By Manik Sharma Jan. 02, 2020
Since the anti-CAA protests broke out in the country last month, battle lines have been drawn between friends, colleagues, neighbours, and acquaintances. But losing a few handshakes, or invitations to a get-together along the way, might just be a fair price to pay to preserve the social fabric of our country.
A couple of days ago I noticed my father typing into his phone with the kind of speed and red-cheeked anger that I’d never seen him in when doing something so mundane. I inched closer and realised he was on a WhatsApp group for state-level retirees, furious about something that just been shared. “The babus have started to show their true colours,” he told me. Someone had in a group of aged, retired men — of one of the state government’s departments no less — used an anti-Islamic slur to support the Citizenship Amendment Act (that once powerful men now cower in WhatsApp groups and try to separate the pickle from the soup is testament to the environment of fear created by this government). Though my father can be both religious and rational at the same time, he has never subscribed to phobias based on the former. That is, however, an opinion he has often kept to himself in the interest of social cohesion. “Samaj”, as he says, is a complex machine.
In the last couple of weeks – since a part of India decided to protest against the vile Citizenship Amendment Act – things have changed. Battle lines have been drawn between friends, colleagues, neighbours, and acquaintances. Divisions have been carved where there seemed to be none. Those in power might be looking to reap the benefits of this communal divide through the proposed CAA-NRC, but may well end up cutting through the social fabric of India, with little possibility of things being stitched together the way they used to be.
It has become hard to look away, to sleep peacefully at night knowing that at that very moment, women and children have gathered on a strip of tarmac in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, peacefully protesting the passing of CAA and the police brutality unleashed on protesters in recent weeks. It’s not without a smack of privilege, perhaps, that I deem myself both concerned and affected by those who have first-hand bore the brunt of the police lathi, and in the case of minorities, have their place repeatedly reminded to them.
Women protesters on the 18th day of an indefinite sit-in against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), at Shaheen Bagh, on January 1, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Photo by Burhaan Kinu/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Women protesters on the 18th day of an indefinite sit-in against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), at Shaheen Bagh, on January 1, 2020 in New Delhi, India.
Photo by Burhaan Kinu/ Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Though a large part of India still remains distanced and unaffected by the civic turmoil in states like Uttar Pradesh and Assam, a gradual fissure is beginning to open up. The “good morning” forwards have been replaced by battle updates from the front, depending on which side of this ideological warzone you’ve set up camp. My father tells me a lifelong friend has stopped calling or checking in, because he has probably realised “I wasn’t going to agree for the sake of agreeing anymore”. “Aisa hai toh aisa hi sahi” he told me, a little dejected.
Political disagreement, let me clarify, for we may need a reminder, is the bedrock of democracy. Without the friction of dissent and opposition there is no sheen or balance to the diplomatic future we envision for ourselves. India has always hosted and entertained opposing arguments, be it in its dealing with Kashmir, our relationships with Pakistan, or the myriad socio-cultural issues that continue to plague this country. In essence, even before WhatsApp, there existed groups and circles that included people from different faiths, subscribers of a kind of personal politics, reservations, and taboos.
They may have shared, debated or hotly contested the controversies of the day, but they went home having accommodated each other in their own small way, or deferred the discussion to a day that a liberal India, they knew, would grant, again and again, until its limits began to seem eternal… Or to a day the country stopped being itself, because it was being told, specifically, to become one thing.
Everyone wants to cut open the heart of this country, to reveal something he or she believes belongs solely to them, while it may belong to no one at all.
Citizenship and religion do not belong together in a register, let alone one maintained by the government. In tying the two together, the BJP threatens to destabilise something that has quietly held this country together — its adaptable social core. You could belong to India, regardless of what you belonged to through gender, religion, sexuality, or caste. By defining parameters, not only has the government dragged its own citizenry into the lab for a horrifying social experiment, it has armed people with their own tools. Everyone wants to cut open the heart of this country, to reveal something he or she believes belongs solely to them, while it may belong to no one at all. The point, however, is to not moan this new matinee of rift and tension but speak up. It is no longer in the interest of those who wish for peace and plurality that hate and bigotry become the price of our daily social transactions.
You might have, like me, come across tweets or messages that say “don’t lose your friends over politics”. But can we lose the essence of a tolerant society for the vileness of that one friend’s hateful opinion?
As my father has come to accept, we may not all stand on the road with a placard every day, but we can at least make our position clear. We can speak for ourselves, we must declare, and we have, crucially, the right to disagree. I have already faced ire within the extended family for openly declaring my politics, and outright rejecting hate as a compromise I must make to keep social threads knotted. We did not initiate this battle but we may have to stand up and fight for our right to speak, for the right of voices those in power want to suppress. Losing a few handshakes, a handful of birthday wishes or invitations to a get-together along the way, might just be a fair price to pay for peace, sanity, and sanctity of this country. It is at least the lesser of two evils.