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From a politics of exclusion to a society of inclusion and diversity: Can we move in the right direction?

It is hard to miss the irony in calling Bal Thackeray as nationalist and paying him last respects with “full state honors” considering his politics was divisive, which is what attacking immigrants from within India as outsiders certainly is. Many on twitter  and even Markandey Katju have elucidated the essential conflict between Thackeray’s propagation of the idea of ‘bhoomiputra’ or sone of the soil, and what the Indian state is founded on- a belief that everyone born in India, anywhere, is a citizen in equal right. We Indian do not know it, but we are incredibly lucky to live in a nation where moving from one city to another, from State to another, is rather easy. In fact, mobility has increased considerably over the decades alongside rapid urbanization in India. In India’s cities, most social interactions begin with an elucidation of how diverse, multilingual, multicultural we are as individuals. Our exposure to cultures within the nation that are other than the one we are born into endows upon us a certain sheen of understanding and sophistication that most of us wear with pride. Our diversity enriches us, helps us bridge gaps and find common ground, even bailing us out in adverse circumstances at work and otherwise. Or at least, that has been my experience.

Migration has been a favorite subject of study for me, for the longest time. In my view, societies within a geographical frame of reference can be categorized as those who are against immigrants and those who welcome them. Of course, the response varies from immigrants from different social classes, economic classes, caste, religion, etc. But essentially, immigrants are resented because they are perceived to impinge on resources that are scarce. And residents feel they have a higher claim on these resources (jobs, water, land, infrastructure, etc) than those coming in from the outside. Yet, migrants come in to fill specific needs that the city/region is unable to meet with the existing resources. Unless there is opportunity, migrants would not come in. Governments and private investment create an economic climate that attracts migrants; and measures to keep migrants out through artificial means (not allowing land/residency rights like in China, quotas for jobs) are simply illogical in a nation like India where the Constitution confers equal rights on all citizens irrespective of state of origin.

We are therefore obliged to develop an inclusive approach to people from diverse backgrounds. A rational approach to the conservation, allocation and management of resources is a better way to deal with the issues that are arising than using violence to exclude some and favor others.

Of course, the matter of identity is one that is emotionally charged. To manage the sense of identity in a globalizing world where mobility and migration are only going to increase, is a serious challenge. This, more than others, is an intensely political issue and political parties worldwide have always been quick to step into this space and play with people’s minds and hearts. It is very easy to succumb to the psyche of fear and believe that our best way forward is to protect ourselves and ‘our own’, while pushing ‘others’ away. However, our lives are too intertwined to be able to define who is who- who is ‘apna’ and who is ‘paraiah’. Those definitions change with age, exposure, circumstance, sometimes even from day to day.

Of late, I have been gripped by the fear that India is imploding, that we are disintegrating into a chaotic state where we will no longer be able to make sense of our world. That we are moving into a psyche of fear and paranoia, a state of mind to which communalism, regionalism, casteism and any kind of similar ‘ism’ appears like a safe refuge from the ‘other’.

I want to desperately fight for the last breaths of fresh, rational, liberal air. I want to believe that the democratic tools that we are lucky to be entitled to can give us a way out of the chaos. I want to know if India’s liberal voices can become more politically engaged and move beyond intellectual debate, which is very important indeed. But we do need to do more. We need to make the tone of discussion and engagement calmer, move away from the shrill shrieking finger-pointing circus that politics and media have become and address real issues, make sense of the chaos for ourselves and motivate people around to do so as well. That is the only way forward that makes sense to me at this point.

Festival bonding in the city….Happy Sankranti, Lohri, Pongal! Jan 14, 2012

Festivals in cities have become an interesting phenomenon. Yesterday, we attended a friend’s daughters first Lohri and old-timers got into a discussion about what they did when they were children on Lohri. Akin to what kids in Muslim communities do at Eid and what kids in the US do at Halloween, they reminisced about how they went around the neighborhood asking for money/contributions. People gave whatever they could and the kids had a good time. We realized that many of the finer details about festivals are dying.

At the same time, festivals are being adopted across regional and linguistic barriers. In my colony, the Lohri party was a nice way for everyone to get together, meet and laugh over good food. Whether they were from Punjab or not was beside the point. In schools, especially for the younger kids, festivals have become a great way to talk about diversity, tradition, culture…and generally become a theme for artwork, drama and even hardcore skills training like reading and writing.

Because many Hindu festivals are related to seasonal changes and the agricultural cycle, usually celebrating harvest (Baisakhi, Pongal, Makar sankranti, Onam, Bihu, Lohri, etc), they coincide in many parts of the country, making it a collective celebration in a myriad different ways. Others like Diwali have more significance in one region than others (Diwali is not celebrated as the return of Ram to Ayodhya in the southern part of India and in fact Kartik Poornima is considered more auspicious).

Large-scale migration has imbued a greater importance to how festivals are celebrated in cities. Just like Chinese immigrants to the US made Chinese New Year a significant celebration of their collective identity, Bengalis make Durga Puja theirs wherever Bengali communities exist across the nation (read everywhere, to the delight of us foodies and culture vultures!) and Biharis celebrate Chhat with fervour once they have sufficient numbers to do so (Chhat has emerged as a festival of note in the NCR for instance, with thousands congregating at the Yamuna to offer prayers). Media (FM radio has an interesting role in this) and the ease of communication have made it even easier to spread the excitement of a festival among people. In increasingly cosmopolitan urban settings, our friends’ circles are diverse enough to give us a glimpse into many regional cultures. And, in the end, who doesn’t want to have a good time!

Indian festivals also underline our essentially family-centric behavior. I have felt terrible being away from my family on festivals, but someone has usually adopted me for the day, drawing me into their intimate circle and making it all ok! With the increasing commercialization around each festival (I got sms invites to random clubs for Lohri parties!), I fear a loss of this intimacy. The way I see it, family has been the traditional unit of interaction in India. With sweeping societal changes (unit families, migration, upward mobility, increased choice), community must move in to supplement the family where it needs to…or else, we would live in an unanchored world and fall prey to the worst kind of blatant, soul-less commercialization.

A part of me does wish that in all the festive bonhomie, we still make an effort to preserve the cultural uniqueness of each celebration, practice the small gestures and rituals that help reinforce the festival’s significance, rather then homogenize all festivals into a club-style drink, eat and dance party!

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