As an Indian, I have held immense pride in my nation’s diversity of regions, topographies, languages, cuisines, traditional attires and religions to name but a few. This diversity’s gruesome heads to surface every now and then, but the utopian in me seeks solace in India’s symbiotic retention of parallel worlds, realities and truths. Of holding both, apples and oranges, chalk and cheese in one marvellous subcontinental platter. Where progressive and fascist political agendas relay side by side, India’s ever-continuing power of dissent seems threatening to more and more citizens and netizens.
For the sake of individual thought and liberty, I hope for socially constructive dissent to prevail above and beyond the shackles of threat that it faces. But after shedding a naive vestige of my perceptions, I also understand that dissent and threat are impersonated and conducted by the us, the very people who constitute India and the world at large.
Whereby there was a time in India a few decades ago where differences in political ideologies could very well hold a civilised conversation, today they host an economy of squealing prime time debates. Whereby there was a time when diverse religious identities co-inhabited unassuming neighbourhoods, today many of them lie ghettoised. Some in hushed tones, and the others more boldly so. After years of observing this organised chaos, Mark Tully once remarked that in India, we don’t cast our vote but rather, vote our caste. Having being born and brought up in a family with ample political participation, my pragmatism knows that contesting the caste based or religious based vote banks, especially in less urbanised parts of India is asking for too much. But how do our identity markers find ways of pervading so rudimentarily?
Soft ethnocentrism and territorial attitudes vis-a-vis us fellow Indians would make many like myself concede to the otherwise casual remark touting Indians to be amongst the most racist and discriminatory people in the world. In my backing of this argument, I am not even factoring in the post colonial shambles of racism or counter racism yet. If we take a minute to consider the alienating extent of the oblivion that percolates south of the Vindhyas, and the resentment it triggers in return for the butter chicken-eating, noisy north Indians, many more such tropes from our personal experiences begin to jostle in.
In my own case, I’ve grown up in a multi-cultural family that constitutes a mix of Rajasthani, Gujarati, Himachali, Kashmiri and Bundelkhandi influences. Thanks to the privilege of the resultant cultural exposure, my worldview isn’t as geographically confined. But on the downside, this very advantage makes ethnic myopias seem more acute to bear. As a full-time resident and hotelier of Manali, I have become habituated to being asked about my story from Rajasthan to here. Which is perfectly alright, until the unsuspecting ‘local’ asks whether or not I am a ‘local’ myself. Given that I am a registered voter of Himachal Pradesh, I am told that I don’t look or seem like a local. How is one expected to bargain that? I remember my Nepalese classmates from Mayo putting their experiences into one poignant phrase, that after 9 years of being in an Indian boarding school, they were too Indian to count as Nepali, and still too Nepali to count amongst Indians. Indian diaspora is sure to relate to the same transnational alienation that they still might feel, no matter how many more bridges globalisation physically erects. But for most of us even at home, intra-national alienation is as real as it gets.
The average commuter is expected to notice the overwhelming discrimination accorded to drivers bearing number plates from ‘outside states’. Never mind the state number plate defaulters, it’s the outsider who is more likely to be harassed over the very same trivialities. Should a person belonging to a different state express their keen interest and/or genuine knowledge in my own, I forsake curiosity for my ego and am so easily threatened. Is being an Indian not enough? This might be a more reasonable question before I can begin fancying the idea of questioning whether being human will ever be enough.
We’re all gripped in the clutches of a pandemic, the virus of which knows no discrimination between native and foreigner, north Indian and south Indian, Hindu and Muslim, and leftist or conservative. We aren’t in the same boat, given our very sharp differences in privilege and backgrounds, this storm is more nightmarish for some than it is for others. Suffering is far from finding any medians for comparison, and grinding our axes here is pointless. But if we aren’t able to check our narrow outlooks vis-a-vis one another even when we’re compelled to unify into a single team versus the virus, I don’t know when we will.
One takeaway looks my way. The very diversity that united us seems to create divides. The question is the same as the answer. We embody the difference, the similarity, the unity and the diversity. It makes us kind just as it makes us cruel. The only variable there is, and the only one that matters right now, is which of the two ends we choose.