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Watching rights.

When I visited India a little more than two years ago, two disputes dominated the news there. One involved demonstrations and-riots by students opposing a plan by the government of then-Prime Minister V.P. Singh to set aside a certain proportion of government jobs for the disadvantaged--"scheduled castes" (untouchables), "scheduled tribes" and "other backward classes." Over a period of several weeks some 160 young men and women, apparently members of higher castes who feared that their own employment opportunities would be diminished, tried to burn themselves to death in protest.

The other controversy concerned the campaign by a militant Hindu political group, the Bhamtiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), to tear down a mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, built by the sixteenth-century Mogul emperor Babar. They were determined to build a Hindu temple in its place, to mark the site that they believe is the birthplace of the epic hero Lord Rama.

Two governments later, the job reservations plan is still being disputed. As for the mosque, it was torn down on December 6 by a mob of Hindu militants incited by the B.J.P. A number of those who helped dismantle it were killed by falling debris. The action set off violence in several other countries as well.

In both of these episodes members of a majority behaved as though they were a persecuted minority that had no recourse but violent protest. In the case of the self-immolators, they were willing to pay with their lives to end what they considered to be an injustice.

The phenomenon of majorities oppressing minorities in the belief that such oppression is a necessary defense of their own rights is one of the remarkable developments of our time. Probably the most extreme example is the appalling conduct of Serbian forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Having persuaded themselves that they are threatened with a continuation of the kind of violence that they suffered for several centuries--from their defeat at the battle of Kosovo in 1389 through World War II, when hundreds of thousands of Serbs were murdered by the Nazi puppet states in Croatia and other parts of the former Yngoslavia--they apparently consider that they are now struggling for survival. They attribute collective guilt to their victims, though hardly any of those now bleeding at the hands of the Serbs took part in the earlier offenses. The great majority were not yet born when the Serbs were being massacred; in the case of the Bosnian Muslims, the main injustices that the Serbs seem intent on avenging took place more than half a millennium ago.

A similar approach is evident in some of the rhetoric of Islamic fundamentalists, who portray themselves as victims while demonstrating extreme intolerance of deviations from the orthodoxy that they prescribe. Israel's recent summary deportation of more than 400 alleged members of Hamas, of come, provides grounds for the sense of persecution among Islamic fundamentalists. Yet fundamentalists have justified everything from assaults on college women in Western dress in Algeria, to assassinations of human rights advocates in Egypt, to systematic forcible displacement of the Nuba in Sudan in a manner that threatens their survival as a people.

The racism and xenophobia sweeping through Western Europe follow the same pattern, as does resentment by white males in the United States against affirmative action practices that open doors to employment and education for women and minorities. Even here, many members of dominant sectors of society have come to think of themselves as victims and justify their responses, which thus far have fortunately been much less violent than in other parts of the world, on the ground that they are being persecuted.

Ironically, one of the factors that has contributed to this worldwide phenomenon is the manner in which the U.S. government has championed the human rights cause internationally. Particularly during the past decade, the United States has been a vigorous proponent of democracy as an alternative to another universal (but worn out) ideology, communism. Unfortunately, the idea of democracy has not been very well explained.

In much of the world today, democracy is understood principally as the right of the majority to prevail. This idea is manifested in the rapid spread of movements for self-determination by peoples who define themselves along ethnic-linguistic or religious lines, insisting on their fight to their own states in regions where they constitute majorities. Such other essential characteristics of democracy as the fight of each person to count equally, respect for the rights of minorities and the subordination even of majorities and their representatives to the rule of law have not taken root in the same way. Indeed, they were often not significant components of the message that the U.S. government was disseminating in its espousal of democracy.

During the presidential campaign, George Bush bragged about the worldwide turn to democracy and claimed credit for his Administration and that of his predecessor. In debate Bill Clinton chose not to challenge him on this point. Now it is Clinton's turn to take charge of foreign policy. Some of the neoconservatives who abandoned Bush and attached themselves to Clinton's campaign, and who now wish to reap the benefits of their support, are trying to make certain that he continues along the Reagan/Bush path. They want the United States to purport to promote human rights internationally by promoting democracy. Very likely, some are not even aware that the version of democracy they have advocated, which has lacked an emphasis on minority rights, has helped to create the world epidemic of ethnic and religious nationalism. It has been a disastrous course, as Clinton should become aware, contributing to the besetting evil of our time: the global proliferation of communal violence.
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Title Annotation:minority rights
Author:Neier, Aryeh
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 18, 1993
Words:953
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