It's not just racism, it's intolerance of difference

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 07, 2014 13:14 hrs

​The names and incidents dot our newspapers – Nido Taniam, Richard Loitam, Dana Sangma, Graham Staines, the African man who was beaten up in Bangalore, the girls from the Northeast who were sexually harassed by goons, the Ugandan women who were arrested in the middle of the night in Delhi, Muslims killing Hindus, Hindus killing Muslims, Muslims killing Sikhs, Hindus killing Sikhs, Sikhs killing Muslims, Hindus killing Christians, Hindi-speakers killed in the Northeastern states, Northeastern workers fleeing South India, the LGBT community being hounded...

It’s easy to brand ourselves as a racist country, a country that labels people from the Northeast “Chinkies” and calls people of African origin everything ranging from “Negro” to “monkey”.

But our history over the period that we have been an independent nation shows that it is not so much racism, as something even more insidious – our intolerance of any kind of difference between us.

India is not a country with minorities being bullied by a majority. India is a country divided into a multitude of prejudices. In any given area, there is a majority and a minority. When they are not sharing geographical space, they are fighting over cultural superiority – evidenced by the number of articles I have read that list out the comparative merits of North Indians over South Indians and vice versa.

We are a nation of differences, and we create them when we can’t spot them right away.

Look at the number of separatist movements in this country. Look at the number of states that have bifurcated and trifurcated.

We can talk ourselves hoarse about the idiocy of pamphlets titled ‘Security Tips for North East Students’, penned by IPS officers from the North East; we can protest against the stereotyping of Afro-Caribbean people; we can rage against the discrimination landlords exercise against prospective tenants belonging to certain demographic groups.

But what are we going to do about our own mistrust of anyone and anything that is different from us, that we can’t relate to? What are we going to do about the homophobia, the religious chauvinism, the linguistic parochialism? What are we going to do about the presumption that all black expatriates are involved in the drug trade or the sex trade? What are we going to do about the perception that all white tourists are looking for holiday hook-ups?

These prejudices exist across the world. I’ve had people ask me twenty bizarre questions at airports, while friends of mine with Muslim names are asked forty, and everyone else is asked two. I’m told this is ‘standard racial profiling’.

I don’t see why my fingerprints must be scanned before I’m given a visa to travel, despite my having no criminal record, whereas people belonging to certain countries or races don’t need to share their biometric information with the authorities.

This world would be a lot better if there were no borders – at least, no border controls. Or so one thinks. When the world was free of national boundaries, people went about creating colonies. People went about enslaving other races.

Perhaps it is a natural human tendency to be afraid of difference, to seek out familiarity.

In our country, this could prove detrimental. We are not a homogenous population. In fact, our heterogeneity is incomprehensibly diverse. You could have people of three different colours in the same family.

There are interreligious and interregional and interracial marriages in the country, as there are across the world, but we’re never going to have a melting pot. We have too many parameters that define us.

We were never meant to be a country. We don’t have a national language, we don’t have a national dress, we don’t have a national diet. Our unique identity is the label of being ‘Indian’, and we don’t know what exactly that entails, except the fact that we are bound by certain laws, and have certain rights.

One of the great privileges of being Indian, a privilege I would not give up for anything in this world, for any other passport, is the freedom to travel, live and work anywhere in this beautiful, diverse country.

As citizens of a country that none of us can fully understand, don’t we owe it to each other to at least respect the freedoms we are guaranteed under the Constitution?

Our ancestors fought hard for these privileges. They fought for the right to have a flag of our own, laws of our own, an identity of our own. This identity cannot possibly be all encompassing. Within our Indianness are our disparate religious beliefs, cultural and linguistic heritage, appearance and idiosyncrasies.

Each of us is as different from each other as our fingerprints are. At the very most, we can have a ‘lot in common’.

Perhaps if we learnt to allow these differences among each other, we would stop hating everyone who is not ‘exactly’ like us. No one can be exactly like anyone else. India, of all countries, should understand that.

Image: BJP members Tarun Vijay and Anurag Thakur holding a poster of Arunachal Pradesh student Nido Tania, who was killed recently, in Parliament premises during the first day of the extended Winter Session in New Delhi. (PTI)

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on