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Wednesday, Aug 17, 2022
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BANGALORE BYTE

Who'll Bridge The Gap?

Raj Thackeray's men attacking people from UP and Bihar in Mumbai has propelled a debate across India. It is often made out to be a plain and simple battle between 'chauvinists' and 'cosmopolitans'. Really?

Who'll Bridge The Gap?
Who'll Bridge The Gap?
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Raj Thackeray's men attacking people from UP and Bihar in Mumbai has propelled a debate across India. Much of the debate has focused on how Mumbai's 'cosmopolitan' character is being destroyed by some riff-raffs for narrow political gains. It is often made out to be a plain and simple battle between 'chauvinists' and 'cosmopolitans'. 

But if some more questions are allowed to come on board in this debate, instead of just arguing from stiff and polarised positions, perhaps we'll get closer to understanding what sparks such incidents and also the times we live in. Or else, there is the danger of the debate too getting as reactionary as the act itself. Central to the many questions that need to be added to the debate are issues related to identity and economic globalisation.

One needs to first recognise that incidents such as those in Mumbai have taken place with some regularity across India and abroad in the recent past. A linguistic or regional community has often been attacked by offering a stridently economic argument. The accusation? Stealing livelihoods. It is not dissimilar to what one witnessed in the US when business outsourcing to India was being debated. Even in a country like the US, where individualism reigns, a sense of community was forged to protest jobs going to Bangalore. 

The French expressed fears of loosing jobs in Arcelor under the stewardship of an Indian. When Dalits as a socially-deprived community demand reservation in the private sector, it appears to be an extension of the same sentiment. One is familiar with what happened to Biharis in Assam. And a few weeks ago in Bangalore, a Kannada outfit launched a virulent campaign against the South Western Railway for apparently accommodating more Biharis in the recruitment of 'D' group employees. Biharis are just the flavour of the season. They could be replaced either by Bengalis, Bangaldeshis, Malayalis, Kannadigas, Punjabis or Tamils.

I will not sit in judgement over the arguments that different nationalist, social or linguistic groups make, but would like to assert that 'chauvinism', regardless of its motivations, has increasingly learnt to draw its succour from economics. Issues of linguistic, historical, literary or regional pride or, for that matter, the rhetoric of self-respect, has in some ways made way for more immediate arguments of economic pressure. 

Earlier, economics was only one of the items on the agenda and it was more important to create icons clearly from outside the realm of economics (example Chhatrapathi Shivaji) and shield them from insult. Now, there is a subtle shift in the 'chauvinistic' movement--corporate icons are turned into villains (N R Narayana Murthy or Lakshmi Mittal in France) and are insulted. To shield and to insult are extremely significant symbolic acts.

Economics getting foregrounded in all movements understood as 'chauvinistic' is mostly because of our sudden embrace of an open market society. Borders were made irrelevant, communication was revolutionised and migration became the order of the day. This has numbed our social and cultural responses. 

If changes are gradual, then responses are also gradual. But how does a society respond to a shocking alteration in its milieu? There should have been an effort to communicate the changes, and to make them less shocking and endurable, but in the absence of such an effort 'chauvinism' turns violent and misdirected. 

There are two distinct realities--the cultural reality and the economic reality. The gap between the two is widening. It is perhaps safe to assume that there is peace if there is some alignment between the two realities. If the gap is not corrected, people like Raj Thackeray make it their profession to harness it. 

At this juncture, it is important to stop being indifferent to the growing gap. We urgently need cultural leaders and public intellectuals as much as we aspire for entrepreneurs and corporate leaders to explain the whole thing. Each local culture has to negotiate independently with the emerging world around it. What resistances and alignments it will create will depend on the historical exposure of the culture. There will be more and more violence of this nature in a country like India, which is a loosely knit federation of cultures and languages, if this gap is not engaged. The gap may not be resolved, but the primary need is to engage.

Our identities as Kannadigas, Marathis, Tamils, Telugus, Bengalis, Assamese etc. were built over centuries and got sharpened after India was divided into linguistic states post-1947. On the one hand, we constitutionally protect these distinct identities and on the other we want to impatiently brush them under the carpet to keep a 'cosmopolitan' facade. Would we have faced a problem had India been divided into small economic zones instead of linguistic territories is hypothetical. But we need to identify the paradox here.

Being cosmopolitan is a cherished goal for all cultures, but the cosmopolitan we know today is a snooty English-speaking ally of global economics. It is an exclusive club. We have to urgently expand its meaning. Local cultures and languages, meaning everything other than English, are often perceived as 'parochial' and 'provincial,' but the irony is that most of these languages have mature traditions which are well over a thousand years and have a vibrant cosmopolitan stream within them. Cultural leaders have to dip into these streams to constantly explain the gap and keep violence off the streets.

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