A few months ago, I found myself at a dinner with a mixed bag of people. Directly opposite me was a Scandinavian writer – and we got talking. At some point, the conversation turned to the Swedish social welfare system.
The Scandinavians, he explained, had bought into the idea of a Nordic model, many years ago. The model was one where civilians agreed to pay a high percentage of taxes (a staggering 49-60%) in exchange for the government managing things like schooling, childcare and effective prison systems that focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. He explained to me that even though there were token royal families, they were also expected to live and work, just like the others. On the whole, the entire system focused on the collective betterment of the Scandinavian society. It all started from the fundamental belief that everyone was created equal.
It made me think about India. For years, as a product of being colonised, Indians were never considered equal in their country. The very identity many of our grandparents were raised with was that they were, in some sense, native, brown-skinned, exotic and unrefined. All my life, I have heard anecdotes from friend’s grandparents about the institutional subordination that followed in the years leading up to and after independence.
We have to appreciate the fact that in 1947, the world was a different place. Our conversations on race and power had not advanced to where it is now – and I don’t think we had any real understanding of how damaging nuances in language could be. And in a wider, global context, racism has shown us that people of colour were treated differently.
When children are bullied, the effects stay with them for years, affecting how they interact with others and how they perceive of themselves. Would it be a stretch to draw a parallel to India’s colonial legacy where colonialism has taught an entire generation of people that they were ‘less than’?
Over the years, issues like fair skin, the caste you were born into, whether you ate meat or not, how much money you made, whether you were a doctor or engineer, or whether you spoke English (or not) have played into these power balances (and the marriage market). These have guaranteed that we most certainly do not see all people as equal.
Our humour is littered with people who speak English ‘poorly’ (think Javed Jaffery in “Salaam Namaste” or Danish Sait as Inspector Nograj). The staggering number of people who continue to live in poverty in India are proof that we are far from defining ourselves in relation to each other. These proofs also lie in the ‘big things’ (like the Delhi apartment complex clash), and the ‘little things’ (for instance, when I briefly worked in a slum in Banglore, the kids did not want to touch my clothes for the fear that this would make them ‘dirty’).
We weren’t equal. We didn’t start off from that point. It makes moving towards equality that much more challenging because our argument is different. We aren’t defined by the movements for equality which shaped the West. Our founding principles are based on an entirely different set of ideals.
But, what I was taught – and what has stood out to me over the years – is that we did agree that India was diverse. The national anthem is an ode to how we are united even in the farthest reaches of the country. In a country that is home to so many different kinds of landscapes and languages, the foundations of modern India have been built on the fact that we are different, and accepting of each other.
India speaks a staggering 780 languages, and has large swathes of land covered by dry hot deserts and plush rainforests. These vast linguistic and geographical distinctions have formed communities that proudly represent a kind of diversity that is vibrant – with their regional dances, dresses and identities. Unlike many other smaller countries around the world which have somewhat more homogenous cultures, India has always taken pride in being a country that is as vast as a sub-continent and is home to more than 1/8th of the world’s people.
This vast and complex diversity is the heart of what makes India (as a nation) old, in its history and wisdom – and young, in its expression of who this new India is for. This means that if we are to move towards ensuring that all people are treated fairly we mustn’t pretend that skin colour, caste, religion, or the willingness to study medicine doesn’t exist. Instead, we need embrace the fact that these do exist – and that they are all equally valid. It means that, as a society, we have to first agree that our value lies in our diversity – and then build an India that is accepting, tolerant and welcoming of alternative ideas and perspectives – irrespective of whether we are rich or poor, dark or fair, English-speaking or not.
The fight for this diversity is long and hard – and in my opinion, it has only just begun. We need diversity in the media, in politics, in sport and in science. Indians rich or poor, old or young, educated differently, from different castes and religions – we need to embrace them all and accept that every single opinion is valid.
A part of starting this conversation lies in accepting that another perspective exists. It means having the knowledge that our beliefs are shaped by a complex set of circumstances. It also entails listening to other people’s ideas with open minds. It means creating communities that are willing to engage in dialogue and hear each other’s point of view.
Perhaps, we are a long way from embracing and fully accepting each other as equal. But, that process will only begin once we understand and accept that we don’t need to agree with every perspective – we just need to accept that it exists. How we create those safe spaces for people to do so (both online and offline) is the first step towards building a community that will, one day, become equal.
It means that we are saying that we are different, well before saying that we are equal – and that’s okay.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.