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The case against assimilation

  • Published at 11:00 pm January 23rd, 2020
India Bangladesh Map
Photo: SYED ZAKIR HOSSAIN

A renewed war on cultural survival and diversity

At the dawn of freedom, Muhammad Ali Jinnah knew exactly what was required. 

Addressing the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, he promised: “If you change your past and work together in a spirit that every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste, or creed, is first, second, and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make.”

That stirring call was echoed in Jawaharlal Nehru’s own speech on August 14, when he declared: “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges, and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”

But fast-forward 70 years, and it is evident history has taken an overwhelmingly calamitous wrong turn. Citizens of the sub-continent are left stranded in the rubble of our “tryst with destiny,” besieged everywhere by unchecked majoritarian bullying. 

How did we go so wrong?

One important aspect of the answer undoubtedly lies in the way all of us have placated exclusionary paradigms, while unnecessarily flattening out real differences that our states are mandated to accommodate. 

Highly relevant here are the contentions about his own country by a 32-year-old German Jewish author, and the subject of a fascinating New York Times profile earlier this month, Max Czollek, whose Desintegriert Euch! (De-Integrate Yourselves) makes the case that diverse Germans are compelled to perform a “theatre of integration” as mere “symbols in the construction of identity for the dominant group.” 

This charade “stabilizes the impression” that the state has “solved” pluralism, thus clearing space for right-wing extremist ideas to occupy the mainstream.

Czollek’s logic applies far beyond Europe and penetrates to the core of contemporary South Asian identity, where we find ourselves unrecognizably estranged from the broad-minded visions of the architects of independence.

When I asked for her response to this analysis, acclaimed writer Annie Zaidi (she won The Hindu Playwright Award in 2018, and Cambridge University’s $100,000 Nine Dots Prize last year) told me: “Minorities in India tended to vote tactically. 

The mistake was not understanding that political contests were increasingly also cultural wars, and that’s why our discourse was around inclusion rather than the ways in which people were being excluded.”

Zaidi’s grandfather was in the freedom movement, thus the 41-year-old says there “was great emphasis on unity, on symbolic solidarity. So, while he never went too far from his own culture at home, he did encourage his wife to wear saris rather than ghararas in that phase. He didn’t insist that his children or grandchildren learn Urdu. Many of us were the poorer for it. 

“It was only when fashions changed, and the gharara went mainstream, that I sat up and realized that every time I looked at a gharara, it spelled ‘Muslim’ to me, and I wanted not to deal with questions, or to stand out as different. There was a fear of not being accepted. Perhaps the right thing to do would have been to perform my culture more easily, to normalize it. The more people do that, the more we practice co-existence, and safeguard diversity.”

Looking for his perspective, I reached out to Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, the 36-year-old practising physician, and brilliant literary talent, whose writings are deeply rooted in his physical and cultural location in the ancient heartlands of Jharkhand (formerly part of Bihar). 

Shekhar belongs to the Santal ethnic group, which spills across India’s borders into Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. He told me via email: “I have seen this phenomenon of hiding one’s own identity and adopting the identity of the majority just to fit in, around me, but not in my own life. 

“My family assimilated itself to the mainstream, because of our privilege, our education, jobs, and money, but we still flaunted our Santal identity. Some ignorant, high caste Bengalis sometimes thought that we were Bengalis -- because we spoke Bengali so well -- but we corrected them.”

But for many others, things were different. Shekhar wrote: “They first give you their language and take away yours. Then clothes, food, rituals, even religion. One thing we can do is learn about our own culture/community/background and take pride in it.

“Then transfer that knowledge and pride in ourselves to our children. We should be able to flaunt proudly every aspect of our lives -- language, clothes, food, everything -- publicly, even if the majority are not OK with it. 

I am not sure how this is going to happen in today’s atmosphere of intolerance. But otherwise, our so-called democratic society is just a pretense, a sham.” 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.