Photo Courtesy Adil Hasan
The word ‘discrimination’ always evokes unpleasant personal memories. A child of immigrant (North Indian) parents, growing up in the fraught political environment of 1980s Shillong, I was hyper sensitive to the exclusions my identity provoked among indigenous school mates, friends and in the wider community. These were the years of fierce agitation by economically and culturally insecure ethnic minorities originally against migrants of Bangladeshi and Bihari origin but which would also, in later years, be directed against Nepali and other ‘non-tribal’ communities. Such migrants were perceived to be ‘outsiders’ who threatened the local population by taking away scarce jobs and illegally buying land (See Hasan, D. ‘‘Questions Begin Where the Clouds End: A Critical Appraisal of the Khasi New Wave”; in Wani et al., (eds), Studies in South Asian Film and Media, Vol. 6 no 1, April 2014, 61 – 67).
As a child I was traumatized by bus-loads of student and other protestors regularly shouting slogans like ‘Bengali’s get out’; by ‘non-tribal’ owned shops set ablaze and by angry mobs threatening to attack my visibly immigrant family. In school, though my best friends were from indigenous Khasi and Jaintia communites, there were pronounced divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In an elite, English-medium, convent school ‘they’ were usually from a wealthier social class. They or their families would not have participated in the street level protests I have described. Their exclusions were of an entirely different cultural order. For instance, they imagined themselves to be superior, because they were usually more superficially westernised. A symptom of this misguided cultural snobbery was the way in which they regarded Western pop music as their sole preserve. Many a light-skinned wannabe flaunted a Madonna mole, prominent on the pop icon’s upper lip in her earlier avatars during the 1980s. I remember one particular incident from my early college days when a gang of such ‘mein-bhi-Madonnas’ sabotaged a public performance of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ my sister and I had put together, by muting the sound system. The audience looked kindly on and did try to imagine what we were miming.
Though I would later distill some of these experiences in my novel, The To-Let House (Tara Books, 2010), and thus achieve critical distance, at that point I was perhaps too young to make sociological or political sense of such boundaries and racial hierarchies. Hence an inchoate feeling of not belonging came to define who I am. The fact that I felt personally discriminated against and that this is, therefore, the position I speak from, might be regarded as highly self indulgent. In my defence, I would argue that for me the personal has always been the political. My experience of being ‘the other’ is the prism through which I understand and contest discrimination as I see it in the myriad contexts I live and work in.
Let me move chronologically. Throughout the 1990s I lived, studied and worked in New Delhi and what we handily describe as India’s North-East. While an outsider in my North-Eastern home town, Shillong, in New Delhi I benefitted from belonging to the region through protective discrimination policies, projects and scholarships that encouraged more voices and work from non-metropolitan centers. Yet even as I tried to make the most of these opportunities, I could see equally if not more talented friends from middle class ‘mainstream’ Indian homes struggle to find their place in the sun without such privileges. There was a sense of entitlement among some and resentment among others. And then there was guilt – historically assigned but contested in the present. Deeply felt questions around equality, protection, and identity yielded no easy answers.
This is not the space to detail the momentous judgments, policies, protests and counter protests of that era. Suffice it to say that, in my experience, there was discrimination and there was discrimination. Indian society is hugely unequal and contradictory. You can be discriminated against but living it up, living in India yet not Indian, abjectly impoverished yet denied your due. Class, caste, community and nation refract through our social and interpersonal transactions – my experiences were no different.
In Shillong , at the fag end of the 1990s, as part of a ‘new wave’ of filmmaking and as a debutant writer starting to explore new genres of creatively engaging with the world, discrimination – that felt by indigenous minorities from mainstream India and that experienced as xenophobic ethnic backlash against immigrants – would be a critical issue in deciding where one stood and who one spoke for. When my self-appointed, self-loathing North Indian ‘partner’ jumped the boat in a manner of speaking, presumably for a more authentic, dare I say lucrative ‘tribal’ experience, I understood (then bitterly but now more sagaciously) how divides manifest themselves in real life terms, how unbreachable they become, how political correctness can never replace genuine human empathy and trust.
But perhaps this is all too abstract…
In the early 2000s I moved to Britain – more specifically to Wales, a region whose connection with the Khasi Hills is legendary and far reaching through the work of the proselytizing Welsh missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century. Wales has a rich history and culture and a strong sense of Welsh identity prevails here. This identity is bolstered by a host of political institutions (including the Welsh Assembly government) and other organizations committed to preserving Welsh language, literature and culture. Wales’ difference from England on several counts is a critical assumption in Welsh public discourse. Not unlike North-East India’s resentment against the Indian state, Wales also feels historically discriminated against by England. Anti-English sentiments are a part of popular culture and are manifested in a range of forms from rugby slogans to artifacts of everyday consumption. “Dump your rubbish in England” painted on a mug in a Welsh curio shop once caught my eye. There are innumerable other examples.
A pertinent question while discussing distinctive cultures in the British context is that of multiculturalism. Institutionally, policies of multiculturalism have provided all British citizens (whether from minority or majority communities) non-discriminatory access to social services and cultural freedoms. Yet multiculturalism stands severely challenged in twenty first century Britain. Writer and critic, Ziauddin Sardar notes:
The backlash against multiculturalism began with the millennium. The riots [in Britain] in the summer of 2001, led to widespread questioning of the benefits of cultural diversity. The British Right has always looked at cultural diversity with suspicion. It tolerated the presence of British Asians on the strict condition that they will assimilate and disappear into a national culture and a monolithic British identity. But the riots and the 11 September 2001 atrocity in New York and terror attacks in London on 7 July 2005, also galvanized the left-leaning liberals against multiculturalism (Ziauddin Sardar, Balti Britain: A Provocative Journey through Asian Britain, Granta Books, 2008, Great Britain).
Keen to hear a range of views on the subject, I recently coordinated and chaired a talk by political philosopher Lord (and Professor) Bhikhu Parekh (who has also been chair of the Runnymede Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain and a member of the National Commission on Equal Opportunity . A prolific scholar on the subject, and, a charming gentleman, Professor Parekh delivered an erudite lecture to a group of India’s top journalists who were in London as Chevening India Journalism scholars, 2015. “What can India learn from Britain in terms of dealing with diversity and vice versa”, I asked him. He started by detailing the kinds of diversity within a society – internal or endogenous and external or diversity triggered by immigration. Mapping a complex debate that has centered on immigration-related diversity in Britain, Professor Parekh highlighted the key issues around multiculturalism including the choice that states have in either compelling citizens to completely assimilate or in leaving them alone. A third option is integration, but not assimilation. The five steps he outlined to achieve integration included stopping discrimination, promoting common values, accommodating legitimate differences, redefining national identity in such a way that all citizens should be included, making sure that minorities are adequately represented in important institutions. Easier said than done of course!
As Professor Parekh himself confessed, the first problem that Britain faced in following the integration model is that the whole focus was on minority communities (who were treated with a certain degree of colonial guilt) with the result that the majority felt neglected. Secondly, he pointed out, who decides what differences are legitimate? For instance, can female genital mutilation be tolerated on grounds of respecting cultural differences? Thirdly, how far can you go in redefining national identity?
His questions hung in the air long after the journalists had left the room in search of their next desi meal in the upliftingly cosmopolitan settings of London’s Oxford Street.
What can Britain learn from India I mulled? India, he had said, is rich in thought but poor at theorizing itself, which is why it is not yet a voice in the global conversation. A few days later at the Chevening symposium organized in the distinguished settings of the Institute for Government in London’s scenic Carlton Gardens, Professor Parekh spoke again. In his keynote lecture, while he criticized the sharp divide between shining India and a darker India, the class-caste continuum, the hard heartedness of the middle classes, the nexus between the media and business, he also highlighted India’s excellent traditions of accommodative plurality – a tradition from which Britain might attempt to draw some lessons in handling diversity.
To my mind, an example of such accommodative plurality was recently on display following the announcement by the Ministry of Home Affairs that it was attempting to strengthen laws against racial discrimination through a bill amending sections of the Indian Penal Code. Henceforth using derogatory racists terms (like the oft used ‘chinkis’ for North-East Indian people) could well become a non-bailable offence with imprisonment for up to 5 years and the payment of a fine. The move has sparked an interesting debate on social media. A friend of mine, commenting on the developments wrote, “call a Northeastern ‘Chinki’, be jailed for 5 years. I really hope the law is same for anyone calling me a ‘Dkhar’ back home in Shillong”.
He has touched on a moot point – discrimination is discrimination everywhere. Rules must be applied and respected across the board. In the fine print the amendment is encouraging for it states that “imputations and assertions prejudicial to human dignity and words, both spoken and written, or signs attempting to discriminate against individuals on the basis of race, or indulging in activity intended to use criminal force or violence against a particular race, [is] a non-bailable offence punishable with imprisonment for up to five years with fine” Arguably anyone who feels discriminated against in such a way can take recourse to this law? But already many questions are being asked about the efficacy of the law, how it will be used, and how can we prevent it from being misused. Then there is the complex question of how such laws affect the right to free speech, a question that I also find being repeatedly asked in Britain today particularly in the context of debates about Islamophobia.
I would like to end where I began – with the question of being the ‘other’ in North-East India. In the last few years there have been a growing number of ‘internal critics’ who, while condemning the discrimination people of the region face elsewhere, are also becoming less tolerant of internal racisms. More often than not in their own identities but sometimes under the anonymity afforded by cyber space, this group is today asking questions and standing up to threats that were endured for years for fear of violent retribution. Their aspiration for real equality and democracy is heartening and it is to this noisy, argumentative, enlightened and liberal motley crew of writers, journalists, editors, filmmakers, office-goers, housewives, scholars, musicians, activists and many other people that I today find myself inclined to plight my troth.