By Murchana Kaushik- first year PhD student at QUB
Russia launched an armed invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. While the war continues to rage, it seems to have opened the Pandora’s Box on the sidelines! It has again highlighted that otherising people based on race and nationalistic sentiments is a common practice even today!
To one’s dismay, imprints of racial discrimination are seen in the deliberations of some international media platforms. Some of them are terrified that European Christians (blue-eyed, blonde-haired) are the victims of the war led by Russia. For example, while lamenting the plight of the Ukrainians, an NBC news correspondent stated, “These are not refugees from Syria, they are refugees from Ukraine… They’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar”. While some have expressed their disbelief that an European nation is being attacked, others have grieved the victimisation of a civilized, developed European country. A CBS news correspondent asserted, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European- I have chosen these words carefully too- city, one where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen”. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov is reported to have said, “These are not the refugees we are used to. They are Europeans, intelligent, educated people, some are IT programmers… this is not the usual refugee wave of people with an unknown past. No European country is afraid of them”. Further reflecting their inherent tendency to add a politico-religious twist to the event, some have hailed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a Jewish hero (since he is a Jew by religion) fighting against Russia!
There are media reports of racial discrimination being faced by ‘coloured’ people on the Ukraine border. Persons of non-white, African and Asian origin who have been staying in Ukraine for a long time for education, jobs, etc., have accused the Ukrainian army of providing differential treatment to ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ people in the Ukraine border while they were trying to flee. Students of non-European origin have reported being denied at the Ukraine border while trying to leave the war-torn country. Reports of African students being pushed down from trains, of Ukrainian and Polish citizens being provided with the privilege to use (pass-through) faster vehicle lanes while denying the same to ‘foreigners’ have also been seen. Several students of Indian origin have also accused the guards at the border and at different check-posts in Ukraine of physically assaulting people of foreign origin for no reason. Some students have also accused border guards of categorizing people based on race and nationalities at the Ukraine border. While the ‘whites’, particularly the Ukrainians and the Polish, are said to have been offered privileges like food and easy access across the border, those from non-European nations and of ‘non-white’ racial backgrounds are said to have been denied the same.
Ukraine is a popular destination for higher studies for lakhs of students from India. In particular, many aspiring doctors from India pursue their medical studies in Ukraine. While there can be seen increasing international mobility (to different destinations) among students in India for higher studies, the case of Ukraine deserves particular attention in present times for reasons that do not need to be reiterated. The plight of the students trying to escape the war-inflicted country of Ukraine has been highlighted well by the media. While a significant number of them have reached home safely, there are others who are trapped in the conflict zone. To one’s surprise, these students struggling to save their lives have been able to brew some opinionated discussions among their fellow countrymen. The problem apparently lies in the fact that they went abroad for their studies. After all, had they chosen to study in India, they would not be trapped in a war situation and would not have had to face all the trouble! Passing comments like “Why should one leave the country for higher studies when the same can be done in India?” “Let them (the students) face the consequences of being in a foreign land”, “Must have gone abroad to study as they failed to qualify for the entrance exams in India”, etc., are being heard in tea-table talks and social media deliberations. Most of such discussions end up accusing these students of not being nationalist enough as they chose to leave their country for a foreign destination! Some may argue that such convictions have been expressed only by a minority and are not representative of the larger public conscience. But, values and opinions are not always judged by the strength of numbers alone.
The underlying idea reflected in all of these is the dichotomy of ‘us versus them’. It is the inherent tendency to juxtapose the ‘us’ as superior/ better/ right against the ‘them’ who are considered inferior/ wrong, etc. It is, however, striking that the definitions and boundaries of the identity of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ keep changing with changing circumstances. What is bizarre is that we often take the liberty to redefine and mould the identities of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as per our convenience. While sometimes we assert our caste/ clan identities, we choose to prioritise our nationality identities on other occasions. While at times we may appraise cosmopolitanism, at other times we accuse the same of destroying our indigenous identity. While on the one hand, we hold our language, food, customs, etc., in high esteem, on the other hand, we look down upon those of the others. There is an inherent tendency to perceive ‘differences’ through the lens of discrimination and division. It makes one wonder that while we witness and lament over the war in Ukraine, do we also see that a multiplicity of them are raging among ourselves?