NO PARANOIA PLE ASE
Ours is an inclusive society but for it to work, the minority must adapt to local mores and idioms
For obvious reasons, the narrative of Partition has been written in terms of the subcontinent’s Hindus and Muslims. Christians have had only a small role in this drama. Anglo- Indians— the community I belong to and which makes up a minuscule section of India’s Christians— have had just a walk- on part.
Yet Partition had a dramatic impact on my extended family. My paternal grandfather was one of three brothers. The eldest of them was a civil servant who worked in Lahore and Peshawar, and served as private secretary to Sir Olaf Caroe, governor of the Northwest Frontier Province in the tumultuous days leading up to August 1947. Much of the rest of the family, including my father and grandfather, were in Kolkata ( or Calcutta, as it was then called).
One day, without quite realising its implications, these wings of the O’Brien family became citizens of separate countries. Within months India and Pakistan were at war. It was a conflict that tore apart my father’s cousin, daughter of his uncle who had stayed on in Pakistan. Her husband was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, her brother- in- law a fighter pilot in the Pakistan Air Force. Night after night she stayed up, wondering if her husband would come home or if her brother- in- law was safe— or if these two men so dear to her, comrades and friends in the same air force till a few weeks earlier, would aim for each other in the eerie anonymity of the skies.
Thankfully neither died in that war, but a distance emerged. Father and daughter, brother and sister, cousin and cousin, my Indian grandfather and his Pakistani brother— they lost touch with each other.
Today, those times seem so far away. My brothers and I grew up in a very different environment in the 1970s and 1980s. We were not just a minority, we often joked, but a minority in a minority in a minority: Roman Catholics among Anglo- Indians among Indian Christians. Javed Khan, a friend and colleague in the Trinamool Congress, once told me in a lighter moment that Muslims were the “majority minority” and we Christians the “minority minority”.
Beyond those laughs, what does it mean to be a minority in India? Frankly, I don’t think I can give a complete answer and I doubt anyone can. I will try and explain it, though, from three angles— that of my family and me; my community; and the larger social contract between religious minorities and the nation we have built. These are reflections based on my experiences. They may or may not speak for everybody, but I hope they will explain in some measure the miracle of an India that allows someone from a minuscule minority to enter Parliament as representative of a largely Bengali party.
I grew up in the only Christian family in a middle- class, predominantly Bengali- Hindu neighbourhood in Kolkata, living, in one of those ironies that make India just so captivating, in a lane named after a Muslim. There were three of us, three boys. From the beginning there was a need to fit in— not from the people next door, but from our own parents. We were encouraged to learn the local language.
We lived in Kolkata and so the language we learnt was Bengali. If we’d lived in Jalandhar, we would have learnt Punjabi. Was this a defensive ges-
ture? I don’t think so. India is an inclusive society, but that inclusiveness is as much for the minority to demand as for the minority to demonstrate. Learning the local language is an important step— and this is as true for a Kerala Christian in Kolkata as for a Punjabi Hindu in Kochi. Sometimes we stand out only because we want to stand out.
Not everybody in our community saw things as my parents did. Many insisted on speaking in English and in a pidgin Hindi. Some decided India was not for them and migrated. The numbers in our churches and community gatherings declined. The Railways, the Post and Telegraph Department, the Indian school system— all those great institutions that had been Anglo- Indian bastions began to acquire a different flavour. The mood was downbeat.
It began to change in the mid- 1990s, as the Indian economy started to grow, throwing up new opportunities particularly in the services sector. Suddenly the very qualities that had made AngloIndians seem aloof, including their use of the English language, made them eminently employable. Today’s youth from my community are a far more confident lot and believe they have a greater stake in India. The skill- sets are the same, but the mindsets have changed, both internally and externally.
For me, the message is clear enough: If you want a happy minority, create a happy society, with opportunity, hope and aspiration for everybody. If you construct a society with paranoia, pessimism and deprivation, you will not have a happy people— and never a happy minority.
When discussing minorities, most discourse inevitably focuses on violence and religious riots. There is the argument that a system that is minority- friendly protects, for example, Muslims and Christians from violence. While not disagreeing, I find this argument limiting and a little tiresome.
Security of life, limb and belief are not a privilege of a minority; they are an entitlement of every citizen. In providing them to its minorities, a government is not doing anybody a favour. It is only fulfilling its fundamental duty. To see minority rights from solely such a narrow prism is to my mind self- defeating.
Postscript: In the year 1984, my brother Andy, then a sports journalist, travelled to Karachi for hockey’s Champions Trophy. He was determined to trace the lost O’Briens of Pakistan. Eventually he found them and renewed contact. My father’s uncle was dead, but the rest of the family was still there and greeted their Indian cousin very warmly. Most of my father’s generation and all of the next generation— my second cousins— had converted to Islam. The pressure had been too much. Being a minority in Pakistan was tough business.
Andy came home and told us the strange and sombre story of the Muslim Anglo- Indian clan of Lahore and Karachi. We sat in silence, still digesting it. I thought of our life in India, the freedom to go to church, the freedom to practise my faith, the freedom to be myself, the freedom that my country gave its minorities. I’ve never felt prouder of being an Indian.
IF YOU WANT A HAPPY MINORITY, create a happy society. If you construct a society with paranoia, pessimism and deprivation, you will never have a happy minority.
CATHOLICS GATHER OUTSIDE THE SACRED HEART CHURCH IN DELHI, IN NOVEMBER 2011