OF BEING & WANTING TO BE A MINORITY TWO WORLDS, EONS APART

This Article is based on experiences living earlier in India, now in the US, my extensive involvement with state human relations commissions, some voluntary bodies, inter-faith and multi-cultural organizations. My analysis obviously is rooted primarily in the Sikh experience but, apart from some specifics, could be extended to other groups as long as we are sensitive to the fact that while broad brushing may facilitate easy understanding, the solutions to any issues can only be case specific.

Being a minority is an experience that has to be lived to really grasp its complexities. For me the experience of being a minority was given. As a Sikh, not having lived in Punjab, I was a minority wherever I lived all my adult life.  I found a varying mix of problems in various places but nothing that made me feel that any particular societal setting was more favorably disposed in its attitudes to me as a Sikh.

I may relate two incidents going back in time. We had lived in Delhi up to 1946 when my father who was a Doctor got transferred back to Punjab and we were at Lahore when the country was divided in August 1947. After some risky episodes we reached back at Delhi with the family split in three groups. As soon as we got to the refugee camp opposite Red Fort my brother and I headed to meet our bosom friend where we were accosted by his father – a very well spoken person. After a brief conversation he intoned ‘jahan ka murda hota hai wahin garha jata hai’. Why yes indeed – but we had not even said anything and revenge or creating trouble was not on our minds at all. We never met again to this day.

A couple of years later I landed up at Osmania University for my engineering. They had known little about Sikhs. I was popular. I learnt. I became more gregarious and soon was elected unopposed to the student union as general secretary. I ended up doing well all round topping the university in mechanical engineering, editor of college magazine et al.

What I learnt from this little anecdote was that the mainstream did not want anything that could potentially disturb the equanimity of their placid living. Delhites were enjoying the newly won freedom and we refugees could prove to be stick in the mud. As against such self centered mindset, the curiosity of mainstream about the minority could also turn out to be an advantage – an impression that Hyderabadis gave me way back then and that I have experienced often in different places in my life.

The fact though is that the majority or mainstream in a way sets the tone and ground rules for societal mores that define the way the majority and minorities relate in their corporate and individual social lives. In what follows we will look at some examples of positions of relative disadvantage that minorities often experience.

STEREOTYPING AND RELATED BEHAVIOR

Minorities can be vulnerable to the phenomenon of stereotyping. Negative stereotypes tend to create subtle negative opinion about the group, giving rise to prejudices in the minds of people. Perceptions holding a group responsible for any issues confronting the society and their consequent isolation can turn them into scapegoats. If the Officialdom also buys into the same sentiment it can result in profiling or selective screening of the group.

Speaking as a Sikh, those of us who grew up in India, there are plenty of examples of stereotyping that we can relate to. We earned and liked the image of a brave martial race, chivalrous, unpretentious and always-willing protectors. We also were bestowed image of saber-wielding, intolerant militancy as we grudgingly laughed at our caricatures of being made the butt of several jokes. We looked on indulgently if the TV and the movies often projected us as taxi or truck drivers, darbans and lived through being branded terrorists, selectively subjected to intense discrimination, profiling and even organized harassment, vandalism, physical violence and killing.

Sikh stereotyping was not limited to India. In an article published in 2000 I had written of the need for American community to know more about Sikhs because we are mistaken as Afghans, Arabs, Iranians by many and that these images are nurtured by what they see in the media. In an environment of apathetic ignorance about them, the Sikhs also suffered an undefined stereotype of militancy and orthodoxy.

This stereotype became the bane of Sikhs following Sep11, when looking back it seems that security agencies and media gravitated to a blur and caricature created imagery that was not demoralizing like the images of crumbling twin towers and yet reminded people of the present and imminent danger. Some politicians also made disparaging comments against persons with towels around their heads. Thus the stereotype of a terrorist as a turbaned male with facial hair intact caught on through a confluence of factors playing out in the public domain and the media.

Unfortunately whatever may be the reasons that may give fillip to a negative stereotype, those who may visually appear to fit the type can potentially become unintended targets of hate without in any way being associated with what the stereotype may be about.

SECURITY/ANXIETY/HATE CRIMES

Security of life, property and peaceful enjoyment of life is a constant underlying anxiety in the consciousness of minorities. Incidences of hate crimes and lack of sense of security that they generate is well known. India continues to witness riots, arson, looting, killings, rape and other kinds of violent expressions against minority groups on the basis of caste, class, religion, language, ethnicity, gender et al.

Findings of a study by the Pluralism Project at Harvard show that five years after 9/11, 64% of American Sikhs are concerned about their safety compared to 41% of Pakistani Muslims and as many as 83% of respondents or some one they knew had experienced a hate crime – not a great position to be in

INSENSITIVITY TO OBSERVANCES

Religious minorities do have major difficulties in being observant of their faith practices. In the US, several states did not allow Jews to build synagogues till early in 20th century. In Pakistan Hindus cannot cremate their dead and in some places even the idols may not be allowed to be installed or bells to be tolled in temples. 

Most of the Sikh legal activism is engaged in seeking protections against discrimination for wearing turbans, unshorn hair, kirpan and similar observances. Such acts arise mostly out of ignorance, local or state laws, company policies and the like. Secular societies like France are more stringent in application of such regulations. A case in point is the Sikh experience in France about turbans which are an obligation and not a sartorial choice.

ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE

As if this is not enough minorities generally receive tardy justice and often are awarded stringent punishments for similar violations of law. This experience is not unknown even in mature law abiding societies like the US built on rule of law principles. The way justice has been denied to the victims of 1984 organized violence against Sikhs in Delhi is too well known to bear repetition.

MEDIA & MINORITIES

Media especially TV have tremendous influence in generating public images and popular positions. We all would recall the frenetic passion let loose by three days of ‘khoon ka badla khoon’ calls that Doordarshan projected as the backdrop as Indira Gandhi’s body lay in state before its final rites. What followed was perhaps the most ruthless genocidal behavior witnessed in modern times.

We all use comparisons like the good guy vs. bad guy; organized vs. untidy; peace loving vs. militant etc to drive home a point. These comparisons if used consistently associated with a group can create and reinforce a desired public opinion.

Sikhs somehow always manage to get bad press. For example an image of Sikh activists being held back by Delhi Police on Mar 1, 2002, post Gujrat incidents in India Tribune, Mar. 9, 2002, said: “ – as they scream anti-Muslim slogans”—— carrying sign reading “don’t repeat the mistakes of Partition’ — again an aggressive display on a somber occasion with provocative slogans and gestures by Akali Sikhs – not Congress, Communists, TDP, DMK, or even BJP.

Two conclusions stand out from the various media stories even if they may be trying to be helpful – one that the reporters cannot explain away a bad story and the second that any subtle positive linkage has to be identified, developed and convincingly articulated by the minority before any friends in the media can project it.

HAPPENINGS AT SCHOOLS

Another important area of minority anxiety is the continued neglect or misrepresentation in history and social studies books. This is a problem that we are familiar with in India where so much debate has gone on regarding the role of NCERT. Significantly even in the US there is considerable concern about the contents of textbooks articulated by the minority groups including Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.

I carried out a small survey on the subject in 2004 and as for the schools the feedback was that –

  • Some teachers had awareness about us being Sikhs, several did not even know.
  • None of the schools or teachers seemed to consider it important to clarify issues concerning [mistaken] identity post Sep 11.
  • Issues concerning harassment were discussed only if they came up but were never brought up for discussion.
  • School libraries hardly had any titles on Sikhs – may be one or two. One title that one of the girls borrowed was last issued in 1986.
  • Teachers don’t talk or ask about Festivals. If the subject comes up the teacher’s interest was limited to how it is celebrated.
  • Curriculum Advisors made no contact with the Sikh kids or parents and were never found to seek opinion about what should be covered in the curriculum.
  • Some councilors may have been interested but Sikh students were shy going to them unless there was a problem.

Most of the conversations regarding race, ethnicity, religion and customs took place among friends. They were interested in knowing about –

  • Unshorn hair; girls skipping sports [curious]
  • Arranged marriages; do you have any say at all? [Hot subject]
  • Joint families; getting along [amazing]
  • Indian food [they love it]
  • Weddings [very cool]
  • Dresses [very colorful]
  • Language [some words; write my name]

Regarding education in Colleges some issues that suggest are –

  • There is an opinion among Sikhs, Hindus and even Muslims that many Western scholars do not take a holistic view and used Western cultural as well as analytical paradigms to reach their conclusions
  • Diana Eck characterized Indian Sikh Gurdwaras as orthodox and American Sikh Gurdwara as reform.
  • Sikhism is rarely covered among World Religions in Colleges where the course is offered.

WANTING TO BE A MINORITY

Let me now turn to the other minority that we all want to be part of – the better off, the better informed, the privileged, elitist segment of the society. It is a world apart – in fact very, very apart from the world of those who suffer under discrimination, prejudice, lack of security and fear of injustice.

Apart from hitting the jackpot the only path out of the grind is open access to the narrow connecting bridge of limited opportunities that are available. All minorities and majorities alike, seek these opportunities. Individuals work hard and try their best to break through the walls of prejudice as well as glass ceilings at various layers of social progression.

Most societies provide some affirmative policies to help those who may be subjected to discrimination to not be denied equal opportunity. In the US for instance there are regulations for equal opportunities not only in employment but also in ability to secure loans for buying houses or for college education, investment and business opportunities and a host of other economic activities that reflect and impact on social and economic mobility of the citizens.

Without dilating too deeply into the inner workings of this Darwinian world I want to move on to some manifestation of tensions and responses that the quest for entry into this segment of society has evidenced within the societal setting.

I will again draw upon my experience in the US and India to cite examples. Hazelton in PA has become the symbol of American quest for Americans for American jobs. The local government has adopted regulations to curb employment of undocumented workers in the absence of clear legislation on the subject.

A handy building contractor who did several home improvement jobs in CT for us always wondered how Indians who, per few texts that he read in school, lived in the company of snakes and mice in shanty dwellings could own so many small retail businesses like gas stations, convenience stores etc. On scratching the surface I found that even though white Americans did not want to own and run such businesses because of long hours they did nurse deep resentment at the ability of a minority to become employers from employees so soon after immigration.

We are also well aware of the political pressures generated to retain well paying jobs in manufacturing and IT within mainland US rather than ship these overseas to ensure the bottom lines of the corporations.

Thus we do witness different manifestations of issues, problems and tensions in the US due to narrowing pyramid at the top and expanding base of low paying jobs. The remedy offered is education and the political talk is to expand the resource of college graduates – not likely that it will help; except that education is the only credible link connecting the two worlds.

In India we have had reservations in educational institutions and jobs and also witnessed anti reservation agitations. We also have witnessed an interesting phenomenon playing out. Hindus challenged minority-based reservations in SGPC run colleges in Punjab for Sikhs and the Sikhs claimed that they were a minority in Punjab because the Electoral College for the SGPC is 33% of the total state electorate. Interestingly the majority view by a Bench of Supreme Court that heard the TMA Pai Foundation Case in October 2002 says: The opening words of Article 30(1) make it clear that religious and linguistic minorities have been put on par in so far as this Article is concerned. India is divided into linguistic States and these States have been carved out on the basis of the language of the majority of people in that region. Therefore, since the State is regarded as the unit to determine a “linguistic minority” vis-a-vis Article 30 and since “religious minority” is on the same footing, the State has to be the unit in relation to which the majority or minority has to be determined.

On the other hand the notification issued under the National Commission for Minority Act on October 23, 1993 by the Central Government declared Sikhs, Christians, Muslims, Budhhists and Zoroastrians as minorities all over the country.

Dhananjay Mahapatra writing in Times of India, Delhi dated Feb 16, 2008 said that the SGPC, ‘at a time when there is a hefty premium on the numbers a community or caste can boast, the SGPC along with the Punjab Government, seem anxious to prune the ranks of Sikhs’. All this struggle would point to the potency of this issue.

 

While the above relates to the education field, states like Maharashtra have been rocked by agitations and riots against linguistic minorities in recent days to preserve jobs for the locals. I do recall the experience of the Mulki agitation in the erstwhile Hyderabad state in 1952/53. On the other hand the Punjab experience is one of tolerance of migrant labor even though there are fears that Punjabis may lose out to the migrants in the final run in the political and economic scenario. The police are particularly besieged with problems of preventing, detecting crime committed by migrants against their own community and Punjabis. Despite these factors, the concerns have never taken the form of such hate crimes as witnessed in Mumbai.

Our societies today thus have become a mosaic in which the differences are emphasized, sharpened and perpetuated through a system of patronage. It is this benefit and subsidy related regime that has created a reverse flow – groups of communities vying to position themselves as majorities where such status serves their purpose and then switching to the alternate strategies to garner benefits by claiming to be minorities.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

The brief review would give an indication of the nature of problem. We would perhaps find that being a minority and wanting to be a minority are really perhaps different views of the same phenomenon.

The ground realities are a challenge but need not discourage us. Hopefully the negatives of our stereotype are superficial and wider dissemination about us and our faith should help neutralize these.

We must guard against our propensity to generate negative images. With some collective recognition we can convert this behavioral tendency to portray a positive – welcoming, warm, happy image.

The hopefully helpful part is that media is also always looking for stories with human interest. Sharing real life experiences– good and bad – that have a message; generally gets an empathetic viewer/reader reaction – even if it is symbolic.

We must not neglect or passively accept profiling. In the absence of strong watchdog groups and given our weak internal communication, we will perforce have to handle such situations on our own. This need is for all time; not a one time project. The minority groups must realize that to relate to the mainstream, active interfacing with the mainstream is a must. We must come together and work jointly on issues of peace, harmony and justice. None of us is an island and in any case no island is a safe heaven any more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *