Britain's other islanders petition the White House

The Chagossians’ campaign for justice gathers pace as a petition passes the 25,000 threshold.

This morning, the We the People petition to the White House asking for justice for the exiled Chagos Islanders has achieved more than the 25,000 signatures required to trigger a response from the Obama Administration.

The petition, launched on 5 March by SPEAK, a Port Louis-based human rights group, started slowly with about 100 people a day signing up. But a week ago, Le Mauricien, one of the main daily newspapers in Mauritius, decided to back the campaign by running a two-page spread featuring contributions from bestselling author and Patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, Philippa Gregory, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, and Oslo University’s  Thomas Hylland Eriksen among others.

Eriksen, one of the world’s leading social anthropologists, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Mauritius over the last two decades, was characteristically forthright about the fate of the 1800 or so people, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers, who were forcibly removed from their homeland by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 to make way for the US base on Diego Garcia. He said:

The displaced Chagossians or Ilois have suffered enough. Economically and socially deprived in Mauritius since the day of their arrival - many were even deported against their knowledge, believing that they were only going on a visit - Chagossians have tirelessly, but so far unsuccessfully, campaigned for a return. Successive governments of Mauritius have also firmly demanded the return of the archipelago to Mauritius, which would enable repatriation.  It is time to act, and nobody who looks at the issue from a neutral perspective can be in doubt as to where justice lies.

Le Mauricien’s endorsement, together with an appeal made by Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Group, and Mauritian foreign minister Dr Arvin Boolell, had an immediate effect. The number of signatories, mainly young people in Mauritius, took off. Unfortunately, even though the Indian Ocean island, renowned as a luxury holiday destination, is one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Internet penetration is still relatively low at around 25 per cent of the 1.3 million population. This means that only a fraction of poorer households, including the 600 or so surviving native-born Chagossians and their descendants, know how to or have been able to sign up.

Last Thursday, TV adventurer Ben Fogle, another patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, who secretly visited some of the outer islands in the Chagos Archipelago, while researching his book The Teatime Islands, penned an additional piece for Le Mauricien appealing for people to add their names to the petition providing an additional boost to the numbers. He wrote:

The story of the Chagossians at the hands of the UK government is one for which I am ashamed to be British. It is a story of deceit and tragedy that has been described by some as the darkest day in British overseas policy. It has transfixed me for over a decade and shaken my very principles on conservation and democracy. It is a story of deceit that has left thousands of ‘British refugees’ living in misery for the last 40 years, exiled from their island home by a conniving and unrepentant government.

On the same day, John Price, former US ambassador to Mauritius (2002 – 2005), appointed by President George W Bush, revealed on his blog that he had asked Washington on several occasions for financial and other help in order to enable the Chagos Islanders to integrate more fully into Mauritian society. His appeals were unsuccessful. The Berlin-born multi-millionaire businessman, whose Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, also wanted his government to explore the feasibility of a return by the Chagossians to the Archipelago’s outer islands like Peros Banhos and Salomon, which lie more than 100 miles north of Diego Garcia. He said:

I understood the Chagossians’ plight, and the desire to go back to their ancestral home. They had never been fully integrated into the Mauritian culture; they had no roots there, and even after thirty years, most still lived in abject poverty. On several occasions on my way to or from the US Embassy in Port Louis, Mauritius, I had taken a circuitous route through the Cassis district at the foot of Signal Mountain, about a mile from the embassy where a Chagossian community was located. They live in crowded shacks made of rusted corrugated metal, with skinny chickens picking through the garbage. With high unemployment, poor health conditions, and limited education opportunities, little will change in the lives of these Chagossians. I could see why many believe their only option was to ultimately return to the Chagos Archipelago. At least it would feel like home, and eking out a living there would be better than struggling to exist in the rat-infested environment of Cassis.

It's not clear whether the former US ambassador has signed the We the People petition, but with some experience of the slum conditions in which the vast majority of the Chagos Islanders in Mauritius are obliged to make their lives as a direct consequence of US and UK foreign policy, he was certainly making a good case for others to do so. He and the Chagossians are now looking forward to the White House’s response.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

Chagos Islanders leave London's Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.
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"The land of Gandhi can never be racist": is India in denial about its attitude to skin colour?

“If we were indeed racist, why would we live with the South Indians?" was how one politician addressed the debate. 

When we were kids, my younger brother and I would spend much of our time thinking up new and innovative ways to get under each other’s skin, as siblings often do. One of the most reliable weapons in my brother’s arsenal was a taunt about skin colour - he was quite fair even by Punjabi standards, a fact that he was inordinately proud of. I on the other hand, had a permanent tan. This is now politely referred to as a "dusky" complexion, but back then was just "kaala" (black).

Being older, I generally had the upper hand in this cold war of insults and condescension, but my brother employed this particular tactic to great success for a couple of years. Because it rankled, it really did. No amount of explanation about melanin and sun exposure, or the fact that we were both "brown" in the eyes of the world made a difference. He was fair, I was not, and that was that. We didn’t have the context or the vocabulary to articulate why that minor difference in skin tone was important, but we knew instinctively that it was. It took us years to realise how problematic these little exchanges were. By then, we had  recognised how racism and prejudice about skin colour had wormed its way into our psyches at a young age, even growing up in a fairly liberal household. We laugh about it now, and my brother is more than a little embarrassed about that short phase during his pre-adolescent years. But as recent events have reminded us, for many people in India, racism and colourism is no laughing matter.

Two weeks ago, a video posted on Facebook by the African Students Association of India (AASI) went viral. It showed a mob of 40-odd Indians armed with snooker cues, dustbins and chairs brutally assaulting two Nigerian students inside a mall in Greater Noida, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just 40km from the national capital, and home to hundreds of students from Africa who study in the city’s many private colleges and universities. This was part of a wave of violence unleashed by residents of the city that saw at least four Nigerian students admitted to the hospital with serious injuries, and countless others being treated for minor injuries. The details of what transpired over that week are as familiar as they are sordid - a missing Indian student, who was later found, and died in the hospital of a suspected drug overdose. Rumours of Africans being "cannibals", a new addition to the long, long list of racist stereotypes about black Africans that are bandied about to justify such violence. Demands that all African residents of the area be kicked out. And eventually, inevitably, mob violence.

The response by the government and the police followed the general SOP for when such attacks happen - and they do, with alarming frequency. There were promises of swift action (which rarely materialises), brazen denials that the violence was motivated by racism or xenophobia (“Criminal not racial” is how External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj described one attack in 2016) and victim-blaming (“Africans are involved in drug-dealing, Africans don’t assimilate”).

Then there is the Gandhi factor. “India is the land of Gandhi and Buddha…we can never have a racist mindset,” declared a pompous Swaraj, conveniently ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself was a proponent of anti-blackness in his early years, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” The truth is that, despite three centuries of experiencing racial discrimination at the hands of British colonisers, India’s unrequited love affair with whiteness has remained undimmed. We - specifically the North Indians who dominate so much of our national political and cultural discourse - take pride in our "Aryan" heritage, thereby aligning ourselves with global white hegemony. We have internalised the pseudo-scientific European racial theories that were in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century, but have lingered on in our school textbooks long after they were debunked. Indeed, when black Africans in India talk about being treated like a caged animal in a zoo, it’s hard not to make connections with 19th century Europe’s infamous "human zoos".

But while much of India's anti-blackness can be traced back to a colonial hangover, it is also fuelled by our own indigenous strain of "colourism", one that predates European theories of racial superiority. Last week, former Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tarun Vijay went on an Al Jazeera programme to talk about the recent spate of attacks. “If we were indeed racist, why would all the entire south – you know Kerala, Tamil, Andhra, Karnataka – why do we live with them?,” he said. “We have blacks…black people around us.” In his attempt to defend India from charges of anti-blackness, Vijay inadvertently laid bare the full extent of India’s problem with skin colour-based bigotry - our othering of not just black Africans but also of the darker-skinned citizens from our own country. It’s not hard to guess who the "we" in that statement is - the fairer, upper caste North Indian Hindus that form the BJP’s core constituency, and who have for ages thought of themselves as the template for the "true Indian". Everyone else, whether it’s Dalits and lower caste citizens from across the country, or the Dravidian residents of the southern parts of the country (both associated, though not entirely accurately, with darker skin colour), are merely tolerated. These two strains of bigotry - race and caste - combine to create a society where darkness is, at best, treated as a personal failing, something that you must strive to overcome. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and, eventually, violence.

Much of the blame for the persistence of such toxic attitudes towards skin colour rest with India’s pop culture and mass media industries. Bollywood, as always, has been a pioneer. For decades, people of darker skin colour have been pushed to the margins, relegated to the role of caricature or villain. Take for example the still iconic song from the 1965 film Gumnaam, in which comedian Mehmood tries to win the attention of Anglo-Indian actress Helen. “Hum kaale hue to kya hua dilwale hain (so what if I’m black, I still love you),” he sings, reinforcing the improbability of a beautiful (read fair-skinned) woman like Helen falling in love with a dark-skinned man. More recently, there was the 2008 film Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to a black man. There’s also a long history of Indian films featuring "blackface" and racist stereotypes of black Africans, best exemplified by a horrifying scene from 2000 film Hadh Kar Di Aapne, in which… actually, just watch it yourself because I can’t figure out a way to put it into words without throwing my laptop out the window.

Indian television is no different, with dark-skinned actors - especially women - so rarely seen on programmes or advertising, that any advertisement that dares to break the norm is celebrated as groundbreakingly progressive. And then there’s the fairness cream industry, endorsed by a host of top film and television celebrities, with advertisements that inextricably link fairness not just to beauty but also to employability, self-confidence and suitability for marriage. Just take a look at this epic five part tele-commercial by Ponds, appropriately titled White Beauty. The focus on whiteness is relentless, and this colourism runs rampant even as Indian movies and television borrow and steal from black culture at will, even bringing in rap artists like Snoop Dogg and T-Pain to perform on Bollywood songs. It’s another thing that Snoop Dogg - or anyone with the same skin colour - has as much chance of playing the lead in Bollywood as I have of becoming Potus.

In recent years, as Indians outrage about racist attacks against non-resident Indians (NRIs) in the US and Europe and get involved in global conversations about racism and cultural appropriation, many of us have also started turning a spotlight on racism back home. The fairness cream industry is facing increasing criticism, even from high profile actors like Abhay Deol who would otherwise earn big money by appearing in their ads. Explicit racism in film and in advertising no longer goes unchallenged. When former Miss World and current Bollywood royalty Aishwarya Rai appeared in a print ad for a jewellery brand that alluded to 17th century European paintings of noblewomen, complete with emaciated black child servant holding up a red parasol, she was met with a barrage of criticism and outrage that forced the company to withdraw the ad. But as last month’s attacks make clear, this is not nearly enough.

First, the Indian government and our political class needs to acknowledge that racism and anti-blackness are a real problem, instead of trying to brush it under the carpet. Step one would be to bring in a long overdue law against racial discrimination. But as the persistence of caste despite the legal abolition of caste distinctions 70 year ago shows, having laws on the books is not enough. We need massive programmes to sensitise police, bureaucrats and the public at large about the toxic effects of racism and how to counter it. Racist stereotypes in media and public discourse should be shut down, not tolerated or even reproduced by political leaders as they are now. Anti-racist and anti-caste discourse should be an integral part of the school curriculum. Celebrities, activists and civil society needs to be much more vocal in their critique of racist and colourist speech and actions. There are more than enough policy prescriptions out there, if we can find the political will to put them into action. And we must find it soon. Or our kids will continue to grow up with the notion that social worth is tied to where you are on the Fitzpatrick scale, they will continue to weaponise skin colour in schools and in playgrounds. And for those of us with darker skin, whether black Africans or "black" Indians, the possibility of sudden, explosive violence will always lurk around the corner.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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