Beyond Good and Evil: Holding My Tongue

I sat
cross-legged on a shaded concrete walkway face-to-face with a group of Hindu men.
They had fled Pakistan on tourist visas. With a translator and some broken
Hindi, my classmates and I slowly pieced together the stories of persecution
and fear that had driven them to the arid regions of northern Rajasthan.

partition in 1947 divided the families of the men who sat before me. Until
recently, subsequent generations had continued to live in the Punjab. Threats of
abduction, labor discrimination and the forced conversion of their daughters to
Islam drove them back across the border. Their journey is the subject of
political controversy among non-governmental organizations in India.

Hindus fleeing
religious persecution in Pakistan are not afforded refugee status. While the
Indian government will grant this status to those fleeing persecution in
Myanmar, Tibet and Sri Lanka, Pakistani Hindus pose an internal security

Their next best option is a long-term visa, under which they have no
rights as Indian citizens. Their freedom of movement is restricted to
Jodhpur, they have to seek illegal work in the mines, and they cannot apply for
a phone or driver’s license.

security, homogenous community, the future of my children, freedom from

These were not the realities, but the mere possibilities that made
life in India that much better for these men, some of whom had been on the
settlement for almost 20 years. The gravity and uncertainty of their situation
did not sink in until much later on the bus ride home. My time to process their
hopeful response was cut short by my classmate’s question about the Muslim
minority in India.

“How do you feel
living with Muslims in India?”

The first
response brought a sense of lightness to my heart: “I believe that Muslims in
India live in peace. As a minority, they deserve rights. I have experienced
persecution as a minority, and no one should experience that.” 

Not all Muslims
had shown them such hatred. The men shared with us that they miss their
motherland: the trees, the landscape and the Muslim Pakistanis who were kind
to them. As these words were translated from Hindi, I felt a sense of calm at
an answer I had not fully expected.

I did not know
what to think of the next response. An older member of the community gave an
answer that our translator initially refused to repeat. After some coaxing, he
offered a watered-down version of the curses and stereotypes that the
respondent had just stated about Muslims in India, Pakistan and around the

He furthered his response with the opinion that Barack Obama supports
Pakistan. Therefore, Barack Obama perpetuates the harm of Hindus in Pakistan.

I was stunned.
His anger was tangible. His opinion, confidently stated, inflicted nervous body
language in the other group members. And then it was time to ask a follow-up.
What was I to say? I diverted the conversation, asking how long he had been in

Upon reflection,
my evaluation of the two opinions is an example of the complete transformation my
worldview has undergone in the past four weeks. My initial assessment tells me
to value the opinion of the young man for its logic and its tolerance.

From my point of view, this is the way that everyone
should learn from their hardships. The older community member should be
corrected and made to understand the consequences of his words. But my initial
assessment contained a crucial misstep. My teacher told me not to think of his
claims as derogatory. I should think of them as a reaction to his own

My study abroad
experience has been an opportunity to approach these interactions through a
research-intensive perspective. I arrive to interviews with several sides to a
story, field methods training and my preconceived notions of right and wrong.

When I sit down to speak with a community fleeing religious persecution I encounter the
scars of their experiences. The other side of the story and the structural
constraints that have kept them in their dire position are inaccessible—as if
they even had a moment to spare to fully understand them while constantly searching for
water, shelter and a source of livelihood absent from their citizenship.

On the bus home,
I felt constrained by my theoretically-derived notions of good and evil taken
down in class notes. They would likely not relieve this man of his hate or his
pain. Above all, I was beginning to realize that they did not entitle me to
console him or correct him, nor would they ever in my next three months abroad.

Buddy Burch CM ’16 is a government and philosophy double major currently studying abroad in Jaipur, Rajasthan, in India.


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