The ‘knee on the neck’ is everywhere but for how long?

Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains, reflected Rousseau. Ambedkar wrote that charity begins with the caste and ends with the caste. In US we see protests against the ‘knee on the neck’

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Ranjona Banerji

“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks because the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to being is you kept your knee on our neck.”

“We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck.”

“We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck.”

“We had creative skills, we could do whatever anybody else could do, but we couldn’t get your knee off our neck…”

“The reason why we are marching all over the world is we were like George, we couldn’t breathe, not because there was something wrong with our lungs, but that you wouldn’t take your knee off our neck.”

These words reverberate and resonate, words by Reverend Al Sharpton, spoken at the memorial service for George Floyd, murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis for being Black. Murdered by a knee held down on his neck even as he gasped “I can’t breathe”.

Across the world, people looked on in horror at one more atrocity against African Americans in the greatest and most democratic nation in the world. I am skipping all the anger over fake outrage for now. Maybe some people were opportunistic in their assertion that “Black Lives Matter”. The human race is not short on hypocrisy.

But many were affected. Many saw parallels in their own society where historicallyinjustices were compounded by systemic prejudices. Much as people talk of positivity and hold out hope that we will learn something from this virus which works so hard to finish us, what do we see in the world around us?

Hatred against the Chinese people for eating what we don’t understand. Plus all the old hatreds spiking once again. Against Muslims in India. Always against Muslims in India, whether a religious congregation or a murdered elephant. Against the poor and underprivileged in India. Against African Americans in the United States of America. The same old patterns repeated over and over.

That knee on the neck. The image is frighteningly accurate: everyone who sees himself or herself as superior has to find a neck to subjugate. A life to extinguish. Even an inhuman virus is not as vicious or as successful as our own inhumanity.

In America like in India and wherever else,they have toxic leadership; it only encourages the worst of human nature to use that knee.

In 1970, Dee Brown wrote in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, a book which affected me deeply which I read a few years later in school: “Treat all men alike... give them all the same law. Give them all an even chance to live and grow. You might as well expect the rivers to run backward as that any man who is born a free man should be contented when penned up and denied liberty to go where he pleases. We only ask an even chance to live as other men live. We ask to be recognised as men. Let me be a free to travel... free to to to choose my own to follow the religion of my to think and talk and act for myself.”

It does not sound like much to give. And yet. Those who have the upper hand, those full of their supremacist bigotries and lies, use that knee so people cannot breathe.

For India’s oldest prejudices, no one speaks better than Dr BR Ambedkar. Here, from his The Annihilation of Caste:

“The effect of caste on the ethics of the Hindus is simply deplorable. Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s responsibility is only to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound. There is no sympathy for the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity to the needy. Suffering as such calls for no response. There is charity, but it begins with the caste and ends with the caste. There is sympathy, but not for men of other castes.”

Always that same cry: I can’t breathe.

Always that same knee to snuff out life.

For how long?

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