Over the course of last December and into this January, media around the world were captivated by the story of a horrific gang rape and beating in Delhi which left the victim dead after struggling for survival in the hospital. The nature of the reporting on this incident was highly sensationalised, and it carried heavy overtones of racism and colonialism in the Western media, which managed to turn Indian men into unschooled savages and Indian women into delicate, fragile flowers.
References were constantly made to the limited Western understanding of India; if I had a penny for every time someone brought up Bollywood, I’d be a wealthy person now. This incident, according to the West, highlighted the horrors of those brown lower classes, and that was only brought home when protesters took to the streets en masse to demand justice and talk about issues specific to India.
Yet, as Emer O’Toole pointed out writing for The Guardian, rarely did the minds of the West turn to self-reflection. This was a discussion about ‘savages’ and brutality in a far off, scary place where bad things happened because, you know. They’re in the Global South, land of repressed women and uniformly awful experiences and lack of civilisation. Thanks to the unrelenting parade of development and poverty porn produced by the West for Western eyes, people thought they had a good idea of ‘what India is like.’
Child prostitutes, starving people on the streets, lepers, filthy wells, sickness, disease, oppressed women. You know. Because that’s how those ‘savages’ over there live; and in that climate, naturally, of course, the fragile women, utterly lacking in self-determination, would be vulnerable to horrific acts of violence committed by marauding bands of men, nay, monsters, hyenas. Because this is how the West perceives India; it is simultaneously exotic and captivating (Bollywood, saris, bindis as fashion accessories) and dirty and gross and Other. The experiences of actual Indian people are presumed to be uniform in misery and sadness, struggling in a ‘developing nation.’ Why, the poor dears have to come all the way to the United States or Britain for a ‘decent education’! If they want a real chance in life, they’ll have to open up a chip shop or curry house to send money home to their families!
This attitude towards the Global South in media carries the rank stench of colonialism, but more than that, it perpetuates colonialist ideas. We are economic and cultural colonisers, and we are never afraid to exert our incredible power over the nations we hold under our thumbs. We dictate the day to day lives of many communities in the Global South through our economic, cultural, and social policies, through our distribution of aid, through our attitudes.
India may have been independent from British rule since 1947, but the imposition of Western thought, economics, and more has never truly left the country, which continues to be viewed as lesser because it is a former colonial power. It is still, we seem to believe, our responsibility to ‘civilise’ India, to protect and foster this delicate nation, and, of course, to uniformly judge and caricature its residents.
O’Toole’s piece pointed out that many discussions of the crime in Delhi made it seem like gang rape is something that only happens ‘over there’ and that the West is somehow immune to rape and violence against women. Which is rather peculiar, given the horrifically high rates of rape and violence against women in the West. In fact, O’Toole pointed out:
For example, this BBC article states, as if shocking, the statistic that a woman is raped in Delhi every 14 hours. That equates to 625 a year. Yet in England and Wales, which has a population about 3.5 times that of Delhi, we find a figure for recorded rapes of women that is proportionately four times larger: 9,509. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal decries the fact that in India just over a quarter of alleged rapists are convicted; in the US only 24% of alleged rapes even result in an arrest, never mind a conviction.
Who are the ‘savages’ now? Who is in need of reforms and lecturing imposed by outsiders now? O’Toole correctly notes that a sense of cultural superiority dripped through all of the Western reporting on the Delhi incident; people handwrug appropriately but at the same time exhibited a certain sense of smugness in discussions about all of the violence and terrible things that happen to women ‘over there,’ but what can you expect from a nation only so recently independent, and so very…brown? The same kind of rhetoric has been used for centuries, and it’s not at all surprising, although deeply disgusting, to see such racism and colonialism casually repeated in the Western media as it maintains its stranglehold on whiteness and rightness.
The West acts as though India is innately stuck in these patterns of violence and brutality, against the face of evidence that such horrors also exist in the West. The implication, of course, is that ‘those people’ are just ‘like that,’ and it’s the same kind of argument seen in discussions of violence among minority communities in the West; apparently the Black community is just ‘innately violent,’ you see, and factors like economic and social disparities have absolutely nothing to do with it, let alone racism. And the assertion by the West that it is superior ignores the fact that the indubitable disparities between India and the West, and the low standard of living for many people struggling to survive in India, owe their genesis not to some sort of innate inferiority on the part of India, but to Western policies, capitalism, and the long arm of racism and colonialism, which still hovers over the region with greedy, grasping fingers.