India needs to dispense with its monoculture dreams

Is India a racist country? No way, we remind ourselves as India’s multicultural ‘experiment’, as its practice of casteism dates back to centuries. A host of nationalities and peoples migrated to India – Syrian Christians, Persian Zoroastrians, Arab Muslims and Jews, Armenians, Central Asians, Afghans – many as conquerors and invaders – and eventually were absorbed into the Indian mosaic.

They formed settlements and followed their own customs and religious beliefs. Under Muslim rule, various religious reform movements aimed at abolition or mitigation of caste and priestcraft took place. 

And contrast that with America's traditional conception of itself as a "melting pot" of diverse peoples joined in a common new world culture that has been challenged by some multiculturalists who consider the "melting pot" metaphor a cover for oppressive assimilation. To them, the only way you can melt in the pot is by assimilating – becoming similar to – the dominant or "hegemonic" white culture.

US president Barack Obama has long regarded America as a deeply flawed, profoundly racist country. He has attacked the Constitution as an outmoded, obsolete document written by white men. He has called opponents of affirmative action racists. 

Alternately, many insist that racism has no place in India and it has enough safeguards against casteism. Scholars quibble over the academic dissimilarities between caste and race. When casteism began to be seen as India’s entrenched form of apartheid, as in the UN conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia in Durban in 2001, consequent to which Dalits managed to get caste-based discrimination included as a UN agenda, we raised a hue and cry.

Officially, the plank to fight against casteism had no place in the UN agenda against racism. Possibly because racism somehow brings greater degree of censure from the international body, so much so that having to accept casteism as the Indian version of apartheid is deemed as politically inadmissible.

We are complacent that our Constitution recognises that ‘casteism’ is a centuries-old vicious ideology founded on hate, violence and exclusion from equality, opportunity, empowerment and resources. The Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955, and the SC and ST (Atrocities) Act 1989, underline this commitment.

And legal experts point to the equality provisions (Articles 15 and 16), the abolition of untouchablility (Article 17), freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion (Article 25), special provisions for an SC and ST Commission (Articles 330-342 and 46) that buttress India’s commitment to wage a battle against casteism. Half a century down the line, affirmative action and other agendas notwithstanding, India is no less casteist than it ever was.

Sense of intolerance

It might be advisable to argue that we have learned not to assimilate and to integrate but to suffer and to tolerate. The sense of the ‘other’ is amplified when we see Indian metropolitan cities as hotbeds of intolerance, or when khap pnchayats lurking around Noida and Gurgaon are ill at ease with swanky malls, with the working women sporting a happy-go-lucky wantonness in sanitised enclaves, who for them, live in another planet.

The rub is, in the post-independent narrative of cultural discourse in India, the North-East is peripheral, “an area where India begins to look less and less like the rest of southern Asia and more and more like the South-East Asian cultural region”.

Geographically too, thanks to India's ham-handed foreign policy with Bangladesh, the North-East remains out of bound for India. Faced with the fact that the small states of North-East India are hardly culturally homogeneous, mainstream India has remained perpetually tentative in formulating policies for the North-East, be it defining its pluralistic identities or dealing with issues related to the high influx of immigrants during the past century, and to some of its intractable border issues. 

Take the instance of New Delhi that loved to bludgeon Nido Tania to death. Nido must have been wrong to mistake New Delhi, a xenophobic duskland of apartheid that loves to rape, maim, maul and trample others, for the capital of a country that has been home to the metanarratives of both radical fundamentalist Indians as well as multicultural assimilationists, for a place that would curate the exotica of difference.

Instead, compare New Delhi, or for that matter, our showcase urban metropolises, to the description of New York by T J English in his famous book ‘The Savage City’ touted to be a multicultural city. In English’s angry prose, it is a city where generations of inhabitants sacrificed their lives to the wheels of progress or have been mowed and killed by taxis, buses, or subway trains.

In English’s New York, thousands, perhaps millions, have fallen prey to the perils of municipal dysfunction, to the growing pains of a city forced to adjust to violent demographic shifts, internal hostilities, wrenching social changes unforeseen and unanticipated. Citizens walking to the corner after dark were mugged for the change in their pockets. Dope fiends, armed and dangerous, climbed over rooftops to steal valuables from apartments, offices, and cars. Rapists walked around with their dicks hanging out.

Now that Nido Tania is dead, the Indian state needs to reflect on a number of things, foremost of which is its way to deal with its time-worn praxis of “unity in diversity”, and to dispense with the dream of a pure monoculture as an unattainable, nostalgic fantasy. It should, in all fairness, need to take a relook into how it lapsed into myriad enclaves and local neighbourhoods where local tribesmen squabble over their petty territoriality and entitlement sniffing affront at the slightest pretext. We are reduced to a land of ghettoes.

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