Thursday, October 28, 2010

The world’s largest democracies are screwed up

Section I

Not too long ago when a Jewish colleague of mine said, “I love the holidays,” I responded, “You mean Christmas?” She retorted, “I don’t celebrate Christmas! I am not Christian; it’s the holidays for me.” When I said, “I would like to visit your synagogue,” she looked surprised. “Sure. But you will have to seek permission from the rabbi. Maybe get a letter?” I was taken aback. All I wanted to do was learn about a religion I didn’t grow up with. Why the automatic assumption that I was up to something?

When I said to a friend recently, “India is truly a secular country,” she looked confused. Being an American, she knows that America was built on religious freedom. How could any country beat that? I told her that religious tolerance and acceptance were not really the same thing.

Unlike India, there aren’t many countries where people are involved in inter-faith holidays: Muslims in India celebrate Holi and Diwali. Hindus await platters of biryani and sevai on Eid from their Muslim friends. I remember my mother baking cookies for Christmas and hanging stockings for Santa to leave us presents. The finger-licking food at gurudwara was to die for. And most of us grew up visiting gurudwaras, churches, and temples. Despite all the other political and inter-faith chaos, when it comes to festivals, Indians don’t care which faith you are born into.

In my yoga studio, a South Korean place focused on breathing and energy balancing, there are laminated charts depicting the significance of each chakra. One of the yoga postures requires everyone in the class to turn their body at an angle. And it so happens that turning at that angle ends up in you bowing to the laminated chakra illustrations. Frankly, I didn’t notice anything unusual on the wall until two middle-aged women refused to complete the asana. When the yoga teacher asked them the reason, they said, “We can’t pray to the God you have on the wall.” Amazing how someone shows up for yoga without knowing what “chakras” mean! But in any case, can you argue with someone who believes that appreciating another faith makes you less loyal to your own?

I wonder if religions in the US, in their quest of being exclusive, forget to become inclusive. We might have carved out a place for different religious faiths on paper, but have we made room in our hearts for them? We have been so busy, for generations, preserving traces of our own heritage that we never truly learnt to accept someone else’s. And tolerating and embracing are not the same thing!

Celebrating Diwali or Eid or Chanukah won’t make you any less Hindu or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or Christian, but it will make you more open-hearted and compassionate. It can bring you closer to a culture other than your own.

The other problem is that we sometimes give each other a little too much space. We are too different and have too many differences of opinions on God. But we fear asking the wrong questions and offending people. Curiosity is the foundation of growth. This obsession with “I,” “Me,” and “Myself” ideology is manifesting misconceptions and stereotypes. End result: The distance between dissimilarities is growing at a rate faster than closeness through similarities.

Look at the mess we are in today. How can a nation truly emerge victorious from an emotional and religious crunch unless it teaches its citizens the true meaning of acceptance?

Section II

The first time I watched Saturday Night Live and one of the late night (Maybe Jay Leno or David Letterman) news show in New York, the then president of the country was being made fun of. I was shocked and impressed in the same breath. I had never seen anything like that in India. Sure, in the movie “Roja,” the female protagonist alluded to the 1989 kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed and her release in exchange for five terrorists. But that was the extent of it.

You must have read about the latest brouhaha consuming India. Author-activist Arundhati Roy might be facing “sedition charges” for backing Kashmir’s independence. BJP suggests that Roy should be hanged because she said, “Jammu and Kashmir was never an integral part of India and that British imperialism was replaced in 1947 by Indian colonialism.”

Roy might be arrested for voicing her opinion? I am baffled. I bet she’s not the first person to utter anti-government and pro azaad-Kashmir words. So, why her? Because she is a woman and a famous writer, so it’s easy to single her out and attack her?

People don’t have to agree with what Roy has to say. Hell, they don’t have to like what she says. As a person of Indian origin, I don’t fancy Roy’s stance or necessarily agree with her. But one can express our disagreement in a civil way. How can anyone deny her the freedom of speech—something that India guarantees its citizens? How can anyone suggest silencing her? Isn’t that against democracy? As Voltaire said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

New and Renewable Energy Minister and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah said there was 'too much freedom' in India, which is being misused to 'destroy' the nation. Umm, interesting. Instead of worrying about what one person has to say, shouldn’t Abdullah be anxious about the one billion people behaving as dimwits? Shouldn’t he be concerned that in a country of above-average academic intelligence, the majority lacks the innate willingness to evaluate and process information thrown at them?

I am given the argument that freedom of speech and responsibility go hand-in-hand. But I ask a basic question: How much is “too much” freedom? And who decides the limits of liberty? Politicians with only their personal interests at stake? Writers who want their voices heard? Or millions of people who wear goulashes of callousness?

I am sorry, but a nation that doesn’t permit its citizens to say what’s on its mind can never truly progress. One man’s terrorist is another man’s martyr. If Raja Ram Mohan Roy had chosen to be silent like the rest of the society, Hindu widows in India would still be following the heinous practice of sati! If activists hadn’t spoken against dowry and bride burning, dead women would adorn the streets of India.

The younger generation needs to be taught to examine and interrogate. We are so blinded by our day-to-day lives that we forget that our brains can accommodate more than math problems, Bollywood dialogues, and cricket statistics. Parents and teachers need to encourage inquisitiveness not shun it. Questioning the older generation doesn’t mean you are disrespecting them. Disagreeing with adages doesn’t make you any less of an Indian.

The changes have to be brought at the grassroots level in both India and the United States. To quote a friend, “Pity the nation that has to silence its writers. Pity the nation that's afraid of dissent.” I will add to that: Pity the nation that practices selective democracy. Pity the nation that is afraid of opening its heart and mind.

More until next time,


Copyright © 10.28.2010

“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” – Oscar Wilde


Sandhya said...

Hiya there - good read as always, you are always provacative and always make me think :) Have to diagree with some of what you say A Roy is yet to be arrested and I think there is enough grief around Kashmir without her adding to it. I used tor eally respect her, but her quest for a Nobel is making her do some pretty stupid things that could affect millions of lives. she needs to calm down. meanwhile, the government has categorically stated that they not arresting her though by law they can....

jayashree said...

HI Sweta, First of all Congratulations on your successes and may you have many more to look forward to!

I quite agree with you that Ms. Roy has the right to say whatever she pleases and we have the right to stop our ears of we don't like her views. But does Ms. Roy always have to say something that offends us... the general public of India? Can you please quote one sentence that Ms. Roy has uttered that has been applauded and accepted by the Indian Public? She seems to be a crusader working to tear down India into small parts..or is there money in her views too?...
It is unmindful of her, to say the least, for hurting the sentiments of 1.2 billion people. Do we as citizens of India, not deserve the respect of the 'intellectuals' like her? Does her award make her a 'more equal' citizen of India?
As for Kashmir, most of us in India would like some solution for it..... even if it means severing it from us. But do you realise that it will then mean that the displaced Hindus will become another group of gypsies in this world? I have a sis-in-law and 3 nieces who live in Srinagar. The girls are now post grads but they have no world view, because they had no interaction with the rest of India (forget the world) because of this constant violence...

Azaad Kashmir will become another tinder box just like the CIS countries ....Thats what the West wants so that they can keep selling the weapons that their factories make. I also live in Europe and so I am now understanding the concept better.And I am afraid that for most Indians with any sense Ms Roy's opinion does smell of 'sedition'.... although she argues she is voicing what millions of people are saying....Who made her the 'vox populi' of the Kashmiri and the Maoist and the other 'armed' protests that she aligns with?

Sorry to point out to you that 'Rights' come with 'Responsibilities'..... although I must say that the Fourth Estate of India must learn that along with Ms. Roy.

My two cents said...

@Sandhya: Thank you for reading the post and commenting. I cannot emphasize enough that I don’t agree with the content of Arundhati Roy’s speech (ref: Kashmir not being a part of India or any other *insidious* efforts ); I am defending her right to voice her opinion.

Why are we giving her so much importance in any case? She is just another Indian like the rest of us. Difference is that our perspectives don’t match. That’s about it. Is that reason enough to go after her? Do we have no room for criticizers?

Much as people would like to compare, she is not like Martin Luther King. She doesn’t have that kind of following. Even the Indian government understands that. There is a reason they haven’t arrested her. They know the “extent” of impact her postulations have.

Again, I am not disregarding your suggestion that Roy might have an ulterior motive: To win the Nobel Prize. All I am saying is that her words don’t count as much as we think they do.

My two cents said...

@Jayashree: Thank you for reading and sharing your point of view (and for all the generous wishes). At the risk of sounding repetitive, let me reiterate that I don’t agree with what Arundhati Roy has to say. I grew up in India; to me, Kashmir will always be ours. But that doesn’t mean I want her behind bars or hanged.

I am against snatching anyone’s freedom of speech just because I don’t like what they have to say. Just a few weeks ago, Aditya Thackeray made sure that Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, got excluded from University of Mumbai’s second year BA syllabus. Why? Because he didn’t like what was written in it. Where does this madness stop? A country can’t fully function without any tolerance for its critics.

Why are we Indians getting so riled up because of what Roy had to say? She is a part of the one billion plus population. A section of this large number, at least, doesn’t always agree with government’s policies. Why are we giving her declaration so much importance? Do we lack our own intelligence to evaluate the situation or her strategy? Maybe Roy (as suggested by one of my friends) has the Nobel Prize in mind or some bigger motives, I don’t know.

Forbidding someone from saying what’s on their mind is not what India stands for. I understand “rights” come with “responsibilities.” But what about her rights to freedom of speech? And she clearly is not in such an influential position that she needs to act anymore “responsible” than the majority of the population. We, the masses and the government, are giving her too much credit. She is not the next MLK.

Also, isn’t the fault somewhat ours if we are so impressionable? We were so quick to worship Roy when she won the prestigious literary award. And we are so quick to bemoan her because of her political stance. Emotions over logic, always. That’s part of our desi charm, but it does backfire.

I am sure it’s petrifying for you—to have your family live in an area of unrest. Believe me, I can empathize. I too have friends whose families still live in and around Srinagar. But our problem is bigger than Roy or anyone else. The issue started when the British divided India & Pakistan. They have left, and we are still brewing an unpalatable stew!

Everything in life can’t be black or white. Just like the burkha ban in France, this issue too falls under the cryptic shade of grey. What's right or wrong OR how much freedom is too much freedom, it’s a matter of perspective.

Manoj Panikkar said...

Your first post is particularly interesting Sweta. Real Politik and cultural mores are different in the US, Europe and India. In the US i'd be considered a Liberal Loony, in UK a Borderline conservative while in India a social liberal and a cultural conservative. Having lived in the major continents, I sometimes find myself judging others by my own benchmarks while justifying my opinion as something that is globally normal and acceptable. The fact is, there is no global benchmark. So, people in Europe make fun of the fact that in the US elections are won and lost on issues like Roe Vs Wade, Christianity Vs Islam, Gun Ownership rights, Private vs Public Healthcare. But they are essentially referring to the database of their own mores and values when they do that. It all depends upon how countries evolve. In this case, one of the youngest countries on this earth happens to be born out of exploration and with the motto "each according to ones own self". To an extent this country is still discovering who they actually are, and i think the rest of the world needs to understand it and show it the patience while it sorts itself out. It is an evolution process. If we rush it by measuring, scoring and damning it by our own standards the conflict increases, which makes the whole melting pot all the more interesting, but the path to self discovery also becomes more tortured.

Ernest Dempsey said...

You just said Sweta what has been on my mind for some time. I often mention that cultural amalgamation can best be seen in India where Hindus and Muslims celebrate each other's religious festivals and by doing so have made these occasions more clutural than religious. That is the beauty of a secular land.

While elements like Shiv Sena are still present in India to coerce Muslims, on the whole, India has attained a degree of success in religious harmony of its communities that other nations need to imitate. Hope that happens soon.

My two cents said...

Hi Manoj,

Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Interesting viewpoint. I really enjoyed the description of your own self across three different continents and countries.

While I get your stance that one society shouldn’t use its cultural-benchmark to evaluate another, I don’t fully agree with it. Only because how else will we grow as a global community? We have to learn from one another for the betterment of humanity. For instance, Iran propagates stoning its so-called “inappropriate” women. And Hindu women in India still get tortured for not bringing in sufficient dowry. Can we justify or excuse these inhumane acts because these are patriarchal societies and women have very little say? How do we show these people right from wrong?

Benchmarks, in some ways, help us step out of our rut. Self-discovery and evolution can happen successfully if we use some point of reference for evaluation. How else do you set parameters of acceptable and unacceptable? And in fact, the newer the society, the more options they have in terms of learning from older civilizations: Their successes and failures.


My two cents said...

Hi Ernest,

Thanks for reading and commenting. I like how you used just two words to encapsulate the whole point: cultural amalgamation. BTW, Shiv Sena reminds me of the youngest Thackeray: Aditya Thackeray. Did you hear Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, got excluded from University of Mumbai’s second year BA syllabus? All thanks to the twenty-two-year-old boy! I am appalled; how can a nation progress without its writers?

All this book exclusion brouhaha etc. reminds of a famous quote from Plato: "Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something."