Ours is an in­clu­sive so­ci­ety but for it to work, the mi­nor­ity must adapt to lo­cal mores and id­ioms

India Today - - SIGNATURE - Derek O’Brien The au­thor is the Tri­namool Congress’ Chief Whip in the Ra­jya Sabha

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.



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