Black Man, Brown Men

On April 22 of last year, Yannick Nihangaza was set upon by a crowd of eight or nine young men in Jalandhar, in the Indian state of Punjab. The twenty-three-year computer science student from Burundi, on his way to a party, was beaten with extreme savagery – rocks and chunks of cement were used – and left for dead. Nihangaza went into a coma from which he has only now emerged. His brain is damaged, his cognitive functions are more or less destroyed, and he is unlikely to speak again.

The Nihangaza case has attracted much less attention in India and elsewhere than the horror that befell Jyoti Pandey – another twenty-three-year-old student – on a bus in Delhi recently. And it can certainly be argued that the incidents are not comparable. They are both examples of the public violence that is increasingly recognized as a fact of life in urban India, but whereas the rape, torture and killing of Pandey was obviously a gender crime, the assault on Nihangaza had to do with race. (The police report stated that the attackers had declared their intent to ‘teach the black a lesson.’ It remained unclear for months whether they targeted Nihangaza specifically or if it was a case of mistaken identity, but now it seems that there had been an 'altercation' with Nihangaza shortly before the assault.)

But at an instinctive level, for me and a few others, what holds these episodes together is their shared ‘north Indian’ character. And with thinking that, not to mention posting the thought on the Internet, comes the obligation to justify or rethink the assumption. Lynching was not invented in north India, after all: it has an impeccable American genealogy. Racially motivated assaults remain a fact of life on the streets of European cities; racist violence against Indian students in Australia recently has received much attention in the Indian press and in diplomatic channels. (An irony of the Nihangaza case is that one suspect has fled to Australia on a student visa. It is tempting to hope that he learns a lesson or two.) Indian cities outside the north – Pune, even Bangalore – have an established record of discrimination and harassment when it comes to Africans, although assaults are rare. It was in Mumbai, that most self-consciously cosmopolitan of Indian cities, that the black Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds was subjected to monkey gestures by the crowd. And certainly rural India has a rich history of lynching, which (along with rape) has typically been a tactic of power used against ‘uppity’ Dalits and aboriginal people. So what, if anything, does it mean to say that the Nihangaza assault and the Pandey rape are ‘north Indian,’ apart from signifying your own prejudices?

 A casual look at the public spaces of the Indian north, compared with those of the south, reveals right away that the northern street is a relatively homosocial space, populated largely by males. Women commonly serve beer in restaurants in the south. In the north, that would be nothing short of a sign of prostitution or moral ‘denationalization,’ and in either case, an ‘invitation’ to sexual abuse, even rape. (The courts in Delhi have recently ruled that the city cannot prevent women from working as bartenders, but a woman bartender in Delhi had better wear body armor and a chastity belt.) Given the peculiarities of Indian national discourse, denationalization – to be excluded from the moral community of Indianness – is also to be excluded from ‘honorable’ womanhood, and to be left vulnerable to the consequences of dishonor. But rape is not the only form of violence that is produced when women are absent from public spaces in India. I would argue that what happened to Yannick Nihangaza is also a product of this absence.

I am not suggesting that the presence of women in public spaces has a ‘civilizing’ or ‘moral’ influence – in the Victorian sense of civilization and morality – on male behavior. I am saying, rather, that the absence or presence of women in the streets, bars and assorted places of congregation indicates whether a serious problem already exists. It indicates, first of all, a set of problems that men of that society have with women, such as the reluctance to accept women as equals in public (which means, inevitably, in private as well), the readiness to see them as transgressors, threats, curiosities or ‘fair game’ when they appear in public, and the simple, tragic, deadly ignorance of how to interact with ‘public women’ in a manner that is both egalitarian and courteous, i.e., not tied up in notions of honor and dishonor. (One of the most depressing things about the aftermath of Jyoti Pandey’s rape was the number of Indians who sought to shield women behind concepts of honor, declaring that Indians either do, or should, treat women with 'reverence.' Reverence, unfortunately, is nothing but the other side of the coin of contempt: as soon as a woman has been demarcated as a repository of honor, she becomes a target for dishonor.)

It indicates, secondly, a warped culture of maleness, in which masculinity in public spaces is enacted for other men alone. This male subculture is marked by the continuous experience of desire, repression and display. It takes the form, for instance, of simultaneous homoeroticism and homophobia. It also takes the form of hypermachismo and showing off through aggression: experiencing and displaying manhood largely through violence, whether that violence is directed at women or at other men. Needless to say, this is not exclusively a north-Indian phenomenon, nor is it equally apparent everywhere in the north. But within India, ‘north India’ is to some extent a state of mind, disseminated as well as concentrated by Hindi cinema into a national popular culture of reactionary gender relations and homosocial masculinity. Its indigenous systems of restraint, such as 'reverence' for women or guests (the mehmaan, which Nihangaza arguably was in India) have proved to be tissue-thin in the face of its need to occupy and monopolize public space.

It can and should be noted that Enoch Powell’s England or the American South of the Jim Crow era were not saved from lynch mobs or skinheads by the presence of women in public. Problems within the ideology of heterosexual masculinity played a role in those places also, but with overdetermined phenomena like public violence we need to disaggregate the variables very carefully. The racial presumptions that applied when, say, Kiaran Stapleton shot Anuj Bidve in Salford in 2011, do not fully apply in India in a case such as Nihangaza’s beating, or even in a less devastating episode like the taunting of Andrew Symonds. Color 'preference' is as Indian as tandoori chicken, and like tandoori chicken, it is more deeply rooted and also more nakedly visible in the north. It is, arguably, even worse in Pakistan, where any need to accommodate the darkies within the community aesthetic evaporated after 1971. But race is more than color of skin or place or origin: it is an encyclopedic body of knowledge, nearly all of it bogus, which is shared very unevenly across cultures. The Indians that attacked Nihangaza would have had some awareness of the Western meanings of race, blackness, and so on, thanks to the various processes of cultural globalization. But it would have been superficial: enough to identify an outsider, but not enough to inspire murderous hate.

That hate comes from forces and processes closer to home, that are reshaping, but only partially, how gender, hegemony and dominance work in Indian society. It is important to understand that the attacks on Yannick Nihangaza and Jyoti Pandey represent a new phenomenon. They derive only partially from ‘Indian culture.’ (Tandoori chicken is not that old either.) The transformation of the Indian economy and class relations over the past two decades (in Punjab, it began earlier) has been a major factor in their emergence. Nihangaza was enrolled in an institution called Lovely Professional University. The name itself is a giveaway: a new, entirely commercially driven, somewhat subliterate vocational school (not unlike academies with names like ‘Vista’ and ‘Horizon’ that are advertised on the New York City subway), promising middle-class lives to those who would not have been part of the middle class a generation ago. These are start-up institutions for start-ups and gatecrashers, both Indian and African. The attack took place in Jalandhar: a mid-sized provincial city that has become cosmopolitan and prosperous without shedding its provinciality. And in a sense, it could have happened only in Jalandhar, which is both a place and a metaphor. The new economy has created a brash and rough-edged new middle class, in which older notions of respectability and expectations of masculine public space have persisted even as affluence and power have done away with deference, and globalization has introduced new sexual desires, greatly intensified repressions, and newly ‘legitimate’ targets of violence – such as black people.

Like Jyoti Pandey’s death, Yannick Nihangaza’s fate is a tragedy that cannot be repaired. His father has spent a great deal of time in India, trying to get an apathetic and reluctant Punjab government to take the case seriously. To their credit, the state government has (belatedly) covered the medical expenses, made the arrests, and offered – rather too eagerly – to transfer Nihangaza back to Burundi. To their discredit, they are now denying (in spite of their own police report) that the attack had anything to do with race. And gender does not enter the discussion at all. So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut would have said. 

January 20, 2013