India’s problem is the need for conformity

Wednesday, 12 February 2014 - 1:50pm IST | Agency: DNA
What do Nido Taniam's death, Wendy Doniger's book 'The Hindus', and the Africans living in Delhi's Khirki have in common? They are all victims of India's inability to deal with differences

Yesterday, Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History was withdrawn, its presence in bookshops not acceptable because it says things that are different from majoritarian beliefs in India. 

Two weeks ago, a young boy was killed; they say it was because he looked different. Nido Taniam, from India’s north-eastern state of Manipur, was attacked by a group of men in Delhi and beaten to death. A few days before that, some Africans in Delhi’s Khirki were insulted and humiliated, again for the crime of being different. The mob was local and supported the insults. 

Have we in India lost the ability to deal with differences? What is “not one of us” must go – this sort of mentality is racism and more: this is dangerous tribalism. 

A few years ago, I attended a wedding where I had a conversation with the bride. Bashful, as all brides are supposed to be, she sat with her head modestly bowed as I told her what a nice family ours was, and that the rituals shouldn’t daunt her. Her reply flummoxed me, and, years later, it still resonates. She said, “Why think about these rituals? These are a mere formality, a protocol.”

True, there was a template being played out there, a comedy of manners, in a way. All of us followed the script and said our lines, without taking on the burden of thinking for ourselves. A convenient surrender of cognition to collective (un)consciousness. A comfort in a recognisable pattern, and success defined by the pattern being maintained and reinforced. We have trapped ourselves in received patterns.

I remembered this as we, in India, finally start talking about racism. Deeply embedded amongst us is the need to conform. Witness our daily rituals, our neighbourhood, our jokes. Anything different is dangerous, or amusing, to be mocked or vilified. Anyone disrupting that pattern must be tamed. 

It is not just the Africans in Khirki and those who came before them who face the consequences of this attitude, mainly because of their colour. Indians from different regions of the country have also faced discrimination, name calling and worse. Being a different skin colour, having a different shape of nose or eyes of a different colour, being taller than the norm, having hair that frizzes differently – all of these are attributes that mark you as targets for unbridled curiosity that often crosses the bounds of good manners and goes all the way to unsafe. 

Most of the world has moved on to acknowledge, condemn and control racist behaviour. But India lags here. The nation has been remiss in looking into a mirror and correcting the pockets of small-mindedness where they exist. We are well beyond the day and age where the village oddball was mocked and stoned by the village children. People called those simpler times, but clearly there was little tolerance for difference. 

The hangover of those times still carries – staring at anything new is common. Try it – wear something unusual (red shorts, for instance) and go into a densely populated or crowded area. And watch people’s reactions. If you don’t conform to the mode in that area, you are a target. Anything that is not ‘normal’ there is abnormal. It is tough being different. Being different puts you in peril.

For a nation that prides itself on its diversity, the incidents of the past weeks are a shame. This is the same country that was fostered by Gandhi, who found his political wings in the fight against discrimination. The nation whose workers abroad have spent decades silently fighting racism in other countries. They have worked hard to create a more equal world. And, back home, discrimination erupts. 

If you come from a different culture, you probably do things differently from the locals. For instance, many don’t like the smell of Indian cooking in apartment buildings because it nauseates them. Yet this is largely dealt with civilly. There is no excuse for the locals to hurt anyone, or wish they were gone just because they do not align with the locals’ notions of right or normal.

This issue is not just about race; it could be about gender, language – anything, for that matter. There is an almost pathological need to enforce conformity. Remember that famous question: “What was she doing outside her house at night?” Often, just because a woman does not conform to the stereotype of a traditional homemaker, or a ‘normal’ working woman, she is cast into another stereotype: the ‘fast’ woman. Or... what was the new term for it? “Modern”. 

The need for a norm or a type is almost a parody of itself – few can break themselves away from this pattern. It becomes dangerous when it is seen as the only correct way to behave, and this correct way is imposed in small social groups. This is what imposes khap panchayat like rules on jeans and mobile phones, that seeks a dress code in colleges, and places the burden of earning on men and home-making on women.

This is what we are taught as children too – a good student behaves and achieves in a certain manner, regardless of talent – and regardless of the pressure this puts on the child to conform to unreasonable standards. We are all expected to conform. 

In our lessons, we are expected to “learn the method”, in our exams we are expected to replicate the ‘right’ answer. An alternate view, say, in a book, is not acceptable. Delhi University was forced to withdraw alternate essays; Doniger’s book is being taken off the shelves. Our view of what is ‘right’ is becoming increasingly narrow. 

We even have value education with right and wrong answers as part of standardised tests – yes, the ones that determine your entry into higher education. We train to be replicators, and then bemoan the lack of an innovation culture, (though jugaad – a rebellious response to embedded systems is now praised). Both skew our responses to situations and leave us with a parochial keyhole view of the world – not enough to make us confident players on the world stage.

India pride and jingoism, especially in an election year, is all very well, but Indians must realise that this does not stop them from preparing to be global citizens. Whether by aspiration or by demographics, many Indians will have to seek employment across the globe. If the growth numbers are to be believed, then many of these jobs will be in the Far East, Middle East and Africa. For personal gain – if not for the sake of decency – it is time all Indians learnt to accept and deal with the fact that differences are real, and are accepted in the real world, and must be navigated with dignity.

 

Meeta Sengupta is a writer, and an advisor an consultant in education. She tweets at @meetasengupta.


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