Recently, while attending a high society gathering, I overheard a gripe that is becoming all too common in Calcutta. Two immaculately dressed women were having an animated conversation in a corner about how the city is "going to the dogs". One of them said, "I remember when they were not let in, but look how bad the crowd has gotten these days. The crowd at all the clubs and schools are terrible now. Even La Martniere and Tollygunge club are letting in all sorts of riff-raff."
The "riff-raff" being referred could be anyone who isn’t from Old Money. Marwaris, Biharis and Muslims have always been frowned upon by upper-class Bengalis who deem them to be intellectually and culturally inferior. Earlier, the business communities and the intellectuals never crossed paths but this is changing. Finding themselves with disposable incomes after decades of frugality, the migrant communities of Calcutta are now sending their children to schools that they couldn’t afford themselves and have taken memberships in posh country clubs that they couldn’t join earlier. They now also own nearly all of the city’s restaurants, nightclubs and art galleries. This is not going down well with the patriciate who are wary of losing their erstwhile domain.
Quest Mall, a mall in downtown Calcutta, is host to international brands like Gucci, Armani and Burberry and boasts of being the only luxury mall in the city. However, in an upset to Calcutta’s swish set, the mall is also frequented by the local Muslim population of Park Circus. In kitty parties and gentleman bars across the city, there are jokes (always in hushed voices) about how “visiting Quest Mall is like visiting Saudi Arabia” and that “the crowd don’t buy anything and are only there for the air-conditioning”.
It hurts me deeply when I come across these conversations; not because my community is among those often mocked and ridiculed (Marwaris themselves are no less racist) but because I see no end to this divide. The resurgence of right-wing ideals across the world has resulted in xenophobia becoming a staple in politics. While Americans are voting for Donald Trump purely for his anti-immigration stance, the British have voted themselves out of the EU for similar reasons. Europe, a continent that is no stranger to the perils of nationalism, is seeing an increased affiliation to far-right political groups in light of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis.
While Western countries are concerned with immigration, India is facing a migration crisis within its own borders as more and more rural Indians head to brimming cities in search of employment and a new life. This exodus is resulting in a racial tensions as more and more people vie for limited resources and opportunities.
Nationalism always comes at a cost because, as a political model, it needs a scapegoat. In India, the situation has gotten so out of hand that the scapegoat is sometimes turned into a holy cow and faces criminal charges after slaughter. What started with a romanticised version of history is quickly leading to a fever pitch. Hindutva’s paranoia of all non-Hindus is now so extremist that it has become the very thing that it was rallying against. When cow protectors mete out mob justice willy-nilly like the Taliban and Sadhvi Prachi openly issues a fatwa like the Ayatollah Khomeini, it is easy to see that fundamentalism has no religion.
The problem with racism is that those who benefit most from it are often oblivious to the effect it has on those who bear the brunt of everyday discrimination. The ongoing Black Lives Matter movement was started in 2013 to protest against the unnaturally high and biased killings of black people by the American police administration. However, no sooner had the campaign started than an alternate movement, All Lives Matter, claimed that black lives should not be given preferential treatment. According to several civil rights activists, this demonstrated that the ‘white privilege’ of All Lives Matter supporters made it difficult for them to see the structural racism in America. The cartoonist Kris Straub subtly illustrated the problem with the All Lives Matter movement by showing a person watering his house instead of dousing a house on fire because “All Houses Matter”.
Perhaps this applies to many Indians who constantly demand an end to caste-based reservation when they should be thankful that they don’t need one. Some of this reservation quota is definitely getting misused but to demand an all-or-none approach is to ignore the historical disadvantages that our Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) have faced. Your house definitely matters but it is not the one on fire.
Speaking of houses on fire, can we talk about how difficult it is for the minorities to get the accommodation of their choice? I have seldom heard of Hindus being denied housing but the prejudice of landlords against Muslims, African students and North-Easterners across India is not so much an elephant in the room as it is a blue whale. I have been witness to several accounts that show the sad state of our country where even the fundamental right to lodging is denied.
The reason I empathise with the plight of our minorities is because I have myself been subject to racist landlords while studying and working in the UK. The reason I oppose the name-calling of African students is because I vividly remember the day an Englishman pointed me out to his son and said “that’s what a Paki looks like”. The reason I don’t tell people who don’t agree with me to get out of the country is because I remember the music concert where a drunk woman told me to “go back to your own f*cking country”. I know the jarring effect a racial jibe can have on the subconscious in a strange land where you are the minority. I know a thing or two about the fear that makes one look over the shoulder during the walk home.
Despite these instances, living in Britain was an amazing experience because it showed me how a multi-cultural society can function if it chooses to. I lived with Nigerians, worked with Pakistanis and studied with the Welsh. I ate in Bangladeshi curry houses, travelled with the English and partied with the Irish. Sadly, the Britain I left behind doesn’t exist anymore. Sure, fundamentally it’s the same country but there has been a paradigm shift in the national mood with the Brexit referendum. Suddenly, non-whites are now being told to leave the country and instances of racial violence have become a daily affair.
France has faced a number of terrorist attacks over the last year. The most recent of them, in Nice, saw 84 innocent people lose their lives. Media pundits and column inches are pontificating over why this keeps happening in France. I think one of the reasons for this is the disfranchisement of France’s minorities. Immigrants in France are expected to assimilate rather than integrate into the country’s secularism.
This culture shock can often be at odds with the immigrants’ religious lifestyle as was the case with the country’s ban on burqas and hijabs. Then there is the very real problem of how certain suburbs or “banlieues” in French cities are kept isolated from more cohesive and upper-class neighbourhoods. This ghettoization was even addressed in La Haine, a French film that was specially screened by Prime Minister Alain Juppe for his cabinet so that they could be more aware of the realities of living in France.
I sincerely believe that people everywhere are fundamentally decent but are often led astray by fear mongers who have something to gain. Any society, be it in America or UK or Turkey or France or even India, can be divided by systematically normalising racism. This in turn makes that society a fertile ground for polarisation within which the seeds of antipathy can be sown. When we reduce the individual to a stereotype, we do a great disservice to his individuality. The chasm between Zakir Naik and the average Muslim is as wide as the chasm between Sadhvi Prachi and I.
As a teenager I came across this quote by noted American socialist Eugene Debs where he said, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”. These words made a huge impact on me then and still continue to till this day. Of course, in our modern parlance one wouldn’t hesitate to label him a ‘libtard or ‘sickular’ but I do think there is some wisdom to be found in his words. How can we even begin to understand our ‘enemy’ when we refuse to walk a mile in his shoes?