Fear of Small Numbers


By Soibam Haripriya

The past few weeks have seen sporadic racial violence in the national capital. A lot of people from the “Northeast”, especially in the academics and civil society sector, have also been asked to put their perspectives on the “issue”.  So finally after a long time racism seems to be in the radar which is good news. But one need not rejoice much as one still needs to think through what kind of racism is on the radar. The incident against the Ugandan women led by the then law Minister of a party which calls itself the Aam Aadmi Party is not discussed still to the extent as the racism against the “northeast” is. The incident also points to the collusion of the state, its representatives and its machinery in racist attacks, similar to its endorsement of communal, caste and gender based violence. There is still a huge discomfort to admitting that we are a racist society and “race” based crimes get endorsed on the excuse of saving the “north Indian” society from the cultural affront that women and men of certain “ra
ce” or nationality presents. Our selective anger and mobilisation on the lines of nationality is deeply problematic and reveals the lack of an intention to engage with racism head on. The attempt now should be to connect these different incidences as stemming from the same way of looking at people who are “different”.  

Discourse on race teaches us that race is essentially a false category made socially real by our belief in it. Racism is propelled by the placing certain values on physical difference, values that mostly create hierarchy and fear. The idea of “race” which lies at the heart of racism has been long dismantled by works both in disciplines of sciences and social sciences, yet this false category remains a historical and lived reality. What people perceive of as characteristics of a certain “race”/ “people”/ “community” are not real yet lazy stereotypes abound in thoughts and consequently in words that we use as a part of our everyday. The stereotypes also seem to create an unnatural and absurd fear –the fear of small numbers (“Fear of Small Numbers” is the title of a book by Arjun Appadurai). The fear of small numbers is perhaps an almost pathological disorder when you start seeing the minority everywhere, when you fear being overrun by them. For the “mainstream” we seem to be just that –the racial other, a small number to be feared, who make insidious insinuation against the national army or perhaps the idea of the nation itself.

While Indians are quick to call the legitimate legal action against an Indian bureaucrat, an act of racism, in cases of targeted violence against people of certain communities the country still refrains from calling such acts as racism. It was surprising therefore to see some contemporary observers use the term “reverse racism”. While the acts of violence in certain areas such as Manipur and Assam against the working class is a reality and has to be equally condemned, commented upon and resisted, one act does not justify the other. The truth of the matter is that the people who act out their racial prejudices in violent attacks are the same people who do not care about the labouring or exploited class and further participate in the process of exploitation of the same class in their own cities and neighbourhoods.

Most of us, especially women but men too living here for quite some time have learnt to brush aside  our everyday experience of racism; this brushing aside is the dangerous part. This should not be thought of as an acclimatisation process –something that comes with living in a city, or even as some people have written about –that one has to be glad that one is verbally harassed other than physically or sexually assaulted –should not be a requisite of staying in a city or anywhere else for that manner and certainly not for the capital of a country that claims to be based on ideas of equality and democracy. There is no logic to why women should be expected to feel fortunate that one is meted out with one type of harassment in lieu of another. Similarly it is improbable to ask men to be glad that they are called habshi/ chinky in lieu of getting killed. This is analogous to how we make verbal harassment of women sound innocuous by calling it “eve teasing” and by accepting such behaviour as part of a culture ignoring the fact that at the other end of the spectrum lies physical violence and rape. Still many are of the opinion that the so called “milder” forms of harassment are to be tolerated. The statement “learning to handle” racial slurs is akin to “learning to handle being killed”; if the latter is absurd, so is the former.

Misogynist strain of thought exists everywhere; it is not inherent but a product of socialisation. Women become the ultimate “other”. Women are the ones who are objectified, looked at with a certain lens. A woman faces verbal and physical assault every day and as a woman of a particular community looked at through a certain way; as a woman of one particular community one also become the object through which men of the same community retrieve their emasculated masculinity.  Equally unpleasant is the patronising exoticisation that we see in the present racism discussions –either the “northeasterners” are tribal, uncivilized or belong to some pristine pure insulated world, saying there are two ways of looking at us, the other–if not the uncivilized, immoral other then we are the pure unadulterated, culturally exotic other. And this is an idea which goes both ways. The danger of the latter is as immense as that of the former –common to both is that we are always the other. We are neither the forever victim nor the exotic other; we are as similar or as different as anyone else. We are not a collective without individual thought, trait or agency.


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