Friday, March 23, 2007

Shiv Sena, politics and Anatomy of Social Group Conflicts

A Bollywood actress participated in a UK reality show and was called "Indian" and "curry eating" by one of British house mate. The issue turned into a racism row which got escalated to the extent that it almost became an international incident and diplomatic row between 2 governments. One of politicians, Raj Thackeray of Maharashtra recently remarked that he would not hesitate to slap North Indians (read Biharis) if they insulted local Marathi culture. He said that “they would get slap as breakfast, slap as lunch and slap as dinner”. He never bothered to mention how North Indians were insulting local Marathi culture (by not learning Marathi perhaps) and his audience never bothered to ask him. They just clapped happily. Obviously knowing how Indian politics operates, the politician in question, was merely playing to his target vote bank. And it did not matter that his party had taken an inclusive stance during recently concluded elections for BMC. After his party got the drubbing, he had to change his ideology from an inclusive to more excluding and based on parochial and narrow concerns. It is paradoxical that we Indians blame British for enslaving us for 200 years and making us poor through divide and rule, and today we use same fault lines of division and even accentuate them through vote bank politics. This is not limited to Maharashtra and can be see throughout the political landscape in our country. The question of outsiders versus locals has been raised for quite sometime in Mumbai and I fail to understand why it is a big deal for megacity like Mumbai. Cities don’t belong to any community and that’s why they become cities and acquire their typical characters and personalities. Cities are often product of migration of people from villages and hinterland and they become nerve center of economic activity because of large set of economically active migrants. It does not matter whether migrant is from Bihar or from some rural district of Western Ghats of Maharashtra. Bangalore for example is Silicon Valley and attracts qualified IT engineers from across the county. Mumbai has become an economic hub because of contribution from various communities; most of them not are from native Marathi speaking population.

Raj Thackeray is not alone in this kind of divisive politics and he is merely following on footsteps of his mentor, Bal Thackeray who has made a political career by promoting “Maharashtra for Maharashtrians" brand of politics. Shiv Sena first captured power by running a hate campaign against South Indians in Bombay, then they targeted migrants from UP and now it is turn of Biharis who are everybody’s favorite whipping boys as is happening in Assam also where ULFA kills poor Bihari migrants at will. I wonder why Raj Thackeray’s statement against Biharis is not same as what Fascists said about Jews. Does it not amount to racism and hate campaign, of spreading hatred and fear against another set of human beings! Then why is that we made such a big noise about Shilpa Shetty being racially targeted when we are targeting our own people in our own country! But that perhaps is quite understandable since we don’t like others to behave with us the way we behave with our own people. I mean, is caste system not the biggest institutionalized mechanism of discriminating against people anywhere in the world! We accuse white skinned of being racist against dark skinned people like us, even when we would prefer half of our population to be of fair skinned (look at Indian matrimonials). And we know how easy travelers from Africa find their stay in India who are targeted just because they are shade darker than us. What Shiv Sena does in Maharashtra to Biharis, is it a form of racism or merely an instance of social conflict! What is the reason for this social conflict?

I believe that fundamentally all of us are racist. And without exception perhaps. Only degree of basis on which we chose to discriminate varies. Racism is only one form (though more sinister perhaps) of inter social group conflict. Social groups, which could be based on language (as Marathi, German), religion (Hindu, Muslim) , culture (French, British) or territory.

Social Groups and Conflict: To understand genesis of racism better, we have to look closely at inter social group conflicts. One way of looking at these conflicts is to look at them from biological and evolutionary point of view as Desmond Morris had done in his superb book called "The Naked Ape”. We know that, we humans started our civilization as Apes, a kind of animal species. When we evolved from fruit eating apes into flesh eating hunter apes, we suddenly had to fight with other predator animals that were much more advanced in their hunting skills. Only way we human apes could compete with those hunter animals and survive was to stay and hunt in tighter groups. We depended upon the group for safety and food, the two vital things required for survival. We also became territorial because as co-operative social hunters we had to create base or a territory which could mark the group as a separate unit (most of hunter animals are territorial, like lions). We also had to defend the region of fixed base or the territory and because of our co-operative social nature we had to do it on group basis than individually. Also prolonged dependency of our young (children) for survival and rearing, forced us to adopt pair bonded family units within the fixed social group, where a male member of family defends his own individual home within a large home base or social group. So a family became the fundamental unit within a territorial social group. Hence, from biological point of view, it is in our genes to form social groups and defend them (territories). Cultural, political, social and many such changes which have happened after our ancient days of social-cooperative group hunters have not necessarily curbed our inherent instincts of belonging to a social group and defending it. And what have also not changed are the inter-social group conflicts. Hunt now is hunt for resources and jobs, and modern man has various overlapping social group identities. We have not changed that way since our ancient days. We must need to believe in something and we must need to belong to a group which we must defend against other social groups or perceived or real threats. Due to incredible improvements in healthcare and scientific advancemans over last century, a gross over crowding and migration of our species is happening which is leading to social stresses, tensions and inter social group conflicts. From Tribal systems which are still found in some countries like Afghanistan to Nation states, all of these are nothing but a form of this social group mechanism and territories. Nation states as we know them today are relatively much modern concept. Some commentators a argue that Globalization as seen in past couple of decades is bound to threaten notion of nation states, as geographical boundaries which act as physical territory of nation states are becoming redundant because of forces of globalization and technology like internet. An interesting social-group product of globalization is perhaps MNCs. MNC are groups of people who are held together by idea of making money or conducting business irrespective of any affiliation to any nation state. It is said that culture of globalization and technological advancements have shrinked the world to a small place but it has not eliminated fragmented identities and affiliations to social units which an individual carries which ultimately lead to conflicts. A person from Tamilnadu is called "madrasi" in north of India and can be taunted for his strange eating habits. Same Tamil person, if he is an upper cast Brahmin, would not mingle with other Tamil lower caste men. An Indian from Bihar state can be beaten when he gets employment in Mumbai and Americans would threaten to stop migration of Indians (including Marathis) to Silicon valley. The same Social group conflicts exist in many forms and at many levels and one would be tempted to say that it is in very nature of us, humans. Belonging to a herd. What people like Raj Thackeray do is to cash on these potential conflicts and fault lines by making "his group" see a threat from "other group". It does not matter whether that threat may be real or merely perceived. BJP comes to power by making a Hindus see the threat from Muslims. Osama Bin Laden runs his shop by making Muslims see the threat from Christians and western world. May be this is what politics all about.

Nation State, above other social groups: Desmond Morris says that one way of reducing the inter-social group conflict is to "de-patriotize" the group, break the cohesion of a group. But this goes against our genetic need of belonging to a tribe, a group. If relationships are broken in one way, they must be formed somewhere else. In this view, concept of a secular democratic nation state is interesting one. Even more so in Indians context where we have such an amazing array of diversity in terms of languages, religions and customs, not to mention the castes. In a secular democracy like ours, a nation state is thought of as most important social group and all other social group identities which a citizen of nation-state might have are seen as lower and subservient to identity as citizen of nation state. This includes linguistic as well as religious identities. Even though state lets an individual has his/her social affiliations, state practically ignores them when dealing with the individual, at least in principal, as is also enshrined in our constitution. A citizen of Indian nation state has fundamental right to live and work in any part of the country regardless of whether he is from Bihar or from Maharashtra. Our identity as Indian is assumed to be more sacred than any other identity (from a social group) we might carry, and when somebody violates this by appealing to narrower, parochial agendas like Raj Thackeray or anybody else, he/she is hitting at the very foundation of how we have agreed to live in a country (group). This is what makes it a dangerous scenario. There is a distinction bwteen genuine regional interest,culture,language promotion and holiganism. And what Shiva Sena and other such Senaa do is to indulge in holiganism.

Man is not just another Animal: Man as animal. We understand how inter-social group conflict is biologically wired in us. When we see ourselves as just another animal and look at it from evolution point of view, we can understand many things about why we are the way we are today, our customs, our religions, everything. Our society the way it is today has not become like this in a day but is a product of many millions of years of evolutionary cycle and there are various traits which we carry in our genetic makeup which still connect us to our primal life as just another animal on a big planet fighting to survive. This gives us our baser or lower instincts. But we are not just another animal. We have an extremely advanced faculty of reasoning which makes us think and question. We have always tried to understand who we are through our power of intellect and exploration. For example ancient Indian philosophy delved deeper into nature of man and his mission. One of most profound thought which we find in our ancient philosophy and which can perhaps be termed unique to Indian civilization is idea of "Vasudhev Katumkamb" or entire planet is one big family. This thought can only come when we are able to overcome our baser biological nature through use of intellect to see our higher self. Instead of belonging to narrower social groups, man has to see him belonging to one social group whose destiny is interlinked on this planet. Obviously this is so high a thought that even political parties who run their shops on name of our great Indian culture, do not want to see or understand it and they are happy running their business on narrow, parochial and divisive agendas whenevee they suit them. So if one day Shiv Sena appeals to all hindus to unite against a certain community, on another day they don't hesitate to target same hindus who speak a different language.

No comments: