For whom the bell tolls…

5 February 2007…. the first day in my nearly fifty years of existence that I felt my identity as a citizen of India in question – not just in question but actually exposing me to a genuine possibility of physical harm. It was a cool morning in Bangalore and I was on my way to attend a one-week training course sponsored by the Government of India. Just a few days before that, the Supreme Court of India had given a ruling in the Cauvery Waters dispute which was seen in Karnataka as being unduly favourable to Tamil Nadu. This raised the hackles of enraged Kannadigas who resorted to protests against the verdict.
In the week that followed, I ran the gauntlet of getting from my place of stay to the training centre every morning and returning every evening. The reports of anti-Tamil sentiments running high in protestors did nothing to reassure me. My smattering of Kannada tended to lapse into Tamil and I was painfully aware that it would be evident to any taxi or autorickshaw driver that this was no dyed-in-the-wool Kannadiga they were ferrying.
Cut to 2008 and the scene shifted to Maharashtra. Reports poured in of people from U.P. and Bihar being set on by gangs of young Maharashtrians and of property of “Bhaiyyas” being vandalised. The reason given was that those from the northern and eastern states were taking away jobs from the local boys. The fact that elections to Parliament and the State Legislature were around the corner added fuel to the fire. An exodus of frightened northerners was actually seen and trains to different destinations in U.P. and Bihar were packed with people fleeing in fear.
It is in these settings that one is left questioning what exactly one’s identity is. Amartya Sen has dealt with this issue in his description of the multiple identities of an individual. Let me take my own case, a product of the Tamil diaspora. My father’s generation exited Tamil Nadu around the time of India’s independence: the absence of jobs in their home state coincided with new employment avenues opening up in places like Delhi with the transfer of power to Indians and the subsequent major expansion in the reach of government. Being a Tamil in post-partition Delhi was no easy going for the first twenty years or so of independent India. The label of “Madrasi” stuck to migrants from the four southern states. The stereotype of the meek, unobtrusive clerk stuck to the South Indian, even though there probably was some envy (laced with contempt?) for his industrious ways and his command over the English language. What was noticeable about the South Indian émigré was his ability to preserve his cultural roots and his desire to ensure that his progeny focused on education as a means to upward mobility.
It was this inner motivation which led to my parents admitting my siblings and me in a Christian missionary school. Sound education was undoubtedly a motive: I suspect another reason was the desire to develop in one’s children self-confidence to thrive in a competitive and, in some senses, an alien environment. It was in this and other institutions of higher learning located in Delhi (from which my brothers and I graduated) that one really came into contact with the “salad bowl” that constitutes India. Delhi University, where I spent five years, had large contingents of students from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar at the undergraduate level coupled with significant imports from Bengal and Orissa at the postgraduate level. Friendships blossomed with people of different regions, speaking diverse languages and from varying socio-economic backgrounds. Identities tended to merge and, though regional groupings did not die out completely, there was still a far greater level of tolerance of each other and especially those from dissimilar backgrounds. In hindsight, I suspect that this tolerance was an offshoot of the recognition that we were all headed for a slice of an all-India pie (the Civil Services) or for universities abroad, apart from the somewhat more limited number who were headed for the Management Institutes.
My first dilemma arose when I had to give my choice of states for allotment of a state cadre for the Indian Administrative Service. Having virtually no knowledge of my state of birth (Tamil Nadu) and not being too keen to join a cadre like the Union Territories (of which Delhi, where I had spent most of my formative years, was a part), I plumped for one of the better-administered states (in the popular perception of that time), Maharashtra. This was despite the fact that, at the time of choice, I had had only two days exposure to Mumbai in my entire life and was completely ignorant of the Marathi language. The second identity issue (if I may call it that) arises from the Kannadiga origins of my wife. In fact, she is herself a complex combination of regional identities. Her paternal and maternal forebears were Kannada speakers hailing from what is now Andhra Pradesh. She spent her entire childhood in Tamil-majority Pondicherry (now Puducherry), from where she completed her post-graduation.
You can now probably get the drift of what I am aiming at. A person of Tamil origin raised in the north is now settled in Maharashtra. He is married to a person of Kannada origin hailing from Andhra Pradesh who has been brought up in a Tamil-speaking region. Add to this the additional complicating factors that her maternal grandfather worked in Madhya Pradesh while my father worked many years in Odisha and Manipur.
Geographical mobility is a natural corollary of social and economic mobility. The problem arises when differential rates of geographical mobility are observed in different states or regions and in different groups of people. This can be occasioned by ‘push’ as well as ‘pull’ factors. Rural distress, caused by recurring droughts and unemployment, can ‘push’ populations out of their natural habitats of many generations. The ‘pull’ will naturally be to those areas where openings for making a living exist. This leads to a bunching of populations in certain areas, generally in and around big cities. The original inhabitants of these areas experience a dwindling of employment and housing opportunities coupled with the pressure on infrastructure (transport, power, water, etc.) as the migrant population grows, both through natural growth and through fresh arrivals from the host areas. The resulting frustration finds its outlet in random attacks on “outsiders”, as in the case of those appearing for national-level examinations or those who are working in the unorganized sector.
What has been more disturbing about the recent chain of incidents in 2012 in different parts of Western and South India in response to perceived acts of injustice in the North-East has been the vicious cycle of one community after another being provoked to take the law into their hands and address imaginary grievances (based often on exaggerated and coloured accounts of events that apparently occurred elsewhere) through senseless acts of violence. Of even greater concern is the fact that existing insecurities in specific communities arising from unemployment and difficult living conditions are being used by vested interests to drive a wedge between communities. There are two inherent dangers in such a development: firstly, the reinforcement of an already growing tendency not to respect the rule of law and secondly, the failure to understand the basic constitutional guarantee of every Indian citizen to freely seek employment and settle anywhere in the Republic of India.
That the ordinary citizen falls prey to such xenophobic behavior is distressing enough; what is cause for greater alarm is the failure of thinking elements (and opinion creators) in society to come out unequivocally against all such acts. Electoral politics drive political parties and personalities to focus on the immediate benefits of raising age-old bogeys rather than on the damage to the democratic framework. But when intellectuals and responsible members of that society fail to raise their voices against such incidents (and the dangers they pose to the health of democracy), either out of hidden approval or out of fear of the consequences, they do the democracy they live in a signal disservice. Those who think they are insulated from the violent events of today are going to feel the whiplash of reactions to such events in the future. The words (probably apocryphal) of Pastor Niemoller, uttered in pre-World War II Nazi Germany about eight decades ago, bear repeating:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.
It is time now for every one of us who believes in tolerance to caution ourselves – “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Meanwhile, the transplanted Indian, who has moved from his region to other areas in search of education and employment opportunities, is left with the remembrance of the opening stanza of the Mohammad Rafi song from the Hindi film Do Badan:
Bhari duniya mein aakhir dil
Ko samjhane kahaan jaayen
Muhabbat ho gayi jinko
Wo deewaane kahaan jaayen.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ratnam a s on November 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Who will bell the cat?


    • All of us; my article quoted Pastor Niemoller precisely for that purpose.


      • Posted by naini on November 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm

        i wish i could agree with u having seen so much (i am sure u too have seen) manipulation for political gains i seem to be losing faith in humanity’s innate decency and compassion or lets say the ability to manipulate humans for personal ambitions including greed, power and its consequent trappings has overtaken the innate decency and compassion in fact i feel that compassion has died in most and i couldnt agree more that all of us are equally at fault to use a strong negative word
        keep in touch it was a pleasure to read ur mail regards

  2. Posted by naini on November 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    i really enjoyed ur article get it published
    on a philosophical note
    am reminded of an old film song of talat mahmood -one of my favorites
    mere malik kya kahoo
    teri duaon ka asar
    teri rahamat chup rahee
    mae rote rote mar gaya
    so even when god keeps quiet can we expect more from thinking elements regards


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