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High road and low road

We ignore serious issues until they affect the rich and famous. This is dangerous, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

india Updated: Aug 07, 2009, 23:14 IST

Why was everyone amazed about Emraan Hashmi being denied a home of his choice in Mumbai because of his religion? He’s not the first star victim of unequal opportunity. Illustrious predecessors include Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi. Reigning star Saif Ali Khan prudently sought a Muslim builder. If this is possible in the posh neighbourhoods of our financial capital, everyone ranted, imagine what’s happening in lesser cities and poorer mohallas. What an odd argument.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Of course discrimination is a serious problem, but I don’t believe it can be solved without discriminating thought. For instance, the notion that it is reduced by affluence and education is completely fallacious. Residents of poorer neighbourhoods, who have more urgent things on their mind such as getting ahead in life, are often less discriminatory than their betters. In Delhi, for instance, the best addresses have the worst sex ratios.

Besides, there is something inherently absurd about being exercised over bad things happening to good people, but only when they are prominent citizens. It is common knowledge that Muslims and people from the Northeast can have a hard time finding a home in many Indian cities, not just Mumbai. Shouldn’t we have made it an issue earlier? Last year, the government moved seriously on cross-border terrorism only after the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai was attacked. More lives in India have been destroyed by terrorism than in any other country excepting Iraq, but we needed a Michelin-rated, five-star carnage to goad us into determined action.

Earlier this week, we were indignant to learn that a former national level hockey player in Raipur had been forced into prostitution by government apathy, while we spend crores on just the potted plants for the Commonwealth Games. It did not lead to concern about the larger national tragedy of poverty and sexual exploitation.

We’ve always been like this only. In the early days of the HIV pandemic, we mourned the untimely death of Mumbai lad Freddie Mercury. And of the pioneering designer Rohit Khosla, who was believed to have gone the same way. But ordinary people in high-risk groups, like professional blood donors and truckers, had been dropping like flies at the same time. Their deaths went unreported. If we had appreciated the span and depth of the problem instead of being overwhelmed by star tragedies, we may have acted faster on HIV. How we state a problem determines how we solve it.

We are perpetuating the two-nation theory, on economic as well as religious grounds. This is not merely iniquitous. It affects everyone because we are ignoring serious issues until they affect the rich and famous. That is, until they assume impossible proportions. The general welfare policies initiated by the government, like the right to education and rural employment guarantees, will improve matters by narrowing economic differences. There’s even talk of an equal opportunity commission. If it is created, I hope we have the sense to subsume our various minority rights bodies under it, because equal opportunity is the fundamental guarantor of equality.

But the point is that despite these institutions, it will take ordinary people decades to improve their lot enough to merit the empathetic concern of people like us. And I fear we cannot afford to wait that long.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine

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