The Last Caveman’s recent piece on LiveWire, ‘Once Upon a Time in a Land That Was Secular‘, transported me back in time. In December 1992, I was a student at B.J. Medical College in Ahmedabad, a topnotch institute that I am proud to have graduated from. What I am not so proud of is the pervasive communal atmosphere on campus back then that poisoned the minds of a majority of my batch mates. I grew up in a small laid back coastal town in South Gujarat where I had never been exposed to any sort of factionalism. So B.J. was particularly difficult to adjust to when I moved in to the hostel on campus.
I vividly remember the heated exchange the day the Babri Masjid was demolished, especially since I was the lone opposing voice in a group of about a dozen with representatives from all corners of India. Since 1992, a majority of my 210 batch mates of that class of 1993 have drifted further rightward. I moved to the US after graduating but had remained in touch with many, until, a WhatsApp group was formed a couple of years back. A few polarising exchanges followed and led inevitably to my exit. I have mostly tried to stay away since.
But I sometimes feel that I could have done better. Rather than arguing and then escaping, I could have been more persuasive and tactful. I should have perhaps realised that many of my batch mates didn’t have the privilege that I had – of growing up in a family with several elders who emphasised harmony and progressive thought.
Also Read: Once Upon a Time in a Land That Was Secular
My grandmother’s brother was the president of the Surat unit of the Congress back in the 1920s. While many Congress leaders aligned with the Hindu Mahasabha in their ‘shuddhi‘ (purity) campaign, he was one of the few who remained against such divisive politics. When Hindu-Muslim relations were at a low ebb in Surat – leading to an economic boycott of the minority community – he managed to successfully persuade a reluctant Sardar Patel, and organised a khadi exhibition to help bridge the divide. The locally famous Razaak band played at the venue every single day of the exhibition.
My grandfather and my parents, all doctors, not only admitted patients of all religions, castes and class to their hospital over a period of six decades but also fed them from a common kitchen and sets of utensils, something others baulked from doing.
Not everyone in my family today agrees with the ideas of our elders. Some are supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though not necessarily in outright agreement with the Hindutva agenda. I have not been able to pinpoint the reasons behind such a rightward drift of some in my family. Again, I have not been very strategic in my attempts to convince them.
Through my marriage, I have come in touch with several staunch advocates of secularism, many of them lifelong activists. While a majority of them are doing yeoman’s service, I have come across the occasional one who suffers from outright hatred of those who are not a 100% secular.
While communalism must be fought stringently in these times of divisive politics and justice must be done, I believe that this fight needs more strategy than aggression. Calling communal friends and family members bigots and asking them to “get the f*^k out of our lives”, as The Last Caveman proposes, will probably only lead to more divisions. It will make us one of ‘them’ – haters. If we are to win this ‘war’, our strategy should instead be to educate and reform.
Jay Desai is based in Los Angeles.