Left behind?

We have been told that the vice-president of the Congress Party has taken a leave of absence in order to ‘reflect upon recent events’. This is indeed humorous considering the fact that his party itself seems to have been on an extended vacation for the last five years.

With ‘loser’ attention being drawn by the old and mighty Congress, we have all missed a no less great political tragedy of our times — the practically unnoticed disappearance of the Indian left. Most of the middle and upper-middle class will probably be pleased with this since they have always considered it obstructionist and anti-development. Unfortunately with some of its ideological predispositions, the left has self-created this perception.

But can anyone deny that they have been essential to the wheel of a peoples’ democracy? And hence if they vanish we lose an honest voice. The left is the voice of large sections of the oppressed and marginalised classes of this country. The left represents in spirit the true nature of social activist-politics that allowed for subaltern voices to be heard and helped this country retain a socialist ethic.

Does the left believe in a soul? Its orthodoxy may cavil at that term. But let me use it nonetheless. The soul of the left is in the upliftment of people and in the upholding of their rights. But this ‘soul’ cannot be boxed within a certain dated book. Every one of the left’s ideas need to be reinterpreted within the times that we live in. Unfortunately the left has been unwilling to revisit its beliefs.

This is baffling given the fact that they are probably the only ones among our political parties to have stayed in contact with the common man. They should know where they are relevant and where they are passe! Yet they do not.

Egalitarian living does not mean one does not imagine a more affluent life for oneself. A person on the street side watches cars whiz past and naturally imagines himself in one. If we do not respect that dream there is nothing liberal about us. Yes, the core principle of equality and fairness must govern the idea of liberty but we cannot dictate to the marginalised the type of living they must seek and unfairly judge those who don’t fall in line. I greatly respect the frugal lifestyle of most left-wing politicians and activists but this does not give them the right to be judgmental of the rest. It stifles even those who feel leftist guilty about their own innocuous dreams.

In this age of the Internet and television where every citizen watches the capitalist-market driven affluence it is hypocritical to denounce or judge this aspiration. We have to build this reality within our need for social parity. Not doing so is politically hollow and philosophically flawed.

So the question the left must ask is: How is it to remain the voice of the oppressed yet work with the empowered in a way that makes them change their way of living? In other words, can the left redefine the idea of ‘a better life for all’? Instead, the left has taken the rest to be enemies, opponents and this hurts them.

Even while in power the Left has been unable to make a real difference to the lives of marginalised Dalits and Muslims. Speaking out for them is one thing and changing their lives is something else. In Kerala, the higher social indexes at least in the past were due to the core socialist drive powered by the left.

In Bengal, the left’s handling of Nandigram and Shingur left a huge dent on their pro-poor and pro-farmer stance.

We cannot profess a socio-political position that is primarily about being ‘anti’ something, someone or some country. There is no doubt that a lot the left says about the US for example is accurate yet when this is seen alongside the left’s inability to strongly speak up on human-rights violations in China they lose credibility. The left has to think of itself as being ideologically universal but politically and culturally Indian and not as a member of some ‘international communists society.’ This disassociation will change the way they see themselves.

This is not a political analysis, it is a philosophical distress call. I am deeply saddened by the lack of vision and ingenuity among the left establishments. It is time that the word ‘Left’ is rediscovered and celebrated not just in that cliché ‘of the people, by the people and for the people’, but with the people.

Originally written for The Hindu

Diversity in discrimination

A common subject of conversation among Indians who have travelled to the U.S. is about what their airport security calls a ‘random search’. We see in this some sort of racial profiling. Ever so often, an Indian celebrity appears on television complaining about the ‘treatment’. For that matter I have myself narrated stories of what I have perceived as rank discrimination while travelling in that country. There is no denying that because of the racial stereotyping of the terrorist the world over, people with certain features are more randomly checked than others. But somewhere behind this lies something intrinsic, a deep-seated suspicion, discomfiture, even a sense of superiority. This neither starts nor stops at U.S. airports. Sections of the ‘whites’ in certain states are clearly colour-phobic.

But are we, ‘tanned’ Indians, any different? No. We have our own ‘traditions’ of racism. People of African descent studying or working in India routinely face our version of racism. Let us be honest enough to admit that we stare and snigger at them and say the rudest imaginable thing about their looks. This low is our sense of humour! Watching the government’s Atithi Devo Bhava campaign, I strongly felt that in our perception the atithi is almost always a white or far eastern male.

But this isn’t new. Many of us have heard our grandmothers preen about the daughter-in-law’s fairness. Even today, matrimonial ads contain the old ugly phrase ‘wanted fair girl’ and fairness creams are advertised extensively. Within our non-white skin shades, we seek the whitest of them all. Let us not make the mistake of presuming that these practices are largely found in ‘uneducated’ communities. They are as prevalent among the most educated sections of urban society. The language may be subtle but the attitude is the same. What is worse, we associate personal hygiene with skin colour. The darker skin is considered less ‘clean’ than the brown and white. But our bias does not stop with just skin colour, does it?

People from the northeast who live in other states as students and professionals are constantly singled out for their facial features; in fact the ‘mainstream Indian’ (whoever that is!) does not consider them quite Indian. Don’t they look ‘Chinese’? Irrespective of whether the city is New Delhi or Chennai, women from the northeast are seen through very sexual eyes by men who hold this perverted notion that women with Mongoloid features are ‘easy’.

It is not just about colour or race; we are also homophobic. People with a different sexual orientation are targets for ridicule, seen as abnormal and even sexually violent. Insensitivity towards lesbians and gays is rampant. The situation for the transgender is even worse. They are not even given the respect of human beings. I am ashamed to confess that even with all my awareness, I have to consciously tell myself to discard my inhibitions and wariness when a transgender approaches me. My conditioning is so deep.

The good old forms of caste- and gender-related discriminations still slither around us. Even today there are households where a separate drinking glass is used for the household help or for the low-caste/class outsider. There are still streets and temples where the Dalit is not permitted. We read about these struggles in our newspapers and brush them aside as stray happenings, not realising that similar ideas lurk within our own minds. We differ only in degrees.

Patriarchy remains the foundational basis for our society. Religious bias is not far behind with the Muslim facing the brunt of this abuse. Typecast into a visual mould of a man with a skullcap or as a woman wearing a hijab, they are homogenised as a visual image only to further typecast the community as dangerous. Collectively we continue to push the Muslim onto the rim of society.

The ‘diversity in discrimination’ we practice is frightening. This is us. Every society is unequal, but that does not make our underling attitudes passable. Furthermore we cannot remain blind to the blatant discriminations that we practice and perpetuate. The first step is for us to look within and acknowledge our predispositions. In this honest acceptance of our prejudices, we can hope to find the strength to change. We have to celebrate our differences and see people for what they are: unique human beings. Being a part of any kind of majority does not make it the norm or ‘ideal’. It in fact obligates it to be that much less judgmental, prescriptive and biased.

Originally written for The Hindu