Sunday, August 17, 2008

Race and religion...comparing India to the US

It is often said that the United States has a very clear separation between state and religion, and it has made great strides in overcoming racial inequality. And, often the comment about India is that it is mired by caste and religion. But, what does this mean to an average person in both places.

Take for example the US election of 2008. It has been said by more than a few that having an African American candidate shows the strides US has made in overcoming racial inequality. Some have even gone on to say that having an African American as the president would mean racial inequality is a thing of the past. But, is it truly so. Every day I take the public transport (the "El") to work. I often observe how the seats get filled on the "El." It is a study of people's prejudices. Invariably, seats next to African Americans are the last to be taken. I bet statistical analysis of the sample will show that this is not a random phenomenon.

In India, we have had at least one "untouchable" President but even I would not say that everyone in India is treated equal. However, I do know that rarely will people avoid certain seats on the public transport because of the caste of the other person. This is because often there is no way to determine the caste of the other person from their physical attributes.

So, you have a group of people in the US who on a day to-day basis see and feel some form of prejudice against them even when they are not directly interacting with the other party (and, see less or no prejudice when they are interacting directly with the other party). And, in India, you have groups of people who may not see any prejudice until they are directly interacting with the other party.

Now, you may argue that I am mixing race and caste. I think that is just arguing over the use of right words. I guess what I am trying to say is people everywhere feel at ease with people who look and act like them.

When it comes to religion, both India and the US are secular states. Yet, their approach to secularism is quite different and the results have been quite different (Just compare the number of religion related clashes/ incidents). Are the results different because of the approach? I don't know. I would argue that the people in the US practice a good number of religions/ beliefs. It may not be the same as in India but in terms of percentages they might be in the same league.

For a nation, that professes separation of state and religion US is obsessed with religion. The candidate's religion/ beliefs are a key part of their candidature. Barrack Obama has gone to great lengths to prove that he is a Christian (and hide his middle name - Hussein). The only religious holiday in the country is Christmas and you will see the state spending lot of money to decorate the city and buildings for this holiday. Compare this with India where there have been Muslim presidents, Christian Chief Ministers (Governors), the state has holidays for pretty much every possible religion (I call India - Bumper Holiday Nation) and the state does not spend money decorating buildings for any religious holiday.

So, what makes Africans still move to the US in search of opportunities even when African Americans make noise about the inequality and US has a lot less race/caste and religion related incidents than India? I think the law, the rules and their implementation is a clear and consistent in the US. So, while not everyone agrees with it, it has enough "buy-in." As for religion, in the US, for the most part, the state does not involve itself with religion even if its subjects feel strongly about their beliefs. In India, the state is involved in religion trying to "balance" the differences in numbers. And, when there is not enough to go around for everyone, state's effort to "balance" based on race/caste and/or religion results in everyone feeling that they have been cheated out of fair deal.

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