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The Great Debaters – Comparing America Of The 1930s And India Of The Present (Part 2)

Through the eyes of the film, “The Great Debaters”, Avik Ghosh looks at the comparison between America of 1930s and India of the present.

In 1937, in the USA Abel Meeropol wrote this powerful poem against the serial lynching of black men who would be killed. (Often on the pretext of raping a white women) and hung from trees:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from popular trees,
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This poem might have been written 78 years ago. But even now it is relevant in the Indian context. With fringe lunatics looming large over the society. For example the incident when a Muslim man was killed recently on the suspicion that he was a Pakistani terrorist, or a 90 year old Dalit man was burnt alive for stepping into the temple or the infamous Dadri Incident where a 50 year old man on suspicion that he had eaten beef. These incidents can be related to those of America in 1930s. Even there men were killed and lynched on various suspicions. The Black men were denied trials and law were not equal for all. In India also all are equal but some are more equal than others. The lynching in which 50 year old Akhlakh died by being pelted by bricks after being drawn out of home suggests the kind of deep communal hatred that is running in our society, reminiscent of the American racism period. Also the facts that the police is investigating if the flesh in fridge is meat or beef is also another testimony of how devalued a human life is just because it belongs to a minority community. 68 years after Independence and still a Dalit person while entering temple runs the risk of being lynched and burned by upper caste Brahmins.

Even the case of love jihaad which is so predominant in current India is something that can be relatable to America of 1930s. When white women fell in love with Black men, often the white community would term it raping of white women and mob justices would be carried out by lynching the accused. In today’s India also the couple, especially the Muslim man gets hounded and killed in most cases on the allegation of love jihaad. Even the concepts of love and intimacy and marriage or any other sexual association is seen to be unholy or impurity in the eyes of the red necked majoritarian community.

The fight between the father and the son is also something that has a universal appeal and is relatable to all Indian kids who have parents who worry a lot. Most movements which are popular and have been successful has risen from the educated, academic middle class families.

The debates that this team won were fascinating. One particular debate that the poor or the marginalized should not be given “charity” as their productivity will fall down and they will become lazy was countered rightly by the team that then the state should ensure jobs for all as the word “lazy” can only come in if people had an opportunity to work and they did not. Even in today’s India, jobs availability are such a big issue that when capitalists say that all subsidies and welfare schemes should be taken away – these arguments will be made. Is it a level playing field for the rich and the poor? Are all the opportunities that are given to the rich or the middle class also given to the poor and the marginalized, if not then on what logical grounds can you withdraw the welfare projects. Similar debates are also happening now in India. It can be statistically proven that most of the minority community, be it on religious or caste grounds are deprived and marginalized and discriminated. Hence they need to be given welfare and reservation so that she can be brought to the same level as the majority community who have enjoyed the benefits of the state and society for long. Hence here the validity of reservation system in India also gets validated. Such brewing debates are being carried out as off now in the country today.

In such a capitalist surrounding, every opinion that is different is termed as communist. The term communist ideology has been so vilified and abused that the concepts of equality advocated by people automatically become Communists and are hunted down by fascist regimes. Even in the America of 1930s, these communist ideologies are being portrayed as something radical and anti-establishment. Though the intent behind the movements during that time was to break the hegemony but still it is considered, anti-police and anti-establishment.

As Samantha vehemently argues for the inclusiveness in the education system and the need for the Black and the White to study together as otherwise more money is getting spent on educating the white boy, we get reminded of instances where children in rural areas do not get admission to local schools because of their caste or religion. She goes on to make a brilliant point that Negros are not just a color but the thread that keeps the fabric of the society together. Similarly, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or other minority communities keep the secular fabric of the country together.

Finally as Farmer junior stands there on the Harvard podium and argues using the civil disobedience movement of Gandhi who drew his theories from a former Harvard graduate – he got rebuffed saying that the failure to obey the law is a serious breach of morality.

The rebuttal from the great debaters were based on the understanding or the meaning of the word morality. Is killing someone without trial moral? Is investigating whether its beef and not meat moral? Is burning someone in broad daylight moral? Are the references I draw from Farmer Junior and Samantha’s speech on that podium.

As the final climax rolled out and Farmer Junior uttered the words which gave Willey college the victory over the Harvard College – this is how I visualized him saying in the present Indian context.

What was their crime that they must be killed, hunted down without a trial? Stepping into the temple? Eating beef?
Or was it because of who they were?
A Muslim, A Dalit.
No matter what they did it was the mob that are the criminals.
And the police does nothing. Left everyone wondering. Why?
They say, nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral. But there is no rule of law that avails in the present context.
Not when Dalits and Muslims are denied housing, turned away from schools and hospitals and definitely not when they are lynched.
St. Augustine said. “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Which means I have a right in fact a duty to resist with violence or civil disobedience.
You should pray that i choose the latter.

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