The reason we don’t perceive ourselves as a colour-conscious nation is that our distaste for dark skin expresses itself only in the context of girls and women — an already subjugated category.
Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday received scant attention in India, which wasn’t all that surprising, given how big a country we are and how many events crowd our daily national life. A birthday ignored is hardly a major oversight but this one seems to signify a deeper reality waiting to be explored.
As a nation-state, India has consistently opposed prejudice against dark skin and any kind of colour-based discrimination. The significance of its stand acquired personal meaning for me during a visit to Cape Town two years ago when I got the opportunity to visit Robben Island. The solitary prison cell in which Mr. Mandela spent 18 years (out of his 27 years in jail) is located there. A fellow prisoner was escorting our group, led by D. Purandeshwari, Minister of State for Human Resource Development. Like many prisoners including Mr. Mandela, our guide was also forced to work in a lime quarry in the blinding sun for many years, irreparably damaging his eyes. He kept his thick black glasses on throughout the tour, even inside buildings. Driving and walking across the island, with its stunted trees and haunted, desolate structures, left us both numbed and agitated.
When the visit was about to end, he told the Minister that he wanted a picture taken with her. He said he had never met anyone representing the Indian government which had boldly opposed the West-supported apartheid regime in South Africa. He wanted to convey his thanks to the Indians. Our eyes welled up when he stood beside the Minister to get his picture taken.
A story by Hindi journalist Bhasha Singh, which appeared last month in the weekly Outlook (Hindi) reminded me of the visit to Robben Island. Ms Singh, who specialises in rural reporting, filed this story from the Chaugai village of Aara district in Bihar. The story is about the campaign launched by a company to promote its product, a fairness cream. The company wishes to expand its rural market by wooing rural girls. The bait is that the regular application of the cream will make them look fairer. Ms Singh describes how malnourished, poor girls were learning to draw the digit 8 on their faces with the cream. Saroj, who made a perfect 8 on her forehead, is a Class I dropout. In the next stage of the contest, Saroj and her friends will apply the cream for 28 days after which the company team will judge who looks the fairest.Vast market
The mothers of these girls are already convinced that getting fairer will be good for their matrimonial prospects. They are, of course, right. In the narrow universe shaped by patriarchy and poverty, there are no goals in a girl’s life other than marriage and motherhood. It is easy to demolish what little self-esteem they might have been left with, after being aborted by the school without any gains made. Colour of the skin is a well-chosen subject to mobilise them to look for a remedy if there is one. Rural girls constitute a vast market which presents no behavioural resistance, nor does it offer any specific ethical or legal barrier. Market strategists of the fairness cream have realised that it is best to catch their potential consumers young —before rational priorities such as health and nutrition stake claim on their minds.
There are several issues worth worrying about in this scenario. Let us begin with child rights, an idea which has hardly any meaning for girls in general and rural girls in particular. Compared to boys, the lives Indian girls are taught to perceive as normal include routine discrimination and oppression from early childhood. No right is more basic than the right to be born rather than be killed because you are going to be a female. The rapid growth of female foeticide tells us how far away India has moved from its Constitution’s vision of gender equality.
In a collection of research studies on female foeticide edited by Tulsi Patel, eminent demographer Ashish Bose has called the phenomenon a signifier of ‘civilisational collapse.’ The most depressing aspect of Tulsi Patel’s volume is the evidence it provides us to appreciate that the growth of female foeticide is linked to rising literacy, prosperity and modernisation, not poverty and backwardness.
Apparently, the project of modernity has gone seriously astray if we assess it in the context of girls. The spread of literacy and education has failed to bring about the expected change in their lives because the negative forces of tradition and ritual which shape the larger social ethos have hardened. The economics of consumerism and the politics of identity have together encouraged the misogyny deeply rooted in the social ethos.
The campaign by the company to increase the rural market for its facial cream needs to be seen in this wider context. The private sector is now perceived as a partner in development but it stays beyond civil society’s ethical scrutiny. It is impervious to legal instruments such as the Right to Information Act designed to make the state answerable. We cannot use our right to information to find out the scale of the promotional activity, of which Ms Singh gave us a glimpse in her report. But I wonder why we cannot expect the government of Bihar to assess the damage being done to the self-esteem of rural girls who are being told to look fairer. The chances of our expectation being fulfilled are, of course, dim, considering the enormity of the challenges Bihar faces in reforming governance. But the question is not confined to Bihar. The company’s relentless campaign to promote its skin whitening cream knows no geographical or national boundaries. It targets girls and women as a species whose human right to be accepted and treated with dignity is yet to be realised.
Scholars like Aneel Kirmani of the University of Michigan have critically looked at the campaign from the point of view of business ethics, and others have found sufficient evidence of potentially toxic physiological effects. But none of this matters in the brave new world of global capital itching to penetrate every nook and cranny of rural Asia and Africa. Let us remember the history of the promotion of formula milk which killed millions of babies in Africa. The case of the fairness cream is different but worse, for it impedes the historic possibility of women’s empowerment and the social transformation it would imply. The conundrum of India’s warm support to the anti-apartheid politics of Mr. Mandela and prejudice against dark skin stands resolved. We appear to be a nation which has no colour bias as such, and there are no legal cases involving colour-based discrimination. Although matrimonial columns in newspapers are rife with demands for fair skin, no one will accept that India is a colour-conscious nation.
The reason we don’t perceive ourselves as a colour-conscious nation is that our distaste for dark skin expresses itself only in the context of girls and women — an already subjugated category. Unlike a boy, a dark girl needs substantial compensation to compete in the marriage market. Since women’s domestication is a ‘given,’ and neither the spread of education nor economic development of a region makes it different, we don’t allow our attitudes towards women to interfere with our general vision of ourselves as a nation. In a man’s world, India has no great reason or urgency to recognise its shadow personality.
It is not surprising, then, that post-apartheid South Africa has lost interest for us. And why just South Africa? The rest of Africa too seems to matter little for the brave new India. The genocide in Rwanda aroused little interest in India; the same is true of the ongoing human catastrophe in Darfur. Even as an American of colour proceeds to take over the White House, showing how far colour-conscious America has succeeded in moving on, we remain oblivious of our split national mind. On the one hand, we have all kinds of programmes and laws to prevent discrimination based on gender, caste and class. On the other, we allow vulnerable rural girls to be brainwashed into believing that a fairness cream can improve their quality of life. Child marriage and trafficking remain facts of life in large parts of India’s rural hinterland.
6 months ago