A cellphone video from Coppell Middle School in Dallas, Texas has gone viral this past week. It shows a teenage American student telling an Indian-American pupil of his middle school to ‘move’ from the cafeteria table where the latter is seated. The name of the Indian-American student is Shaan Pritmani and he resists the attempt by his schoolmate (not yet named) to forcibly evict him.
What happens next is shocking. The American student, wearing a pastel sweatshirt, puts his right arm around Shaan Pritmani’s neck, takes him into a chokehold and physically assaults him for the next four minutes. Fourteen-year-old Shaan can be seen holding out against the assault, flailing his arms and lower body, even as other students can be heard saying “oh, here we go…. here we go,” as Shaan is dragged away from his seat towards the floor, his neck still firmly in the grip of the American student’s right arm.
More astonishing than the incident itself is the reaction of the school management to the incident, which reportedly happened on May 11. While Shaan was given three days of punishment, the unnamed teenager who attacked him was punished for just one day. Shaan’s mother Sonika Kukreja has now started a petition against the unjust punishment meted out to her son and said, “On Wednesday, May 11th, during lunch, Shaan Pritmani was physically attacked and choked by another student at his middle school. The school called his parents and informed them that their son had been in an altercation with another student. The school stated that the victim (Shaan) was at fault and received a 3-day ISS, while the aggressor only received a 1-day ISS.”
The petition goes on to state that Shaan’s friends shared the video of the assault with parents and reached out to inform them that Shaan wasn’t at fault. Shaan’s parents reached out to school authorities, shared the evidence and requested a reassessment. The school informed the parents that they have seen the video and that there will be no change in the course of action. The Coppell PD also dropped the ball. The parents tried in vain for over 2 hours to get a complaint filed, but were refused.
“Shaan’s aggressor in the video is on the wrestling team and can be seen carrying out a very dangerous carotid restraint on Shaan’s neck. This technique restricts blood flow to a person’s brain by compressing the sides of the neck where the carotid arteries are located. Shaan appears to briefly lose consciousness at the end of the neck choke maneuver,” Kukreja states further.
Due to lack of support from the Coppell Independent School District (ISD) and Coppell Police Department to correctly handle this assault, Kukreja said they are demanding that the aggressor be removed from her son’s school immediately as Shaan…does not feel safe. “Our goal is to bring awareness to the bullying and assault problem in schools everywhere. All children deserve to be safe at school. Serious repercussions need to be in place for all violence against our children. This type of aggression needs to stop!”
This incident, the chokehold in particular, reminds me of the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by a police officer — Derek Chauvin — who knelt on his neck for over 9 minutes; Floyd lost consciousness and died on the road with Chauvin still kneeling on his neck, while a passerby filmed the incident which sent shockwaves across the world.
In my experience, such incidents are sadly not exceptional and racist crimes keep happening with alarming regularity because most of them are considered ‘minor’ and reporting them is looked at as a bit of a bother. This holds true for all manner of racist offences and includes everyone from the behaviour of White supremacists in the West to the degrading treatment people from India’s north-east have to suffer in other parts of the country.
It takes me back to my own set of experiences in the UK, where I attended a course in journalism around six years ago. My professor, a woman, would regularly comment upon my dress, my intonation and my experience as a journalist in India. She would also ask two of my coursemates — Indian — to refrain from coughing inside the class. Once, when one of my Indian coursemates expressed the wish to do a report on the British education system, my professor — White as they come — turned it down by saying, “This is not India, where you sit on the floor and write with chalk on a slate…” Yes, it did not make sense to me either.
Back in India, while living in the Pir Panjal Himalayas, I made some European friends. One of them, from Germany, once came over to my mountain home, where I was busy getting the tandoor — a kind of stove and heater — going and had soot on my face. I began by saying, “Sorry, I have turned black from this soot.” She replied, “Oh, you mean more black…!”
How does one react to such a comment? I was taken aback then and even today, the memory leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
This does not absolve us Indians of blame where such incidents are concerned. Nobody can defend the treatment of a majority of African students by Indians or the way north-east residents are regarded in the rest of our country, derogatory comments about their facial features being de rigueur.
Apart from the obvious notions of colour-based racial superiority, other, more subtle ones are also at play here. One of them relates to Western concepts of ‘hygiene’. As an example, I was once asked by an American girl in her early 20s if Indians used ‘western’-style commodes in their homes. This happened at a commune in south India, where there were only ‘Indian’-style lavatories for volunteers and visitors. She probably implied that since Indians are still not using ‘western’-style lavatories, they are somehow still the savages a large number of Westerners still consider them to be.
In April this year, a law professor from the University of Pennsylvania made news for her disparaging comments about the Asian American community, with a specific disdain for Indian-Americans. “Here’s the problem. They’re taught that they are better than everybody else because they are Brahmin elites and yet, on some level, their country is a s****e,” Professor Amy Wax, who has a long history of inflammatory remarks, said.
The Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS) found that one out of two Indian Americans felt discriminated against in the United States in the past year. The survey was conducted by researchers affiliated to Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and its report published on June 09, 2021 revealed that the most prevalent form of discrimination was found to be on the basis on skin colour. The survey was conducted between 1 September and 20 September 2020 — in the final year of former US President Donald Trump’s term and right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The survey’s findings were based on responses from 1,200 Indian Americans. Besides the fact that one out of two Indian Americans were discriminated against in the past year, the survey also revealed that the term ‘Indian American’ is not widely accepted and is a contested identity. Only four out of 10 respondents thought that term best captured their background.
Snide remarks, nasty comments, loaded insinuations, deep-seated prejudices — all driven by racist notions of superiority — are commonplace in India towards Indians and by Indians towards other ethnicities. The above-reported incident of Shaan Pritmani and George Floyd’s death in 2020 made the news because they were too gruesome and egregious to let pass.
What about the ‘everyday’, ‘commonplace’, ‘normalized’, ‘minor’ racist incidents which are at best ignored and at worst, not given accorded the dignity of acknowledgement? Who will be held accountable for them? No easy answers here.