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Are we ready to deal with ‘real issues?’

An important strand was noticeably missing from the discussion on Paul Henry’s remarks about New Zealand’s Governor-General.

This is about India’s own and arguably more ancient caste system.

Interestingly, the original name of the caste system in Sanskrit Varna means colour.

Understandably, many Indians have condemned Paul’s statement. To be fair, many Indians might not have thought about the issue in terms of the caste system with its “untouchables” and the treatment that continues to be meted out to the so-called low castes.

As minority immigrants in English-speaking or European countries, Indians are sensitive to the issue of race and the treatment they receive.

Even this sensitivity, I would argue, has its roots in the caste system and the habit of looking at the society and its people in hierarchical terms. An inevitable result of this conditioning is hypersensitivity to any slurs or insults.

In this respect, Mahatma Gandhi has some lessons to offer.

He had a transforming moment in his life when he was thrown out of a first-class railway compartment at Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, since “coloured people” were not allowed to travel in first-class compartments. At the time, Gandhi was a successful lawyer (Nobel Laurette Rabindranath Tagore later called him ‘Mahatma’ or ‘Great Soul’)

The sudden expulsion from the train had a tremendous impact on Gandhi. He had to wait all night in a small railway station in the South African countryside, shivering in the cold. The event can be identified as crucial in the transformation of his personality into ‘Mahatma,’ and revered the world over.

Compelling logic

The experience awakened Gandhi to the cruelty of racial discrimination and was a major influence in turning his focus on the poor and the oppressed people everywhere.

In India, he turned his attention on the so-called untouchables. Adopting Jesus’ vision, he coined the term “Harijan,” which in Sanskrit means, “Children of God,” to refer to the untouchables. He devoted a considerable part of his mission for their uplift.

As decent human behaviour goes, Gandhi’s logic was compelling. He was against treating anyone in a way he did not like to be treated. This was the standard advocated in ‘The New Testament,’ a great code of human conduct, which was, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12).

The Bible also says, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).

The Paul Henry episode is an opportunity for everyone to reflect and refine our thinking, on the complex subjects of ethnicity and human comity.

To be clear, India has made some progress in the recent decades. Caste prejudices and the hierarchical vision are not currently as dominant as they used to be, although caste has emerged as a major factor in the vote bank politics of Indian democracy.

Despicable condition

The economic conditions of the ‘lower castes’ are appalling.

There can be little debate that the participation of the traditional ‘lower castes’ in the economic and social system of the country continues to be abysmal. They are the prime source of menial labour to ensure the comforts of the rich and the middle-class. Regrettably, due to economic and social reasons, ‘lower caste’ children continue to be deprived of opportunities for good education, which alone can break the cycle of poverty and ignorance.

The pitiable conditions of the ‘lower castes’ are a grim reality. This was highlighted by the ‘National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution’ in its 2002 Report. More recently, Pankaj Mishra, a popular novelist and essayist, wrote about the nomadic poor migrants in his (Uttar Pradesh) village in New York Times.

In his article, Games India isn’t ready to Play, he said, “Like hundreds of millions of other voiceless Indians, the migrant laborers are even less able to distinguish between the oppressions of old feudal India and the pitiless exploitations of the new business-minded India.”

The article ironically appeared on October 2, 2010 celebrated in India as ‘Gandhi Jayanti’ (Gandhi’s Birthday).

This reality about the life of ‘lower caste’ people has its origin in the caste system itself and its elitism. The society as a whole must take responsibility for the poor and their conditions. In this setting it would be cruel, not merely inappropriate, to speak of free markets and individuals pursuing their self-interest.

It is like putting a group of lame people in a race with trained runners.

Let us get back to Paul Henry and his question to John Key, which was rather tactless (perhaps deliberately so). I believe that in multiracial societies like New Zealand there is a need for such issues to crop up now and then. They can be a trigger for introspection, and hopefully improvement.

Who knows, this could even be a part of nature’s grand design!

For Indians, at any rate, the episode provides an opportunity not just to complain against racism overseas, but equally to think about the conditions in India and contribute their mite to the improvement of the conditions of the less privileged.

Palladam Madhavrao Vasudev is a Senior Lecturer in Commercial Law at the University of Auckland Business School. Email: p.vasudev@auckland.ac.nz

Although we have closed reader response to the ‘Paul Henry Affair’ per se, we invite your reaction to the above article to editor@indiannewslink.co.nz

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