Monday, February 11, 2008

A Tale of Two Communities

Recently some comments of Raj Thackeray over people hailing from UP and Bihar created a lot of noise and nuisance. Superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s house was attacked and some poor taxiwallas were beaten up and their taxis smashed on the roads of Mumbai, the financial capital of India.

Raj Thackeray is the nephew of Shiv Sena’s supremo Bal Thackeray, and heads his own political party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which means a party that is out to build a new Mahrashtra. And they are out on roads.

Experts say that Raj Thackeray is apparently following the kind of politics that his uncle practiced in 1970’s and 80’s – Maharashtra for Maharashtrians.

He seems to suggest that most of the problems Maharashtra is facing are due to usurping of rights of Maharashtrians or Marathis by Non-Maharashtrians. He avers that Non-Maharashtrians, especially Bhaiyyas (people from UP and Bihar) are infesting their land and taking away their jobs. They are depositing Marathi money in Bihari banks.

Not only that, these outsiders are polluting their culture (the sena parivar had maintained that the molesting of women on new year’s eve was handiwork of these outsiders).

Such accusations against Non-Mahrashtrians are not new. After Shiv Sena was defeated in the last assembly elections in 2004, Bal Thackeray had stated that tactical voting by Muslims and Non-Maharashtrians was responsible for it. Muslims and Non-Maharashtrians had ganged up, they invited gang war?

At that time, his statement was discounted as a grumpy grouse of a besieged leader who found his failure hard to digest, or was termed as just another ruse by the ageing lion to keep his flock from falling off. But some political pundits had predicted recrudescence of the politics of hate; the objects of aversion being Muslims and Biharis on most of the occasions. The rhetorics by Sena leaders in the past few years seem to corroborate this prediction.

The present round of trouble-mongering was started when Raj Thackeray declared that Biharis performed the drama of chhath puja (worship of sun god) to show their strength, and impose their own culture on Marathi land.

Come to think of it, this accusation against Biharis is very similar to Sena’s opposition to Friday prayers by Muslims, where it was insinuated that Muslims come out in large numbers on Fridays to show their populous strength and force an entry of their Arab culture into the Hindu land.

And that puts Muslims and Biharis in a similar situation for once. And incidentally, this is not the only time and place these two communities would find themselves in similar situations.

There are a lot of prejudices prevalent against both the communities, foremost among them being the presupposition that these people perform and are fit only for petty jobs; Biharis are all migrant labourers, vendors and taxiwallas, and Muslims are all tailors, butchers and bakriwalas (forgive me for calling these professions petty, I’m just restating an unfortunate preconception).

Talk about stereotypes, and both these communities stand painted in all shades of bias. When we talk about politics, Biharis become casteist and Muslims communal. When we talk about mannerisms, Biharis become vulgar and Muslims violent. When we talk about development, Biharis become burden and Muslims burglars.

On many occasions both the communities have to face mocking and derogatory comments in public places. And then there have been physical attacks on them, here Muslims being much more unfortunate than the Biharis.

So what makes Biharis and Muslims similar?

There are some obvious likenesses, such as both communities are comparatively poor and lacking in overall development e.g. education, infrastructural facilities and employment. Both the communities are politically active and arguably open to manipulation. People belonging to both the communities have a strong ‘sense of community’, either foisted upon them or naturally nurtured by themselves. And lastly but very importantly, they are easily identifiable, one by their names and the other by the way they pronounce their names!

Could these similarities be actually reasons why they find themselves in aforementioned situations? Surely the vilification and hate-campaign against both the communities are responsible for them to be pushed in to such situations. But why are these two communities pet-hate of some outfits? What makes them so dreadful for these ‘fascist forces’?

Yeah, they are deemed dreadful by their bĂȘte-noirs, for they pose some real and some imaginary threats to their adversaries – the fundamental fear that these communities are ‘coming in a big way’ to overwhelm them. And this fear is largely the outcome of some exaggerated extrapolation of the present trends into future.

Whereas Muslims are supposed to swamp the whole country by their burgeoning numbers, Biharis are supposed to mop up all the jobs.

There was a huge uproar after the last census report when a series of arguments and counter arguments were put forward on growth of Muslim population in India. The controversy depicted the perceived threat that the Muslims supposedly offered. They were growing fast.

Biharis have been fortunate not to have created a nationwide stir on any statistical data, but there are reports which had predicted that by 2015, out of every 500 odd districts of India, either the DM or SP, if not both, would be a Bihari. These reports were based on the number of Biharis succeeding UPSC examinations (an estimate puts the tally to over 25% in last ten years or so). Bihairs were getting all jobs.

These are statistics and are supposed to be sacrosanct and scientific, and so the threats are meant to be real and prejudices valid. And it called for action.

Bihari students were attacked and beaten up by Shiv Sena workers in Mumbai when they had gone to take railway recruitment exams in 2003. The same year, just before these attacks in Mumbai, around 30 Biharis were killed in Assam because they were earning in a foreign land.

And action against Muslims? Do I need to cite any specific incident? It would be unfair to point out just one or two.

But it also calls for action on the other side. Both the communities need to counter the ‘reality’ of the threats and ‘validity’ of the prejudices. It’s not that only Muslims are growing in population or only Biharis are getting the jobs in India. There has to be something else that breeds hostility towards these communities. It’s not just about debunking a statistical calculation; both the communities need to take a holistic look at the current state of affairs.

Let’s go back to the similarities between the communities and revisit the question – could those similarities actually be engendering some of the prejudices? We’ve to look at the similarities, because two rather disparate groups, in terms of practices and beliefs, find themselves in a similar situation. There has to be something common between them in order to make that happen.

There were four major similarities that we had identified – (i) lack of development, (ii) politically active, (iii) sense of community, and (iv) easily identifiable.

Are these good enough characteristics of a community to give rise to prejudices? If so, should a ‘cure’ be found for them by the two communities?

Let’s take the first characteristic – lack of development. I think without analyzing whether this aspect can give rise to prejudices against a community, we would all agree that a cure is needed. And relationship with prejudices? I guess there is a link; underdeveloped and poor communities are usually stereotyped about their mannerisms and mindset.

One of the major reasons, apart from corruption and mismanagement, why welfare programmes of government has been unable to show effect, has been due to presence of such stereotypes for underdeveloped and poor communities. Authorities deal with the whole situation with pre-conceived ideas about the problems and requirements of the communities.

But such stereotypes, of their own, normally don’t deteriorate into prejudices, almost hatred, against the underdeveloped and poor communities. There has to be some other reason that should explain the prejudices against Muslims and Biharis.

Let’s go to the second characteristic – politically active. Something that could engender prejudices or hatred? I believe it has such potentials. And I guess this characteristic is linked with the earlier one; since the communities lack development, they sometimes cling to politics as a potential tool of development, which often renders them vulnerable to political maneuvering.

It’s very difficult to tell apart if one is a pawn or a prey in a political plot. And once you assume, wittingly or unwittingly, either of these roles, you are bound to provoke prejudices against yourself. I personally believe that this has been happening with Biharis and Muslims.

So what’s the cure? The communities should become less politically active? In fact, I myself am confused on how do we measure the ‘level’ or ‘intensity’ of political activism, and how do we find the ‘cut-off’ level, above which one can get tricked and trapped into a political plot. Can we be active in politics and still be neither a pawn nor a prey? Somehow both the communities have to make sure that it happens.

What about the other two similarities – a sense of community and easily identifiable? As a social animal, it's not easy for human beings to shed the sense of community; arguably one of the weakest species, humans need a sense of community. Although I wonder why do we cling to it so strongly even now after all our technological and social innovations, which surely has made us rather one of the strongest species now. Old habits die hard!

How easily you are identifiable mostly depends upon you. In fact, it depends upon the 'sense' of community. The stronger it is, the more unique and different you want to appear, almost flaunting your identity. I think both these characteristics, sense of community and being identifiable, are common to many ethnic communities, and prompt jokes, bias or discrimination.

So is a cure needed? Yes, all of us need a cure for this; Raj Thackeray, Biharis, Muslims, and all of us need this cure – tolerance and respect for difference, and at the same time, irreverence for boundaries of traditional communities in deference to a modern universal one.

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