Sunday, October 30, 2011

They are like that only

Readers of my blog will know that "profiling" (racial, ethnic and other) is a form of injustice that disturbs me considerably. I blogged about a recent incident here.

Over the years I realised that my strong distaste for profiling was not universally shared. A decade ago I spent a year at Princeton, starting a couple of weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and read with dismay as numerous incidents of profiling unfolded, some leading to deaths and others merely to absurd situations like this one (on balance though, I have to say that the number of such incidents was extremely modest in post 9/11 USA compared to say the anti-Sikh and anti-Muslim pogroms in India). But when I sought to raise the issue at the lunch table in Princeton, a very respected physicist shocked me by saying that a few people being wrongly profiled was quite natural and acceptable in the prevailing situation.

Since then I've encountered this sort of "tolerance" of injustice on a surprising number of occasions. What disturbs me is not that it exists but that it can be found among people who are (or believe they are) well-meaning liberals. These people may themselves bear no ill-will toward the community being profiled, but for some reason are willing to express opinions that end up encouraging the biases of others far less liberal than themselves.

Which brings me to the topic. Recently the Vice-Chancellor of Hyderabad Central University ended up in a confrontation with students at his university who hail from the North-East of India. According to the reports, it started with a couple of incidents of alcohol-fueled violence on campus, in which some students from the North-East were implicated. Thereupon the VC is said to have convened a meeting of faculty members from the same region and "informed them that the university administration would carry out a series of reform measures to curb consumption of alcohol and drugs on campus and that he would "start" with the northeastern community." (the quote is from this Times of India article). This led to considerable resentment from the students, and accusations of racial profiling. In particular an association of students from the North-East pointed out during their protest that other non-North-Eastern students had been involved in the drinking incidents that provoked the row. They also complained that they themselves were constantly being profiled by students around them ("are you cooking dog meat?" etc) and the VC's action would only make things worse.

I waited several days before blogging about this, hoping that it would all somehow turn out to be a mistake and that the VC, someone I know well and who moreover blogs at this site, had never actually said what he was accused of saying: that he wanted to "start with the northeastern community". But though there has been a creditably profuse apology, which seems to have been accepted by the students concerned, there has in fact been no denial of the original accusation, neither in the press nor on the VC's blog. So I assume that he did decide to address this problem by "starting" with the NE students.

Which leads to a lot of possibilities, all very unsavoury and all taking place anyway. When riots take place or there are bomb attacks, the tendency is to "start with the Muslims". This demonises a whole community, some believe rightfully. The questions that rarely gets prominence are: (i) when placing human beings into categories, are we exercising objective choices or indulging in knee-jerk reactions? (ii) when singling out a category of human beings for reform, what message do we send to those members already completely innocent of the charge?, (iii) what is gained by focusing on entire communities rather than individuals?

To illustrate my points: about (i), one could well argue that terrorist attacks today are motivated by religious fundamentalism, so instead of drawing a bracket around Muslims, one could more appropriately draw it around religious fundamentalists of all hues. This is not to say one should actually do this -- even among religious fundamentalists, only very few are motivated to actually commit violence. The question should in fact be turned around: by bracketing very general categories ("North-Easterners", "Muslims" etc) one includes so many irrelevant people in the net that the real culprits can easily slip out of it. On point (ii), we have for years been seeing the effect of profiling on Kashmiri youth, who find they are all considered "suspected terrorists" and, not at all surprisingly, have reacted with a profound hatred for the Indian state.

There are other forms of profiling not based on ethnicity or religion. Some years ago I had a heated argument with a close friend (and reader of this blog). The issue at hand was an accusation of gender-based discrimination by a female faculty member against the Director of her institution. I had asked my friend if she knew the facts of the case, and my friend responded that though she did not have any hard evidence, she was inclined to believe the accusations because gender-based discrimination in academia was extremely common.

Now on the latter point, I heartily agree with my friend. The problem of gender-based discrimination in Indian academia is huge and its existence is almost totally denied even today (ironically a lot of it is based on profiling, e.g. "why admit girl students for an advanced degree when they'll just get married and stay home in the end"). Nevertheless, using this as "evidence" against the Director in a gender discrimination case amounts to profiling. While it may be good fun to profile Directors, it's not right.

Nor is it right when Directors - and VC's - resort to profiling. Moreover it's not constructive or helpful in any situation. So my advice to VC's is, when you feel the urge to place a community within brackets, Just Say No.

1 comment:

Neelima said...

Sunil, there was one hard fact in the case at discussion which was both indisputable and improper, and may even have been illegal (I assume we both refer to the same case). It has never been denied. Any opinions on *why* it was done, may be based on prejudice, `profiling', stereotyping, whatever, but there is no question that something was done which should not have been done, and let us not forget that!