A divided India needs to heal itself, urgently

We have to create opportunities for dialogue. India can learn from more troubled societies.

Many Indians are agonising over how social relations between communities have deteriorated. It is imperative to create opportunities for dialogue.

Like many Indians of my generation, the early 2000s was a tumultuous period. As a young undergraduate student of science back then, I had felt increasingly isolated and insular in an open yet apolitical campus in Hyderabad, surrounded by classmates who would go on to become scientists. The catastrophic 9/11 had just transformed the world, but it did not touch the labs where we performed our experiments. The Gujarat riots, the only major riot I remember as an adult, had busted the bubble of my naive middle-class conception of India as a secular, modern and a progressive country. I felt troubled and wanted to have a voice in what was happening around me. It was an inflection point. When I graduated, I quit science and I decided to become a journalist.

One year after the riots, my friends and I (inexperienced, wide-eyed yet passionate students of journalism) went to Ahmedabad on a reporting trip, to not only learn how to make a documentary film, but also in some sense understand what was happening far away in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) “Gujarat Lab”.

I remember it as though it was yesterday. We were filming in Naroda Patiya, in Ahmedabad where scores were burnt, hacked and dumped, the year before. We met some school kids well shy of their teens. They were full of hatred and were proud of how the minorities were “taught a lesson”. Though very affected by the stories we heard, we were also “observers” recording their conversation. We were struck by how polarised these young minds had become. They would have gone on to become first-time voters. The reason I go back to this incident is, I wish we had spoken some more with those kids on why they felt so vengeful.

What followed in the ensuing decade and a half, is what we see today. This sense of revenge and victimhood has inexplicably metastasised across many parts of India. Many of us have been numb with surprise and sadness.

Living away from home during the last decade has given me some perspective and distance to come to terms with events back in India. Like others, I am trying to understand the changing reality of my country – now deeply divided – and to see if there are parallels elsewhere in the world.

A German doctor, who is a friend, assured me following the election results last month, that Indians will be saved by religion. I liked his optimism but was puzzled. I gently reminded him that I am areligious. He reasoned that Indians have a strong religious framework that binds the society and it is these beliefs that will ultimately have a sobering effect on the violence erupting on the streets. After all, religion has shown the path to spirituality and reconciliation in many wounded societies including South Africa and Northern Ireland among others. I am not qualified to judge whether religion will set fellow Indians on the path to communal harmony. But I know that what we are witnessing is beyond elections and politics.

We have agonised over how social relations between communities have deteriorated.  At stake is also our fundamental ability to effectively communicate amongst ourselves. We are all too familiar now with the complete breakdown of communication and a near-collapse of trust in our closest relationships.

To mend this, we have to go beyond labelling, difficult as it may seem. We have to unlearn and learn again how to sit down and converse in order to find a shared understanding on what it is to be human. To realise how much we talk past each other, consider how crudely we talk about crimes – focussing solely on the religions of the accused and never enough on the victims or the causes of the crimes themselves.

We cannot give up and walk away any more. 

This is not only about politics, or religion or persecuted minorities. It is about all this and much more, about how we see each other. We are all wounded – some physically, some psychologically and some irreparably.

While we continue to speak vehemently against indoctrination; and defend rationalism, we must create opportunities for dialogue to hear others out. As many of us will helplessly agree, that facts, unfortunately, have not mattered in any argument or in the wider discourse. Fighting perceptions with facts in a post-truth world has not taken us far. However, we must celebrate and support fake news busters. Fiction is winning over facts in many countries, as experts and expertise are being shunned.

The first task is to acknowledge that there is a fundamental problem. As a people, we must confront our biases and address our sense of victimhood. Pragya Thakur is only a symptom, the malaise is us.

We have to heal a whole lot of ourselves. Urgently.

The writing on the wall is clear – full of misused, sacred religious symbols portending violence and threat. Those of us who dismiss comparisons to Nazi Germany, fail to understand what we potentially face. Perhaps we have simply shut ourselves away from the lynchings. Even one hate crime is an injustice we should not be able to bear.

It is for the social scientists to document when and how violence became so acceptable in India. But we must look within to find out what makes us so angry, and if we can channelise this into something constructive. We risk an implosion.

Thankfully, we can make amends, as others have. The solutions to mend bridges between families, within communities, across religious divides, first and foremost lie with us. No institution, no political party, no government can do, what we as individuals can.

Mere hard-nosed and cold-blooded analyses on why and how decisively Indians voted will not bring us closer to fixing this. This is not about elections. We have to go beyond the numbers. According to IndiaSpend, of the 83 constituencies identified for reporting cow-related hate violence between 2014 and 2019, reports say, the BJP has won 63. So what now?

The way to engage with this, is not only through the head. “Embrace the haters”.

Social healing

Scholars in peace and conflict studies talk about the concept of “social healing” – essentially revolving around forgiveness and reconciliation, within communities, between victims and perpetrators. Although a slow process, social healing has mended societies to an extent, from South Africa to Rwanda, from Germany to Northern Ireland.

For social healing to begin, we must first “remember”. Experts in reconciliation theology and politics believe that remembering plays a crucial role while incorporating forgiveness in politics.

How did Germany deal with forgiveness post-Holocaust? By remembering, by being acutely aware and by being conscious of history, at every stage, in schools, in colleges and in public spaces. Visiting and remembering a place and its people has a transformational impact on those who visit such “spaces”. Anyone who has visited spaces like Auschwitz or Jallianwala Bagh would know.

Psychologists believe that many Indians carry the ancestral trauma of the Partition. Maybe it is time to finally acknowledge and resolve what has been passed on through generations.

It may seem absurd to talk of forgiveness at a time when hate speech is almost blasé. But we must. There are models that we can follow. In an unprecedented social experiment, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) included the language of forgiveness in trying to heal the post-Apartheid country. This involved letting victims and perpetrators face each other as humans and tell their stories in a safe setting. The process was meant to ensure a way of giving people “a release” in a society that had witnessed widespread political violence. (Then-President Nelson Mandela named Archbishop Desmond Tutu as Chairman of the TRC, who recounted his experience in his book “No future without forgiveness”.)

Surely forgiveness is not straight forward and cannot be cosmetic. (We are dealing with a curious situation where perpetrators feel superior to victims and in addition in some cases seem to enjoy state patronage. We have some distance to go.)

And, there can be no forgiveness without apology. Victims of sectarian conflict have said that apology was instrumental in their “emotional restitution”. Scholars believe that when faced with the humanity of other people it “inspired responsibility.”

Merely punishing the offender does not alleviate the suffering of the victim. It is important for both parties to reconcile. Hence the final step is reconciliation – a path forward.

The legal tradition of punishing the perpetrators does not address the hurt of the sufferer. Experts point out that indigenous societies bring victims and perpetrators together in order to reconcile. Such societies define justice as healing.

Social healing seeks to heal social wounds – going beyond punishing perpetrators. There have been a variety of efforts by smaller organizations like Karwan-e-Mohhabat working in the field bringing communities together, to more scholarly work of looking at evidence in other countries and to see how they can be applied in India. We must support such initiatives.

At the community level, some of us have to become the leaders that we desperately seek. We must demand leadership from our institutions. There is no dearth of everyday heroes around us including cops fighting fake news and those martyred trying to protect innocents.

We have to seek, protect and learn from today’s Mahatmas. Look no further than the cleric in Asansole who took the courageous step in forgiveness and healing.

We need social healing everywhere – from Kashmir to the North East, from Bengal to Kerala. It may be critical to safeguard our demographic dividend. For all those of us who voted for development, social healing will be an investor-friendly option in the long term.

On the final evening during that trip to Ahmedabad, we sat talking to people in a Dalit basti that was affected during the riots, one of them from the community asked us, “I want to know how long my neighbour will continue to attack me.”

(Priti Patnaik is an independent journalist and researcher working in Geneva, Switzerland, writing about global health, international trade and illicit financial flows.)

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