Monday, January 21, 2019

Is the psychological distance between people shrinking or growing? - II

I once heard an interview with Salman Rushdie in which he said that he drove across many nations while coming to India in his youth. I think the route included countries like Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such a journey would no longer be possible today not only because some places along the route are war-torn but also because the border controls have become much more rigid. Most likely, the traveler would find himself being charged with being a spy and thrown in jail somewhere. George Orwell wrote in  You and the Atomic Bomb:
We were once told that the aeroplane had ‘abolished frontiers’; actually it is only since the aeroplane became a serious weapon that frontiers have become definitely impassable. The radio was once expected to promote international understanding and co-operation; it has turned out to be a means of insulating one nation from another. 
A survey in the 1980s showed that about 1/6 of the communities in India could not be classified into the conventional religions. A more recent survey showed the fraction of communities with such interleaved pieties has reduced to 1/9. The census contains a certain number of specified boxes and you can tick only one of them. A nation-state thus over time makes the fuzzy boundaries between communities more rigid. This sharpens the 'us' vs 'them' feelings thus making these communities more susceptible to the ploys of modern 'riot specialists' who engineer communal tensions for political gains. (See Creating a Nationality.)

It is said that various crude social barriers have broken down before the march of modernity and more rational, secular values have improved relationships. But this may not always produce good results. For instance, inter-dinning between Hindus and Muslims was frowned upon a century ago but now this taboo has largely disappeared. A Muslim riot victim commented, 'Previously, we didn't dine together but our hearts met; now we dine together but our hearts don't meet.' (Quoted in Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair by Ashis Nandy.)

The various online sites that  have come up ask many intricate caste details. I happened to see a couple of these sites where a couple of relatives had registered. They had a caste menu which mentioned many castes and sub-castes that I had never heard of. I am told that educated NRIs take care to specify caste requirements in their matrimonial ads. The numerous T.V. serials portray only upper-caste life-styles.

It has been found that in survivors of partition riots, even among those who had to undergo terrible sufferings, there exists a residue of fellow feeling towards the other community. One would have expected the younger generation, who didn't live through partition, to be more tolerant of the other community but the reality is the opposite. This is because the older generation still has some memories of the time before partition when the two communities had learned to live together in spite of their differences. The younger generation doesn't have such memories but has just heard stories about the partition horrors and are prisoners of the rhetoric of the nation-states of India and Pakistan.

In the current process of development, all the costs are borne by one section of the population and benefits go to another section so inequalities will keep increasing in the guise of 'national interests'. Ashis Nandy once said that there is a difference between the poverty in olden times and the poverty of today. In olden times the desires of the rich and the poor did not intersect but today they have the same expectations on drastically different levels of income. This kind of 'development' will not further national interests as the state claims but will intensify social tensions.

The sociologist Robert Merton had expressed this idea by his "Strain Theory" by which he sought to explain the phenomenon of social deviance. He said that criminality was not caused by sudden social change but by a social structure that holds out the same goals (wealth, power, status, enlightenment) to all its members without giving them equal access to the legitimate means (well-paid jobs, good education) to achieve them. Merton suggested that high levels of such maladaptive behaviour were evidence of an unhealthy cultural imbalance between goals and means and an unequal distribution of opportunities to achieve wealth legitimately. Deviance, including criminal behaviour, is therefore a normal adjustment to an unequal society.

It is often said that modern forms of travel like aeroplanes have made people more mobile and hence even people who live far away meet frequently. But actually, the increased speed of travel has made interactions more superficial. For example, a person travelling from London to Mumbai for a business meeting will stay in a five star hotel, have meetings in plush rooms, visit malls and fly home after a week thinking that he has had a glimpse of India.

There was an extensive maritime trade network operating in the Indian Ocean region for over a millennium till the 15th  century. The various peoples of the subcontinent, southern China, eastern Africa, etc. had established strong maritime trade with each other. When these people took items like spices, silk , rice, etc. to  other countries in the Indian Ocean region, they had to remain there for months waiting for favorable winds to return home. This resulted in their developing deep ties with the local communities.

The peaceful tradition came to an end with the arrival of the Portuguese who demanded the expulsion of Muslim traders from Calicut. This took the rulers of the region by surprise since nobody had ever tried to compel anybody by force of arms. They tried hard to reach an understanding with the Europeans but found that their choice was ‘between resistance and submission; co-operation was not offered’. As is to be expected, the superior armed might of the Europeans won the day and since then, for the last 500 years, the Indian Ocean region has remained a contested area. Amitav Ghosh writes in In an Antique Land:
Within the Western historiographical record the unarmed character of the Indian Ocean trade is often represented as a lack, or failure, one that invited the intervention of Europe, with its increasing proficiency in war. When a defeat is as complete as was that of the trading cultures of the Indian Ocean, it is hard to allow the vanquished the dignity of nuances of choice and preference. Yet it is worth allowing for the possibility that the peaceful tradition of the oceanic trade may have been, in a quiet and inarticulate way, the product of a rare cultural choice…

1 comment:

  1. So well said.
    If only we "grow" as humans leaving behind the virtual but definitely strong walls - so very well planned and planted - that we have demised as "humans"