Integration and Identity by Shabana Azmi

Integration and Identity by Shabana Azmi

Thank you ILUK for inviting me to speak at this prestigious room in the House Of Commons.I have been a member of the Rajya Sabha – the Upper House in the Indian Parliament and i am cognisant of the fact that I am fortunate enough to be a citizen in a Democracy like India that gives me the freedom of speech to stand here before you and speak my mind just as the British Parliament accords freedom of speech to all its citizens.

Yesterday was International Womens day and i would like to begin by saluting women pioneers for their historic struggle that has paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today as women. Let us remember with respect how women in several countries rose upto to call for an international women’s strike to demand rights and equality with their slogan ” If you do not value our lives then produce without us”.

Today it is recognised the world over that the true measure of a society is not its GDP alone but its Human Development Index as Prof Amartya Sen says in which access to education and healthcare are prerequisites and empowerment of women remains the most important yardstick to measure the health of a society.

The ILUK has a formidable 16000 members and its motto is empowered women empowering women .. because women anywhere must stand together in solidarity and sisterhood. ILUK believes that a deep rooted understanding and appreciation of one’s culture is vital in helping to understand one’s adopted culture, thereby improving and strengthening a better integration of the migrants with the mainstream.

But we need to recognise that today migrants are not separate from the mainstream – in fact in most countries they are the mainstream and we must stop regarding them as “the other” if we have to reach any understanding of the complexities of Identity and Integration.

In the present global political scenario with Donald Trumps vision of integration or in the wake of Brexit or closer home to the rise of the BJP the fundamental question is how do we embrace diversity and celebrate multi culturalism? To me the strength of any democracy can be measured by the degree to which it celebrates pluralism and inclusiveness of its minorities – whether the rights of different religious practices, ethnicity language ,sexual preferences – in other words diversity are accommodated with respect – not merely tolerated – but of course within the boundaries of the law of the land.

We live in a world which is increasingly being confronted with disorder. A world where maldistribution of wealth is high. Our world has never been richer but the intensity of poverty is unprecedented.

In such a milieu how do we deal with marginalization and inequality?

How do we give coherence, meaning and purpose to our emergent reality, and create harmony instead of accelerating disorder and a sense of alienation?

The global systems of balance of power cannot be based on military intervention, nor must they be based on economic leverage alone.

We see a world where democracy is being replaced by regulation and free markets are places where lives of millions are being traded.

How does one define democracy in a milieu where dissent and choice are being muzzled in the name of nationalism?

We live in a world where misogyny is evident in the violence on women (1 in every three women, making it 1 billion women worldwide). There has not been a bigger civil war on this planet against any class…And in this context, if we do not look at the world from the eyes of the most excluded women, then we haven’t touched the question of identity at all…

A democratic nation must guarantee equality, justice and freedom . This promise must remain immutable, sacred and supreme. It grants us rights and demands responsibility.

Our responsibility as citizens is to improve our ability to see the whole and not just the parts. We need Institutions that synthesise rather than divide.

In diverse societies this is easier said than done. Total uniformity as a model of integration cannot and must not be demanded. Neither can we allow groups to be so separated from each other that it leads to complete disintegration. Common identity is important but finding the right balance is the key. This balance can only be achieved as Prof Rajeev Bhargava says ” through experimentation. There is neither a formula for it nor the same solution for all societies- mistakes will be made but if everyone is agreed that we are involved in a common project it is achievable.

Is there enough evidence in the world that this crucial balance is being maintained? Im afraid the answer is not very reassuring. Most minorities are feeling helmed in, feeling their freedoms are being taken away, feeling that they are being pushed into the binary of “either you are with us or you are against us.” A binary in which any criticism of the State is labelled as anti national.. we see an attempt to silence critical voices and threaten them into submission, into toeing the line. This doesnt augur well for our future.. As Arundhati Roy warned us, quote “the new wars will be fought not with weapons but something even more potent – with anger.”Anger slips by Immigration unnoticed, it doesnt show up in customs” unquote.

So if we are agreed that this is the diagnosis then we must work towards providing the correct medication- not medication which merely soothens the symptoms, but medication that attacks the malaise at its roots.

So the question which begs to be asked is what constitutes a person’s identity? I would argue that Identity is not fixed, its fluid – its like water which takes on the shape of the vessel in which it is contained.

If you ask me who I am , I will say Im a woman , an Indian, a daughter, wife , actress, Muslim, activist etc- my being Muslim is only one of the aspects of who I am but all over the world it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion i happen to have been born into at the exclusion of all other aspects of my identity. So suddenly I have the word “Muslim” hurled at me either as an accusation or with kid gloves- it makes me self conscious in a way Ive never experienced before. To argue that there is a Pan Islamic identity that subsumes all identities is factually incorrect. Islam resides in more than 53 countries in the world and takes on the culture of the country in which it is practised.So it is liberal in some countries, it is moderate in some and it is intolerant in some others. To paint all Muslims as one would be negating the complex layers of culture in shaping a persons identity.I am not a practising Muslim – my father Kaifi Azmi was a member of the communist party in India. There was an absence of religious indoctrination in the house. For me Muslim means Urdu, Biryani , Eid, the Urdu language and my ganga jamuni tehzeeb, my composite culture. As a child i remember celebrating Holi, Diwali , Eid and Christmas with gusto and fervour. I remember being taken to the Sarvajanik Ganpati Mandals and singing Christmas carrols. On 26th January we would be put in a truck and taken to see the lights at Chowpatty . My brother and I imbibed Indias pluralism almost by a process of osmosis.

I am an Indian Muslim and i feel no affinity to the Saudi Arabian Muslim . I feel much closer to my Indian Hindu, IndianChristian and Indian Sikh friends. What i have with them in common is a shared history, a shared identity and a shared future. As a Muslim in India, because I live in a democracy I have a stake and a claim in aspiring to be the President of India, a world famous cricketeer , a global filmstar ,a successful entrepreneur because I have the space and the opportunity to dream and the wherewithal to attain it. Which is not say that everything is hunky dory – there are problems like there are anywhere in the world- but the good news is that there is a robust resistance to discrimination by an active civil society and gives me the strength to speak my mind .Do not box me, do not try to restrict me in the desire “to integrate”.For narrow political gain do not polarise the atmosphere and force people to create a “model community “- a model community of either women , dalits, tribals or any other label that can be used to make me feel like “the other”. What stands true for me stands true everywhere in the world, whether in Britain or in USA or in any country that calls itself a democracy.

We must all work to remove the construct of “the other”. The other gender, the other race ,the other nation ,the other religion.

We fear what we do not know. And thats where culture becomes the most effective means of understanding a people.Not so long ago it was not uncommon for Indians to be asked whether they still lived in trees or whether bullock carts in cities was still the only mode of transport. And we are equally guilty of being ignorant of other cultures. But the world is changing and the time is ripe for us to seize the opportunity with both hands. The advent of technology,satellite television , the explosion of the social media are lifting the shrouds in which cultures were denied visibility.

As an artist I seek to use my art to soothe, to excite, to provoke, to entertain because i believe Art has the ability to create a climate of sensitivity in which it is possible for change to occur.

Today a call for “integration ” must remain a complex one with many layers. It must recognise that identity is not static- it flows and changes. Identity is not a melting pot in which individual identities are subsumed. It must be a colourful mosaic where each piece retains its uniqueness whilst contributing to a larger whole.

SEPARATE BUT EQUAL is what i demand and will fight for with every breath I take.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.

Shabana Azmi
9th March 2017

Integration and Identity by Shabana Azmi