Tarun Tejpal wrote about the first comprehensive Outlook survey on Sex in 1994, “It is a gauge of our—Indian—social insularity and insecurity that we baulk from facing up to this most central of issues—I can think of another equally important one that we duck: communalism—and generally spend our public lives brandishing the simplistic and faux morality of adolescents.” He discussed Sex there. Let us here take up this ‘another equally important one’: Communalism.
Faux morality is the key. Morality, however counterfeit, does not operate in isolation. It is an agreement that many sign together, for a variety of reasons. That is why, when a father who sympathizes with the right-wing nationalism cannot answer her rather rebellious daughter on the carnages against Muslims, fake encounters and their systematic demonization, he retorts, “Ab tumse kya behes Karen? Humko is samaaj mein rehna hai, tumko toh rehna nahi hai!” (What’s the point in debating with you? I have to live in this society, not you.)
One of these daughters is Krati who, with the support of Commutiny (www.commutiny.in), set out to group together a bunch of young men and women and encourage ideas of communal harmony. She is a short and plump lady in her mid-twenties with a lot of self-confidence. Her father did sign one such agreement some years ago, with none other than RSS. His friends are still khaki-wearing men who believe in historic injustice done to Hindus by the Muslim rulers and promote every move of national integration, religious purification and moral policing. It is this ‘samaaj’ that Krati’s father, like many others, has to live in.
Living in Gomti Nagar, a locality of Lucknow primarily inhabited by the political as well as economic elite of the UP state, she has seen how the insecurity of the wealthy prepares a solid ground for ideological hatred spread systematically. But she also knows that any change she can bring about shall be a product of negotiations with those like her father. So she begins with the children of Mahamana Malviya School, a school funded and ideologically controlled by the RSS. From then on, it is an all out war. However, they don’t really confront ideological brainwash directly. They can’t go and show the children films that openly accuse RSS and other right-wing outfits. Patience is the key; so is wisdom.
When I asked her where it all began, she takes a deep breath and tells me she is quite tired of telling this. Naturally, her earliest memories of a communally divided society go back to the demolition of Babri Masjid. Sweets were distributed all over Vishwas Khand, a locality within Gomti Nagar. People listened to LK Advani’s provocative speeches behind closed doors. Those were puzzling times for a child to grow up in. The elder generation talked as if a new history was being written. Hindutva was being talked about everywhere and Hinduism, in whatever form accessible, had little to offer to the act of growing up in a city. Interestingly, Krati studied in a muslim majority school in those days and most of her friends happened to be muslims naturally. Make no mistake, her parents wouldn’t have allowed it had they had a choice. They had moved to Lucknow in the middle of an academic year and that was the only school she could get an admission in. That is where it started. Later, while doing her MSW from the university, she worked in a muslim slum and realized no sweepers or ANMs bothered about those areas. Second class citizens prevailed through unhygienic conditions and hostile neighbourhood that demonized and terrorized them. On top of it sat the law that saw them as permanent defaulters. The rice, the spices, the meat and the blood too had been cooking for quite long, on a low heat burner. The biryani had to be perfect.
As it stands, home is where the process of change starts. Krati’s mother, not quite fond of her ideas, prepares food all the children who visit her. Teacups arrive every now and then. The food tastes good, honestly. Yet, she is often called in. Sometimes, they display their bitterness. Otherwise, a rejection to a certain fate they do not quite appreciate. Father shouts,”What do you think this is? It’s my house! Will you completely destroy my religion? How many of these people are muslims? How many?” Some times Krati answers; mostly, she does not. It doesn’t matter. Some plates and cups are marked with nail-polish for Krati’s group. Some are kept aside for puja and her parents’ needs. A tussle between religion and society goes on. There is a lot of gray area in the middle. There’s no guarantee that a cup that a Muslim boy drank tea out of shall never touch the lips of her mother. It does; and she knows it. Therein lies a moment of a quiet smile on Krati’s lips.
It is this smile that marks the success of all that Krati has been up to. Hers is not a battle of absolutes. She is not fighting for a place in the epics. Her target is short stories. And she has managed quite a few. Her father reads Ram Puniyani, though he dismissed him to begin with. Loads of kids from Dalit and Muslim bastis come into her house and they don’t remain confined to the drawing room. They enter the kitchen even. There, the story goes beyond the cups and plates, lest you overlook.
Perhaps they won’t admit it yet, but a significant change has come about. However, a belief one has always lived by cannot disappear one fine day. It cannot disappear for it falsifies your entire life and makes you look like an idiot. And of course, the ideas of national integration, moral policing and ethno-religious cleansing are so deep-rooted and well-networked in the Hindutva ideology that for many, it has already crushed Hinduism to the extent of abandoning it. Hindutva, the ideology of an angry middle-class urban Hindu, is the only claimant for Hinduism now in our cities, as Ashis Nandy argues. For the believers of this ideology, giving up on that anger means ceasing to be a Hindu, giving up their faith. So it wouldn’t happen so fast, not yet.
However, as Krati’s patience has deep roots in her own home, she doesn’t tire of taking it out on the streets. So she argues with those who think Sri Ram Sena’s goons in Mangalore are right in ‘protecting’ our culture, among them her own father. And with those who think Kashmir problem is yet another reflection of the Muslim mind which we can’t surrender to because if we give Kashmir today, Karnataka may stand up tomorrow – a view held by many. And with those whose imagination gets stuck into Pakistan regardless of the issue at hand. And with those who think speaking for a cause means being affected directly. When she did a candle light vigil with her group for the victims of Orissa violence, a certain gentleman asked her whether all of them came from Orissa. Her stories don’t exactly have a dramatic ending, but often they end as if many more stories were about to start from there.
In the drawing room of her own house – a rather ordinary single story house that gets overshadowed by the shiny multi-storied ones that surround it – she runs her small office. The group is called ‘The Wings’. They haven’t got their wings yet, but they want to fly. They are reasonably diverse and quite enthusiastic. When they are not discussing anything important, they take little digs at each other, look through the recent scraps from the opposite-sex in one-another’s ‘orkut’ scrapbook, and bet on the silliest of things so as to find a loser and hence, a treat for everybody. Most of them just out of their teens, are in the middle of the most crucial phases of their lives – a phase that’ll soon dictate their respective destinies even. But they are unaware of it while in that small room. Outside their only concern may be clearing CAT or passing the end-semester exam for engineering, inside that room their concerns cover a much wider spectrum. And they all have their own little stories of resistance to speak of:
Ajay is a soft-spoken lanky commerce undergraduate student. His father works for the Border Security Force (BSF). When we discuss the excesses of the armed forces committed in Kashmir and North-East, he doesn’t fail to mention having serious differences with his father on that account. On the other hand, Nilay, an engineering student, after arguing with me over ‘national integrity’ and ‘development’, admits to having widened the window of his mind. Though India and its territorial integrity is of primary importance to him, the fact that every people must be able to choose how they want to live makes an impact on him. Then there is Abhinav from Azamgarh – a part of his identity he often prefers to hide – an MBA aspirant and a commerce graduate with a significant stint under the RSS training. He shouts in the middle of a discussion, ”Mujhe history na batao! History mujhe tum sabse jyada malum hai (Don’t teach me History. I know more History than all of you).” He is rather difficult, they say. Clearly, not all of them pull in the same direction all the time, but that is what makes them an interesting bunch.
They do workshops with the school kids and discuss the politics around their respective identities. Interesting it is for many of the group members like Abhinav, who participate in the act most enthusiastically now, didn’t think much of it when they started. Many even joined it for there was a girl leading the group; not many of them stayed of course. They also work with dalit or muslim slums at the edge of the city. Small efforts at encouraging them to express themselves and understand the world around them somewhat better, is what they aim at. A candle light vigil for peace in Orissa here, an awareness campaign for women empowerment there. It is not entirely about communalism, but it’d be naïve to assume that communalism itself is entirely about communalism. It is important that they don’t tire themselves out. It’s important that nothing becomes a routine. Collective Imagination is the sole parameter a group’s future can be seen through.
There are problems, too. Taking permissions for every event is one big headache. The boys of the group are not entertained at all. Krati, being a woman, is treated somewhat better. Yet, soft mannerisms don’t exactly lead up to a soft ideology. A lean middle-aged constable confides in them dismissively, “These people you are going to rally for peace around with… They are the ones who’ll stab you from behind first thing! All we can do is gang them up together and shoot them.” Some respect for law and order! Later the CO rings them to ask, “Looks like a big event. There will be media…right?” He shall be there. Then, there are sponsors. A certain insurance company fellow – a clean shaved young man in his mid-twenties – wearing a crisp white shirt and a neat blue tie, remarks, “Actually we sponsor kitty parties. But there they have women who may buy our policies. What about your poor children? Anyway… I’ll talk to my superior.” Perhaps he will. Perhaps he won’t. There are others too. She won’t be defeated for the lack of trying.
Of course there are moments when things go beyond her tolerance. For example, someone argues, for the umpteenth time, that ‘all Muslims are fundamentalists and support Pakistan in all Indo-Pak cricket matches.’ A shake of head or closing of eyes cannot be ruled out. She does admit shyly smiling, “Kabhi kabhi toh man karta hai ki keh doon tum log kuchh nahi samajh sakte! Niklo yahan se saare ke saare!” (Sometimes I get so pissed off, I feel like saying you guys just won’t get it! Get lost all of you!) But before you charge her of dissent, there’ll be a smile followed by a patient effort at dialogue. Sometimes, it is all about hitting the top of the off-stump with a nagging consistency. About knowing that the inevitable shall happen – a wild cut or an ambitious drive to break the shackles. People listen eventually, to you and to the side they’ve simplistically branded as aggressors. There must be an honest effort, however. To nag, to surprise, to out-think, to exhaust; and to do it endlessly. Endlessly.
There are interesting times to look forward to. The group has achieved a critical mass. There’s a faint buzz locally about their work. Four schools are already co-operating with them. Within a few months, for the next academic year, there could be eight feathers in the hat. The group members are excited. They look up to her and see hope in their work. Many of them want to achieve some sort of economic stability and then return to continue the good work. There is a growing sense of camaraderie that you cannot possibly overlook. Soon enough, the office will move out of Krati’s parents’ house. A bit of them, though, shall always remain in that drawing room. What I find most endearing about them is that despite all sorts of differences of opinions and backgrounds, she has been able to create a sense of equality and openness within the group. However trivial it may sound, it is one of those battles most ambitious groups never win. Not to forget, the chief minister of her state could do well to take a leaf out of her book in this regard.
Her stories may be short and inconclusive, lacking in drama too if you expected that, yet there are connecting threads across all of them. Perhaps, later they could be turned into an inspirational anthology. There is hope. Where there are wings, there will be flight. As I am about to finish the story on this note while I watch India play Sri Lanka at Colombo, the match is halted for some spectator hurled a stone at the Indian fielders. While the security guards confront the situation, my aunt remarks, “It must be some musalmaan. There are many in Sri Lanka…” I am reminded of my own role, thus. This story is not finished yet.