Saturday, February 23, 2008

Are Indians secular or racist ?

Racism - a term which commonly denotes race-based prejudice, violence, discrimination or oppression. Its a term that brings to mind the images of Nelson Mandela fighting apartheid in South Africa or pages describing Martin Luther King Jr's struggle in the 1960s in the USA. If we turn the clock a few more decades behind then it brings out our very own Mahatma's non violent movement in South Africa and then in India which of course eventually led to a free India we know today.

The constitution of India went on to use adjectives such as "Secular" for the Republic of India. I grew up reading that definition of the Indian Republic in our text books. However as I grew up and understood the society around me a little better and beyond the text books, I started wondering whether we really are secular people.

It was interesting to note how passionately all the "fairness" creams market themselves on television. Some even talk about reducing 'Melanin' from the skin. My high school science text book talked about the same pigment as an essential ingredient in protecting the human skin against harm from Sun. This means that people living in Tropics naturally ought to have more of it. Yet the overwhelming number of products that claim to reduce the effects of this pigment is surprising. But there should obviously be a good reason why it is so?
The reason, i guess, is our fascination with fair skin. I am not very sure what the roots of this fascination are. It may be due to our colonial past where the English whites were the masters or it may be even the current economic dominance of the Americas and Europe - again areas with largely fairer population. The discrimination based on fair skin is of course not very explicit or rampant as in the past but nevertheless it is present in its own subtle ways.

If the dictionary definition of racism may be extended then, the diversity in India brings in a few more flavours of the same. The English dictionary of course has separate names for these flavours such as casteism, communalism, regionalism. For me though these are simply different flavours of everything wrong that racism stands for.

At the most granular level is Casteism. This is one form of discrimination which is the most Legal everywhere. Indian has several different castes and a history of several centuries of discrimination based on castes. Given this history it is one form of discrimination which should perhaps be banned and it is. However the very constitution which defines India as secular, leaves wide and deliberate gaps to allow discrimination based on caste. This gap is called "Reservation". Reservation for the backward castes in education and jobs. A welcome move 60 years ago when India got its independence and this discrimination was rampant. It was hailed as one move that will present opportunity to the "backward" classes of the society move ahead be seen as equal with rest of India.
60 years is a long period. Most of the first few babies born in independent India have now retired from their jobs. Some have become grand parents. Two generations have come into being since. One would have expected that the equality of castes would now be well established. Yet it remains a problem ingrained in our society. In some parts of India like the remote villages of the underdeveloped states, I would view the lack of political will that manages to divide the society based on this "caste" mentality. On the other hand in metropolitan cities like Mumbai, its the legal "Reservation" that promotes this divide.

For 15 years of my childhood I viewed my classmates as friends and fellow students. We all respected each other for our abilities and strengths and helped each other overcome weaknesses. But when it was time to secure admission to the best education institutes after school - I came face to face with "reservation". Separate admission list for the "Reserved" and "General" category. I was left wondering - we all grew up in similar neighbourhoods, we all went to similar schools, we all gave the same exam, and we all worked hard to get our grades,then why these separate lists? That question of course has several debates and answers in favour and against. For me though this question marked the introduction to casteism and the feeling of being discriminated against - even when I myself never discriminated against anyone. The biggest disappointment was, not that there was discrimination, but the fact that it was all legal. The children of the poor and underprivileged have to struggle hard to get educated. This struggle is theirs to face, and it is so, irrespective of the caste they belong to. Yet the outdated basis of "reservation" continues to be. It begs the question,"Is caste discrimination Legal in India ?" I think this question will continue to have an ambiguous answer for some time to come.

If casteism was not enough to divide the society, then there is another form of discrimination which comes to haunt us. Perhaps in a worst way then it should. That is communalism - specifically based on religion. While I take pride to say that India is home to followers of most religions available in the world, its sad that this difference is sometimes the cause of unnecessary turmoil. This word reminds me of the times when I walked on streets under fear of rioting mobs. This situation has been perhaps best brought out in Mani ratnam's movie Bombay. India has had to witness several riots over the years, for various reasons. The two big ones (1984 and 1992-93) that I witnessed were communal in nature. It is suffice to say that when this communalism raises its ugly head, the melting pot and economic capital of the country, definitely burns....

Then of course is regionalism, a form of discrimination which is not as obvious as the previous two. Even though there is nothing preventing a citizen of India to travel, work or reside in any part of the country, this form of discrimination threatens that very freedom from time to time. I think it is the separation of states based on linguistic majority, that allows for politics that promote this regionalism. The best example of such politics of course is the recent news about comments from politician Raj Thackeray which enraged a lot of North Indians. Yet again it managed to divide a united city of Mumbai.

Today, as a citizen of free India, when I think of the above words I start to think "Are we Indians secular or racist ?". I think its one choice that each of us has to make consciously. I choose to be secular and hope that it is so for the rest of my countrymen.