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The Rediff Special/ Piali Roy
Paki-Bashing In The Age Of Subcontinental Nukes
Paki-bashing is back. Instead of white neo-nazis on the rampage, NRIs and Americans of Indian origin have reclaimed that racist slur to denigrate Pakistanis during the current Kargil crisis. Newsflash to Ignorant Indians: Long before we became South Asians, desis or Indian-Americans, we were all once Pakis.
On Kargil-related websites and email discussion lists, many Indian (nationals) are lashing out at "those Pakis" and "idiot Pakis". Even the media is picking up on this disturbing phenomenon.. India Today columnist Dilip Bobb cavalierly mentions how Paki-bashing is a safe electoral bet for the "ruling party".
Rediff carries a headline on an Indo-Pak tea summit, punning on the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai to Hindi-Paki chai chai. The New York Post joins in with a prescient headline, "India: Pakis Killed POWs", catching the faux pas in time for its daily edition, not its electronic version.
Once the domain of epithet-shouting skinheads, the indiscriminate use of a slur by the very people who were once targeted is unbelievable. Name-calling in such a highly charged atmosphere is expectedly juvenile but hardly exceptional. But to anyone who grew up south Asian in this country, Canada or the UK, who was beaten up, chased down a road, had their home set on fire, even pushed onto subway tracks, all because of the colour of their skin, this is an abomination. The out-of-context return of a word so charged with hate and ice-cold fear feels like a slap in the face.
Originating in England when south Asians began immigrating in greater numbers in the 1950s, it was the kind of language that would easily spurt out of an English racist in a Hanif Kureishi film. The Oxford English Dictionary dates its first usage in print to only 1964. It migrated to Canada by the late '60s and early '70s when its borders were allowed to be opened up. By the 1980s, 'dothead' and 'curryhead' were merely American alternates in New Jerseyite dot-buster's vocabulary.
To be called a 'Paki' was the great leveler, transcending all boundaries -- your local racists kindly ignored class, creed, color, class and caste when it came to the hunt. The histories of nations were wiped clean by a steel-toed boot, a tabula rasa created by men blinded by hate. They knew nothing of Partition, the wars between India and Pakistan, the civil war in Sri Lanka, and the Liberation of Bangladesh. It didn't matter whether you were Parsi or Christian, working-class or filthy rich, Sinhalese or Sikh, Bangladeshi or Gujarati.
But I'm not a Paki, you say? I remember the differences, the turmoil of the subcontinent, I know with whom I identify. As American writer, Bharati Mukherjee, stated in 1981: "For an Indian of my generation, to be called a 'Paki' is about as appealing as it is for an Israeli to be called a 'Syrian'."
She and others simply don't get it. It wasn't about whether we were Pakistani or not, but the inequality facing all of us in countries around the world.
What has happened now is the misappropriation of a word so imbued with our oppression in the West. While other African-American and gay communities have rehabilitated 'nigger' and 'queer', we have chosen to reclaim a term of abuse and partition its meaning. To misquote Salman Rushdie, Indians have "adopted the demon-tag the farangis hung around their necks." But they have not turned "insults into strengths... to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn".
Fortunately some young South Asians are actively employing our own symbol of our marginalized status, that symbol of intimidation and racial discrimination, without any sense of us vs them.
Are Indian immigrants (sojourners and expats) so removed from their experiences in this country not to recognize these kinds of connections? We demonstrate an incredible selective use of memory to remember past wrongs on the subcontinent and highlight current troubles, but are not as vigilant about our history here.
Of course, we have a multiplicity of identities and experiences, but when we "demonize" and "essentialize" Pakistanis, we stoop to the level of those who once oppressed us. Why should anyone listen to complaints from the Indian community in the US -- other Americans shouldn't have to be more politically correct than us.
When we use 'Paki' against each other, we lose. We disrespect every migrant before us who suffered the indignity of prejudice. To appropriate a Western slur used against all of us to attack some of us is true degradation. Who said the Empire Struck Back? The imperialists and their progeny, the neo-Nazis, have won.
(Piali Roy has been published in several Canadian publications)
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