Saturday, January 3, 2009

Prejudice is pervasive

I remember the first time I was subjected to it. It was among the first days in my college, and a person I didn't know walked up to me and asked: " Are you a curd rice or a tamarind rice?". Doesn't make sense? Well, it didn't to me either. Then he goes on to explain that curd rice symbolises Iyers and tamarind rice, Iyengars. For people not in the loop, these are the two sections of Brahmins in Tamil Nadu. Coming from quite a liberal background, and a school that always encouraged and celebrated differences, it was quite a shock to me that someone could be classified by what they eat! I thought it was a one-off incident and gave it no serious thought. But as the days wore on, the taunts and the mockery became common. Beyond a certain point, I stopped caring, as a reaction seemed to ignite the perpetrators even more. The level of stereotyping was ridiculous, and manifested itself most in the accent of Tamil that is used by the community. The worst part was, the people who did it most were the literate ones(I do not want to call them educated).

But the other day, I was watching a movie where the protagonist plays 10 different roles. One of those roles was a person from Andhra Pradesh, who was there to provide comic relief by acting out the stereotype of the people in that region. I laughed with everyone at his antics, and when I came out, it hit me like a rock: I am as bad as the people who mock me. I am filled with as much prejudice as the people who call me "weak" because I am a vegetarian. 

The problem with us is that, while racism is outlawed in many parts of the world, it's manifestation in our country is not quite in the same way, and hence, goes largely unnoticed. I should atleast say I am blessed because I do not have to face the kind of taunts that I imagine would be faced by Sikhs in our country. The tasteless "Sardar" jokes is a cruel way to repay a community which sends so many of its sons to protect our nation. 

The rootcause of the problem is that the people who indulge in this kind of mockery are not even aware that what they are doing is wrong. They seem to think that it is perfectly alright to comment on where people come from, or what their culture is about. It has become ingrained in their psyche that some people can only be judged by where they come from, not who they are and what they do. This collective psyche is then assimilated by the popular culture, and you see the manifestation of it in our everyday life: Tamil films that mock Brahmins and their culture, Hindi films that mock south Indians. Take this joke as an example:

"Q:What's common between a UFO and an intelligent Sardar?
 A: You hear about both of them, but can't find them"  

You might tell me that such jokes are spread in good spirits and without malice. That is exactly the notion that I want to challenge. Primarily, it is irritating to the recipient, as I have found so many times. Who has the rights to say that the Sikhs cannot be intelligent? Our Prime Minister is one, and an extraordinarily brilliant one at that too. And over the longer period, it leads to a divide among various groups of people. I guess this was how Bal Thackeray first began his campaign of hatred against South Indians in Mumbai(or "Madrasis") all those years ago, and has now become converted into the hate campaign against North Indians by his nephew. 

Therefore, it is time we stopped this tumour from spreading. To do so, we need to take a tough stand. The government should first intervene and ban all cinematical or political content that is directed against a certain section of the population. It should spread awareness and unity among children, and should also introduce punishments to people who vilify others because of their backgrounds. The reason why I am suggesting such tough measures is that we are gradually moving in the direction of an intolerant society. If this rot is to be stopped, we need a strong opposing force. Only then can we truly describe our society as one which has "Unity in diversity".