By Ritu Sushila Krishan
Being a nationalizing state that India is, Germany has always been a part of a wider public discourse back home and often seen as an epitome of national might. India has the dubious distinction of being among the countries where ‘Mein Kampf’ remains one of the best-selling books of all times and the Right-wingers invoke the one Who-Is-Not-Named so freely in Germany, with impunity. But then there are things that we were not told in history books, the unease of the present day Germany with its violent past and a general abhorrence of expressing overtly-nationalistic sentiments. As I arrived in Germany two years ago as a student of Conflict Studies, I was amazed the way the country with such a violent history has managed to make violence a socially unacceptable choice. Since the World War II, Germany had tried with all sincerity to put its past behind and build institutions that are the bulwark of its Democracy.
But as the excitement of living in a foreign country subsided, came the reality. Most of the Germans dissuade from venting their dislike for “Auslanders” or “Aliens” (as the foreigners are referred in German) explicitly in public, however, their coldness is a huge bumper for the integration of the foreigners in my host country. Racism is something that is generally associated only with the right wingers or neo-Nazis but it actually percolates deep down in the society and is manifested in small gestures. When me being the lone brown-shaded person among a bunch of white customers is asked to open my bag at a Supermarket to show if I have not stolen anything, or when a train get cancelled late in the night and the manager at the Bahnhof reception asks me to sit on the platform in freezing cold while all the white passengers were being given taxi fare or places to stay for the night, or when a non-native speaker is humiliated by the German teacher for forgetting to put Verb at position second; it is racism. For a thick-skinned person I am, the constant scrutiny, intrigue, suspicion in the eye of population is not that stifling, but not all the “Colourful people” (a phrase we have derived along with few of my German and ‘Auslander’ friends to instill a higher sense of esteem in the people of colour) are so immune to the latent apathy towards the foreigners.
But with PEGIDA upping its ante on the issue of immigration and specifically against Islam, the latent fear among a certain section of the German populace was given a strong voice, which has been good enough to spread a sense of panic among my fellow international students. A friend was being asked to go back home in the street and another just stayed put in his house when PEGIDA came calling to Erfurt. No doubts that the democracy in Germany is alive and kicking; for a PEGIDA’s anti-Islam demonstration there is an equally potent anti-PEGIDA demonstration. However, the immigrants or German citizens born to immigrants are conspicuous because of their absence from the whole discourse. With this in mind me and other international students decided to go out in open instead of hiding and what is better than the potent weapon of ‘Love and non-violence’ that Mahatma Gandhi gave. I always had love-hate relation with his principles but the prospect of how to confront neo-Nazis with these two weapons was challenging. So holding placard reading “Free Hugs/ Unarmung” and flowers; and with open arms we headed towards the Erfurt Hauptbahnhof. On our way we were amazed by the effervescence and warmth with which people responded to our offer, barring a few old ladies who told me point blank “Geh weg! Wir mochten unser Geld haben!” With a smile on my face I offered them a flower and they just looked the other way.
Our final test was yet to come as we reached the Hauptbahnhof for what later turned out to be a confused demonstration. Our target were the neo-Nazis singing “Wir sind das Volk” (these words inscribed on top of the Bundestag – the German Parliament stood for me as strong faith in democracy), and whose hatred for the “Colourful people” I have only heard about. Another international student with me tried to pull me back from going there as he wanted to analyse the risk factors first! Being a journalist I have been in much more aggressive and potentially violent situations and with the number of police available I asked him to just follow. As the Nazis gesticulating towards us we offered them “Free Hugs” with a smile and a flower. There was a look of incredulity on their faces and they just could not look us in the eye anymore.
I doubt that our campaign would have resulted in heart change of any hard core haters of immigrants. But nearly 90 percent of the people were really friendly. At one point of time people from both demonstration and counter-demonstration were hugging us. This gives great hope to people seeking to get assimilated into Germany – go out take part in the “Dance of Democracy” and reclaim your space in public, which at the moment is not happening.
So expect many such free hugging sessions in and around Erfurt from “Colourful people” with a hope that Deutschland bleibt Bunt (Germany remains Colourful). Come join us, only thing you need are “Open Arms”.
Ritu Sushila Krishan has been a Journalist working in India for 8 years, and for better part of her stint she has been covering defence and strategic issues along with social conflicts. Presently she has been pursuing her Masters degree from Willy Brandt School of Public Policy and interests herself in conflicts revolving around religion.
Picture Credit: Moritz Borchardt