Open Essay

A Brief History of Colour and Power

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a journalist and author of several books. He is an Open contributor
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What the nomination of Richard Rahul Verma as America’s ambassador to India tells us about race and the American Dream

Barack Obama has nominated someone who epitomises the American Dream to be the next United States ambassador to India. But he isn’t the first American to think this country deserves a distinctive envoy. A conference of American foreign service officials in New Delhi in 1949 recommended that as many Black diplomats as possible should be posted here. As Larry Wilson, the American consul in Bombay, ‘a big, genial-looking café-au-lait-coloured Negro’, whispered awestruck to Saunders Redding, a Black writer on a State Department sponsored lecture tour, “Man, we’re dealing with coloured people in a coloured country!” It was a novel situation that Westerners, especially American Blacks, interpreted in terms of their own experience with little comprehension of the nuanced attitude to race and roots in a land whose ancient caste system—varna—means colour.

The return of the native, too, has been tried before. A Bengali woman academic who proudly wears her Oxford degree on her sari sneered that Sanjay Wadhwani—whom she didn’t know then—had “managed to cultivate a very English accent” and was disconcerted to learn he was Her Britannic Majesty’s very capable deputy high commissioner in Kolkata. Sanjay was born in the city of a Sindhi father and British mother but was whisked off as a child to London where he grew up an Englishman. Since he looks Asian, the professor lady assumed he was another social climbing native. Britain’s first full-blown Asian-origin envoy, Sylhet-born Anwar Bokth Choudhury, high commissioner to Bangladesh, also had to contend with a similar mix of smugness, snobbishness and stupidity. Choudhury’s appointment prompted a senior Bangladeshi diplomat to mock he had obviously passed the Tebbit test, meaning the jibe by a Conservative politician, Norman Tebbit, that Britons of South Asian origin who cheered India or Pakistan during cricket matches with England weren’t really British. The Bangladeshi didn’t know that anticipating sneers, Choudhury, whom his British colleagues regard as one of the brightest and best, had taken the bull by the horns. Asked who he would support when England played Bangladesh, he replied boldly, “Since I am a representative of Her Majesty’s Government, I will support England. My priority is serving HMG.”

The murmurs persisted. Some in Dhaka thought Choudhury stuck up because he spoke only English. Others hinted he dared not lapse into Bengali in case the Sylheti dialect came flooding out. Speech is always a complicating factor. Australians who overheard me telling a very haw-haw Australian diplomat who yearned for a New Delhi posting that Indians would take him for a member of the British mission thought I was putting him down. But the man himself was delighted. He was also convinced Indians would see him as a pukka sahib and love him for it.

Someone who has moved from the Third World to the First is envied as the one that got away. Or, he is accused of betraying his birthright. If he is black, brown or yellow and returns as diplomatic representative of a white nation, the black, brown or yellow folk to whom he is accredited may grumble about being palmed off with second best. Jawaharlal Nehru claimed in An Autobiography that Britain led the global pecking order followed after a long gap by Whites from the old dominions and Anglo-Saxon Americans, but ‘not dagoes, wops, etc’. Then came Western Europeans, the rest of Europe, Latin South Americans and, after another long gap, ‘the brown, yellow and black races of Asia and Africa, all bunched up more or less together.’

It’s for sociologists to decide whether coy references to complexion in matrimonial ads (‘wheat-complexioned’) reflect varna or our colonial complex. Perhaps both. Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh immigrant to the United States who unsuccessfully petitioned for citizenship claiming to be ‘a descendant of the Aryans of India, belonging to the Caucasian race (and, therefore) white...’ articulated a deeply-held national belief that one also meets in Evelyn Waugh’s delightful novel Scoop. When the Daily Beast reporter assigned to cover the war between the Patriots and Traitors in a mythical African country asks if Reds are fighting Blacks, the foreign editor explains things aren’t quite so easy. ‘“You see they are all Negroes. And the Fascists won’t be called Black because of their racial pride, so they are called White after the White Russians. And the Bolshevists want to be called Black because of their racial pride. So when you say Black you mean Red, and when you mean Red you say White, and when the party who calls themselves Blacks says Traitors they mean what we call Blacks, but what we mean when we say Traitors I really couldn’t tell you.”’ It’s not unlike the Bengali ‘ujjal shyam varna’—literally ‘bright colour of the evening’—for a dark girl who might be a liability on the marriage mart.

Given Indian sensitivities, Nehru may not have been pleased to learn that Loy Henderson, the American ambassador, reported that the Prime Minister was ‘constitutionally unhappy’ unless he was leading a global union of coloured peoples. The ‘coloured’ would have raised Nehru’s hackles. While Nehru loved the crack about never visiting America for the first time, Rabindranath Tagore paid no fewer than five visits to the land of the free. That didn’t stop him from railing after a brush with San Francisco immigration officials that they would refuse Christ Himself admission ‘because, first of all, He would not have the necessary money and secondly He would be an Asiatic.’

Some Americans thought his fulminations ironic. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson tell us that since he was paid handsomely for his lectures ($700-$1,000), the Minneapolis Tribune called Tagore ‘the best business man who ever came to us out of India’. He scolded Americans at ‘$700 per scold’ for being materialistic and pleaded with them ‘at $700 per plead’ for funds for Santiniketan. The New York Times dealt the unkindest cut of all when he won the Nobel Prize, saying that ‘if not exactly one of us, [he] is, as an Aryan, a distant relative of all white folk.’

That was only a small taste of what Indians had to endure. ‘The big problem was colour, pure and simple,’ recalled Amar Bose, born in Philadelphia in 1930 and a household name worldwide because of his sound system. ‘There wasn’t a restaurant in Philadelphia where I could be served. In those days you couldn’t even rent a house.’ Sikhs were called ‘ragheads.’ As chairman of the Allahabad municipal board, Nehru pushed through a resolution deploring the treatment of Indians in the United States. India didn’t then host any African students to complain of never being invited to an Indian home. Nor were there interfering foreigners to report to the United Nations that Africans were jeered at on Indian streets as hubshi.

But American politicians and press went into overdrive shrieking India was racist during PV Narasimha Rao’s 1994 visit. Apparently fearing Khalistani, rebel Kashmiri or Tamil Tiger assassins, the Prime Minister’s security chief asked his Washington hotel not to allow South Asians near him. One non-White was the same as another for the hotel manager who ruled that ‘no African- American could carry (Narasimha Rao’s) bags, no Asian could clean his room, no Latinos could serve him his food.’ He ‘had to be served by whites only, American or European.’ The New York Times demanded to know ‘whether a foreign head of state has been fostering racial discrimination here.’ Michael T Duffy, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination, thought the episode ‘too outrageous to be true.’ India explained it had not asked for discrimination ‘on the basis of race or colour’, the hotel apologised, and the matter blew over.

This wasn’t The New York Times’s first outburst of sanctimoniousness. In 1955 it had preached to India’s ambassador, Gaganvihari Lallubhai Mehta, ‘and his fellow countrymen, and all persons of all races, tints and colours… that as the months and years go by, we in this country are trying more and more to treat individuals as the democratic tradition says we ought to—that is, on the sole basis of their qualities as human beings.’ The excuse for the sermon was the decision of the White woman manager at Houston’s airport restaurant to show Mehta and his secretary to a separate room. She took them for Negroes. Neither raised any objection but when an American reporter who witnessed the incident kicked up a fuss, the manager retorted that she realised the Indians were VIPs and gave them a private room.

Roughly three million Indian Americans (not to be confused with American Indians) celebrated Narendra Modi’s visit. There were only 136 between 1820 and 1870 when the number rose to 586. 6,000 labourers migrated to the west coast between 1898 and 1914. Political refugees, stalwarts of the Ghadar party, increased their ranks. The 1917 Immigration Act was weighted against Indians, and in 1923 the Supreme Court declared Indians ineligible for citizenship. It wasn’t until 1965 that explicit national discrimination was abolished to attract scientists and engineers. Also, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society needed Third World doctors. Gradually, Indian Americans acquired money and position.

Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, 58, the House of Representatives’ first ethnic Indian member, who flew into Calcutta on a December day in 1957, was an outstanding symbol of success. Travelling steerage from Southampton to New York two years after the peace of Versailles, he waited heart in mouth in the queue at dreaded Ellis Island when a police inspector took him out of the line, had his papers stamped, shook his hand, and told him proudly, “You are now a free man in a free country!” His election on the Democratic ticket was remarkable for he won from a Republican district, defeating a famous woman flier married to a wealthy industrialist. Also unusual for a novice, he was at once included in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

If Saund was one symbol of success, his fellow Punjabi, Richard Rahul Verma, Obama’s ambassadorial nominee, is another. Verma symbolises the triumph of two democracies. His father was the first literate person in his family but taught English at the University of Pittsburgh for 40 years. Himself a lawyer, with extensive experience in national security and non-proliferation issues and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, Verma shouldn’t be surprised if Punjabis are possessive about his inspirational career. I can think of six other senior Indian-origin appointments during a presidency that itself made ethnic history. It invites comparison with Singapore, where a popular joke had a European dignitary wondering if he had taken the wrong flight and landed in India when he was received at Changi airport by President Devan Nair and introduced to Foreign Minister Suppiah Dhanabalan. But a word of warning: liberalism can go too far. Nirad C Chaudhuri’s dismissiveness when Amartya Sen became Master of Trinity was a reminder that elitist Indians can be like Groucho Marx who didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.