Far & Near column in the Hindustan Times (published 9 March, 2017)
In the wake of the numerous attacks targeting Indians and other brown-skinned people in the United States, I’ve been struggling not to take the violence personally. For most of my upbringing in America, I never experienced overt racism of any kind. When my family moved to New York in 1990, I remember being warned of gangs of “dot-busters” in nearby Jersey City, thugs who went out of their way to beat up people they thought they were Indians. But that always seemed a distant threat; I never had a run in with any “dot-busters” (I also didn’t ever go to Jersey City). I grew up in New York in helplessly cosmopolitan circumstances, attending an international school in an already incomparably international city. As a result, I had the luxury of wearing my identity lightly. My peers and I recognised and negotiated differences of culture, language, and religion without ever being troubled by them. I could be Indian and a New Yorker at the same time.
I don’t think that experience is just the preserve of an elite international school. It’s the real effect, and aspiration, of plural societies from India to the United States. And it happens on a routine, almost unremarkable basis, whether on the roads of Kerala, where a mosque might sit next to a church, which sits next to a temple, or in New York, where I’ll hear Spanish, Bengali, Chinese, and Haitian Creole all just on my subway ride home. “Diversity” and “multiculturalism” aren’t alien forces but daily, mundane, lived realities.
Though I wasn’t American by citizenship or heritage, I felt an obvious and natural belonging to New York City. That sense of rootedness was challenged a bit after the 9/11 attacks. I had the experience that many other NRI males had since the onset of the “war on terror,” of being made more conscious of my skin. Both in the United States and in Europe, I’ve been subject to several occasions of racist abuse. I’m not a victim, I know I’ve not suffered from the really vicious effects of racism. I was incredulous whenever I encountered such abuse, less offended than mystified by the thought process that resulted in that language and its expression.
At the same time, these otherwise trivial incidents made me realise that the liberal principles I assumed undergirded life in the West were more tenuous and precarious than I had imagined.
With reason, the Indian press has fretted about the dangers that Indians might face in Trump’s America. Hostility to economic migrants and outlandish Islamophobia are breeding an atmosphere of hate and violence. And yet our sympathies and concerns shouldn’t just extend to compatriots. This isn’t simply an Indian story; it’s part of the wider threat to pluralism around the world.
In the West, the experience of the second half of the 20th century was defined by societies learning (and often struggling) to better include the ethnic and racial “minorities” in their midst. The legacy of the Holocaust in Europe (which nearly expunged the continent’s Jews) led to tremendous soul searching and the creation of human rights and legal bodies to protect minority groups. In the United States, the civil rights movement fought against racial segregation that had denied blacks any semblance of equal participation in American society.
However partial and imperfect, these transformations recognised the fact that societies are intrinsically diverse. They include — and have always included —many types of people, who have not always enjoyed the same access to the life of a society. India’s ability to build a (mostly) functioning democracy out of so many disparate identities will be remembered as a truly astonishing accomplishment. In an era marked by cataclysmic wars and unimaginable atrocity, one of the great achievements of the 20th century was the building of plural, democratic polities that saw the representation of all as a virtue.
Yet in the 21st century, reactionary forces across continents are rejecting this ambition. In Europe, the United States, India, and elsewhere, nativists and nationalists deride inclusion as “accommodation,” equate tolerance with weakness. They dismiss the desire of minorities for equal treatment as precious “identity politics.” They talk about multiculturalism, which is a fact of life, as if it were a slogan, a faddish trend, or worse, an insidious agenda.
It’s important for Indians to put the abuse they are now facing in the West in this wider context. I’ve been moved, in particular, by how Sikh Americans activists have linked attacks on Sikhs to discrimination against Muslims, blacks, and Latinos in the United States. Instead of feeling particularly victimised, Indians should embrace another quintessentially 20th century virtue: solidarity.