January 28, 2016, India
I heard this story from a third person. So I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks. Not that it matters, as it’s the big picture that’s relevant. Switch the people, place, and religion, and it’s the same thing happening all over world.
Raj runs a business with around 40 employees in a town in Kerala in south India. His father established the business half a century ago in a 75 year old building that belonged to Raj’s mother. The structure is part of a row of buildings in the town that are all tightly packed next to each other, as they were built in an era where building rules didn’t exist. Raj’s father was a friendly person with a helpful nature, and his philanthropy helped create a lot of goodwill for the business. Raj inherited the business, built on its strong base, made innovations, and turned it into a flourishing venture.
The state of Kerala has a history of being a place where many communities and religions coexist in harmony. St Thomas is believed to have migrated to Kerala and lived out his life here, leaving behind a vibrant and large Christian community. Likewise Muslims from the Middle East had been trading all along Kerala’s long sea coast for centuries, and they too are a thriving community. The Hindus are the majority but are themselves divided on a caste basis. All these groups and sub-groups interact commercially and politically. But culturally, there are many differences and social interaction is limited outside the groups.
During Raj’s father’s time, the area used to be a predominantly Hindu one with pockets where Muslims lived. Around this time, a lot of local people began migrating to the ‘Gulf’ for work. Gulf being the broad term for the land of petrodollars, basically the Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Muscat, Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Iran. Though life was tough in the hot and arid Gulf, the higher income packages attracted many.
The Real Estate Boom
A good portion of these job migrants were Indian Muslims as they felt at home in the Islam-based culture of the Middle East. The money they earned there was pumped back into Kerala, mainly to buy real estate. As a result, land prices shot up. Black money sales became the norm with actual sale prices of the land being far more than the official taxable price. Huge amounts of unaccounted cash exchanged hands, and there were even rumours of counterfeit money floating around.
The Return of the Purdah
Hindu landowners in the area where Raj lived, found it hard to resist the tempation to grab the petrodollars in exchange for their land. Prosperity led to a population explosion, especially among the Muslims where large families were the norm. In a couple of decades, the place gradually became a Muslim predominated area. In some ways, the change is very visible as the Muslim women of the previous generation only used the ‘pallu’ of their dress to cover their heads when outdoors. Whereas many Muslim women in the current generation wear the black, full body purdah, possibly influenced by returnees from the Gulf countries like Saudi where the purdah is mandatory.
After World War II, the Jews bought land from the Arabs in Palestine and turned it into a predominantly Jewish country. The similarities are obvious. Israel was a well-planned effort backed by wealthy Jews from across the world. The question is if this is also planned, and if so, who is supporting it?
The Hindus, who remained in the area, adapted. Historically, they are a tolerant community who tend to live and let live. Raj soon had more Muslim employees than Hindus, and he didn’t think it was a big deal, as most of business establishments in the town were now Muslim.
On one side of his house, Raj had a Muslim neighbour whose family had also been living in the same house for the last half century. The two families lived peacefully side by side though there was no social interaction between the two communities. The neighbour was working in the Gulf, and built a large commercial complex where his old house used to be. Meanwhile Raj also renovated his old house, and converted it into a commercial-residential complex with the business in the front and his home behind.
Raj and his neighbour house were separated by an ancient wall, built on Raj’s land. One day, Raj noticed that his neighbour had put a gate up by anchoring it on Raj’s wall, which wasn’t designed to take such a load. Raj politely informed the neighbour that this was not acceptable, and he should put up a gatepost on his own land, and hang his gate from it. The neighbour ignored Raj despite his repeated attempts to sort out the issue.
Raj was forced to take it up with the authorities who asked him to register a complaint with the cops, and then if necessary, to file a legal suit. To Raj’s surprise, the police inspector refused to accept the complaint. That was when it dawned on Raj that the policeman was a Muslim himself, and was blindly supporting his community member without worrying about the right and wrong of it.
Raj was unable to sleep that night. For the first time, it sunk in that he was now a minority in a sea of Muslims. He had grown up in a boarding school, and recognized bullying when he saw it. Raj knew that if you gave in to a bully, you would be picked on again and again, and everything you owned would soon belong to the bully. There were only two ways to survive: go to the authorities and make a formal complaint, or join a rival group or a gang. And Raj had already tried the authorities route without success.
The Hindu Nationalists
The Shiv Sena were originally a ultra religional Hindu organisation based in the western state of Maharashtra. They are known for insisting that the state of Maharashtra belongs to the Marathi speaking people. They had no qualms in taking up arms to enforce this, even against fellow Hindus from other parts of the country. But once they gained political power in their state and began turning into a national party, they toned down their regional spirit and instead took on the mantle of being champions of Hinduism.
The next morning, Raj paid a visit to the local office of the Shiv Sena. He introduced himself, and explained the problems he was having with his Muslim neighbour. He was told not to worry, and the problem would be sorted out. Later that day, a cadre of Shiv Sena activists dressed in all-white turned up outside Raj’s business. They walked up to the problematical gate, ripped it off the wall, and calmly waited for a reaction.
It was not long in coming. Raj’s agitated neighbour approached them, and protested loudly, albeit a bit nervously. He was told in no uncertain terms that the consequences would be far worse if he tried to put back the gate. A crowd gathered, with the younger generation of Muslims looking ready for a fight. But the Muslim elders pacified them, as they knew the situation could easily turn into a full scale communal riot. As all the buildings in the town stood close to each other, one spark could literally cause the whole town to go up in flames. Besides as the town was 90% Muslim, it was the Muslims who stood to lose more, which was what the Shiv Sena was gambling on. So the elders stepped in and negotiated a truce with the Shiv Sena, whereby the gate on Raj’s property was removed. The Shiv Sena departed the scene, having achieved their objective.
Raj continued his life as before with no outward change in the way he interacted with his Muslim neighbours, customers and employees. But there was one very significant change. As far as the Shiv Sena’s activities were concerned, Raj did not care to debate if they were right or wrong as he once used to. Instead he just blindly supports them with funds and votes.
The Big Picture
When majority communities start pushing around a minority community without regard for justice, the minority starts identifying with the right wing, fanatic, extremist and eventually terrorist movements. Be it white police shootings of Black Americans, or Russian bombings of Chechen villages, or ‘collateral damage’ to innocent bystanders in drone attacks, the outcome is radicalisation of the minority. The degree of radicalization depends on scale of the injustice and how long it has been happening.
There is no easy solution and it’s more an exercise in prevention that has to come from top down. In Raj’s case, if there had been an impartial authority that he could access who would have given him a fair hearing, and dispensed quick justice, he may never have met the Shiv Sena. Fortunately in this case, things didn’t go out of control. But one act of retaliation or anger was all it would have taken for the story to have taken a different and tragic turn.
Living in a powder keg
If I was in Raj’s shoes, I would most probably have done what he did. And that is true of similar scenarios almost everywhere in the world right now. Today, people of different religions, ethnicities, nationalities, and skin colours, all live together balancing their differences in amazing act of jugglery. But it can easily fall apart by an accident or a premeditated action.
The faster we understand this, and the quicker we take preventive action, the better our chances for a peaceful future.