On Sunday night, by random selection, I watched Alfonso Cuaron’s Childen of Men. For those who are unfamiliar with the film, it is a 2006 morality tale about a world torn apart by fear, prejudice and the prospect of the end of the human race because women can no longer bear children. The battle is between humans and humanity. The loss of hope has led to an outbreak of hatred and mistrust as all illegal immigrants are caged and carted off to concentration camps in a dystopian London.
Londoners protest against Brexit after the UK referendum, which divided the entire country and gave rise to widespread racism and hatred towards migrants. Pic/AFP
The film was even more compelling in the backdrop of the UK referendum to leave the European Union and the corresponding rise in xenophobia. Racist graffiti was scrawled on a Polish cultural centre in Hammersmith where Poles were reportedly called “vermin”. Across England, verbal abuse was hurled at ‘outsiders’. This is a direct result of the UK referendum being seen as a way to rid ‘Great Britain’ of foreigners and of immigrants of all sorts.
How else will people respond when politicians appear to legitimise and justify racism as the Leave campaigners did? Part of the campaign to leave the European Union was to stop the migration of people into the UK. Some people evidently thought this meant all migration — not just from other European Union nations — since Leave campaigners apparently used photographs of Syrian refugees at a Croatia-Slovenia checkpoint to strengthen their case.
This is miserably familiar territory for India, where people who move from one part of the country to another are harassed and vilified. And India is one nation where any of us has the right to live and work where we want. We have ghettoisation on religious or caste grounds and we seem to think this is acceptable, trotting out historic or cultural reasons — when all it actually does is legitimise our own prejudices.
You hear arguments from people, many of them in the creative field, who claim it is unfair to call India intolerant now, under the current BJP-led Union government. How remarkable (or is it?) that it is not prejudice and bigotry that upsets them so much as that the accusation is made against this government or that. The other guy did it so I can do it too, is the most childish schoolyard argument than anyone can make.
And here we are, watching what was once one of the world’s greatest nations, a conqueror of territory far from its little island home, implode before our eyes. And we are watching it give voice and legitimacy to the most base and uncivilised notions of the human growth story. The voices that won the referendum to leave the European Union were looking to make their country ‘great’ again, to throw out all outsiders and to look within with atavistic pride.
There are lessons for all of us here of the future we want for ourselves as humans. Being insular and narrow-minded, believing in the idea of ‘greatness’ while behaving in a petty manner, hating ‘The Other’ — these are signs of bitter insecurity, of rotting and festering hatred or of full blown violence against the world. The Islamic State is the worst current manifestation of this sort of thinking, and it brings no good to anyone, least of all the people it claims to be fighting for, the world’s Muslims. As a result of IS, Muslims are more insecure and more at risk of the world’s wrath than they were before. Violence and cruelty are not really signs of strength. They are indications of a lack of brain power and character.
Some Americans hope that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s tirade against Muslims, Mexican and whoever else he victimises, will be rejected by the American people. Across Europe though, several exclusionary far right political parties are feeling emboldened by the British vote.
Here in India, no matter what the prime minister says, the BJP and its affiliates continue to target Muslims and religious minorities, Dalits feel insecure, intellectuals are victimised, filmmakers are targeted and anyone who does not fit a pre-selected profile of what a ‘proud Indian’ should be is told to ‘go to Pakistan’.
Childen of Men ended on a note of hope. But if we do not reject hatred and prejudice, there will be nothing but despair.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona