U.S. and South Asia: Transformations and Trajectories

There was a music program in Washington, DC recently in which the three performers on stage were of South Asian origin – the vocalist from Bangladesh, the tabla player from Pakistan and the harmonium player from India. All three were young and together they created a beautiful music.

The Indians in the audience asked for Faiz, the Pakistanis for Nazrulgeeti, and the vocalist herself sang the verses of poets from India. The program was a huge success lasting over five hours. It was an occasion that was symbolic of what was possible in terms of coexistence.

Is that an unrealistic dream for South Asia? The election primary in the U.S. this year is a ready reminder of the transformations that are indeed possible. A mere fifty years after the Civil Rights Act when black Americans were second-class citizens afraid of being lynched and cities were burning with anger, a black American has emerged as the nominee of the Democratic Party.

Much conscious effort has gone into making this social and political transformation possible but it is clear that American society has reached a point where the young have transcended the poison of racial bias. Yes, there are voices from the past but they are recognized as just that – the scared screams of those who have been left behind.

Of course, the battles are far from won in the U.S. The day is yet to come when a Muslim or a Hindu candidate would be able to get to the position that Barack Obama has attained. But it is the trajectory that matters and looking at the new generation it is quite obvious that things are moving in the right direction.

South Asia, however, is moving along a different trajectory. Pakistan, of course, is the poster child for the dismal politics of state-supported exclusion. It was optimistic to think that a polity created on the foundation of differences could turn around overnight and become the home of harmony. The vivisection of society has proceeded apace with various minorities paying the price in turn, one after another.

But the same trends are discernible in an India that has remained democratic and has tried to remain secular over sixty years. There was a time when leaders of the stature of Gandhi and Nehru were willing to protect religious minorities against strong lobbies. Today, the Indian state is ambivalent about its constitutional responsibility and in some cases has actively abetted violent attacks on religious minorities. The targeting of Sikhs in Delhi and of Muslims in Ahmedabad are the most egregious examples.

It is also the case that an India that set out to eliminate the differentiations of caste – one of the main reasons why Nehru entrusted the stewardship of the Constitutional Committee to Dr. Ambedkar – has now more castes than ever before. The emergence of Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes is an ironic outcome of that noble endeavor. 

It is true that there are literally hundreds of civil society organizations in India undertaking heroic actions on behalf of minorities and the politically excluded. But it is equally clear that without the kind of national commitment that marked the Civil Rights Act in the U.S. and without the supporting reform of curricula and teaching in schools, civil society organizations are fighting a losing battle.

When civil society organizations find themselves arrayed against state indifference or antipathy, the most they can achieve is to safeguard the cultural rights of minorities and turn them into the exotic ‘other’. They can rarely turn them into equal citizens entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. 

We need to understand why the states in South Asia are moving in the wrong direction. And we need to figure out how to make them commit to a credible implementation of constitutional rights free of religious, ethnic, sectarian and gender biases.

One starting point is the knowledge that individual rights were ignored from the very introduction of electoral politics in British India. Rather, it was the rights of groups that were given precedence. First, separate electorates transformed religious communities into political interest groups. Second, caste-based affirmative action in India after 1947 turned caste affiliations into a factor in the political calculus.

The first ended in the immense human suffering of the Partition. An example of the second can be seen today in the violent protests by the Gujjar community in India to be reclassified as a Scheduled Tribe from their current status as Other Backward Classes.

Affirmative action in the US worked in relative terms because the boundary between the two groups was not fuzzy – a White could not reclassify himself as a Black to take advantage of reservation benefits.

In South Asia, however, separate electorates triggered movements to reconvert low-caste Hindus who had converted to Islam and prevent further conversions through violence. And caste-based reservations opened up the continuous manipulation of affiliations for political advantage.

Even when intentions are good, the wrong rules can lead to a cloudy future. When intentions themselves start to slip, the darkness of tragedy begins to loom large on the horizon.

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