There’s a global debate about ‘do we belong’


Parvatha Vardhini grieves by the body of her son Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 32-year-old engineer who was killed in an apparently racially motivated shooting in a crowded Kansas bar. Mahesh Kumar A. / AP Photo

After an Indian engineer was shot dead in the United States for, as his white American assailant said: “looking Middle Eastern”, the grieving widow asked a question of 21st century America: “Do we belong?”

She meant the following: do people such as her and her late husband — educated, law-abiding foreigners with the legal right to live and work in the US — have the right of belonging in majority white America?

It’s a good question and might be asked elsewhere too. In India, the Muslim minority has been asking the same question for decades. More recently, so have Africans studying in India because they have become the target of racist attacks. In the UK, that question is being asked by anxious residents with EU passports and others. In some other European countries, second- and third-generation immigrants from North Africa express doubt over the extent to which they are seen to belong.

But it is not only ethnic foreigners, brown and black immigrants and religious minority groups who are grappling with the question of belonging.

There is a new complication and it is the rise of populism. The UK-based American author Lionel Shriver recently called for populism to be decoded. When people use the term, she said, what they really mean is bigoted, so let’s just say what we mean. Shriver is a consummate wordsmith, with a probing take on the human condition, as evinced by her many acclaimed novels. So if we use her terminology, what does the rise of bigotry signify for belonging? More racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, for sure, with all the implications thereof, but it also means something else. A new domestic political apartheid is coming into being — metropolitans versus small-towners in parts of the rich world; town versus village in developing countries; and overall, a rhetorical privileging of the “real” people versus the fake ones.

Consider this recent pronouncement by Steve Bannon, chief strategist to US president Donald Trump. Mr Trump’s “populist nation-state policies”, said Mr Bannon, are supported by “Real America” and is opposed only by “cosmopolitan elites”. Consider India’s prime minister Narendra Modi’s declaration ahead of the election in Uttar Pradesh, the penultimate round of the democratic process in five states. “The poor can detect truth.” Is “Real America”, mostly white working class and in rural areas and small towns, the only one that matters then? Are they the only people who really belong in the US? Are India’s poor, mostly in the rural hinterland, the only ones who belong in India? That sounds absurd and anti-democratic, considering that 54 per cent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050.

The turning point for urbanisation occurred in 2008. It was the first time in history that more than half the world’s human population — 3.3 billion people — was living in cities. And yet, less than a decade on, a strange sort of mythologising is informing the prevailing political rhetoric, though not the actual direction of political policy. The myth revolves around the noble peasant, author E M Forster’s moral messenger of choice. Forster located moral superiority in an instinctive wisdom descended from a past rooted in a specific place.

That would square with British prime minister Theresa May’s extraordinary declaration in October that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”. It would mesh with Mr Trump’s constant invocation of “the people” — his core voters — who he said had become “the rulers of this nation again” with his inauguration. It would chime with French far-right nationalist leader Marine Le Pen’s presidential campaign slogan, “in the name of the people”.

As Tom Brass, one of Britain’s leading experts on peasant studies, has written, class has been overtaken by provenance. Degenerate, corrupt, sinful universalism is constantly contrasted with the immanent goodness and naturalness of indigenous discourse, “the middle peasant … engaged in everyday forms of resistance to remain the same”.

The book in which those words appear, Brass’s Peasants, Populism and Postmodernism: The Return of the Agrarian Myth, was published in 2000, but its relevance now is striking.

Even so, it’s worth examining how the myth accords with reality. Cities have long been seen as the main engines of growth. A 2013 McKinsey Global Institute study found that almost the entire world economy was represented by approximately 400 cities, a snapshot that is unlikely to have changed since.

Why then should Mr Trump’s “forgotten people” in small urban conglomerations and Mrs May’s “left-behind” in even smaller clusters be the arbiters of everyone’s destiny? What gives Mr Modi’s long-evoked “poor”, in densely populated areas that are city-scale but lacking in urban amenities, the wisdom of the ages? What makes the rural or rural-seeming hinterland more real than everything else in a country? What gives the peasant more moral authority than his city-dwelling fellow citizen?

The answer is as bald as it is obvious. Nothing. Only the demagogue, the populist and, yes, the bigot, make it seem so.