When ‘WE’ build Wall, ‘THEM’ comes up
Exclusion and discrimination seem to be part of our DNA as people of India. Casteism in India, we are aware, is older than racism. We have internalised it in our behavioural patterns – in our food, clothing, and dress and even in our worship! We have just taken it for granted that we have the ‘divine right’ to discriminate against ‘them’.
By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ
In 1972, David Campton, a prolific British dramatist, wrote an apparently innocuous one-act play entitled ‘Us and Them’. The play begins innocently enough with two groups of wanderers looking for an ‘ideal’ place to settle. They do find this ‘ideal’ place in the midst of environmental grandeur. Ironically, their ‘places’ are adjacent to each other. After mutual agreement they draw a line demarcating their respective territories. No problem for some time; soon however, the line becomes a fence, the fence becomes a wall, and the wall grows in size until neither side knows what the other is doing.
Naturally, they keep wondering! They start ‘jumping to conclusions. In a matter of time, their thoughts turn to suspicion and their suspicion to mistrust and mistrust to fear, with each side believing that the other is hatching a plot against them. As fear takes hold, both sides unknowingly make preparations for ensuing conflict until eventually it becomes violent. In the end, two survivors, looking at the waste they have inflicted on one other, conclude, “the wall was to blame”. The play was reflective of the growing polarisation and divisiveness that had seized several nations and groups at that time of history. It was a play meant to ridicule the abysmal depths to which human nature can fall.
Historically, the late 1960s and the early 1970s are a watershed. This period was marked with protests against racism and injustices; against war and violence. The Civil Rights movement and the anti- Vietnam War protests saw millions come out in the United States. In Europe, there were student uprisings. In April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated; the years after that, witnessed a global social turmoil.
For the Church, that era it was also a kind of a springtime; Vatican II and Pope John XXIII literally opened wide the doors of the Church. In April 1963, Pope John XXIII gave to the world his incisive Encyclical ‘Pacem in Terris’ (peace on earth). He wrote it in order to address a world deeply engaged in the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had just gone up and the Cuban Missile Crisis frightened millions as nuclear weapons began to proliferate. In his Encyclical he speaks of the inviolability of human rights and the four non-negotiables of Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty which are fundamental for sustainable peace. Sadly,no one seems to be listening.
The ‘Us and Them’ has been playing to a full house on the world stage, in the recent past.
Two painful images will forever remain etched in the memory and conscience of humanity: the first, a little child playfully pulling out a sheet which covered his dead mother on the Muzzafarpur railway station in Bihar; the second, a white police officer in full weight kneeling on the neck of a black man in Minneapolis, US- for almost nine minutes till he could breathe no more. Both these defining images speak to us about man’s inhumanity to man; the victim in both cases is ‘them’.
George Floyd (46 years) a black American who was killed on 25 May by Derek Chauvin, a white policeman. The video of that killing has gone more than viral all over the world, vividly and painfully shows how Chauvin had pinned him to the ground and for almost nine minutes knelt on Floyd’s neck. Gasping Floyd is heard pleading “I can’t breathe!"
At a 4 June Memorial Service, in an impassioned eulogy, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton said visiting where Floyd died made him realize that what happened there is a metaphor for the African American experience. Sharpton said, "When I stood at that spot, the reason it got to me is that George Floyd's story has been the story of black folks; because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck." He added, "What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services and in every area of American life. It's time to stand up in George's name and say get your knee off our necks!"
The murder of George sparked spontaneous protests all over the United States, hundreds of thousands have come out chanting “No to Racism” and condemning police brutality. Strangely, both in the United States and in several parts of the world, ‘leaders’ seem to be numbed in taking a stand.
Nearer home, in India we have experienced, in the last three months, the pathetic situation of our migrant workers. That little child near the dead body of his mother says it all! The vast majority of migrant workers in India are adivasis, dalits or OBC’s; most are originally from the remote areas of India. They migrate to bigger towns or cities and better-off States to eke out a living. They have to struggle from hand to mouth. Yet it is these people, the ‘them’, who are truly the lifeline of the country.
Ever since the lockdown was announced, a humanitarian crisis unprecedented in India’s modern history, has severely disrupted the lives of India’s migrant workers. Millions of migrants have found themselves stranded without food, cash, and shelter, trying to get home. They have been subjected to violation of their fundamental rights under Articles 14, 15, 19, and 21 of the Constitution of India.
Exclusion and discrimination seem to be part of our DNA as people of India. Casteism in India, we are aware, is older than racism. We have internalised it in our behavioural patterns – in our food, clothing, and dress and even in our worship! We have just taken it for granted that we have the ‘divine right’ to discriminate against ‘them’; one does not have to go very far to see how discriminatory attitudes have permeated into society. The ads in our ‘Matrimonial Columns’ are a clear indicator of our biases and prejudices; the partner that we look for blatantly has to belong to a particular caste or ethnic group; the ‘colour’ of skin that one looks for is downright racist. Strangely we conveniently forget these bare facts! Some of our attitudes are so blatantly discriminatory and patently un-Christian.
The minorities of India are also discriminated against. There are innumerable instances to prove this. The rant and rave against the Muslims by Hindu extremists seem to become an order of the day. There is hardly a whimper of protest when members of a minority community are lynched. The then Chief Justice of India referred to lynching as the ‘new normal’. Once on bail, the lynchpin is even feted by the ruling party. A fourteen-year old Christian boy was lynched in Odisha at the end of May.
In the midst of the breakout of the pandemic Covid-19, the only group which was held responsible was an assembly of Muslims in Delhi! This assembly actually met days after the ‘Namaste Trump’ tamasha in Ahmedabad which brought in several people from abroad and thousands from all over Gujarat; and of course, all at the expense of the State exchequer. If you take a stand against the draconian Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and happen to a Muslim, then be assured that you can be easily incarcerated under the dreaded UAPA.
Christians too are not spared: Churches are regularly attacked; church personnel are beaten up and Christians are systematically discriminated against. They are denied Government employment, even when they have the necessary competencies. These acts take place directly and subtly. Adivasis, tribals and other forest dwellers are at the receiving end of an exclusivist regime. For years the forests and the forest lands were the natural habitat of these indigenous people. In very calculated moves, they are being denied what is rightfully theirs.
Sadly, ‘Us and Them’ is so relevant for our contemporary world and particularly for India. So, when Rev Al Sharpton in his eulogy to George Floyd said, “what happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services and in every area of American life. It's time to stand up in George's name and say get your knee off our necks!”, he was in no uncertain terms referring to the Dalits, the Adivasis, the minorities, the migrant workers, women and other sub-altern sections of Indian society. In India we have umpteen metaphors (like Floyd’s life being snuffed out) to describe the painful reality of our people: Muhmmad Aklaq being beaten to death, the migrant workers being run over by a train, and it goes on. The cry of suffering is clear: “get your knee off my neck”
Pope Francis has been consistent in his stand against exclusion. In a message after the death of Floyd he referred to racism as a sin saying “we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life. At the same time, we have to recognize that the violence of recent nights is self-destructive and self-defeating. Nothing is gained by violence and so much is lost”.
On 13 May, in an advance message for the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2020 (which is on 27 September) Pope Francis focuses on ‘Like Jesus Christ, forced to flee:
Welcoming, Protecting, Promoting and Integrating Internally Displaced Persons’. He says, “I have decided to devote this Message to the drama of internally displaced persons, an often-unseen tragedy that the global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. In fact, due to its virulence, severity and geographical extent, this crisis has impacted on many other humanitarian emergencies that affect millions of people, which has relegated to the bottom of national political agendas those urgent international efforts essential to saving lives.”
As one dwells on the reality of ‘Us and Them’; one cannot help but be reminded of the lyrics of the popular folk song of Peter Seeger “Where have all the flowers gone?” It became one of the hit songs during the protests in the late sixties. Joan Baez and others popularized it, with two more contextualized verses added, including,
“Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will WE ever learn?
When will WE ever learn?”
Words powerfully relevant in our violent, exclusivist ‘my’ world. ‘Us and Them’ is essentially about WE: you and me. The now moment, the now people. We are the ‘someone’, ‘somewhere’ and today is that ‘someday’ – when we need to have the courage to learn from history and to ensure that it is no longer ‘us and them’, no longer ‘the other’ but just ‘WE’ in this journey of life! It is “We, the People!”; “We, the disciples of Jesus!” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!. On the day of Judgement, when we ask the Lord “when did we see you a stranger?”Jesus will have a straight answer: “Simple, my child, you did NOT have the courage to love and be ‘them’!”
(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist and writer. Contact: email@example.com)
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