Samanth Subramanian, senior journalist and author of the award-winning book Following Fish, was asked an intriguing question at the launch of his book This Divided Island in 2014: how long do you have to live in a place before you can call it a homeland?
And it was a very pertinent question in the context of his book, which documented the ground reality of Sri Lanka after the end of a 30-year-long civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalas, a battle over the homeland. The book traced the fault lines that ran along the length and breadth of the country, prodding the ashes and exploring how such fault-lines came to be in the first place. Three years later, this book turns out to be relevant not just for Sri Lanka but the world in general.
The world is in the throes of a great flux, and the symptoms are visible everywhere. The name-calling and ‘othering’ of groups on grounds of race, religion, colour and ethnicity: he is an immigrant, she is a foreigner, these people came as conquerors, those came as refugees, these people’s ancestors plundered our land, those people originally hailed from so and so country. And now, even though they’ve been living here for centuries, you still refuse to acknowledge that this is their home, too. How much land does a man need, wrote Tolstoy in the year 1886. So, too, now—how many years does a man need for a land to be his homeland?
This is in fact, symptomatic of a greater malaise spreading across the psyche of people, an epidemic we might define as the “victim complex”. It is a state of mind wherein the person is besieged by the idea that they are under threat, that the others are conspiring against them and their way of life. “Way of life” is perhaps the key phrase here, because the alteration of that is what we feel most threatened by. This victim complex is fed systematically to the masses by the seats of power — be they anywhere across the globe. The creation of “enemies” in the common psyche gives ruling powers the leverage to validate and popularise their rule. Unless you perceive yourself as the victim, you will not perceive the other as enemy, a key factor in the promotion of hate. And it’s also a key factor in the push for a “pure” homeland — cleansed of vile, polluting others who were not the original inhabitants. Subramanian’s book, for instance, presented startling images of Buddhist militant monks — an oxymoron for all purposes, more so as Buddha stands as symbol for peace. These monks were the most vehement proponents of a pure Buddhist nation cleansed of all other ethnic groups except Sinhalas — akin to the racial cleansing endorsed by Hitler, akin to the cleansing of America from non-whites promised in his campaign by US President Donald Trump.
So what, if at all, is the anti-dote or treatment to this malaise? The first step is diagnosis — an acceptance that the disease does indeed exist. The next step would be removal of the cancerous growth — best done through intermingling of groups, through exchange of ideas, exchange of goodwill, exposure to differing viewpoints, exposure to the others way of life and acceptance that each has a distinct existence but that is what creates the special flavour. It is only when differing groups begin overlapping that we realise that they are in fact, just like us. What we need, in the end, is the creation of an interconnected mesh, a neural complex so fine that every part of it becomes us.
Zehra Naqvi