Once Upon a Time in a Land That Was Secular

A High School in Kerala, 1992

On that December evening, the five of us were hanging out by the side of our high school playground, trying to thrash out an answer to that eternal argument that three generations of Malayalis have managed to keep alive:

“Who’s more awesome, Mohanlal or Mammootty?”

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers — that’s what we were.

Now, this was December ’92. Although we were in tranquil central Kerala, completely untouched by the communal poison cloud that had swept across India, our conversation soon turned to the recent demolition of Babri Masjid by RSS/BJP terrorists — we were still high school kids but nevertheless politically aware high school kids, typical of 1980s/90s Kerala.

Out of the blue, one of us — let’s call him “Gopi” for now — took a stance that attempted to justify, or perhaps rationalise the demolition of the mosque. The rest of us were downright shocked and reacted in a way people react when they accidentally step on fresh bovine excrement.

One of us — let’s call him “Jyothish” for now — reacted almost violently to what Gopi said and gave him a rather colourful tongue-lashing. Gopi piped down real quick.

Now, to my knowledge, neither Gopi nor anyone in his family were members of the RSS or any of the Sangh Parivar affiliated organisations. And yet, how did a 14/15-year-old middle-class Malayali kid think it was socially acceptable to take such a bigoted position, that too in the pre-internet era? The only logical conclusion is that Gopi might have been merely repeating the living room or dinner table conversations at home or at extended family gatherings.

What one’s social circles say or do in public, goes a long way in determining what is acceptable behaviour.

Also Read: Why We Shouldn’t Call our Communal Friends ‘Bigots’

In Gopi’s case, the almost-violent reaction from his primary social circle — his high school buddies with whom he spends the most part of any given week — overrode whatever license-to-show-bigotry that he picked up from elsewhere. The brick wall of nonacceptance that he barged into must have made him realise that bigotry might end up isolating him from his school friends.

Gopi made sure that he never sprouted communal shit, at least in front of us, until the end of our high school days, after which we all went different ways.

High School WhatsApp Group, 2018

Gopi remains decent, at least in public.

The person who floods our WhatsApp group with outrageous Sanghi shit — fake news, photoshopped garbage, rationalisation and whataboutery for everything from the Dadri lynching to the Kathua rape — is not Gopi.

It is Jyothish, our bro from that old high school gang in 1992 who had reacted most violently to Gopi’s attempted foray into communal thought.

To my knowledge, Jyothish has never been to an RSS shakha or even an ABVP event. After school, he went on to study Engineering at a college that did not allow any student politics, followed soon by a job in an IT firm which included a 5-year stint in the US. In between all this, how did Jyothish get radicalised?

From what I could make out of it, Jyothish’s journey into the cesspool of Hindutva appears to be a case of online radicalisation by the NRI Sanghi ecosystem — their stories of upper caste victimhood, communally loaded email-forwards, propaganda blogs and above all the broad acceptability for displaying bigotry in his primary social circle, i.e. colleagues and the American desis — must have been a perfect storm for somebody who existed mostly in an apolitical, middle-class bubble since he left high school.

As soon as Jyothish’s Facebook wall started displaying Sanghi propaganda back in 2010 or so when he returned from abroad, I and others should have given him a colourful tongue-lashing and shamed him in public, as Jyothish did to Gopi on that December evening in 1992. We should have put up that brick wall of nonacceptance, as we did back in 1992.

For too long, we have allowed our uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and coworkers to get away with bigotry because we did not want to upset relationships. Our silence is encouraging them. It makes them believe that it is okay, it is acceptable, to display bigotry. Our passivity, our silence, is not merely harmless inaction but it is outright complicity.

If we have to bear casual bigotry in order to ‘not upset the relationship’ with that old high school friend or that neo-Sanghi uncle, then no matter what else they bring to the table, that relationship is not worth ‘not upsetting’. Call them a bigot and tell them that they are a cancer that needs to just f^%k off from your life.

This is a war and it is high time we draw those lines and take sides.

The Last Caveman tweets at @CarDroidusMax, and writes here