Thursday, June 12, 2008

I have a Dream…

Reddy was not part of my name when my father registered me for school, as he wanted to free me from a caste identity. An overzealous school clerk made it my patronymic, picking it from my father's name, when he was forwarding the registration forms for the school-leaving public examination. As the school board certificate was a required submission for all later courses, the caste label continued. The mind, however, remained oblivious to caste, thanks to family values.

Growing up in a truly cosmopolitan Hyderabad of the 1960s also meant that religious and regional identities were never seen as barriers to understanding other human beings. Even as diversity was accepted as a natural phenomenon, the overwhelming similarities that bound people together were celebrated in a spirit of bonhomie. Festivals of all major religions were occasions for joint celebration by friends, not merely as a polite gesture of tolerance but in a sincere spirit of shared joy. It was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that the separatist Telengana and Andhra agitations brought up the bitterness of 'us' versus 'them' for the first time, in a sub-regional context.

Later, as communal forces entered the social scene and a dear friend was killed while resisting them in the university elections, the tragedy of Hyderabad's descent into the poisoned pit of partisan politics and religious discord broke the heart.

Since then, the years that passed added more pain, whenever and wherever regional, linguistic, religious and caste divisions arose, not only to separate people but to pit them against one another. The malaise seemed to grow when these prejudices manifested not only as sporadic violence stoked by vested interests but also permeated into private thoughts and influenced personal interactions on a daily basis. Even as India geared itself for accelerated economic growth, mouldy mindsets that canonised caste, creed, religion and region seemed to take a stranglehold on our social and political life. The tragedy has become even more terrible as Hyderabad, in recent times, has had many victims, and some perpetrators, of terrorist attacks.

Apart from a core commitment to the ideal of a casteless, classless, secular and truly egalitarian society, my work as a doctor also reinforces my conviction that human beings are essentially similar. The way patients react to the distress of disease and the way their family members rally round with collective social support, emphasise the commonality of human behaviour in such periods of vulnerability. As their faces light up with relief after days of anxiety, or cloud over when hope turns to despair, the universality of those deep human emotions obliterates any superficial differences in the way people dress or speak.

If I do not pre-diagnose a disease on the ground that the patient is a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh, how can I pre-judge a person's character on similar grounds? If I prize human life as precious, because every death in the hospital causes anguish and seems to diminish me as a person, how can I remain unmoved by the wanton wastage of lives, especially of the young and innocent, in communal conflicts or sectarian strife?

I recognise that my pain is of one who intellectually and emotionally identifies with the victim of prejudice, discrimination or violence — not the intense personal distress of one who has experienced such indignity or injustice first hand. I did not have to face the demeaning treatment dealt out to Dalits across thousands of villages nor was I singed by the undisguised hostility that is directed at minority groups that are constantly suspected and vilified. The irritation of occasionally encountering regional biases or indignation at being racially profiled during security screening in western airports pales into insignificance, when compared with the daily ordeal of those who have to suffer the injustice of irrational intolerance.

Even if I am neither the victim nor the victimiser, I do have a citizen's responsibility to assist Indian society in freeing itself from the shackles of such pernicious prejudice and undemocratic discrimination. How can we ensure the stability of a sane society where the comfort of cultural affinity with those who share a similar background does not cross over into paranoia and prejudice directed at other groups? Amartya Sen says that each of us has multiple identities, as individuals with varied ethnic, cultural, professional and personal attributes. How can we celebrate this diversity?

This is only possible if we recognise that our fundamental and common identity is that of human beings, while all other identities are accidental or acquired add-ons that we have picked up along the way. These additionalities, valued as they may be, should not subsume the core identity or separate us from fellow human beings.

Lack of access to a liberal and liberating education is the soil that nurtures prejudice, while economic insecurity provides the muddy waters that irrigate intolerance. Organised vested interests farm in such poisoned fields to produce divisive social agendas and profit from the resultant conflicts.

The solution lies in universal education that promotes a broad comprehension of complementary cultures and interweaving social networks, provides a set of sound values that define the desirable framework for human relations and progressively moves different groups of people across the stages of tolerance and mutual respect to the unifying state of shared identity. Such a unity needs to be more profound than shared adulation for Lata Mangeshkar or loyalty to the Indian cricket team. It has to be based on common commitment to the vision of an India that belongs to all of us and to which we all belong.

Patriotism is not instilled by fear but is inspired by hope. Hands that were once raised against one another will join to run the economic engine of the country, if the vision of a common destination inspires confidence and commitment. The answer lies in promoting economic opportunities for assured employment and equitable living conditions, so that 'others' are not perceived as job stealers or rapacious profiteers. Sharing the fruits of economic growth brings about a sense of the common 'us', whereas the feeling of alienation that springs from economic marginalisation splinters society into several resentful sets of 'us' battling inimical groups of 'them'. Growth with equity will ease the hearts and clear the minds, preparing people for unified action.

Even as these efforts must be undertaken with urgency, the dignity of a human being and the sanctity of human life must become the essence of human rights that have to be respected by all. The State, and civil society, must ceaselessly strive to protect and promote those rights, till their observance is seen to be obligatory for all citizens. Those who foment sectarian hatred or violate human rights have to be punished by the law of the land and by social censure. If the custodians of peoples' welfare, the guardians of law or the conscience-keepers of society (especially the media) act in a cowardly or complicit manner when human rights are threatened or trampled upon, there will be no defence against prejudice and persecution, other than rebellion and retaliation.

In the public sphere, open dialogue and discourse must continue to engage people's minds on these issues, without the fear of being shouted at or shut down by sectarian groups. Myths need to be broken, stereotypes need to be challenged and unpleasant realities must be acknowledged. This requires conviction, courage and candour in all who wish to contribute to social harmony. Young people must be engaged in these efforts, so that they are not weighed down by past prejudices but can uplift their minds to seek a society where diversity results in confluence rather than conflict.

By K Srinath Reddy , is President - Public Health Foundation of India and a former head of cardiology at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi.

Source: http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2007/11/1669

Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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