By Ezra Rynjah:
With Christmas just behind us, let us not forget its meaning this festive season. The story goes that on Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem and there was no room for them to stay in so they had to stay in a barn where Jesus, the Christian human incarnation of God, was eventually born. This is repeatedly looked upon as an example of the humility of God to have manifested himself (gendered as in Christian tradition) as a human to be born in such lowly conditions. I, however, would look at this from a perspective that recognizes a more human experience – the couple had to leave Jerusalem and find shelter in Bethlehem where they were refused admission into regular rooms at the inns but were instead looked upon as inferior beings, worthy only of the barn in which to have their child. Doesn’t this remind us of the interlinked issues of racism and immigration where the ethnically different outsider is discriminated against?
This brings us to several questions – when does racism or ethnic violence gain notice? Is it based on the number of people who have been killed? Is it based on the ethnicity in question? Does it depend on the intensity of the violence? Delhi, in the past year, became a centre for discussing the issue of racism in the context of certain instances of violence that were carried out against people from the Northeast India. Mumbai has been the centre of such debates for the longest time. The Israel-Palestine conflict is another case in point. What often happens is that instances of violence against a member of a minority community are flashed in the news for a day and are forgotten such as the case of a Manipuri student being beaten to death in Bangalore in 2014. Currently, Assam is also facing violence on ethnic grounds but even that is losing ground in the mainstream media. If one may notice, violence on the basis of ethnicity is something that is condemned when it occurs with certain intensity. If it garners international recognition then we prick up our ears and our hearts bleed in sympathy but it is rarely addressed on a level beyond public condemnation.
Let’s not forget that such violence stems from an idea of difference within humanity. It creeps in when one community attempts to distinguish itself from another on the basis of physical features, religion or caste to name a few. This is not to say that differences are not to be celebrated. The diversity of cultures and people that exists within the world is what makes it most interesting! However, these differences are exacerbated by different political entities that seek to manipulate the emotional investment people make in such distinctions. Is it so difficult for anyone to recognize electoral politics utilizing such issues of identity or ethnicity to gain votes? Have we not witnessed this before in the communal politics practiced in India such as in Gujarat in 2002 or Muzaffarnagar in 2013 or even the exodus in Bangalore in 2012? Here is where it gets violent. Differences become a four-letter word. Those who are different are decried as being outsiders who are encroaching on land and resources. They become a rallying point for others who are not different in the same way.
So when we recognize this, what is it that one can do, one may ask? It may seem inevitable that we as a human race are fated to exist as creatures in conflict with our neighbours. The answer lies in tracing the origin of ethnic violence on a personal level. The idea that the microcosm and the macrocosm are reflections of each other may be true in this case: when we let a racist remark slide and we don’t speak out against it, it adds up. It may start with a seemingly harmless joke but it soon affirms itself. It occupies territory and expands itself like a malignant tumour, spreading hate as more and more racist slurs bunch together to the point that stereotypes form, differences establish themselves and before we know it, we’re in a pea-soup-thick racist atmosphere that’s as volatile as the one preceding the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, USA. This may be an exaggerated claim but the trajectory is true.
What we could do, however, is to notice not only the differences that exist between people but also our common experiences as human beings in our individual quests for meaning. The difficulties and the joys are things to look out for but the smaller things matter too. For example, that buzzing in our ears that makes us stop and wonder if we’re the only ones who can hear it or the annoying itch right in the middle of our backs that we just can’t scratch or the irrepressible giggles that we have at the most inappropriate moments. These are experiences that can resonate beyond notions of class, ethnicity, gender or any other manifestation of hierarchies. Perhaps when we recognize this, we might be able to recognize the humanity that exists in all of us and there might eventually be more laughter than violence around us.