Similar and Different: Black and White

In an earlier post we had referred to two very recent books that highlighted the crucial role of education in inflaming relations between communities in multi-ethnic and multi-national countries.

Some very candid comments by Vinod alerted us to the fact that socialization at home plays an equally important role in forming our opinions of others in the community – whether we see them as different from us and, if so, what values we attach to the differences.

This raises the obvious question of the relationship between socialization at home and education in schools. In searching for an answer, Dr. Meenakshi Thapan (Department of Scociology, University of Delhi) pointed us to the recent work of Latika Gupta on this subject.

Based on her research in Daryaganj, Delhi, Latika Gupta, has confirmed that children develop an exclusionary awareness of religious differences very early in life, often by the age of four before they enter the formal system of education.  A newspaper article based on this research is here.

This has relevance for the earlier discussion on this blog. It could be argued that the books we had mentioned earlier highlight attempts at indoctrination that are marginal in society. But Latika Gupta’s work makes us see the situation from a different perspective. Even if we ignore the fringe phenomena, we can say with reasonable certainty that the mainstream educational system is not doing anything positive to counteract the effects of socialization in the homes.

This is a major conclusion because it suggests that without proactive action we would end up with generations after generations of deeply embedded prejudice that cannot portend good outcomes for any country.

Thus education, while it can be source of problems, is also the only means we have for a solution. And this brings us to the subtitle (Black and White) of this post.

One should find it both ironical and deeply disturbing to compare community relations in the Indian subcontinent with those in North America – the trends are so starkly opposed that they deserve attention.

In North America there was two centuries of bitter antagonism and prejudice between Whites and Blacks based literally on a master-slave relationship. It was crime to educate Blacks and as late as the 1950s mixed marriages were not legal in a number of states. It was the federal state that stepped in decisively in the mid 1960s with Civil Rights legislation to reverse this legacy. And amongst the first things to be targeted after voting rights was education. School segregation was abolished against great White resistance and curricula were changed to eliminate all derogatory and discriminatory references to Blacks. This decisive action has now borne fruit in a remarkable healing with the election of Barack Obama as the President of the United States.

Contrast this with the opposite trend in the subcontinent where communities had lived together for a thousand years with nowhere the same kind of discrimination or intolerance. From there we moved to the brutalities of the Partition and now to the point where intense hatred is emanating from homes and either not being corrected or actually exacerbated in the schools.

Clearly there is a case for federal states to stop playing politics with this issue and to put the long-term future of their countries ahead of their short-term gains. It is said that the Civil Rights legislation in the US cost the Democrats the Southern vote for decades but in retrospect that seems a minor price for the payoff.

Of course, nothing happens by itself. We need a cohort of civil right activists who see the implications of this issue for their countries and for themselves and are willing to fight for that future.

A longer version of Latika Gupta’s research was published in the Economic and Political Weekly this year but is not accessible without a subscription. You can request a copy from

For a school curriculum that is sensitive to issues of diversity see the website of the Oneness Family School.

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5 Responses to “Similar and Different: Black and White”

  1. Vinod Says:

    I think for the first time I see the true power of education. From my experience of education, I came out with a negative view of the potential of the education system. I see it generate only educated bigots who use their skills gained from education to serve their bigotry. From this post I realize that education is quite a complex issue and has so many dimensions to it that are till today not even beginning to be addressed. Thank you.

  2. Vikram Says:

    “Contrast this with the opposite trend in the subcontinent where communities had lived together for a thousand years with nowhere the same kind of discrimination or intolerance.”

    I find this argument surprising. Even today Dalits live on the outskirts of the villages in India. There were frequent rebellions against the Mughal Empire, culminating in the loss of a substantial chunk of its territory to the Maratha Empire. I feel that the rule of the later Mughal Emperors, in particular Aurangzeb and the inherent discrimination present in Hinduism are more likely the seeds of intolerance in the sub-continent than Partition.

    Let me give some evidence, the BJP/Shiv Sena is strong in India mainly in the regions that were part of the Maratha Empire, places like Gujarat, MP and Maharashtra. Hindu nationalism has not found much support in the southern states that did not come under Mughal control. One must also note the replacement of religious mobilization with caste based mobilization in UP and Bihar where caste discrimination has been most pervasive.

  3. SouthAsian Says:

    Vikram, Let me try and make my point at two levels.

    First, I am contrasting the situation in the subcontinent with that of the slave society in the US South. In the latter, one group owned another, used them like beasts of burden, and denied them all human rights. There was no equivalent of this in South Asia.

    Second, and this is an equally important point, the fact that Marhattas were fighting the Mughals does not translate, one-for-one, into ordinary Muslims fighting ordinary Hindus in the neighborhoods, mostly rural, where they lived.

    We have to try and imagine the world as it was at that time. In monarchies, factions were always contending for power. If that had been a ‘Hindu-Muslim’ world there would not have been so many conflicts within Muslim factions. Aurangzeb spent most of his rule fighting Muslim kingdoms in the South.

    Again, the fact that fact the British defeated Siraj at Plassey did not mean that every Muslim or Indian was against the British. One would get a very different picture from reading Dalrymple’s The White Mughals.

    There is one sentence in Sunil Khilnani’s book, The Idea of India, that tries to explain this seeming conundrum (p. 162): “The Muslims of British India did not form a monolithic community with a single ‘communal’ identity or interest any more than the Hindus did. Class and region divided as much as religion might unite.”

    If we overlook this we would not be able to explain why the Muslim Nizam of Hyderabad sided with the British to defeat the Muslim kingdom in Mysore or many other events of the period.

    Of course, India was a caste-based society and everything needs to be placed in that context. This was structurally different from a slave-owning society in which slaves were captured from another continent and sold to their masters. A caste-based system generates exclusivities but these were compatible with peaceful coexistence. Otherwise the system would not have survived as long as it has.

  4. marriah Says:

    Why can’t we all just be equal?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Marriah, That is the million dollar question, isn’t it? That is the puzzle we are trying to understand here by listening to each other. It seems that the hardest thing is to consider someone else as one’s equal. Why?

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