The prevalence of racial discrimination and racial violence in our society comes as a rude shock

The death of Nido Tania came as a shock to India. At one level it was the cold-bloodedness of the tragedy that was shocking. At another, what shocked most people in the ‘national mainstream’, far from the northeastern hinterland, was the very possibility and prevalence of racial discrimination and horrendous racial violence in the very heart of our ‘self-proclaimed’ tolerant society. The first ‘shock’ is more of an emotive response from the human heart that throbs in the country’s mainstream.

However, the second ‘shock’ is more disconcerting, for it is not just an emotive response but a reaction arising out of our complete ignorance of the continuous racial friction in our society and the lack of cultural understanding of the regions distant from the ‘mainland’, especially the northeast. It is this situation that calls for a sociological examination. In the heart of the issue we find the incompetency and inadequacies in the political action and state responses and the socio-cultural attitude they engender towards the northeast.

At the dawn of Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed that one of the tasks of free India was to integrate the rich tribal culture into the national mainstream. In the six and a half decades that followed, we have twisted and distorted the spirit in which Nehru spoke those words. Nehru’s endeavour was to accommodate the rich culture of tribal regions within the precincts of the national mainstream without liquidating the uniqueness of each of those indigenous cultures. However, the dominant understanding today and the mindset behind the government policy towards the northeast is that those ‘tribal hinterlands’ are clinically detached from the ‘mainstream’; and the ‘mainstream’ is seen as that represented by the North Indian Hindu. This mindset was manifested in a statement by the Home Secretary on May 3, 2010 where he argued that the tribal population is gradually finding its way into the ‘mainstream’ since they are “seen to be celebrating the Hindu festival of Dasara.”

The subconscious rationale behind this belief being that ‘efforts’ be made to make ‘others’ absorbed in this ‘mainstream’. The very idea of looking down upon the tribal culture as something that is to be ‘assimilated’ into the dominant, mainstream culture by means of state action, engenders a social attitude of discrimination and subordination based on racial lines. The social psyche that has developed over a period of time is that ‘anything other than the dominant mainstream is not worth appreciating until and unless it loses itself into the mainstream.’ The atrocities perpetrated by the armed forces under the auspices of pieces of legislation such as the Armed forces (Special Powers) Act, reflects the same mindset. It is portrayed as if the region being infested with ‘insurgencies’ is culturally underdeveloped and has to be chided and forced into civic values and mingled into the ‘developed and more civilised mainstream culture.’ Anuradha Chenoy et al, in Maoist and Other Armed Conflicts, argue: “A dominant, mainstream model undoes the very idea of multiple modes of living and diversity. It excludes the real demands from these regions for justice, dignity, equity, opportunity and rights.”

Today, the socio-economic mobilisation and the dissolution of fragmented socio-cultural spaces produced by economic changes have spawned competition and jousting for jobs. This economic jostling and competitive contact of cultural groups adds to the inter-cultural friction. What we need today is not just territorial integrity based on the ‘mainstream model’ that subjugates the ‘other’, but an ‘emotional integration’ of each group with the other. This cannot be achieved by mingling ‘other’ cultures into the dominant mainstream but by developing a genuine appreciation for the uniqueness of each culture in itself. This genuine appreciation can be developed only through cultural understanding and true knowledge of other cultures.

What we need is not the policy of ‘collective amnesia’, one of making others forget their cultural roots in order to be absorbed into the mainstream culture; but culturing an entire societal attitude that is not just passively tolerant to the ‘other’ but is genuinely appreciative of the individuality and uniqueness of each cultural group.

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