likes of Hume, Kant, and Hegel pitching in to support racism. It is through colonialism that Indians learnt to value a fair complexion, as so clearly seen today in marriage advertisements, and the sale of fairness creams.

While such blatant racism is easy to understand, colonialism instilled a subtler and more dangerous form of racism. Both racism and colonialism nurtured a false history glorifying Greeks. Martin Bernal in his Black Athena called it the fabrication of ancient Greece. That colonial hangover persists and school texts still promote subtle racism. For example, NCERT class 9 school text in math still extols "Euclid" and shows an image of him as a white man. A decade ago this writer pointed out that this image was merely a Caucasian stereotype: NCERT replaced it with an image stilf Caucasian, but not stereotyped!

To curb mob violence against individuals Indians must correct the prejudices latent in the mob? Particularly the subtle prejudices acquired through colonial education.


Vol. 50, No.1, Jul 9 - 15, 2017