Millennium Post

Prejudice knows no religion

Indian society seems to be witnessing a peculiar juxtaposition of progress and prejudice. A friend refuses to employ a certain lady because she is a Muslim. He has graduated from one of the premier academic institutions of the country and is employed with a globally reputed multi-national company.  A relative bars girls of the family from entering places of worship during ‘those days of the month’; her daughter, who conforms to it, is a doctor in the making. A friend’s boss is vehemently opposed to women pursuing careers; his only daughter is in the final term of her MBA.

Variously termed prejudice, bias, bigotry, such behaviour belie all possible forms of logical explanation. The perpetrators are, however, not the unlettered, unrefined, unsophisticated lot. They are very much a part of the well-heeled, private school educated, English speaking and globetrotting gentry.

Research on cognitive capabilities points to a negative correlation between intellectual development and prejudice. The internet is awash with scholarly articles, one of which concludes that “higher levels of prejudice are more likely to be found in individuals who evidence lower levels of intellectual development”. However, most of this research is on the Western world and conclusive evidence on the Indian society is scanty. In any case, people in India are different in far too many ways to ever be viewed as a cohesive, homogeneous populace. Hence it is difficult to say whether a more educated India is also a more progressive one. Circumstantial evidence, at least, does not point in that direction.

Religion, caste and gender have existed, since time immemorial, as convenient devices for manifestations of prejudice. There is precious little that has changed despite the proliferation of higher education in the country. The young and ambitious corporate executive is still happy with his parents hunting for a tall, fair, convent educated bride for himself. He is, however, willing to strike a compromise with a wheatish complexioned girl in exchange for an enviable line-up of consumer durables. The sight of a woman wearing her hair short, a woman sporting a tattoo or a woman sharing drinks with her male friends is enough to trigger vigilante groups to enforce ‘code of morality’. And the sight of a woman behind the wheel is enough to trigger primitive instincts in men.

Moving on to religion, the Muslim’s place in the world of prejudice is indisputable. Sikhs are, at best, objects of innoxious Sardar jokes and Christians, with their dwindling numbers, are perhaps inconsequential to be seriously tabooed. The Jains and Buddhists are also a seemingly docile lot; though calling one a ‘practising Buddhist’ is becoming increasingly fashionable. That leaves the Muslims, whom our society, read as Hindu, loves to pigeonhole – Hindu being that majoritarian socio-cultural-religious basket. The skull cap, when worn by the Muslim, attracts unwarranted attention; when made by Nike or Levis, it becomes a fashion statement. The Muslim, when he consumes liquor, is scoffed at though the Hindu relishing his beef steak is conveniently discounted.

The unceasing perpetration of taboos and biases calls into question the efficacy of the education system in our society. The academic curriculum, with its disproportionate emphasis on grades and scores, is at best a medium for literacy and not education. There is substantial mettle in our academic system to churn out doctors, engineers and business professionals, however a huge void when it comes to instilling empathy, compassion and tolerance in the minds of the young during their formative years.

The friend who refuses to eat from the hands of a Muslim is a habitué of the kebab shops of old Delhi; when asked about the religion of the hand that makes the kebabs, he’s only able to dish out blank stares. The relative who attaches taboos with menstruation feels an exuberance of reverence at the mere mention of the Kamakhya temple of Guwahati; a menstruating goddess is an object of devotion while a menstruating mortal is an object of disdain. Nobody has asked the family friend’s boss about his plans for his daughter’s future; it is being hoped that he will be radicalized by the daughter herself.
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