By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
Ethnic prejudice, or what we in India term as ‘communalism’, is probably almost as old as humanity itself. It lies at the root of most of the conflicts that have wrecked humankind since the very beginning of history, and even now, too. I don’t suppose more than just a few individuals are entirely free from the virus, including even many people who think they are ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’. One reason why it’s so pervasive and hard it get rid of is because the virus infects us at a very young age itself, after which it so indelibly shapes the way we perceive ethnic ‘others’ that few of us ever manage to expel it from our minds—that is, if at all we want to in later life. Indeed, many of us willingly let the virus eat deeper into us as we become older and even more confirmed in the beliefs about ethnic ‘others’ that we inherited from our parents and others around us when we were impressionable children.
Growing up as a child in an upper-middle-class Punjabi family in Calcutta in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was groomed by my relatives and family friends to imbibe their ideas about different communities, ideas which they, in turn, and for no real fault of their own, must have imbibed from their relatives and others whom they were close to as children. Punjabis, I was told (sometimes quite blatantly) were really the ‘best’ sort of people that existed. They were, so I was made to believe, especially ‘hard-working’, ‘industrious’, ‘boisterous’, ‘cheerful’, and ‘good-looking’. Apparently, no one knew how to ‘love life’ more than them, and the fact that a great many Bollywood heroes were Punjabis was touted about with much pride. Not surprisingly, then, the vast majority of my parents’ friends were fellow Punjabis, and, I suspect, they, too, shared the same assumptions about Punjabis and their presumed ‘superiority’ as my parents and other relatives did.
This belief in Punjabis supposedly being the ‘best’ sub-species of humanity was further fortified in the stereotypes that I imbibed from my relatives and their fellow Punjabi friends about various other communities. Most of these were negative, although, in some cases, in a qualified way. Thus, the Bengalis among whom we lived were, I was told, ‘lazy’ and particularly ‘quarrelsome’. Bengali men were singled out as ‘effeminate’ and ‘hen-pecked’, their love for their wonderfully rich culture—music, dance and literature (all of which I wasn’t taught to at all appreciate)—was held out as ‘proof’ that they were ‘hardly male at all’. They were mocked at for wearing dhotis and tucking big, black umbrellas under their arms wherever they went (even out of the monsoon season)—as if all Bengali men did that! Bengali women, I was told, were ‘noisy’ and ‘quarrelsome’ and that the thing they loved best was berating their husbands and squabbling over the price of fish! Not surprisingly, then, with all those ideas about Bengalis as a child I had only a couple of Bengali friends—certainly not enough to make even a slight dent in what we then thought about them as a people.
I studied in an Anglo-Indian school, and at that time Calcutta still hosted a large Anglo-Indian community. They were the butt of many miserably mean jokes at home. They were alleged to speak English in a strange, ‘cheap’ way, so I was made to believe, and were ‘habitual drunkards’. They allegedly had ‘no loyalty at all whatsoever’ to India and I was led to think that their ‘real place’ was England or Canada or Australia or New Zealand. Their men were said to be ‘good-for-nothing fun-lovers’, and their women were alleged to have ‘loose morals’ just because they wore skirts, drank alcohol, and because some of them worked as crooners in bars and as hair-dressers. I even came to imagine all Christians in the same way—full-blooded Indian Christians, with not a trace of European blood, too!
We had two Muslims working in our house, my father’s secretary was a Muslim, and so were the meat-man, the bread-man, the store-man and many of the bearers in the clubs we were members of. I grew up with mixed impressions about Muslims. I was told that they were particularly sensitive about, and wedded to, their religion in a way that no other people were, that they were apparently solely responsible for the Partition of India, that they were ‘prone to being violent’, that they were, by and large, ‘dirty’ and ‘uneducated’ and that almost the only thing that they ate was meat. But Pathan Muslims (there were still many in Calcutta then, mainly Kabuli money-lenders) were said to be ‘loyal’ and ‘faithful’ to those who befriended them and won their trust. I think it was because of the two Muslims who worked in our home, who were really more than parents to me than my own parents were and whom I dearly loved, that I was spared some of the seriously negative stereotypes that many non-Muslims I know have of that community (which mirror numerous stereotypes that many Muslims have of others).
There were hardly any South Indians in our locality and so my interaction with them as a child was minimal. Unmindful of the considerable cultural differences among various South Indian communities, they were all talked of by us Punjabis as ‘Madrasis’. Their language (I was led to believe as a child that all of them spoke just Tamil!) was the butt of many a cruel joke—as if the only thing they could say was ‘Ayayo!’ and ‘Idly-Sambar!’ I was even given to think of all of them as ‘black’ and, therefore, as if by definition, ‘ugly’.
Given all of this, it’s a real wonder, I think, that I was able to rid myself of many of these obnoxious stereotypes that I grew up with about people who were said to be radically different from the community I was born into. That didn’t happen at once, of course. It actually took many years. It wasn’t just by reading about different cultures and religions that did the trick, though this did play some role. Most of all, it was by travelling, within and beyond India, meeting folks from different walks of life, faiths, cultural groups and nationalities that I learnt to realize and appreciate our common humanity and see these people as they really were—as fellow humans who, through no choice of their own, happened to have been born into particular castes, religious communities, genders and nationalities, just as I had been. I could see them as real, living individuals, and not simply as members of particular communities, and, therefore, not very different from me at a fundamental level.
In that way, I increasingly came to realize how ridiculous it is to generalize about any community, how unfair it is to ‘over-define’ individuals by the communities they’re born into, and, moreover, how simply idiotic it is to imagine (this is an all-too familiar phenomenon) that the community one is born into is somehow the best or the most virtuous or, as some folks insist, the one specially favoured by God and the only one destined to enter heaven. And in this entire journey of learning about others as they really are I came to see myself as just me, no longer needing to define myself as a member of any community at all whatsoever. You won’t imagine how liberating that is!
Now, I won’t go so far as to say that I’ve shed every one of the numerous stereotypes that I inherited at childhood or later developed on my own. That wouldn’t really be true. But at least I’m now much more conscious of the ones I still might have deep down in my unconscious, and so I find myself telling myself off when I am sometimes tempted to generalize about whole communities and to gauge individuals by the ethnic groups they didn’t choose to be born into.