By Javed Anand
Aug 02, 2013
If it’s racism in the US and African-Americans its prime target, it’s communalism in India and Muslims its worst victims. Of course, a Muslim as the Prime Minister of India is beyond our wildest imagination.
Amartya Sen was big news for the national media, print and electronic, for several days running. The “Sen model” vs. “(Jagdish) Bhagwati model” of development, plus his remark that the BJP’s prime ministerial aspirant-in-chief, Narendra Modi, does not have his vote were the topics of several discussions on television and analysis in newspapers.
That was a week ago. The media has since moved on to other breaking news. That is understandable. What is not is the telling silence of our commentariat in response to the soul-searching statement of the Noble laureate: “I felt that as a member of the majority community it is my duty, not merely my right, to speak up about the concerns of the minority. We often forget that as members of the majority.”
This “forgetfulness” of the majority says a lot about the kind of society we are today: a majoritarian democracy with liberal pretensions. It tells us more about the nature of our polity than the sterile secularism vs. communalism discourse.
The secular-communal paradigm offers an easy way out for many self-proclaimed liberals to get away with the “iss hamaam mein sabhi nange hain” line: parties which call themselves secular are no less communal. Dr Sen effectively shuts out the escape route with his majority-minority poser: What if you were a Muslim or a Christian? Mr and Ms Majority, how could you be rooting for a prime ministerial candidate who makes India’s religious minorities extremely insecure?
If his remark is loaded with meaning, no less significant is Dr Sen’s explanation of where he got his moral compass from. He does not say he got it from this or that religious scripture, “our tolerant tradition” or philosophical tome. Instead, he says he learnt this from his experience in the US — the dream land for so many among us. Dr Sen is a regular professor at Harvard University — the same institution which scrapped Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy’s summer course two years ago in response to his anti-Muslim ranting in an article he wrote for an Indian newspaper.
Teachers can be learners too. “I live there as part of a minority and you see how concerned they are about these issues. Here, I have to exercise my duty as part of the majority and bring up my concerns. This is essential to the practice of democracy, which, like liberty, must be vigorously defended,” he said.
Dr Sen is suggesting there is more to America than Colas, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hollywood, Disneyland, drones and the dollars we eagerly seek to lift our FDI boat.
Along with high technology, Americans, (though not just them) also have to offer what some of us debunk as “Western values”.
“Aye” to dollars and drones, “nay” to “Western values”? Is that the difference between “us” and “them”, Mr and Ms Majority? Consider the latest news from the Big Apple.
On February 26, 2012, a white man, George Zimmerman, gunned down an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida. The excuse: self-defence. On July 13, 2013, a six-woman jury acquitted Zimmerman of murder and other charges. The verdict has reopened old wounds of race and prejudice and very many Americans, their President included, are being open about their shame, anguish and anger over the racist verdict.
On July 27, demonstrators took to the streets in dozens of US cities to vent their anger over the acquittal of Zimmerman. They assembled outside federal courthouses in Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities, demanding “justice for Trayvon” and an end to racial profiling which they claimed was at the heart of the case.
On July 30, two Democratic Congressmen, Senator Ben Cardin and Representative John Conyers, came together to announce companion versions of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2013. Though they had pushed the same legislation in 2011, which had also came before Congress in 2001, 2004 and 2007, the legislators believe the recent furore over the judgement in Martin’s case might give it a chance for passage this time. The proposed legislation would counter racial profiling by mandating training for federal law enforcement officials on racial profiling issues, compiling data on all routine and spontaneous investigatory activities at the US department of justice, providing grants for the development and implementation of protocols that discourage profiling and requiring the attorney general to make periodic reports assessing the nature of any ongoing discriminatory profiling practices.
It’s not only citizens and stray Congressmen demanding change. In a rare instance of power speaking the truth, President Obama himself lamented on July 19: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” He went on to add: “There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me and I don’t want to exaggerate this, but these sets of experiences inform how the African-American community interprets what happened one night in Florida”.
Yes, there’s racism in the US and Islamophobia too is growing. Yet, a man with a skin of the “wrong colour” is the President of the United States of America for the second consecutive term. And Barack Hussein Obama can speak from the heart without fear of being hounded for reverse racism. This too is America.
That’s “them”, what about “us”? If it’s racism in the US and African-Americans its prime target, it’s communalism in India and Muslims its worst victims. Of course, a Muslim as the Prime Minister of India is beyond our wildest imagination. But can you imagine a governor of some state in the US who is accused of a state-sponsored massacre of African Americans (Latin Americans, Asian Americans...) being acceptable as a candidate by either the Democratic or the Republican Party in the presidential race?
Not only the US, we could learn something from Norway as well. In January 2001, an African-Norwegian teenager, Bejamin Hermansen, was knifed to death by two neo-Nazis. This first-ever incident of racial killing in the country brought tens of thousands of protestors on the streets of Oslo the very next day. Leading the protest was none less than Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who sent out a powerful message: “This is not our way; we shall not tolerate racial crimes in our society”. In less than a year, a five-judge bench ruled the two attackers — Joe Erling Jahr and Ole Nicolai Kvisler — were guilty and sent them to jail for a 15-year term.
“This is not our way...” Another planet? Think of Oslo 2001, think of Gujarat 2002. Imagine the Prime Minister of India taking to the streets to denounce the targeting of minorities.
Thank you, Dr Amartya Sen for nudging us to look beyond borders.
Javed Anand is co-editor of Communalism Combat and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy