With Anti-Muslim sentiments on the rise, are we failing as a country to look past prejudices and old history and accept one another?
In the wake of the anti-Muslim pogrom of February 2020, I found myself in a heated debate with a Facebook friend who argued that it was ‘Islamic terrorism’ that was wreaking havoc in India. He, an MBA graduate from the Indian School of Business (ISB) went on to highlight the plight of Kashmiri pundits and eventually called me a hypocrite to drive home the point that it was the Islamic faith in general and Muslims in particular who were to blame for all the violence in the country (emphasis on the word all). The police, to him, were the victims in all this.
Whether we look at the works of Karl Marx, Dr B.R Ambedkar, M.K Gandhi or even Rousseau, the common elements in their works that have influenced me as a post-graduate student at this University has been the variegated ways in which these thinkers (and others) thought about freedom.
Whereas Marx saw freedom as the liberation of the proletariat from the vicious shackles of bourgeoisie-led capitalism, Ambedkar defined freedom as the embodiment of social justice for the depressed castes in India. Gandhi reminded us that to ape the West would be our fatal flaw. Rather, self-rule or Swaraj was the true means of emancipating the self. And finally, Rousseau. Out of all the great thinkers of the day, it was his work that struck a chord with me the most because of the unique way he conceptualized freedom.
Rousseau’s idea of freedom transcended petty politics and atomistic interests (what he calls ‘individual will’). Instead of holding on to trivial individual wills, said Rousseau, it should be a general will that we should all aspire to transcend to so that we may all one day live in an exalted state of being where every single individual was their own sovereign. This worldview embodied both a state of collective existence and individual freedom. A very paradisal ideal indeed!
When I think about what my Facebook friend told me, and of what countless other friends (who have since been estranged) have echoed, it hurts me to see how fragmented we have become as both people and citizens. We live in a society where the religion of a victim matters more than the crime, and where hatred towards minorities is both justified and normalised. What shocked me the most was how Muslims were portrayed as villains, rather than the victims of the pogrom.
Going back to Rousseau and the idea of freedom (or Azaadi), I sometimes wonder how many of us hold these forms of extremely parochial views and refuse to transcend our narrow interests for the greater good of this country. The greater good being critical issues of gender equality, access to quality healthcare, quality education and better infrastructure (to name just a few). We live in ghettoised neighbourhoods and often place religion, caste and creed over principles of human rights, dignity and self- worth. I too am not perfect, for when I look at my own friend circle, I often find a lack of diversity, and this is something that disappoints me to this day. However, this also means that it is up to us (and nobody else) to recognize our own personal shortcomings and try to change them. When I think about freedom, I also think about our responsibility to free ourselves from bigoted thinking.
163 years have passed since the Revolt of 1857 and the consequent ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British, but we seem to be doing an excellent job of dividing ourselves up without any external aid. In the aftermath of the pogrom, some of my Muslim friends shared harrowing tales on social media of how afraid they were of revealing their name lest their Muslim identity be known to others.
As a gay man, I understand this fear of ‘coming out’ and it is not a pleasant feeling at all. To live in an atmosphere of fear, worry, anxiety and stress is no humane way to live. Rousseau was indeed correct when he famously said, “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”. Within the Indian context, these ‘chains’ are man-made constructs of religious communalism and discrimination.
The moment we start judging others based on immutable characteristics such as their surname (caste or religion), gender, sexuality, age, disability and linguistic ability (to name a few), we fail as a people. We subsequently fail to not only recognise the value of their individual existence but also the intrinsic diversity they bring to the table as both human beings and equal citizens of this country. Rousseau’s general will was no doubt utopian and could be interpreted as a call for totalitarianism, but a gentler assessment of his work inspired me to think differently.
Do we, as citizens of this nation have the potential to develop greater empathy for each other? Can we start by acknowledging the fact that diversity, not homogeneity should be an ideal to strive for? And finally, can we all rally around the fact that the burning affairs of our country can not and should not revolve around who’s religion is superior and who’s is inferior? Ever since the Pulwama attack on 14 February 2019, the country has been fractionated on the issue of politics and religion. This has both consumed us and divided our families and friends.
Perhaps sometime soon we will realize the value of a form of love that is both selfless and humanistic. Love, that is both non-judgemental and unconditional. From my experience at LGBTQ+ Parades, I have found that principles of love, acceptance and hope rarely fail to bring people together. Loving others, however, is difficult if one doesn’t love oneself first and I have always felt that the most prejudiced people are also the most insecure.
Thus, if you are a minority and are reading this, I am both sorry for what you are going through, and I also pray that you find the strength to first love yourself for who you are and where you stand in society today. Society may fail you, governments may fail you, your own friends may fail you, but you must not fail yourself.
When this love (or as Gandhi calls it: ‘love force’) becomes the general will of the Indian population, only then do I envisage that life in India will truly be secular, liberal, democratic and free. Until then, the journey to reclaim the ethics of tolerance, diversity and self-love shall continue and I surmise that it will continue for many more years to come.
Image Source: HW News
Kanav Narayan Sahgal is a post-graduate student at Azim Premji University, Bangalore where he'
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