KS Dakshina Murthy

Pitroda’s remarks were not racist, he was praising India

sam pitroda
Pitroda's contribution to the initial development and modernisation of India’s telecom infrastructure and his visionary advice to the then Rajiv Gandhi government in the 1980s gave a massive head-start to the country. | File photo

To wilfully misinterpret Sam Pitroda’s statement and embarrass him in front of the world is an act of ingratitude by a nation he served for the better part of his life.

Sam Pitroda must be wondering what hit him. Here he was eulogising India’s diversity and the fact that despite perceived cultural differences, the country was united even 75 years after Independence. And, before long, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the middle of an election campaign set the cat among the pigeons, accusing him of racism.

Pitroda’s analogy was interpreted as racist because, in his eagerness to stress the point about unity in diversity, the renowned technocrat likened Indians in the south to Africans, in the north-east to Chinese, in the north to Whites and in the west to Arabs.

The stormy chain reaction from the Sangh ecosystem, dog-whistled by the prime minister, snowballed in a few hours into an avalanche of criticism which ended up singeing the Congress party leadership in India. Before long, Pitroda stepped down as chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress and the party spokesperson Jairam Ramesh issued a note deprecating his analogy, terming it “most unfortunate and unacceptable”.

Is this racism?

Pitroda had particularly touched a raw nerve when he likened South Indians to Africans. Indians, especially in the South, are prickly when it comes to skin colour. Matrimonial advertisements are replete with requests for “fair, wheatish complexioned” matches and many routinely dab talcum powder to decrease the intensity of their dark, brown complexions.

To be compared to Africans is perceived as perhaps the worst slur that can be hurled at a South Indian. The subtext is: you are as dark-skinned as an African. But, is this racism? And, does an African means nothing more than their skin colour?

The African community, like other ancient civilisations, has contributed enormously to this planet. The world’s earliest knowledge systems emerged from Africa. According to historians, ancient Egypt for example had one of the most efficient administrative set ups, sophisticated technology in common use, complex religious systems and well developed art and architecture. Its pyramids are a construction marvel and continue to fascinate the world even today.

‘Dark continent’

Western colonization proved extremely harmful for Africa, and the White European colonizers created and perpetuated the misleading image of a “dark continent”. Sadly, this myth continues in large part to this day. If the world today gyrates to blues, jazz, reggae or any of the other popular innovative forms of beat music, credit goes to the Africans singularly.

If India is beholden to Mahatma Gandhi, let none forget that it was in South Africa he was blooded politically and grew into one of the tallest leaders of all time, eventually leading India to its Independence from colonial rule.

Inspired by Gandhi was another great statesman Nelson Mandela who showed the world there was an alternative to revenge, bloodshed and gore. Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission prevented large-scale violence and bloodletting when Apartheid was abolished. He was the spirit behind his country’s Constitution, acknowledged as one of the most evolved and progressive in the modern world.

Inspired by Mandela, Rwanda after the 1994 genocide adopted its own truth and reconciliation programme that put an end to any possibility of further cycles of mindless violence and revenge.

Since decolonization, Africa has progressed in impressive ways. There are economic and social challenges and internal conflicts in parts of Africa but there are also countries like Tanzania, South Africa and Botswana that are fairly well developed or on the way there.

Praising diversity

Anyway, what is racism? It is when a community of people are discriminated against and wronged based on their race or ethnicity. And racial profiling? When an individual is suspected of an unspecified crime merely based on his/her ethnicity, religion or nationality.

But what was Pitroda trying to say? He was talking in high praise of India and its diversity – that whole groups of people who are so different from one another have lived in peace and harmony as part of one nation for the last 75 years. Anything wrong in what he said?

To stress the point to a foreign audience, he likened people in various parts of the country to those in other parts of the world. The analogy may be contestable, but surely what Pitroda said was not racist and never intended to be one.

Racist response

Ironically, it was the response to Pitroda’s statement that appears to be racist. Social media posts appeared quickly pointing out that Pitroda had likened South Indians to Africans, interpreting it to mean they are both dark-skinned as if there was something negative about it.

Pitroda, without realising it, had plonked his foot wrong in a land that is among the highest consumers of the “Fair and Lovely” cosmetic cream, which claims to lighten black/brown skin into a fair complexion; and, where socially brown/dark-skinned individuals have to get used to always being the underdog.

He also inadvertently touched another raw nerve by likening Indians in the East to the Chinese. In the rest of India it’s a fact that most can’t distinguish the features of people in the North-East from the Chinese, Japanese or the Indochina region. This does occasionally cause embarrassment to Indians from the North-Eastern states who also often times need to confront rude behaviour bordering on the violent.

No racial connotation

But again, when Pitroda likened the features of Eastern individuals to that of the Chinese, he did not intend it to be a racial connotation for the simple reason that it was in the context of praise for the diverse Indian nation.

The BJP and its top leadership should have paused before attacking Pitroda. But what of the Congress? Instead of standing up for Pitroda, and taking on the BJP’s narrative, the party dropped him like a prickly porcupine – yet again showing that the Congress, when it comes to the crunch, woefully lacks the courage of conviction.

And who, by the way, is Sam Pitroda? He may be incidentally associated with a political party. But his contribution to the initial development and modernisation of India’s telecom infrastructure and his visionary advice to the then Rajiv Gandhi government in the 1980s gave a massive head-start to the country. It later enabled India to grab first-mover advantage of the technological revolution that swept the world.

Pitroda is no career politician. He does not need to be in politics to make his presence felt. His footprint on India’s telecom programme is history. So, why would someone of Pitroda’s stature seek to demean his own country or make racist comments to put his people down?

To wilfully misinterpret Pitroda’s remarks and embarrass him in front of the world is an act of ingratitude by a nation he served for the better part of his life.

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