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Loyalty To the Land

Guest Column
Puneet P. Newaskar

During the 1998 Soccer World Cup, a small country called Croatia, ravaged by years of war, trounced three-time champion Germany in the quarter-finals. A friend of mine watched the match glued to her television set in Wiesbaden. She found the contest particularly intriguing because of her divided loyalties. Although a citizen of Germany, she has close family ties with Croatia and found herself rooting for her country of origin. Had she been doing the same in a sports bar filled with die-hard German fans, her cheers would, at the very least, have raised some eyebrows.

This is a familiar story for immigrants and minorities in countries across the globe. India, for instance, is home to a hundred million Muslims who represent the country’s largest religious minority. In several of its cities, it is reported that fireworks are set off in Muslim neighborhoods whenever arch-rival Pakistan (a predominantly Muslim country) beats India in cricket. Such celebrations invite the consternation of some Hindus who expect all Indians, irrespective of religion, class or creed, to have an undying “loyalty” to their country. This question of loyalty, and what it means to members of the minority, is a complex issue with ramifications that extend well beyond the realm of sports.

A powerful example of this was Mohammed Ali refusing the draft during the Vietnam War. There was much hue and cry, particularly among white Americans who could not accept, much less comprehend, this apparent disloyalty. But despite being stripped of his title as the world’s heavyweight boxing champion and threatened with a jail sentence, the mercurial fighter stood firm in his position. He refused to take arms against people in a foreign land who had done him no harm, in defense of a country that he claimed had denied him and his forefathers basic civil rights and equality of opportunity.

How do we define loyalty? In a broader sense, it could be a commitment to the development and welfare of the state you live in. If so, immigrants and minorities are often equal contributors to this over-arching goal as doctors, lawyers and athletes. But if you stick to its narrower definition as “faithful adherence to the sovereign government and its policies” or “unwavering support for the interests of the majority,” is it reasonable to demand this of all minorities? Some politicians would have us believe it is. Right-wing parties in Europe have been gaining influence, arguing that immigrants do not make an effort to integrate. The shocking success of Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential elections confirms this alarming trend.

The France of today is a mosaic of ethnicities and religions. To see the inroads that its minorities have made, we need look no further than its football team and its star striker, Zinedine Zidane, son of Algerian immigrants. Yet, politicians like Le Pen bemoan the “lack of loyalty” within these communities. While a common national identity might be favorable, the state must bear equal responsibility in fostering it. Instead of stating the seeming disloyalty as a failure of the minority, it should be viewed by considering how society at large has failed.

India is a case in point. It is home to over a billion people, representing four major faiths: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. Although these communities have co-existed peacefully for much of the country’s history, relations cannot be described as harmonious. Misconceptions are rampant, and there is a deep-rooted distrust among them. Although significant gains have been made towards providing equality of opportunity, prejudices remain. In recent years, they have been exacerbated by the rise of extremist political organizations that have been fanning the flames of intolerance in the name of religion.

Last month, this explosive mix engulfed the state of Gujarat. On Feb. 27, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was burned by a Muslim mob in the town of Godhra, following an altercation. In response to this deplorable incident, riots ensued throughout the state, whose brutality and intensity was unlike anything seen in the history of modern India. Mobs of young Hindus raped, pillaged and killed members of the minority community. Perhaps more shocking than the bestiality of all this was the connivance of the state police and government. People begging for help in escaping the murderous mobs were instead led right back into them. Chaos reigned for days while the authorities stood by. In the aftermath of the riots, almost a hundred thousand people are living in refugee camps. Until recently, the state government offered them half the compensation given to Hindu victims of the train incident, on the premise that the latter was a terrorist act, while the riots were a “reaction.” The chief minister of Gujarat, who many believe ought to be indicted for his role in such crimes, is still in power. Likewise, the extremist groups that incited the violence still hold sway.

The vast majority of Hindus condemn the violence directed at minorities, with the same conviction that they condemn the burning of the train. The bitter truth is that when push came to shove, loyalties were fractured along religious lines and the notion of a shared identity as Indians, or even human beings, dissolved. This catastrophe should be a matter of great shame to all Indians who have grown up believing in the dream of a secular state. Until all communities are made to feel safe and secure, given equal opportunity and respect, one cannot begin to speak of a shared loyalty.

These observations and lessons are not unique to France or India. They are very much applicable to the United States. Brutal race riots took place in Los Angeles as recently as ten years ago. Several minorities continue to feel marginalized, and much remains to be done before all sections of society truly believe they have an equal stake in this country. Such a climate is a precondition for the kind of loyalty some politicians expect, particularly when it takes the form of rallying behind the flag for any and all military campaigns announced by the administration in its war on terror.

Puneet P. Newaskar is a graduate student in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.