My earliest memories are of growing up in Delhi, and going to school there. Amongst those memories was a line that a six-year-old had seared into her subconscious — tu kaali hai (you are dark). It wasn’t a line thrown at her by classmates on a playground, but by the teacher in the classroom. A first standard student does not really have the wherewithal to cope with race, and I guess I was no different. I cried to my parents, and they assured me that my colour was the best, and the teacher was possibly jealous and brave girls don’t run away from school or teachers but face them with confidence. My father was transferred to Mumbai the following year, and in a multicultural school with classmates from different parts of India, I never felt different.
Much later, I came to know that Mumbai was the setting for anti-South agitation before I was born, and my parents lived in fear of the violence encroaching into their lives. Then, the 1990s saw the Bombay riots targeting Muslims, and more recently the anti-North Indian agitation — the anger against the perceived ‘outsider’ played out to its logical conclusion by those who benefit by these divisions. Studying in England, I was very conscious of ethnicity and nationality. The occasional taunts of “Yo Paki, go home” were met by “I am an Indian student, and will go back when I finish my studies.”
India has always lived with flashpoints based on differences. There have been a multitude of Hindu-Muslim riots since (and even before) Independence. Through the early 1980s, there was the targeted killing of Hindus in Punjab by Khalistanis. There was the targeted killing of Sikhs in the 1984 riots. In 2002, there was the targeted killing of Hindu pilgrims in Godhra, and then there was the targeted killing of Muslims. More recently, in 2012, there were riots in Assam between Bodos and Bengali-speaking Muslims that combined aspects of religion, ethnicity, race and linguistic divisions to a bloody end. And towards the end of last year, we saw the Muzaffarnagar riots that were neither ethnic, nor linguistic but based on religious ‘otherness’. We have seen violence against South Indians (Madrasis) in Bombay, against Tamil speakers in Bangalore, against North Indians (bhaiyyas and Biharis) in Mumbai and more. And, I am not even counting the violence in the name of caste in this list.
Every time there is a riot or violence, we blame the political class and reassure ourselves, “We have lived in peace for generations, they fanned the flames.” This is an argument that has been bandied about and accepted. As a result, we have never really examined our own individual biases towards the other — religion, race, ethnicity, linguistic. We live with the myth that we are tolerant towards others, liberal about different ways of life, respectful of diversity. The fact remains that we are not. We may pay lip service towards values of tolerance, wring our hands when there is a breach of peace, shed tears at violence — but the reality is that, as individuals, we are not very tolerant of those not like us. The most recent manifestation of this has been the violence towards Ugandan women and the killing of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Taniam. These, as much the riots, highlight the deep intolerance and fear of the other.
There can be many steps taken to address this. The first is at home. Our values are formed by what we learn at home. What is it that we teach our children? Our concepts of sharing, mingling, forming bonds with others are shaped here. So when we tell children not to ‘play with others not like us’ what is it that we are teaching? The second is at school. Unity in diversity is not just a phrase; it is real. Do we teach children about heroes from other states, do we let them understand the beauty and vastness of India beyond data points? Maybe at the 9th and 10th standard level, we relook at civics to examine diversity and differences and how those who are not like us are also like us.
The third is the media. How much of diversity is reflected in the images that we see and consume? How many of us even know about the lives and lifestyles of people not like us beyond the stereotypes? Hollywood adopted positive role models of African-Americans long before Barack Obama became the President, way back in the 1960s. Where is the diversity on our screens? The fourth is society. How welcoming are we of people not like us? Do we rent accommodation to them? Do we hire them? Do we make friends with them? And lastly, it is the state. What is the kind of mechanism put in place to make people who are immigrants feel at home? Much as we complain about the racism in the west, go to any government office there and there are multilingual forms available as are translators. If you, a Hindi speaker, went to a Chennai police station (or vice versa) to fill a report, would you even understand what was being said? How do you assimilate if you are not made to feel part of the system?
Race, religion, ethnicity and language — factors that unite us but also mark us as being separate from others. This sense of ‘otherness’, unless dealt with, can and has become a flashpoint for violence and hatred. The solution is not being separate and guarding what is perceived by some as uniqueness; rather, it is accepting and living with diversity. There are many ideas of India, possibly 1.2 billion of them — and each of these is just as beautiful and as wondrous and as Indian and as real as your or my idea of India is. Maybe it is time that we recognised and accepted that.
The author is head, digital content, Zee Media Group @calamur