A new post in the series: Current Events
In the heat of ideological posturing often we are quick to see a view opposite to ours as something that it is not. Hence the need for this disclaimer.
This is not, I repeat, NOT a defense of a much-reported and much-analysed barbaric and horrendous hate crime recently committed by a violent mob in an Indian city. Though the exact details of the crime are still coming out, it must be emphasised that no one in his/her right mind would or could morally or socially defend such a ghastly act. This post is merely an attempt to bring out something that often goes unmentioned in the frenzy of sentimentalism and sensationalism constantly thrown at us via the loud-mouth mass media.
Since it is easy to get sucked in by these loud noises and even join the chorus, we often forget to see that there may be an opportunity to learn something here. For example, why do these horrific hate crimes happen in the first place? This post is an attempt to point out one possible way to start a process of learning if we can silence some of the noises.
“Indians are such racists, Indians should be ashamed.”
“Indians are such casteists, Indians should be ashamed.”
“Indians are such bigots, Indians should be ashamed.”
Sounds familiar? Such extreme expressions of self-flagellation and self-righteous wrath and disgust by some well-meaning Indians are commonly witnessed whenever a horrendous crime is committed against a foreigner in any part of India.
And quite naturally any such “Indians are racists” line of generalisation must go to the next ‘logical’ step of further collective self-indignation by adding the customary line -“and what about the horrific caste system.” (Never mind that only some caste-related crimes bring about such rounds of self-flagellation and collective shaming, only those that can be effectively milked for political or sensationalist purposes. Many others can simply be ignored by the same group of self-righteous politicians, armchair activists and celebrity panelists.)
Have you ever wondered why are some Indians so quick at making such extreme statements about ALL Indians? A person living in a small remote village in India’s hinterland may not be even aware of what hate crime was committed in another far corner of the country, but somehow our “social experts” colour him also with the same brush of being racist and casteist! Does it even make sense?
Have you ever wondered what is actually being said here when such generalised statements are being made about ALL Indians? Imagine yourself as saying this.
If you are saying it without thinking and just in a random mood of self-disgust, then there is hardly any point in saying it other than giving an outer expression to your momentary mood. But if you are saying it to mean something, then you must think what is being said and why.
So think carefully. But first keep aside all your mental and moralistic notions of good, virtue, pity, sympathy etc. Let it be a completely logical exercise for a few minutes.
Are YOU, personally, ashamed of being a racist, a casteist or a bigot? If so, then it is likely that you might have done something or said something or thought something that you consider as racist, casteist or bigoted. Otherwise why would you be ashamed? Only you will know the answer to that, since you are bringing up this whole shame business.
Or are you simply saying that THOSE ‘other’ Indians are racist, casteist or bigoted but YOU are not one of THEM? Then why are you ashamed? Why should you share the burden of shame?
But think again. If you are not one of THEM, then you are already assuming a morally superior, self-righteous position from where you can point a judgmental finger at THOSE racist, casteist, bigoted Indians while at the same time aligning yourself with those ‘liberal, progressive, anti-racist, egalitarian, modern, all-good-things’ Indians who are several notches above the average roadside desi. I don’t know about you, but to me this does sound quite prejudiced and bigoted. Am I wrong?
Or perhaps you mean to imply that “Indians in general,” Indians as a people, are racist, casteist and bigots. And that we, again as Indians in general, should be ashamed of this negative trait we have in us, as a people, as a society.
Maybe what you mean is that YOU are ashamed because you too share the same Indian identity with “Indians in general” who have this negative trait. Is that so?
But then sharing a national or cultural identity doesn’t mean that we all, by default, carry the same prejudices or same biases. Prejudices are learned, biases are acquired. What made you acquire a certain bias? Learn a certain prejudice?
Or better yet, what made YOU give up a certain bias or a certain prejudice, especially if you are not the average roadside desi who is racist, casteist and bigot? Won’t that line of inquiry serve greater purpose rather than this self-righteous wrath and collective self-indignation? Have you wondered that your self-indignant posturing may actually end up becoming a sick justification for such criminal behaviour because it is somehow part of a ‘national shame’ anyway?
Or perhaps what is being said is that WE, as a people, as a nation, must somehow share the burden of those few Indians who carry out the most barbaric or horrendous crimes against people who are different from them. By that token, ALL Syrian refugees all over Europe must be held responsible and must be shamed for the horrible crime committed by one gang of criminal refugees in Cologne, Germany on the New Year’s Eve. Will that be a fair comparison?
Extending this argument further, all white* Americans should be ashamed of the centuries of genocide, slavery, brutality and racial oppression done toward generations of Native Americans and people of African ancestry. Forget history. Come to the present. All white Americans should be ashamed of every incident of racial discrimination that happens in the present-day US. Every American should be ashamed of every act of gun-violence that happens anywhere in America.
Similarly, all present-day Europeans should be ashamed of the unimaginable horrors their ancestors unleashed in many parts of Asia and Africa in the name of imperialism. Again, forget history. Come to the present. Should German people today, as a collective, be ashamed of the rise of the blatantly racist neo-Nazi groups there?
Taken to an extreme, this could even mean that all men, ALL, should be ashamed because of the horrific actions of men who have raped, abused, molested any woman anywhere!
Sounds strange, doesn’t it? It is meant to.
Logic is the worst enemy of Truth, as self-righteousness is the worst enemy of virtue; for the one cannot see its own errors nor the other its own imperfections.
(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 12, p. 428)
The truth is that shame should not be a collective burden. It is not a healthy emotion for a collective to have. Healthy self-assessment, on individual and collective level, is good and helpful for our progress. But it shouldn’t become this illogical self-hating tendency which is quick to tarnish and shame a whole people.
Discrimination against the ‘other,’ distrust of the ‘different’ are universal human failings. In some cases, these failings reach extreme levels and lead to criminal behaviour. Add to that a mob-mentality and inactive or ineffective law-enforcement system, you have the making of a horrendous crime such as the recent incident in an Indian city.
Sri Aurobindo: “But this sort of dislike exists among other nations also e.g. the English do not like the Scots, because the Scottish have beaten the English in commercial affairs. There was a famous story in the Punch: two people asking themselves. “Bill, who is that man?”, and Bill answered, “Let us strike at him, he is a stranger.” And then in Bengal the West Bengal people used to call East Bengal people “Bangale” and composed a satire “Bangale Manush nohe oe ekta jantu” At one time I used to wear socks at all times of the year. West Bengalis used to sneer at that saying, “I am a Bangale”; they thought that they were the most civilized people on earth. It is a legacy from the animal world. Just as dogs of one street do not like dogs of another.
Disciple: But things will improve, I hope?
Sri Aurobindo: If this goes, you may be sure that the Golden Age is coming!
(Evening talks with Sri Aurobindo, recorded by A. B. Purani, 27.12.1938, emphasis added)
Perpetrators of hate-crimes must be given appropriate punishment. As conscientious citizens we must strongly condemn such action, openly and frankly. If we are a witness to such an action, we must do what is in our power to prevent that from happening. We must demand speedy justice. We must criticise the law-enforcement personnel for failing to do their job. We must criticise the justice system for failing to do justice. We must criticise the political establishment if they use any such incident for selfish political agenda.
But as much as we condemn a horrendous crime, we need not participate in a meaningless act of collective self-flagellation that doesn’t help us figure out why such hate crimes happen. We need not participate in this self-righteous, morally superior display of collective shame. Why? Because such behaviour actually hinders the possibility of making any real progress, it only makes us artificially satisfied in our self-righteous wrath and disgust.
It must be re-emphasised that not participating in this display of collective shame does not amount, by any logical stretch, to any defense or denial or justification or a tacit approval of a horrendous hate crime. It is, in fact, a strong reiteration of the truth that a crime is a crime and it must be dealt with under appropriate laws of the society. It should not become yet another opportunity to put a whole culture or nation or people to shame.
But we should not stop at condemning and criticising. As concerned Indian citizens, we should try to understand a few basic things about this serious disease of identity politics –
- Why are we seeing more of mob-led crimes against people who are marginalised because of their national or ethnic origin, gender, differently-abled status or any other identity?
- Why do these racially or ethnically motivated crimes happen more frequently in fast-growing urban areas which attract people from many different backgrounds?
- Why are our law-enforcement system and justice system so incapable of preventing and prosecuting such hate crimes?
But a more fundamental question will still remain – What is the origin of socio-cultural prejudices against people who are different from us? For this, we will need serious study into socio-historical questions such as –
- What does ‘race’ really mean? What does it have to do with India? Historically and in present?
- What does ‘caste’ really mean? What does it have to do with India? Historically and in present?
- What is the connection (if there is one) between the constructs of ‘race’ and ‘caste’?
- What is the connection (if there is one) between the constructs of ‘caste’, ‘jati’, and ‘varna’?
- How do caste, jati, and varna play out in the Indian social-political context? Historically and in present?
If we are interested in understanding the psychological root of prejudiced or racist behaviour, we may also ask an even more difficult question –
- In what part of human nature does the seed of such prejudice exist? And is it possible to purify that part?
And finally, if we are interested in a serious self-study, we should also ask –
- Am I capable of purifying that part in myself? How do I begin that process?
If we aren’t committed to such a serious study – of the play of various forces in the society around us and within us, maybe we shouldn’t be speaking of ‘shame’ at all. Because, very frankly, there is no bigger shame than that of wanting to remain ignorant.
(*Ignoring the questionable use of this term for the moment).
For more posts inspired by Current Events, click HERE.
Linking with Blog-A-Rhythm, Wordy Wednesday 1, Feb 2016, E: E for Enough
Linking with ABC Wednesday, E: E for Enough.
This post was picked by Blogadda as their Tangy Tuesday pick for Feb 9, 2016 edition.