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Of equality and fairness

The idea of sons of the soil confers some rights on them, which may not apply to others, says Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Feb 11, 2006 13:48 IST

All men are born equal but some are more equal than others.

The concept of Sons of the Soil (SoS) is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Sons of the soil is an elemental concept tying people to their place of birth and confers some benefits, rights, roles and responsibilities on them, which may not apply to others.

It is a difficult concept to grasp, even though this has been explicitly seen in many countries. The problem with this concept of SoS (no pun intended, oh! ok, ok, so I did mean it as a pun!) is that it is beset between two forces, the concept of equality versus the concept of fairness. Quite a lot of insurgencies, terrorist campaigns, riots, internal disturbances, tensions and wars have been driven by this issue.

Let's see why this is so.

The SoS concept basically boils down to, we SoSs were here first, you newcomers are doing better/crowding out opportunities/taking more resources/ etc. etc, and therefore we will positively discriminate against you newcomer chaps. It is like going to live in a small village, and you are not a stranger within two days, but still a newcomer after thirty years.

But jokes apart, this is where the inconsistency becomes apparent. It is an article of faith that everybody (well, adult humans at least) should be treated equally; as broadly as possible. This is the equality concept.

Entire forests have been felled, rivers of blood have been spilled and Gondwanaland has sunk below the age-long fight for equality. Nobody in their right mind will turn to me, a British Citizen of Indian extraction and say, "Well, mate, you are a newcomer to this country so your vote is worth, umm, let's see, 1/10th of that of people who have been here since William the Conqueror, 1/5th of that of people who came over with the Huguenots, 1/2 of those of the Italian POWs who decided to stay on after World War II and ummm, how about 1/1.3 times of the British Asians who came from Uganda".

This is so ludicrous a statement that you will indeed laugh and move on and you are right. That is because once I am a British citizen (whether by birth, adoption, naturalisation or divine dispensation), the concept of equality kicks in and I gain an equal right to every right available and equal effort to every duty due to any British Citizen. By and large, this applies almost all over the world.

So far, so good.

Now we explore the other concept, which is that of fairness. Everybody and everything in this world should be treated fairly. That has been drummed into our minds since we were born. I used to moan about fairness to my mum, and now my son moans to me about fairness, it's a vast intergenerational game. If we leave things just like that, without any government intervention, we will have massive inequality and unfairness; call it the rule of the jungle.

Might may be right and God may be on the side of the big battalions, but given human civilisation, fairness is a concept which we apply and adopt.

So in the name of fairness, we have a progressive taxation system, where we take money from the rich saps and give it to the poor ones; we take money from rich regions and give it to the poor regions; we put in affirmative action and positive discrimination programmes so that previously discriminated minorities are pushed up the ladder; we have multi-culturalism, so that every culture is treated equally; we reserve special seats in parliament, educational institutions, buses and trains for disabled, women, elderly, particular minorities and people of a fluorescent green colour; we have special education programmes, so on and so forth.

By and large, people understand and accept this, even though one may not like it.

Then comes the concept of SoS. We see these phenomena in a variety of different guises, but before we do this, let me be clear that I am not talking about the differential treatment that is meted out to non-citizens which has a whole load of different arguments around it. This is within one country itself. A particular group of citizens, whether identified by religion, race, language or what have you, are considered to be the natives of that country/ state/region. This is what is meant by Sons of the Soil.

So you have the Malay people (usually ethnically Malay, Muslim, as opposed to Chinese or Indian extraction minorities) in Malaysia, the Maharashtrians (usually people who speak Marathi and were born/brought up in the Indian state of Maharashtra as opposed to everybody else), the Assamese (usually people who speak Assamese and were born/brought up in the Indian state of Assam as opposed to Bengalis and Marwaris), the Sunni in Saudi Arabia (as opposed to the Shia), native white skinned Frenchmen as opposed to the dark skinned Banaleu (the French term used for Frenchmen who are from north Africa and live in the suburbs tower blocks Banalieues), the Singhalese (as in Buddhist Sri Lankans as opposed to the Tamils) in Sri Lanka, white skinned Russians as opposed to anybody from the far off republics in the old USSR and even now in Russia, Punjabis (as opposed to Sindhis and others) in Pakistan, and so on and so forth.

The responses by the government range from positive discrimination to negative discrimination. Negative discrimination again is in whole panoplies of emotions and behavioural responses, ranging from outright racism to jokes about how southern Italians are lazy while northern Italians are hard working, how the English people subsidise the Scots, so on and so forth.

This negative discrimination has been discussed far and wide and you, my dear gentle reader, can do without me twittering on about it. Hence, let us focus on the positive discrimination part.

For example, we have the situation in Malaysia where ethnic Malays were and are explicitly given a hand up by the government in all sorts of human activities, whether government funding by state financial institutions, explicit (and for a long period of time, only) usage of Malay as the language of instruction thereby putting the Chinese and Indian populations at a disadvantage, explicit favouring of Malays in government job opportunities, more emphasis on development in the rural areas where more Malays live, etc. So much that they decided to chuck Singapore away from Malaysia because Singapore was skewing the population too much towards the ethnically Chinese minority. Very rare, this behaviour of actually getting rid of territory and frankly is a bit bewildering (mind you, the running joke while I was growing up was about the state of Bihar in India, where people complained about Kashmir and Punjab wanting independence and we asking them to stay on, but Bihar never asking for it, and if they did, we will grant it to them post-haste).

First Published: Feb 10, 2006 20:24 IST