Let’s begin by agreeing that the Indian parliamentary election this year is of signal consequence to both sides of the divide.
Supporters of the current government believe the alternative is chaos and ruin, to put it mildly. That’s merely the surface, though. In the darker depths, winning this election would also indicate validation for them: After resolutely rejecting it in the first few decades, and then a few decades of pretending to reject it, independent India would finally be at ease with a particularly virulent brand of nationalism. This election, then, would mark the coming-out party of sorts for its proponents, having shed the development fig leaf finally.
The other side of the chasm is counting on a return to normalcy, even if temporary, after five years of sociopolitical turmoil. While caste, language, race, and religion-based battles are not new to India, they lacked wide sociopolitical sanction. Till now, that is. The gradual dilution of that stance is what this section of Indians wants to reverse. Every citizen must have the right to feel fully Indian again, they say. It’s a long shot.
That brings us to why we must consciously instil the significance of this election—and every other—in our children. For they are our only long-shot arrows, to borrow an idea from Kahlil Gibran.
The identity venom
One day around three years ago, during a drive, my daughter excitedly called out: “Look, a Muslim!” She had spotted a burqa-clad woman. Clearly, the marker had registered with her.
What was worrying was that she was also already “otherising” it. There was no reason for her to get animated over a woman walking along the road. After all, our own neighbourhood isn’t monochromatic, and neither is her school.
Alarmed—and, at some level, guilty of bad parenting—I mildly probed the reason for her excitement. The six-year-old obviously couldn’t articulate her reply to my query.
It dawned upon us that the “Hindu-Muslim” theme was now part of the conversation in her circle of friends, either in school or the playground near home, or both. It may not be in the loaded format of grownups, but the seeds had been sown. It was a stark reminder of the many instances of religion-based bullying often reported from across India. Prejudice begins its hunt pretty early in the country.
Since then, my wife and I have sought to proactively and unobtrusively familiarise our two daughters with other religions, languages, and cultures through the modest means at our disposal: qawwalis, cuisines, carols, comics.
The intent is to squeeze out any sort of uniformity from their lives as thoroughly as possible. Presumptuous in believing that the kids may someday vote, we want to be reasonably sure that whenever they decide to, identity—especially religious identity—isn’t their main point of reference.
We’d like to believe we made some progress. One day a little over a year ago, as Farid Ayaz-Abu Mohammed’s “Kanhaiyya” played in the car, the same daughter of mine asked me the difference between a bhajan (a Hindu religious hymn) and a qawwali (typically songs with Muslim themes, including the divine), since both involved the clapping of hands and group singing.
Finally, last month she asked, “will you vote for the Congress or BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)?” I didn’t give the now nine-year-old a direct answer: “No vote for anyone who says ‘the other religion, caste, language, or culture is bad or low.'” I put the idea across to her in three short steps:
- Some political parties discriminate between religions, castes, and languages. For instance, those who pretend to favour you only because you belong to the religion they approve of will most likely loathe your favourite teacher who follows another religion.
- You must then choose between your religion and your favorite teacher.
- Your choice will decide if the next government treats you and your teacher equally—or mistreats your teacher tomorrow, and you the day after.
I then described how democracy works generally and specifically in India. The choices she makes, I said, will affect not only herself but also her friends, her favourite actress, and the owner of her favourite food joint. So she is responsible for her choice. And one of the ways to make a fairly good choice is to take any kind of identity out of the equation so that those who don’t subscribe to yours do not get mistreated.
She seemed to have got the gist of it at least. No doubt the message will need regular reinforcement. It is a start nevertheless. As they bloom into rebellious teenagers in a couple of years, my kids may either reject my logic or build on it.
I hope they pick the second alternative. For, as they grow up, I’d like to see them identify themselves as an intersection of music and art fans, science enthusiasts, foodies, scholars, bikers, cineastes, gizmo freaks, videogame punters, sportswomen, bookworms, poetesses, environmentalists, or even politicians, none of the labels being the only defining one.
The one label I’m not keen on for them is the religious one. And about time we worked on that. About time I talked current Indian politics with my daughters.
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Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.