The Korea Herald


Setting a precedent on racism


Published : March 30, 2010 - 12:55

    • Link copied


Bonojit Hussain`s family did not know he was headline news until the story spread to his home country of India.
Hussain`s incident was reported in national dailies in Korea extensively after prosecutors charged the assailant with contempt, the first time the charge has been applied to an alleged act of racism here.
The case has also been followed closely by Indian media - India Today, Mail Today, the Hindustan Times and Times Now all reported on the incident and its aftermath. One labeled him a national hero. More recently, his case received worldwide attention in the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times.
In a country with a rapidly rising foreign population, incidents of racism have have been a hot topic of debate amongst many non-Koreans, but had so far escaped national debate in what is still a homogeneous society.
There is still no law to protect foreigners from racial abuse (the attacker in this case has been charged with contempt). But there has been some progress on the issue. Hussain delivered a speech last month at the National Assembly that was organized by the opposition Democratic Party and National Human Rights Commission to debate a proposed anti-racism bill. The law has been proposed to give prosecutors legal grounds to act on crimes instigated by race.
The man

"My brother or sister would say that if I think I should do something, I am adamant about it. Even in this case, my family did not know about it until (that morning)," said Hussein. "Of course, my mom was crying, but my brother and sister were happy, they said they know I am adamant: `if you want to do something you will do it.`"
Hussain describes himself as the quintessential shy guy who takes a while to open up. "The perception people have of me is that I am a philosophical kind of guy," he said.
But, as a former campaigner, he appears bolder than this implies.
Born to middle class parents, he grew up in Assam, a region of India famous for tea.
"Assam has been a politically disturbed region for last 30 years or so, so when I was growing up there were massive military operations going on," he explained. "People getting killed was not big news. My father is a journalist so he would come home at night and tell us what happened every day."
He sums his early life up in typical understatement: "I grew up in a different atmosphere." In 1999 he moved to New Delhi to attend university, where he says he was active on social issues.
"In India I used to be an activist. I worked with trade unions. Especially with migrant construction workers," he said. After graduate school he worked at the University of Delhi, conducting research on homeless people. It was an experience that he learned a lot from, and demonstrated the importance of avoiding assumptions.
"There are these homeless people in the city, but they are invisible for most people. Rather than seeing them as mentally sick, it would be more fruitful to look at them like workers and how they live their lives," he said. Once he started interacting with them, he began to understand the social structure, community and economy they had developed in their lives. "I found the park (they lived in) operates like a labor market, a job agency."
His interest in labor relations brought him to Sungkonghoe University in Seoul, where they had a special program for Asian activists. He said he came to Korea because he simply didn`t know a lot about it. "Usually Indians go to the United States or United Kingdom for higher studies. Not many Indians consider Korea, but I came here with an open mind," he said.
"I did my thesis on the Korean labor movement. I want to do a comparative study on Korea, India and one other Asian country and look into what kind of exchanges have taken place since the economies opened up," Hussain said.
When he finished the course, the university offered him a job.
Hussain is currently on a six-month vacation in India working on his Ph.D. proposal. His focus is on the labor movements of India and Korea after liberalization.
Indeed, both countries have opened up considerably in the last 20 years, particularly Korea. With this has come a fair bit of soul-searching, including awareness of racism and other prejudice against minorities.

The incident

Despite being proposed several times, there is still no specific law against racial discrimination.
The Republic of Korea`s Constitution guarantees freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, religion and other things, but it is still undefined as to how far the court could apply the clause.
The charges filed by Hussain and his companion, a Korean woman named Han Ji-sun, are charges of contempt.
They accuse a man named Park, who was riding the same Bucheon bus as them, of kicking Han and hurling sexual and racial insults at them, refusing to stop when asked by them and another passenger. When Park got off the bus, he pushed Han in the chest - something that Han argues is an act of sexual violence.
A fellow passenger helped escort Park to the Jungbu Police Station in Bucheon, where their complaints were filed, but not without some difficulty. Han alleges that the police did nothing to physically separate her and Hussain from the assailant, and that they gave unfair hearing to Park, who was intoxicated.
Both also say that the police initially refused to accept that Hussain could be a university professor and that they questioned the authenticity of his Alien Registration Card. They say police questioned his immigration status in "banmal" - the low honorific of Korean - and referred to him as a "foreigner with a hard life," implying that his employment situation was poor.
Han has since complained to the National Human Rights Commission about the police officers` conduct.
"I was deeply disappointed and was insulted by Park`s actions and those of the policemen at the Bucheon Jungbu Police Station," said Han of the incident. "But at the same time was very embarrassed when I realized that Korean society still had a strong sense of ethnic nationalism, xenophobia and a patriarchal social system.
"As of now, I have nothing against Park, since Park is just one of many Koreans who treat foreigners in such a manner. However, I would like to take this chance and let people know that this can actually be a matter for punishment," she said.
While the charges filed by Han and Hussain are separate, both seem motivated more by principle than by feeling personally aggrieved. Hussain said that he had been racially assaulted several times before.
"I have always wanted to go to the police," said Hussain "This time there was a Korean person with me. I was confident I could take it to the police (as she could translate). The incident itself became very serious."
Hussain said Park`s punishment is not his main concern. Rather, his goal was to make this issue public to spark a national debate on racial acceptance and tolerance.
He urges victims of racial abuse to come forward and register a complaint.
"People should at least report the crime. Even if the person is not there, you can still report the crime. Even if you look into my case, if I had not registered it, nobody would have talked about the issues," he said. "Another issue is statistics on crimes against foreigners. Ultimately, when policies are made, they are made on the basis of statistics."
Hussain hopes his case will encourage migrant workers to report abuse. "Most of the time, they face much worse situations than mine," he said. "They cannot complain for two reasons. One, they might lose their jobs. Two, (they think) `even if I go to the police, nothing will happen.`"
Migrant workers, more often than not employed in the country`s factories, often complain about discrimination in the form of non-payment and physical assault.
"The problem is very real when you talk to factory workers. Almost all of them have similar experiences. I interact with many migrant factory workers and after my incident they said: `This is nothing. The media are taking it up because you are a research professor. We face much more serious situations.`"
Hussain conceded that his case has received more than its share of publicity, although he thinks the attention may lead to positive changes. He also said that both prejudice and weak job security make migrant workers more vulnerable to such abuse.
The prejudice faced by Hussain was vague in its racial element. Among the alleged insults are references to Hussain both as an Arab and a black man, indicating that his race made little difference to Park.
Unlike the historical reasons for anti-Japanese and American prejudice, there appears to be no specific reasoning behind discrimination against people from Africa, and southern parts of Asia, which runs rampant in Korean society.
"I think there is the element of economic superiority among Koreans. Most of these workers are coming from poor countries," said Hussein. "And they are the easiest target."

By Paul Kerry and Matthew Lamers