Is Social Justice Just a Dream?

“Nothing is sadder than the waning dream of integration,” wrote David Brooks in his July 6, 2007 op-ed column for the New York Times. “…But it could be the dream of integration itself is the problem. It could be that it was like the dream of early communism — a nice dream, but not fit for the way people really are…Even today, people have a powerful drive to distinguish between us and them.”

There is a lot of truth, in my opinion, to what Mr. Brooks has described in his column. People prefer those of their own kind. “Integration” is only for others.

I returned to India twelve years ago, filled with idealism – I wanted to improve the lives of poor people, to help create a fair and equal society. But now, after struggling with that goal for many years, I have begun to give up on my dream. Our foundation’s work in those years has brought about considerable prosperity to the villages around us, and yet, people live segregated lives. “Lower caste” people live in one secluded section of the village; “upper castes” do not eat together with lower castes at any function; there are separate temples for both upper and lower castes; even classrooms for small children are segregated by castes. The government asks for an individual’s caste in every official document, and the constitution doesn’t attempt to abolish the caste system.

Discrimination based on religion, caste, race, ethnic origin, gender or sexual preference is all too commonplace. People do not wish to accept their differences and treat each other with dignity. What seems to unite one group of people is their differences from another group – all in the name of common good.

But if we can learn to be tolerant enough to interact with each other, work and play together, and not harm each other, it might be good enough – there may not be a need to live together and socially interact as an integrated community! Even a limited impersonal interaction might be too much to expect.

I often ask myself whether my children and I find ourselves part of mainstream American society. I am not sure of the answer. But I don’t think it matters a great deal. Education and professional accomplishments have allowed us to deal with anyone and everyone. I can’t worry too much about other people’s personal biases and prejudices.

Maybe the trouble is that people are afraid of others who are different from them. People are afraid of losing their jobs or property, fear for their physical safety, or resent others infringing upon their faith or beliefs. These negative forces are all too powerful to allow “outsiders” inside.

I think the trick to integration is dealing with all those fears. A society that offers plenty of opportunities can negate the fear of losing money and wealth – the primary factor behind discrimination. People who conduct themselves in a disrespectful manner toward others cannot expect others to accept them. People who preach their assumed superiority in values or faith will not find others to embrace them. These are lessons that political, community and religious leaders need to teach their people.

Unfortunately, hatred is the longest running passion. Discriminatory remarks and incrimination are not often confronted in today’s society. Tolerance and acceptance of differences are rare commodities.

While I am pessimistic about the future of social equality, something deeper tells me that we should never give up on this noble goal. As for our foundation’s mission and work, we will continue to offer as many opportunities as possible to those who need it most. In doing so, we shall cultivate tolerance, focusing on “good values” as opposed to “good faiths.” Maybe over time we can make a little difference.

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Sujatha said…
i came across your foundation a few mnths back on the internet and have been very impressed by the work you are doing.last mnth,i hunted around a lot for your book "india untouched" and finally managed to get it.i found the story of your school and related projects very fascinating but was a little disturbed to read the chapter "of holy cows ------" and now this blog about social unequality.i feel you have presented only one side of the coin -the darker side.i feel there is another side too -the positive side.for that i want to say something about myself.
i am a keralite hindu butgrew up in calcutta.over the years,we have had several dear friends belonging to different states,castes and religions both at home and at schooland even fact language,caste and religion has never been a criterion for making friends.on the contrary,the differences in food habits,festivals etc is a source of joy as it means we can taste different tasty food and celebrate all the festivals.
when i went to university,i met my future husband.i was from the so called forward caste while,he was from the so called backward caste and also a different state.his grandparents were poor farm labourers but his father got into the airforce so they moved out of the village and stayed in different parts of india and the children studied in kendriya vidyalayas.they were bright so they became well qualified and are at present pursuing successful careers.but the background didnt make the least bit of difference to me.neither did it make a difference to my father and so he immediately agreed to our marriage.this december,we will complete 13yrs of a very happy married life.
my husband is a well educated and very successful executive in an indian owned multi national company where all the employees are indians.caste has never been a barrier to his progress.he has people from different castes working above and below fact caste is no where on the i look around i find it is the same in all good private companies.the only thing that matters is educational qualification and competence.
i have to also add that my husband has had some very close brahmin friends as well inspite of them knowing about his fact,caste is something we almost never think about.i am mentioning about it here just to explain something .otherwise caste is the last thing on my fact i would feel sick if i think on those lines.
ours is not an unique case.rather it is quite common in urban india.i feel the urban educated indian doesnt have the prejudices you have described.
also on the national level,if people were truly biased,our [now former]president,dr.kalam a muslim,wouldnt have been so highly respected in india.he has become like a national hero with people regardless of their religion or language,holding him in such high regard.i am yet to meet a single person who doesnt agree that we have all been honoured to have had a president like him.
likewise,many top bollywood stars are muslims who have a huge fan following among indians regardless of their religion.
i am not saying you are wrong.but i think it is a description of rural is very unfortunate but there is hope it will change with good education and good jobs.afterall,a lot of present urbanites in india had their roots in rural india.
so i think you should be more are on the right path with shanti bhavan and one day you will
see that the children of shanti bhavan with their education and successful careers will blend into the mainstream quite effortlessly.
ps-i also have something to say regarding the chapter "of holy cows ---" in your book but i will do it another time.

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