24, Jan 2022 | CJP Team
Are you a member of the majority community and offended by the growing instances of hate speech and violence against minorities? Do you feel it is your duty to help defend the rights and freedoms of your fellow Indians irrespective of their faith? Do you feel angry at things, yet helpless? Do you want to do something that actually helps build and sustain a culture of harmony? Here are a few tips that can help you become a true ally to minorities.
What is an ally?
An ally is a person who is a source of support and comfort to another person in need, even though they may not share lived experiences. An ally is a true friend who advocates for diversity and inclusion, and stands by those facing exclusion, discrimination, or persecution. An ally makes a concerted effort towards learning more about the struggles of others, and also helps in creating and maintaining safe spaces. Most importantly, an ally recognises that allyship is not about leadership, and therefore focuses on providing a support system instead of appropriating the spotlight.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to becoming a good ally to minorities.
Step-1: Educate yourself
Given how your life experience is probably vastly different from that of the people who are victims and survivors of hate crimes, you cannot possibly know what it is like to be targeted and singled out – what it feels like to live with the looming prospect of violence. Merely reading or watching news reports is not enough. One should try to read or watch as many first-person accounts of such people, as these are the most authentic ways to learn about someone’s stories in their own words. But brace yourself, because listening to these stories will not be easy.
When it comes to first person accounts, sometimes survivors tell their own stories via blogs. For example:
First person account of a young woman harassed online as part of the “Sulli Deals” auction scandal (Blog by Noor Mahvish published on CJP)
Even in traditional the Q&A format a good first-person account is present in the detailed responses to short questions. For example:
Rwandan genocide survivor recounts her ordeal (Published in Africa Renewal by the UN)
Other times their interviews are carried by publications in a distinct manner where the survivor’s quotes are given primacy and there are fewer sentences stringing together these quotes, thus granting the survivor agency over their narrative.
Accounts of three eye-witnesses of the Azad Maidan violence (Originally published in MidDay, republished by NDTV)
Muzaffarnagar rape survivor tells her story (Published in The Quint)
Step-2: Check your privilege
An easy way to understand what privilege means is to look at what you haven’t had to experience, rather than what you have experienced. Have you ever been denied a job, a loan or a rental home because of your faith? If not, then you are privileged compared to those who have faced such discrimination. Privilege is always relative. Often race, gender, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation etc., play a major role in placing hurdles in one’s path. This is where the concept of intersectionality comes in.
Actual representational voices and opinions are key. For example, a well admired TV channel may still remain paternalistic in not allowing the minority face or voice raise the most uncomfortable questions about the society we live in or the state that governs us and may “prefer” to raise some of these on “their behalf”.
Civil Rights groups may intervene in the courts on valuable democratic causes, but how many ensure that first space, name and representation is in the name of the Survivor of the very atrocity for which that the litigation seeks remedy?
Dalit feminists often experience that Dalit men activists prefer dealing with upper caste and class feminists rather than hearing some home-truths from women among them who speak of both caste exclusion and further denials (existence of patriarchy) from the menfolk of the community.
A heart wrenching poster of the Dalit feminist movement has these lines, “Untouchable by Day, Touchable by Night.” Rape of the Dalit, Adivasi and minority women is something that the Indian civilizational ethos of the privileged have not adequately confronted yet.
Also, money isn’t always an indicator of privilege. Not everyone facing persecution is economically challenged, and not everyone from a weak economic background fits the stereotype associated with “poor” people. A common example is how one tends to dismiss the struggles of Syrian refugees because they saw some of them were carrying cell phones. Having some material possessions does not mitigate the reason behind their struggle – Syrians were forced to flee their homes due to war.
Did you, as a child, ever experience a classmate or friend not sharing food with you from their tiffin box or partaking of the food in yours? It happens every day, in our cities and neighbourhoods, in schools and office spaces too.
Often people live inside their own bubbles, their friend-circle not very different in terms of their socio-economic location. Thus, many people from the majority community do not have friends or even colleagues from other faiths. But if you do find someone who is willing to share their experiences, talk to them… more importantly, listen to them. It is possible that a lot of what they say may come as a shock to you, but that doesn’t mean it is not true.
Believe them when they share anything from an anecdote about an incident of casual discrimination, or a traumatic experience involving violence. It is not an indictment of you personally, so don’t get defensive just because the perpetrators may practice the same faith as you. Moreover, perpetrators of violence always stray from what faith teaches them, because all faiths preach peace and harmonious coexistence. So, by believing survivors, you are not betraying either your faith or your community.
We have several examples of the distances breached with conversations and dialogues across the world. In India too such efforts have been made – baby steps taken to create spaces for dialogue between Kashmiri Pandits and the Valley’s Muslims, between survivors and families of mob violence and terrorism. Besides, such efforts can be made within housing societies, bastis and office spaces. The step forward is acknowledging that such listening is key and that conversations need to happen.
Step-4: Do not deny, do not blame
To this day, there are people who spin elaborate conspiracy theories to deny historical instances of persecution of minorities. Even today, there are Holocaust deniers, despite a horrifying amount of evidence of the persecution and killing of six million Jews by Nazis! Denial is the biggest hurdle in believing, and how can you be an ally to someone if you don’t believe them? And yet we see people adopting different tactics to deny stories of survivors. The strange thing about Victimhood, Truth-telling and Prejudice (Othering) also is (or can be) that yesterday’s Victim could well become today’s Perpetrator: a community that suffered the worst kind of extermination may well – armed with a position of power and privilege, decades later— propagate exclusivity and even exclusion.
Deflection: Deflection, in psychology, is a form of defence when you try to pass on the blame to someone else. It is a narcissistic abuse tactic and is a learned behavior. A common method of deflection is “what-aboutism” a practice where one ends up indirectly suggesting that the aggrieved party deserved their fate because of something someone else from their community did centuries ago. How does it make sense to punish present day Indian Muslims for the alleged sins of Aurangzeb who has been dead for 300 years?
Distraction and tokenism: Some people also attempt to create distraction saying one must focus on the good rather than bad experiences. But this is just another way to gloss over or ignore uncomfortable truths and the traumatic experiences of the persecuted. Others deflect by focusing on showcasing how they have never engaged in discrimination against minorities, often launching into elaborate stories about that one token friend or colleague with whom they have Biryani on Eid or organise Secret Santa parties on Christmas. This does nothing to help solve real world problems related to discrimination and violence against minorities.
Besides, exclusion and denial is often a measure of the existence of prejudice. The fact that a child care centre, or neighbourhood group or school celebrates festivals but not say Eid or Buddha Purnima is reflective of the non-existence of diversity or representation in that group.
Sometimes, to avoid confronting the guilt of the hate that swirls around us, peace-making efforts or preaching on diversity and secularism are conducted in minority spaces, spaces where the minority abides. This is sheer tokenism as it is not the minority that needs lessons on either but the majority that is either silent or complicit in hate mongering.
Gaslighting: The term comes from a 1944 American psychological thriller of the same name starring Ingrid Bergman. In the movie, a young woman is slowly manipulated by her husband into believing she is losing her mind. When it comes to stories about persecution of minorities, people from the majority community find it difficult to accept that such a thing still happens and often in a bid to make themselves feel better, try to tell the survivor that they are not remembering their trauma correctly and that it may just be a figment of their imagination. They gaslight people by presenting an alternate narrative. Some others gaslight people in a bid to dent their credibility, which itself is an act of abuse.
But this urge to gaslight is again often born out of cognitive dissonance – a mental conflict when your beliefs don’t align with your experience. So, if you have been raised to believe that your community has never engaged in an act of aggression, but you have just spoken to a person from a minority community who has experienced violence, you might feel the urge to discredit their narrative by gaslighting them. Don’t do it!
Point of Order: Every civilization has a myth, the Nobel Laureate for Literature, Egyptian writer, Naguib Mahfouz famously wrote. The Indian civilizational myth, dominated as truth-telling has been by the so called “upper” caste and privileged is that of a non-violent civilization. Our history, rationally studied, tells us otherwise. From Mahavir to Buddha to Basavannah and Kabir, the challengers have made exhortations to rationality, inclusion and violence; suggesting the pre-eminence of both denials, exclusions and violence.
Ridicule and trivialisation: We have grown up cracking what we have been led to believe are harmless jokes, but these actually stereotype minorities and thus normalize attacks on their dignity, and trivialisation of their trauma. It also dehumanises them which makes it easier to target them. We are all familiar with communal slurs, we must now realise that it is not okay to use them “causally”. We have to understand that different people have different customs and faith-based practices. As long as one does not break the law of the land or cause harm to another person, we should aim to cultivate greater acceptance of each other. This does not preclude constructive criticism. For example: It is important to speak up against female genital mutilation and child marriage, but that should be a means to bring about reformation, not used to justify genocide.
However, jokes and humour that poke a hole into privilege and comfort are not just important; they are revelatory as from the reactions they elicit from the ‘majority us’ they ring the bell of truth.
Step-5: No anger, no bargaining, just acknowledgement
In psychology anger and bargaining are two of the stages before one can come to terms with grief. Many people, again possibly due to the baggage of cognitive dissonance, get angry when confronted with instances of abuse by people of their community or their ancestors. It is good that you are not continuing the discriminatory or legacy of your ancestors, but if you do not acknowledge the part they played in the persecution of minorities, you are fooling no one but yourself, and might end up regressing into similar behaviour patterns. Remember, anger is nothing but fear turned inwards – it is born out of helplessness to change the situation. But the moment you acknowledge historical injustice, you can correct it in present day in a peaceful, just and sustainable manner so that healing can begin.
When it comes to being an ally, no matter how woke you are chances are you haven’t completely accepted the role played by your community or ancestors in the persecution of minorities and want to avoid feeling bad about it. So even though you have good intentions, you often end up engaging in a form of bargaining in an attempt to avoid feeling bad about yourself. But then you must remind yourself, that this isn’t about you. One shouldn’t demand to be treated differently because you feel you are “better” than others in your community. We are all heroes in our stories. Even the perpetrators of Hate Crimes feel they are doing the right thing and should be spared judgement and consequences.
Two recent examples of bargaining in the context of faux allies are the hashtags #NotAllMen and #AllLivesMatter that came up in response to the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements respectively. Here there was a concerted effort to draw attention away from the victims and survivors of gender and race-based abuse, and focus instead on how there were people belonging to the gender and race associated with abusers who were worthy of respect. This is actually an act of micro-aggression, and therefore abuse.
Step-6: Ask what they need
This is an important step in becoming an ally and therefore part of the solution. But this is where most people falter by making it all about themselves. Helping minorities is not something you should do as a project aimed at building your own image or brand. You should do it because it is basic human decency! Therefore, when you offer help, always ask what they need instead of what you can do. The focus should be on the person who needs help, not the person offering it.
Step-7: Be present during crisis situations
A true ally understands the importance of walking the talk. So, when you find minorities in distress, offer support, stand up and speak up against discrimination and violence, demand justice for them, and in case there is a threat to their life and wellbeing offer them shelter, use your privilege as a member of the majority community to protect minorities. Speak to others within your community to make them see reason and eschew violence.
Form a neighbourhood watch (Mohalla Committee): This is a diverse group of people from the neighbourhood who maintain ties with the police and civic administration authorities. When minorities have representation in these Mohalla Committees, it helps protect them from violence in case of a communal conflagration.
These experiments have evolved out of sharp societal conflict, communal violence. They do require creative engagement and persistence, though. More than anything else, they need to be participatory. The idea is to bring together a neighbourhood or beat group and ensure engagement with the local police station. Underlying is the conviction that like us all, policemen and women are humans too and will benefit from a Citizen-Police engagement. Regular interactions, conversations act as watchdogs on the police, participation of all classes and kinds of citizens means that matters of the community are shared by all.
If a rumour that fosters hate is being transmitted through a vile whisper campaign or in cases of hate speech or writing, having ears-to-the-ground community members who are part of these neighbourhood (Mohalla/Ekta Committees) often serves as a warning signal. This gets us all alert to the possibility of provocations and tensions being stoked due to the regular engagements with the local police; a demand to maintain peace from citizens acts as a positive incentive. Regular neighbourhood activities, sports events, film shows, even book readings including police men and women build up a sustained relationship. The idea is to prevent the outbreak of violence through active and alert community engagement.
Speak up against ghettoization: Often it is difficult for minority communities to get help during crisis situations because they have been forced to live in ghettos. These are usually poorly planned neighbourhoods and often lack even basic infrastructure. Most ghettos are in fact formed when minorities are displaced from their original homes and forced to live only among their own. This has happened in even cosmopolitan spaces like Mumbai which is otherwise more open. In cities of Gujarat for instance, where attitudes to the minority have hardened over decades, usage of the term “borders” within the city space is demonstrative of the almost insurmountable barriers erected. To some this may reflect safety in numbers, but one needs to examine why they were feeling unsafe in the first place. Ghettoisation enables isolation and targeting of minorities.
A more integrated neighbourhood where residents hail from different faiths and ethnicities would ensure that everyone has access to all facilities and nobody is denied help in case of emergencies. In fact, the Right Wing among all of us, all segments and communities advocates ghettoized existence, as they see it as a way and measure to control individuality, the non-conformist, dissenting voice. The majoritarian Right-Winger uses this mono-cultural base to perpetuate stereotypes of the ‘minority’, giving exampes that may have a glimmering of fact but do not represent the whole.
Part of our sustained engagement as allies of the minority should always be to ensure that shared and integrated neighbourhoods emerge and our encouraged, that differences in food, habits and culture re celebrated, that we speak within and against the enforced ghetto. Food sharing across divides, understanding cultural practices of giving and sharing, all these are significant steps that can bring both, joy and learning. It can help dismantle the Ghetto of the Mind and the Neighbourhood.
Step-8: Pass the mic
As we have mentioned before, being an ally is not about leadership, but about support. Therefore, if you have a platform that allows you to reach out to people and perhaps change their mindset, invite minorities to use the same platform. An excellent example of this was when RJ Sayema took over Akash Banerjee’s YouTube show DeshBhakt to speak up against the GitHub auction apps where morphed images of Muslim women were being uploaded by miscreants who wanted to shame and defame these women for speaking their mind. Banerjee showcased how cis-gender, heterosexual, “upper caste” Hindu men, could be allies to Muslim women, by doing something very simple – he passed the mic to Sayema, and she told her own story as well as that of others like her who had been targeted by the app.
You can watch the entire episode here:
Step-9: Protest peacefully and creatively
It is important to protest injustice even if you are not the one who is facing it. However, it is important to ensure that you maintain a distinction between you and those who oppress and abuse minorities. The easiest way to do this is to eschew violence. A peaceful and creative protest goes a long way in creating the desired impact on society. Organise protest poetry reading sessions, or art and photography exhibitions that further showcase the challenges faced and overcome by persecuted minorities, make sure your slogans and artwork are free of micro-aggressive language. Do these in unusual, out of the way spaces – the park, the café, the tea-shop, the street corner (nukkad), the train station, the railway platform, the city chauraha – where inevitably persons gather.
Step-10: Educate yourself further, reach out to friends and family
Often Hate festers in dinner table conversations and then gets normalised because our families shape our mindset. This Hate then permeates our classrooms, boardrooms and newsrooms… but it all starts with those dining table discussions, where the words of adults end up shaping the minds of children, who then bear the burden of lifelong biases.
Silence is not an option. As ElieWiesel, the Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor has said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” Painful as it often is, hurtful even when a dear one or family is concerned, we must recognise that there is an unnatural comfort behind the silence in such situations. In every space, private or public, one must prick the bubble of complicity. Even if it leaves behind a sense of lone-someness. You will find community and family elsewhere.
Here’s a suggested reading list:
- Burnt Alive: The Staines and the God They Loved
By – Vishal Mangalwadi, Babu K. Verghese, Vijay Martis, M.B. Desai, and Radha Samuel
Published by – GLS Publishing
- But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim
By – Rakhshanda Jalil
Published by – Harper Collins Publishers India
- Communal Politics: An Illustrated Primer
By – Ram Puniyani
Published by – Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT)
- Dalit Visions
By – Omvedt
Published by – Orient Longman
- Demolishing Myths or Mosques and Temples? Readings on History and Temple Desecretion in Medieval India
By – Sunil Kumar
Published by – Three Essays Collective
- Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh
By – Sudha Pai & Sajjan Kumar
Published by – Oxford University Press
- Forgotten Liberator: The Life and Struggle of Savitribai Phule
By – A Braj Ranjan Mani
Published by – Mountain Peak
- I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army
By – Swati Chaturvedi
Published by – Juggernaut Publication
- Infiltration: Genesis of Assam Movement
By – Abdul Mannan
Published by – Abdul Mannan
- Khaki Shorts, Saffron Flags
By – Tapan Basu, Pradip Datta, Sumit Sarkar, Tanika Sarkar, Sambuddha Sen
Published by – Apt Books, Incorporated
- Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism Is Changing India
Edited: Angana P. Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Chritophe Jaffrelot
Published by – Harper Collins Publishers India
- Malevolent Republic: A short History of the New India
By – K.S. Komireddi
Published by – Context
- Reconciliation in Post-Godhra Gujarat: The Role of Civil Society
By – TK Oommen
Published by – Pearson Education
- Riots and After in Mumbai: Chronicles of Truth and Reconciliation
By – Meena Menon
Published by – Sage India
- Struggle That Was My Life
By – Urmila Pavara
Published by – Bhatkal & Son
- Terrorism Explained (A Graphic Account)
By – Ram Puniyani and Sharad Sharma
Published by – World Comics India & Arth Prakashan
- The Population Myth: Islam, Family Planning and Politics in India
By – S.Y. Quraishi
Published by – Harper Collins Publishers India
- Untouchable God
By – KanchaIlaiah
Published by – Bhatkal & Son
- Who killed Swamy Laxamananda
By – Anto Akkara
Published by Veritas India Books
- Why I am a Believer: Personal Reflections On Nine World Religions
By – Arvind Sharma
Published by – Penguin Books India
- Why I am a Hindu
By – Shashi Tharoor
Published by – Aleph Book Company
- Why I am Not a Christian: and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects
By – Bertrand Russell
Published by – Routledge Classics
- Why I am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy
By – Kancha Iiaiah
Published by – Samya
- Why I am Not a Muslim
By – Ibn Warraq
Published by – Prometheus Books