THE recent spate of attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and other cities in Australia has resulted in the word “racism” figuring in the media quite often. At times, the use of the word is unjustified and some people do tend to go over the top.
But at other times, it is more than justified and if anyone were to say that there is no racial aspect to the savagery, then one could rightly be accused of being disingenuous.
At times, people have sought to bring in some kind of moral equivalence by pointing out that India has a lot of racism within its borders too. That is perfectly correct – there is an institutionalised caste system, Hindus and Muslims fight pitched battles ever so often, and minorities are not exactly accorded their rights.
That, however, does not justify the violence in Australia, a country which has had a long history of exclusion of people based on the colour of their skin.
Apart from the religious factors in India, people do tend to discriminate based on the colour of one’s skin. And it is not merely white people who are resented because of the colonisation of the country by Britain, black people can face problems too. The following tale is drawn from my own experience.
The Madras Christian College, where I studied in the 70s, could well be considered an elite institution. There were three halls for male students and I resided at the Bishop Heber Hall, named after a bishop from Tiruchirapalli. Each hall had its own traditions and practices and at Heber, the seniormost resident was appointed as the “bishop” of the hall each year.
The individual who carried this title had to “baptise” the freshers who joined the hall that year, – dirty pond water was used – after they had gone through three days of initiation. Yes, it was some kind of organised ragging, ostensibly so that the newcomers could learn the hall song and the customs of the college. Plus Heber had something called the Heber yell. And the bishop had to generally lend his experience to hall affairs, whenever needed.
In the mid-70s, there were a couple of Iranians who gained admission to Heber; they refused to take part in the initiation rites and were thereafter excluded from all hall activities. They could not attend the general body sessions, were generally cold-shouldered and had few friends among the residents. They later left the hall.
In 1977, I was the bishop and three Nigerians joined the hall. The initiation days were generally intimated to the newcomers by means of a notice put up near the mess. The three were all pretty well-built chaps, who had done military service in their country, and I suspect that many of my fellow hallmates were afraid to approach them and “rag” them.
The three Nigerians – Princewell, Moses and Lucky – made it clear that they would not be attending the initiation. The first set of juniors was initiated and after this a second set were scheduled for initiation. At this stage, I took it upon myself to visit these three chaps and have a chat with them. I explained to them that they had come to a different country with different customs; though they might find things strange, they needed to join in and become part of the hall community.
I still remember the objection that Princewell raised when I suggested that he and the others join the second batch when they came for initiation: “But, this small boy (referring to one of the hall residents – Princewell was six-feet tall and had a body to match) he ask me to salute him – how can I do it? I serve in the army. I kill people.”
We talked for an hour or two and finally I told them that it was entirely up to them as the process of initiation had no official blessing; it was a tradition of the hall (and indeed the college) and they were free to come and join in. Else they could stay out but in that event, they would not be regarded well by the others who dwelt in the hall.
I was pleasantly surprised when they turned up on time with the second batch of juniors. I grilled them and made sure that they learnt the meaning of the college and hall mottos, the history of the hall, the song and the yell.
But most of the other seniors who turned up to “rag” the juniors were scared to approach the three Nigerians. There was a growing sense of resentment among the senior members of the hall that these three Nigerians were not getting as much ragging as the others. But then these very seniors were funked, they got cold feet when they tried to approach the Nigerians.
On one occasion, Princewell told a senior that he could not understand what he was saying. The senior in question felt it was an insult, as, in his opinion, he was speaking the Queen’s English. As luck would have it, he was one of the Brahmin gang in the hall.
After the three days of ragging were done, the three Nigerians went through the initiation and were formally made members of the hall. But a large section of the residents were angry with me because they felt that the Nigerians had gotten away scot-free. It was their own fear and sense of prejudice that had prevented them going up to these three chaps and ragging them. But now they needed an outlet for their frustrations.
A general session of the hall was requested and the chairman of the hall called for one. (The hall had its own “cabinet” with various secretaries to run the various activities.) A few of the chaps started accusing me of having initiated the Nigerians without their having learnt what they were supposed to learn. This was patently untrue.
I think I annoyed those who were in this camp by pointing out that if the Nigerians had not been ragged “properly”, then it was because people like those who were making accusations against me had not had the guts to come up and rag them. I also pointed out that it was the duty of senior residents like me to ensure that everyone who came to live in the hall became a productive member of the community.
Whenever one stands up for a principle, one makes enemies. It was my fifth year in the hall and I had made some enemies, most of them being Brahmins, upper-caste Hindus. I was considered part of the Western-influenced elite who were, for the most part, the decision-makers in the hall and the ones who had more influence.
Here was a glorious chance for the Brahmins to get their payback. They started insisting that I had violated the traditions of the hall and that I should resign. It was futile for the chairman, who incidentally was a good mate of mine and someone who had won election to the post in part due to my help, to point out that the bishop was not an elected post, it was just an appointment. It did no good, the Brahmins wanted blood.
Finally, I called the chairman aside and told him that it was of no use; this gang wanted a victim and I had no problem giving up the role of bishop. I had stood up for something I believed in and I was willing to pay the price. I then stood up and told the hall of my decision, adding that I was proud of what I had done.
Later that night, the three Nigerians came to my room. They sat down and I still remember what they said to me: “Sammy, if they do anything to you, we kill them.” I assured them that there was no need for such an extreme attitude and that nothing would happen. I asked them to justify what I had done by becoming productive members of the hall.
Lucky became the outdoor games secretary the next year; he was a great hit. Princewell developed into a much-liked character and got along with most people after the row had cooled down. Moses remained somewhat reclusive and aloof but since two out of three had become good members of the Heber community, I considered what I had done a success.