Tuesday, February 7, 2023
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Who is your neighbour? What we are not seeing in Pew study on India

The missing heterogeneity of our neighbourhoods should be viewed as a cultural, emotional and intellectual loss — a kind of social poverty.

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There’s much to celebrate in the new Pew survey on the religious and cultural attitudes of Indians. Hindus and Muslims respect each others’ religion and take pride in their Indian identity. But there is one thing missing: ‘the neighbour’. There still appears to be some reluctance to have members of another religion living next door.

Thirty-six per cent of Hindus said they did not want a Muslim as a neighbour, and 22 per cent of Muslims and other religious minorities said they did not want a Hindu neighbour. This is on top of what we already know about segregated urban and rural caste neighbourhoods, as the study by Harvard scholar Naveen Bharati found.

Religious differences are not just limited to living, loving and food choices. This approach to your neighbour often expands to lifelong attitudes. If you live together, you play together. In the US, non-diverse playgrounds and recreational spaces were part of the civil rights struggle. In India, neighbourhood diversity can also affect the number of religious rioting in your city. We have heard testimonials about how Hindus protected many Sikhs in mixed neighbourhoods during the 1984 Delhi riots. And research also shows how Delhi and Ahmedabad, with their segregated neighbourhoods, see more community tensions and violence.

We frequently hear news about building societies that are all-vegetarian, all-Jain, all-dominant castes, all-Hindu and also about how some property dealers deny rented apartments to members of religious minorities. These should be treated like canaries in a coal mine. On the evolutionary scale, it is natural to go from homogeneity to heterogeneity, not backward.

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Early intervention is necessary

If we don’t live in mixed neighbourhoods, we will not blink an eye if our schools don’t reflect the demographic diversity of the country, or if our offices are homogenous.

This missing heterogeneity should be viewed as a cultural, emotional and intellectual loss and a kind of social poverty. It then just gets easier for politicians and religious clerics to demonise the other. Homogeneity must be questioned, resisted and protested at all levels.

If you don’t have neighbours who belong to the ‘other’ community – religion, caste, province or sexual minorities or people with disabilities – then your children’s playgrounds are most likely devoid of diversity too. And this is fertile ground for stereotyping of the other. Learning theories show that prejudice is a virus that infects us as early as our infancy.

There can be no passive acceptance of that which is ‘missing’.

Also Read: Not a single Dalit in 60% of Kolkata’s neighbourhoods. How caste divides Indian cities

This doubling down on diversity must resemble the way we moved from being merely gender-aware to gender-alert in the way we addressed the sex ratio deficit. For three decades now, we have actively looked for the missing girls in our data sets. We produce rankings of states on their sex ratio. Over the years, there is a sense of policy-shaming that accompanies the falling sex ratio in a state. We didn’t just stop at passing laws.

Similarly, economists alerted us to the missing women voters from our rolls and elections, and journalists and pollsters like Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala went actively looking for them.

We now need to move from passively valuing diversity (as Pew findings show) to being alert to the deficit and becoming its aggressive advocates. Saying we have a reservation policy for caste discrimination isn’t enough. We know that so many reserved government posts are not filled. So, we have to look for the ‘missing’ in our neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces, playgrounds, social get-togethers; in our literature, cultural performances, protest movements, newsrooms and RWAs.

A smart city is one that should also include a number of mixed, diverse neighbourhoods. Our smart city index should reflect this. In the US, if a neighbourhood or city is diverse, it is also viewed as economically thriving. These areas come with a premium tag and are always more interesting rent and buy-in.

All this is easier on paper. Because after every religious rioting, Indian cities become more segregated. People prefer to retreat and find cover in sameness. Hindus and Muslims feel more secure in their own homogenous, non-diverse neighbourhoods.

Also Read: Smart city technologies can tackle India’s urban explosion. But key questions must be asked

Keeping up with the times

Scholar and a key member of the Pew survey team, Hilal Ahmed, calls the findings a “living together separately phenomenon”. But is together-separate a good enough template for 21st century India? No. And neither is that 100-year-old, outdated idea of the American ‘melting pot’, which really came to mean melting of new immigrants into the larger identity of the ‘bigger culture’. Regardless, it was discredited by post-modernism’s emphasis on the assertion of different identities.

Today, both assimilation and assertion are passe. Something new has to take its place, especially with the rise of social media and algorithmic living. We are all trapped in silos and echo chambers, and interest-group politics.

American anthropologist Robert Redfield had created the “great tradition” and “little tradition” grid more than half a century ago. Minority communities fear being swallowed by the larger traditions. If not merge, the two must at least interact to create a common cultural continuity.

Many may not like my idea of an aggressive hunt for the ‘missing’. But not talking about it isn’t going to make the problem go away. Sociologist and best-selling author of White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo, compares the White silence on racism to choosing not to talk about things like domestic violence or child pornography.

On a personal note, I also did a quick audit of my circle of best friends. They mostly make up of dominant caste Hindus. I can’t just shrug my shoulders and say I am blind to caste, religious, ethnic or sexual minorities. I must also recognise and act on the social filters that put barriers up all along the way. It all began in my early playground.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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