It was the summer of 1992. We were a bunch of happy school going kids. Even at that tender age, we were all politically aware and took extreme positions on a matter related to religion though none of us had ever visited any Madrasa, proselytisation centre or any other indoctrination institute. Except this one composed, sane and balanced guy, let’s call him Govind. Govind, though was among the most brilliant in our school, was politically neutral and truly believed in the secular fabric our constitution had enshrined. He was a passionate advocate of secularism and had firm belief that government should be religion agnostic. The fierce orator Govind was, in the summer of 1992 while in class V, at a district level debate competition, he gave a passionate speech about why Babri Masjid demolition is a blot on the secular fabric of this country and won the 1st prize. In 1997, we all passed matriculation and headed different ways for higher studies. That was the last time I had seen Govind until 2018.
Here is what happened with him in these 20 years as we got together over a cup of coffee after we crossed paths on a popular social networking site and decided to meet.
Soon after completing his graduation, Govind took an interest in law and got admitted in a leading law school. There, he started reading some of the judgements as part of his course and it opened his eyes to a whole new world of reality far from the secular utopia he believed all along. He came to know about the historical Shah Bano judgement and how the Congress govt led by Rajiv Gandhi overturned it to appease the Muslim community. This was when he was a kindergarten kid when he believed that all governments are secular. He realised, that in a bid to uphold the Islamic law, the government of the day had betrayed constitution and framed different law pertaining to a particular religion. He became conscious of the fact that this secular country which he believed in, had a uniform criminal code but no uniform civil code. The first blow to his strong belief in secular credentials of this country. Govind carried on.
Then in the course of time, he read about the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. He read about the night of 19th January 1990 when violent jihadi mobs ran amok on the streets of Kashmir forcing lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits to leave their home and become a refugee in their own country without any livelihood while the government turned a mute spectator. He understood the secular credentials he was so proud of was only a theory in civics books. He was aghast at how people were butchered just because they were Hindus, how houses were burnt because they had Lord Ram’s photo, how successive governments have failed to resettle the Kashmiri Hindus in their homes. He slowly started empathizing with Siddharth, who was a Kashmiri Hindu who lived in our colony and went to the same school as us.
— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) January 19, 2016
On 27th February 2002, his uncle was on board Sabarmati Express to Ahmedabad after finishing his Kar Seva in Ayodhya when a violent mob attacked the coach he was in and set it on fire killing 59 people including his uncle. Their only crime, most of the passengers in that coach were devout Hindus, some of them were wearing saffron robes and they went to Ayodhya for Kar Seva. If that was not enough, the people who died were implicated in their own murder by an independent fact-finding mission, further emboldened by mainstream media, the biggest whitewashing of a horrific crime. Govind’s secular belief took a severe blow.
In my small town, Durga Puja is still the biggest festival observed with fan and fare. We school friends used to ride cycles and hop every pandal in our town. Durga Puja has a special place in our heart when it comes to festivals. Naturally, when Govind was posted in West Bengal in 2016, his happiness knew no bounds because he was now going to witness the biggest celebrations of Durga Puja in the country, a festival which he holds close to his heart. However, all his fervour was washed away when the chief minister of the state restricted Puja celebrations so that it doesn’t hurt Muslim’s sentiments, who were to take out Muharram processions on the same day as Durga Puja Visarjan. He could not believe that he was in a secular country and his rights to profess his religion in a peaceful way was being denied by the state. His secular belief had started crumbling like a house of cards. Undeterred, he continued.
Govind’s 4-year-old kid loved playing Holi. One fine morning, when he opened internet, he came across an article which termed his kid, a terrorist. He was aghast. He could not understand how his 4-year-old can unleash terror. Whom can a 4-year old terrorise? Why terms like terror are used so loosely.
Diwali was one festival where the entire family of Govind used to get together and celebrate. Last year, they decided to meet at her sister’s place in Delhi. But to their horror, the SC in an unprecedented move had banned the sale of crackers in Delhi because they wanted to test if banning cracker has a positive effect on the alarming air pollution levels in NCR. The SC also assumed that there is virtually a consensus in the society that crackers should not be burnt during Diwali. Govind and his sister’s kid could not understand where this consensus was coming from neither did the adults in the family.
This year in March, Govind went to his native in Odisha. In his native, they celebrate Ram Navami every year since 1991 with much fanfare. However, to his surprise, the state government had banned Ram Navami celebration as it hurts the religious sentiments of the minority community. Govind was aghast. Was he really living in a secular country where the government of the day was duty bound to protect every citizen to profess and manage his religious activities in a peaceful way? In fact, the state was doing the exact opposite. Festival by festival, ritual by ritual, the state was taking away everything that is remotely Hindu, from him, which he identifies with since he was a Kindergarten kid.
That’s when his secular belief came crashing down, as he tells me in the coffee shop. The constant vilification and castigation showed to his beliefs by the liberal intellectual, in the face of utmost restraint and extremely tolerant Hindu society, made him believe that if he has to hold his head high, he has to assert his Hindu identity. It doesn’t matter to him anymore if a US publication calls a saffron robe wearing Yogi a militant. In fact, it only makes his resolve stronger to wear his religion on his sleeve. All these incidents have not made Govind intolerant of other religion but he is not the same Govind anymore who in class V made a passionate speech about setting up a super speciality hospital at Ram Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya. We recently created a Whatsapp group of all the school friends. Govind forwards messages in that group asking us to take pride in our Hindu identity. Govind is not taking the bigotry and intolerance against his religion lying down. I loved the coffee table conversation we had.
Postscript: Any resemblance of Govind with Jyotish here is purely coincidental.