The International Day for Tolerance, observed on November 16, is meant to promote tolerance, i.e. “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human” (Article 1, Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, UNESCO, 1995). As a principle, tolerance is obviously not meant for just one day in a year, but should always guide human interaction across all boundaries. Unfortunately, judging by recent events (e.g. in Ramu, Cox’s Bazar or across the border in Arakan), we have to acknowledge that the world around us is still far from upholding the ideals of tolerance and diversity.
From an anthropological perspective, diversity is an essence of being human. As an individual, each human being has unique characteristics and experiences. From this perspective, respecting diversity means recognizing the uniqueness of every individual, enabling her to build on her strengths and to overcome the limitations that circumstances may have imposed on her. Beyond the individual level, respecting diversity means developing historical and cross-cultural perspectives on the collective identities that people are born into or acquire by choice. In reality, however, we are usually so locked into our own boxes that we only see the differences that separate ‘us’ from ‘them’, and fail to recognize the similarities and shared humanity. We know all too well how such blindness can pave the way to unimaginable atrocities: apartheid, the Holocaust, the horrors of Rwanda and Bosina, the fate of indigenous peoples around the world, genocide by the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh…
One could, sadly, go on adding to the above list. Instead, however, I would like to recount one of the most traumatic events of my life, as seen through the eyes of a nine-year old that I was in 1971, the year of the War of Liberation of Bangladesh. I still remember vividly the sight of two Bihari men, both wounded by bullets, emerging on a field not far from our house: one was crawling, followed by another who was tottering. They had been left for dead in a mass grave, which they crawled out of. In Khagrachari, my home town, there were a number of Biharis engaged in trades like quilt making. Sometime in April 1971, most of the Biharis, including women and children, were rounded up and killed en masse, ostensibly in retaliation for atrocities that the Pakistani military and their collaborators had inflicted on Bengalis elsewhere. The two wounded men that we saw were taken back to the grave, and finished off, as we later heard along with stories of how they had begged for their lives in vain. Looking back, I realize that to any nine-year-old, the sight or stories of such killings can be nothing but pure horror.
In 1971, neither I nor any of my brothers were old enough to take up arms, but we did know which side we were on as we ran around in search of safe refuge following an extended family that had produced freedom fighters. At one point, amidst sounds of a raging battle, we crossed the border to India, though some of us turned back to relocate to a safe place inside our borders. When the Liberation War ended, we returned home singing songs of joy, freedom and patriotic love. Unfortunately, there would not be any peace in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which would soon be engulfed by a new conflict that lasted over two decades, pitting Bengalis against the so-called tribal or hill people (‘Paharis’), resulting into uncounted deaths, rapes and widespread destruction and displacement. People lived in constant fear of violence, and faced acts of humiliation that became routine, e.g. at check posts, security personnel would stop vehicles and ask ‘all tribal passengers’ to get off for ritualized display of power cloaked as security checks. Anyone protesting such overt discrimination was bound to face further abuse and even detention. I personally have bitter memories of such encounters, though my experiences were nothing compared to far worse fates met by others. E.g., in 1986, at a hospital, I saw a riot victim, with a big gaping wound on his neck, who had been struck by fellow humans just because of his ethnicity!
In recounting such stories, one has to remember that such atrocities took place in the CHT at a time when the whole country was run by successive undemocratic regimes. There were no civil liberties, no free press, at that time. Those in power, representing or supported by men in uniform, had no respect for diversity. They could not tolerate differences of opinion. In fact, as I remember, they could not even stand men with long hair!
There are, of course, always those people out there whose humanity can shine even at the darkest hours. In Khagrachari, I had a Bihari classmate whom I vaguely knew to have been a survivor of April 1971, when some local people managed to shelter him and some of his relatives. I don’t remember ever discussing with him or any other classmate the details of the horrible past that we probably just wanted to forget. Perhaps we were also too young to understand or talk about the madness that grownups were capable of.
Anyway, just as some brave people protected my Bihari classmate, a similar act of courage and humanity was shown at a place called Langadu in 1989, when a massacre of Paharis was carried out by Bengali rioters. A survivor of this massacre told me that it was the Imam of a local mosque who had saved her and some other Paharis by hiding them while the perpetrators went on a rampage of killing, looting and burning down houses. Similarly, when recently mobs comprising of Muslim men attacked Buddhist homes and temples in Ramu, there were a few brave individuals, also Muslim, who tried to thwart the perpetrators. These examples show that we must not prejudge people as good or bad on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or any other socially assigned labels. Of course, if one grows up as a member of a collectivity (say Pahari) that faces discrimination in the hands of people who happen to have a different label (e.g. Bengali, Muslim), one is very likely to develop hatred for all the people sharing that identity. But we must guard against succumbing to such prejudices.
In my view, respect for diversity begins at home, through what children are taught. Suppose you have a daughter who is born left-handed. As a parent, do you conform to the prevailing social norm and train her to be right-handed? Or suppose you have a son who likes to spend time at the kitchen. Do you tell him that the kitchen is not for boys? All parents are constantly faced with having to make such choices. They have to also face tough questions that children always ask. For example, one day my son, when he was about seven, asked his mother after coming back from school: “What is religion? What is my religion?” My wife (who is a Bengali Muslim) and I had made a conscious decision that we would not impose any religious identity on our son, who could choose one for himself if he liked upon reaching adulthood. Given this, faced with our son’s question, my wife told him that he could think of himself as a humanist, a response that naturally elicited another question from our son: “What does that mean?” To this, my wife’s response was that a humanist was someone who was kind hearted and helped fellow humans in need. But our son, still unsatisfied, said: “But I have never helped anyone!” His mother had the presence of mind to point out that he had willingly donated some money for the treatment of an ailing teacher of their school, out of cash gifts that he had received from his uncles and aunts. At this, our son was finally convinced that he was indeed a humanist!
The point of my sharing the above anecdote is to stress that in their innocence, children often ask profound questions that can help us examine various received notions if we care to pause and reflect a moment. We do not live in an ideal world. From an early age, children are exposed to all the mess that the world is in. However, while adults may be too busy adapting to the world, children are often quick to notice various inconsistencies and unfair arrangements around them. They ask questions like “Why are ‘they’ different from ‘us’?”, “Why are there poor people?” We can try to give easy answers like “Because that’s the way things are.” But we can, and must, do much better than that. If we want our children to inherit a world of hope, tolerance and justice, a world without war, poverty or hunger, we must find ways to impart to our children certain values and principles. Tolerance and respect for diversity are definitely among such ideals.
Prashanta Tripura is a development professional and former teacher, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University.