Why is India so racist

Right-wing extremism

Harald Fischer-Tiné

Prof. Harald Fischer-Tiné is professor for the history of the modern world at ETH Zurich.

Even if the biologically based race theory has its origin in Europe, ethnic or cultural exclusion and discrimination are not a singular phenomenon of the "old world". There were also racist ideologies in the Asia-Pacific region, some of which existed long before the clash with Europe.

Participants in an anti-racism demonstration in Tokyo in September 2013. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

In popular perception, race theories and practices are mostly understood as genuinely Western phenomena. It is associated in particular with European imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, the various currents of fascism in the 1920s-1940s or the US policy of segregation towards the Afro-American population, which was practiced until the mid-1960s. As an example of racist politics outside of Euro-America, one might think of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which collapsed in the 1990s. Asia, on the other hand, is very rarely discussed in the context of debates about the genesis and shape of racism. Does this mean that the categorization and hierarchization of population groups on the basis of actual or imagined "racial characteristics" played and does not play a role there? Is it possible in Asia to be immune to racist ideologies because a not inconsiderable part of the continent has been under the - at least partially - racially legitimized rule of western colonial powers for decades? Or perhaps precisely because of the dominant presence of Euro-American imperialism in the region, an intensive transfer of knowledge took place, through which the so-called "race science", which has long been academically acceptable, i.e. pseudo-scientific race science, from local elites in Calcutta, Tokyo or Shanghai was received?

Anyone who tries to answer such questions is confronted with the problem of the gigantic size and heterogeneity of the "Asia" area, which makes it practically impossible to make statements that are valid for the entire region. I would therefore like to focus my remarks on three Asian countries that are extremely striking for the region: Japan, China and India. The three examples are representative in that they encompass the entire range of historical developments in Asia's contacts with the West: Japan was one of the few Asian countries that not only was never under Western colonial rule, but even created its own colonial empire; China, on the other hand, was regarded as a "semi-colony" in which the dominance of Euro-America manifested itself indirectly in the imposition of unequal trade agreements and the establishment of small base colonies (such as Hong Kong); Finally, India, the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire, is a classic example of a colony of domination and exploitation. It has been profoundly shaped by the nearly 200 years that it has been under British administration.


In the so-called Meiji era, which began with the reign of Tenno Mutsuhito in 1868, Japan increasingly opened up to the West. The country underwent rapid modernization until the emperor's death in 1912. The training of the intellectual elite at the best universities in the West and the translation of the most important works from the natural sciences, humanities and political sciences into Japanese were decisive for the success of the radical restructuring program. In this way, Darwin’s Origins of Species became accessible to a Japanese readership for the first time in 1877. Far more popular was Herbert Spencer's work, whose formula of "survival of the fittest" in Japan around 1900 was often interpreted in its social Darwinian interpretation and referred to the chase against the West and the country's rise to become an important regional power in Asia.

After Japan had impressively underpinned its new role as a major military and political power with its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, foreign policy efforts were primarily aimed at banning racial thinking from international politics. On the one hand, Japan wanted to achieve full equality of treatment on the world diplomatic stage. On the other hand, the situation of Japanese migrants, who were often exposed to racist discrimination, especially in North America, should also be improved. The most impressive example of this political campaign against the persistence of racial hierarchies in international relations was the Japanese advance in 1919 to enshrine a "racial equality clause" in the statutes of the League of Nations. However, this initiative was blocked by a majority of the Western powers.

This ostentatious "anti-racism" on the international political arena was contrasted with a simultaneous selective appropriation of racist ideologies and practices in Japan itself and its colonial empire. This can be illustrated with a few examples. The methods of German racial studies (or: "physical anthropology") spread in Japan as early as the 1880s. The anthropologist Koganei Yoshikiyo, for example, who had studied with Rudolf Virchow in Berlin, among others, launched the first of several expeditions to Hokkaido and the Kuriles in the north of the Japanese island kingdom in 1888 in order to racially record the Ainu, the "indigenous people" there. After measuring thousands of skulls, skeletons and living people, he came to the conclusion that they were primitive trunks that were living fossils from prehistory. On the basis of such interpretations, the Ainu were repeatedly viewed as a biologically different ethnic minority and therefore excluded from the Japanese nation. Occasionally they were even presented - in the style of the "Völkerschauen" popular in Europe - as part of the supporting program of large industrial exhibitions.

Basic racist assumptions also influenced practice and the legal systems in Japan and its colonies. The particularly cruel crackdown on the Chinese, denigrated as "Chinks", during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), as manifested in the infamous Nanjing massacre, is just the tip of the iceberg At first glance, this is unspectacular fact that between 1904 and 1921 in Japan's colonial empire corporal punishment, which had long been abolished as barbaric in the motherland, was practiced on the grounds that it could be scientifically proven that this form of punishment for the culturally and physically different population of Taiwan and Korea is best suited. Another example is the hunt down of Koreans after the Kanto earthquake of 1923, who were defamed as alleged arsonists, looters and poisoners and whose persecution the authorities tolerated and in some cases even encouraged; At the same time, the Japanese colonial administration in Korea propagated a policy of assimilation that was supposed to bring Korea closer to Japan - culturally and "racially". One can thus establish a clear tension between official anti-racist political rhetoric and the reality marked by resentment and pragmatic calculation.

The fact that racist thought patterns also play a major role in popular perception can ultimately be demonstrated by the different treatment of white and Afro-American US soldiers during the occupation period 1945-53, when black GIs were denied access to certain restaurants, bars and nightclubs and Japanese women who had sexual contact with them risked total social ostracism. The widespread devaluation of people of dark skin color was also echoed a few decades later in the scandal surrounding the controversial remarks made by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1986, who had to apologize to pressure from the US government in Washington after making a public speech educational level and economic performance in the USA are falling rapidly due to the steady growth in the population of Latinos and Afro-Americans. If you keep this deep rootedness of color-coded racial stereotypes in mind, it should come as no surprise that the choice of a "halfu" (= "half-blood"), the dark-skinned daughter of a Japanese woman and an African American, was chosen as Japan's Miss Universe candidate Summer 2015 triggered nationwide expressions of discontent and defamation.


With even more justification than today's Japan, China can be seen as a prime example of "cultural ethnocentrism". Traditionally, people in the "Middle Kingdom" considered themselves to be superior to other peoples. For centuries, however, hierarchies between countries and population groups were made less on the basis of external "racial characteristics", but rather on the basis of the distinction between "civilized" and "barbarians", i.e. the alleged cultural achievements and the proximity of the respective ethnic group to China. The western-style biological racial understanding did not reach the Middle Kingdom until the 1890s and also had an impact on the existing categories of difference. The Chinese intellectuals of that time reacted very differently to the confrontation with the current racial taxonomies and to the fact that they were labeled there without exception as the "yellow race" and subordinated to the "Caucasian" or "white races". Although some rejected the western ascription as "yellow", others accepted the new category with enthusiasm and were proud of the fact that they had been classified above the "barbaric" black, brown and red races. The colonized and supposedly "degenerate" black and brown population of Africa was often presented by Chinese reformers in the early 20th century as a daunting example, from whose evolutionary errors and omissions one must learn in China. Still other intellectuals reinterpreted the talk of the "yellow race" in a completely positive way by establishing a connection with the mythical "Yellow Emperor" who, according to a Confucian legend, is said to have founded the Chinese empire.

A contentious question, however, remained as to who should be counted as part of the "yellow race". Due to the rivalry with Japan, on the one hand, clearly racist rhetoric developed, articulated efforts to distance oneself from the "dwarfs" and "monkeys" of the North Pacific island group. Reformers like the journalist Liang Qichao, on the other hand, after the devastating defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1896, emphasized the supposed blood relationship with the unloved Japanese: if the Japanese, as representatives of the "yellow races", could succeed in modernization, he argued, too their closest cousins ​​in China able to catch up with the West. At the latest in the course of the hardening of the conflict with Japan in the 1930s, such voices were practically no longer to be heard, and crude anti-Japanese racial stereotypes enjoyed great popularity again.

The creative appropriation of the (pseudo-) scientific race discourse also soon had serious consequences for domestic political debates. After 1900 a controversy arose over "race relations" between the Han Chinese and ethnic minorities such as the Miao and the Manchu. Since the rulers of the Qing dynasty were Manchu, some anti-monarchist reformers and revolutionaries postulated that the Manchu emperors were "non-racial" usurpers. National renewal must therefore be promoted solely by the Han Chinese as the only real descendants of the Yellow Emperor. In the interwar period, national revolutionaries like Chiang Kai-shek recognized the potential for political divisions in such a narrow Han nationalism and tried to save national unity by, conversely, emphasizing the close racial affinity of all ethnic groups represented in China and once again referring to the findings of science .

After Mao's victory in 1949, "physical anthropology" and "racial studies" were banned from China's universities as tools of imperialism. Class replaced race as the most important difference category. It was not until the 1980s, after the end of the Mao era, that anthropological and biological "race research" became academically acceptable again in the People's Republic of China. In some cases, they even received generous government support because the new party leadership hoped for "scientific" evidence of the close biological relationship between China's ethnic minorities and the still dominant group of the Han Chinese. Almost at the same time as the academic revival of racial studies, in the more liberal climate of the late 1980s, more popular variants of the racial discourse emerged for the first time: Since 1988, there have been again and again racially motivated attacks against African students and workers defamed as inferior and barbaric, and also in In the current public debate about the ongoing internal conflicts with Uyghurs and Tibetans, racist elements of the discourse can be seen again and again.


The question of whether there was any form of "racism" in India before the arrival of the Europeans has long been discussed academically, and in recent decades it has also acquired an explosive political dimension. On the occasion of the World Conference against Racism held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, representatives of the "untouchables" (= casteless or Dalits) from India demanded that caste discrimination be recognized and condemned as a racist practice. There is no question that forms of extreme social inequality already existed on the Indian subcontinent in pre-colonial times. Early modern sources leave no doubt that even before the intensification of the encounter with Europe in the 18th century, there was an awareness of external distinguishing features (such as skin color) of different groups. Texts from the Hindu tradition also suggest that at least among the high-caste Brahmins there was a pronounced xenophobia against "mlecchas" (impure strangers). However, to deduce from this that there were already functioning "systems" of racially motivated exclusion seems questionable. On the other hand, it is undisputed that racial terminology became firmly anchored in the country when, in the course of the colonization of India, the scholarly discussion of Indian languages ​​and local religious and social practices gradually began.

The triumphant advance of the Aryan theory is an excellent example of this. The momentous discovery of the orientalist William Jones in the late 18th century that the classical Indian language Sanskrit had a clear relationship with Latin and ancient Greek soon provoked speculations about the existence of an "Aryan primal race", which differs from what is now Iran differentiated into a European and an Indian branch through migration in different directions. Analogous to the instrumentalization of social Darwinism in China, Indian intellectuals and reformers appropriated the Indo-European Aryan discourse in various ways. Religious reformers used this new cultural resource to denounce alleged "social degeneration" in Hinduism. Leading figures of the national movement such as BG Tilak (1856-1920) also resorted to the Aryan race discourse to criticize the prevailing political power relations and - of course primarily for the upper castes - to make demands for participation - after all, you were part of the large Aryan family, which also included the British.

On the one hand, linguistic race theory had the potential to level out the "racial differences" and thus also to remove the supposed civilizational distance between the colonial rulers and the colonized, but at the same time it increased the tensions between different segments of the Indian population: Was William Jones in 1790 still convinced that he was Sanskrit is the mother of all Indian languages, studies by a colonial official in Madras, South India, showed some 60 years later that a group of South Indian, so-called "Dravidian" languages ​​differed greatly from the North Indian idioms, but were evidently closely related to one another. This so-called "Dravidian proof" fueled speculation about the unequal ethnic composition of the Indian population. According to the hypothesis, it is possible to distinguish between the descendants of Aryan immigrants in the north and Dravidian "natives" in the south. The British Orientalists assumed that the indigenous people were primitive tribes that had been "civilized" by the Aryan cultural bearers from the north. When the linguistic evidence was replaced by a colonial "race science" based on anthropometric measurements around 1900, this racial interpretation was also used to explain the caste system: The (often dark-skinned) Dravidian natives were socially excluded from the race-conscious Aryans and were used to explain the caste system Forced to perform minor jobs.The untouchable groups in northern and central India (also often dark-skinned) were, to a certain extent, relics of this historical process of exclusion.

It can be read as an irony of history that both the leaders of the Dalits excluded from Hindu society and Dravidian subnationalists from South India subsequently created their own version of the Aryan race myth, in which the fair-skinned immigrants from the northwest did not play the role of the noble Play civilization bringer, but were denounced as brutal, culturally different aggressors. The racial rhetoric in its numerous forms is thus still fueling social conflicts and political struggles for distribution in the 21st century.


In summary, a number of common cross-case observations and conclusions can be drawn. First: In all the countries or major regions of Asia examined, exclusion ideologies and practices existed long before contact with the West and were applied to both external and internal groups. Second: European race discourses became particularly powerful throughout Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Their rapid reception was generally due to the imperial world order and was largely independent of the question of whether the respective country was specifically under colonial rule or not . In all cases, the new "scientific" race theories influenced both local self-perception as well as the perception of others and the classification of other groups. Thirdly, however, this did not result in a simple "diffusion" of racist theories and practices, but rather in a complex process of locally specific processes of appropriation and modification. By overlaying local practices and discourses based mostly on cultural differences, the results of this process not only differed significantly from the European blueprint, they were also used to pursue very different agendas. In view of the many gradations and mixed forms of group hierarchies and discrimination practices in Asia, it is hardly possible to draw a line between extreme forms of culture-based ethnocentrism and Western biological racism. Fourth, and finally, it must be stated that everyday forms of racism and discrimination in globalized Asia of the 21st century seem to be just as persistent as they are in the countries of the West. On a more trivial level of everyday life it can also be observed that even decades after the end of European colonial rule over large parts of Asia, which an Indian intellectual of the 1920s cynically referred to as albinocracy (= rule of whites), fair-skinned market value and prestige in the Region are unbroken. While on the one hand African students or tourists have become more and more victims of discrimination or open attacks in recent years, in many Asian countries - India and Japan would be particularly striking examples - a cosmetics industry that promises its customers that they can do a variety of bleaching is flourishing creams come closer to the ideal of attractive fair skin.