As the Constitution turns 70, and the country is in turmoil over proposals that may violate its spirit, a new generation is talking back to elders about equality and harmony
Shachi Nelli had no idea she would become a viral sensation when she sent out the tweet on the evening of 29 December. “I come from a line of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) believers. My family is Islamophobic," wrote the 25-year-old, Mumbai-based marketing professional on Twitter. “But they also educated me & I grew up to reject their ideas. Now I’m bringing my mother around. Revolution starts at home. And I refuse to stop trying till I succeed."
At the time of writing, Nelli’s statement had been retweeted over 13,000 times and liked by more than 53,000 users on the social networking platform. These are impressive numbers for a user with just over 8,300 followers. Evidently, her sentiment hit home with thousands, but the 3,300-plus replies to the tweet also reveal the steep cost of Nelli’s plain-speaking: a barrage of sexist and Islamophobic comments bordering on hate speech.
A few days after this incident, when I spoke to Nelli on the phone, she sounded remarkably calm and self-assured. “I went to Shaheen Bagh (the site of weeks-long protests in Delhi) and told my father about my visit, but he just warned me not to become a pawn in the game of political parties," she told me. She is among the 144 petitioners who have filed appeals against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in the Supreme Court. In spite of the turmoil raging through the country, her faith in India being “an active and participative democracy", guided by a secular Constitution, remains unshaken. And she isn’t alone in the fight she has waged to convert her own family.
Over the last several weeks, I spoke to several men and women between the ages of 18-35 from upper middle-class families, based in different Indian cities, as the public protests against the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) intensified. Most of these millennials and members of Generation Z have made themselves unpopular by disagreeing with their families on the question of politics, even when family remains the primary support structure for some of them. Many of their stories echoed Nelli’s experience with her own family, with variations playing out on similar themes. Some of those I spoke with refused to be named for understandable reasons, but they were not afraid of fighting the good fight, even at the cost of risking the goodwill of the people closest to them.
“I am an only child of a family that is heavily influenced by casteist and Brahmanical thinking," a 25-year-old woman from Mumbai told me. Originally from Karnataka, her family is steeped in notions of purity and pollution. Her paternal grandfather was an RSS pracharak (worker), though her parents, she says, “have never been actively hateful towards Muslims". But communal prejudice, as many of us know from personal experience, trickles down the generations in insidious ways.
“My parents practise ‘passive discrimination’," she says. “For instance, they don’t have a single Muslim friend, and there are separate utensils in the kitchen for people of lower castes." In the end, for her what counts is “the absence of principle, rather than the active preaching of hatred".
For 23-year-old Aditya Banerjee, an IT professional based in Kolkata, there is a lingering sense of frustration in his interactions with his parents. “It is through my dad that I first heard the music of Bob Dylan, and now he has become a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) policies," he says. His father’s switch from a connoisseur of revolutionary music to a believer in conservative politics disturbs him.
Banerjee did try to have dinner-table conversations with his father about their conflicting political views on the CAA and NRC, but their exchanges ended in bitterness. “It’s hard to tackle right-wing extremism, especially with highly educated people like my parents," he says. His mother has a postgraduate degree and teaches in a school, while his father is an engineer from a prestigious institution.
The narrative seems to follow a familiar template. Most of the people I spoke to mentioned arguments, humiliation, hopelessness and, in the odd exception, a silver lining in their interactions with family members in the last few weeks. Verbal battles unfolded over WhatsApp groups; links were sent to counter incorrect facts; but little mattered in the face of smug middle-class indifference to the plight of the less privileged, who are likely to be the worst affected by the CAA and NRC. Perhaps all unhappy families are alike in their unhappiness.
But this young brigade is unwilling to give up without a fight. For every bigoted WhatsApp forward or link to a piece of fake news, they have facts and figures to counter. For each Islamophobic rant, they invoke the secular spirit enshrined in the Constitution. For all the violence by the police on students, they are coming out in numbers on the streets, with or without their families’ knowledge, to be part of mass recitations of the Preamble, pledging to stand together as “We the people of India".
Many of these actions are causing fissures within families, causing old resentments to flare up and, in extreme cases, intimate bonds to disintegrate.
A 23-year-old journalist based in Delhi, who has witnessed the uprising against the CAA and NRC on the streets of the Capital in the past few weeks, says she is moved by the show of solidarity among strangers. But with her father, she continues to hit a wall.
“He reads extensively and yet continues to support the BJP’s divisive agenda," she says. “People like him have been influenced, partly due to the lives they have lived, and partly due to the propaganda machinery. The BJP is no longer only a party; it has become a way of life for them."
Her father was a young man living in Bombay (now Mumbai) when riots broke out there in the early 1990s. Over the years, his disillusionment with the Congress, whose credibility waned steadily while in power as well as in opposition, has mounted. It’s hard to stir him out of this world view, but his daughter isn’t giving up.
“Sometimes I have told him I am at a protest, and even though I know he is worried, I have refused to pick up his calls from there," she says. This is her way of jolting him into realizing how parents in Kashmir, for instance, must have felt for decades, not knowing if their children would return safely from a rally.
The 25-year-old woman from Mumbai shares a similar insight about her own father. He was a young boy when former prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency between 1975-77, another example of an elected government violating constitutional sanctity with impunity. “He has come to believe that the Congress has ruined this country," she says, “so he finds it easier to have faith in the discipline of the RSS." At that time, members of the RSS took to the streets to enact their own version of a satyagraha, but the tables have turned since. The RSS is seen as lobbying to turn India into a Hindu nation.
Whether the elders like it or not, cities big and small across the country are no longer placid oases where the middle class can remain in its cocoon of privilege, especially when civilians and students are speaking out against the government’s policies, even at the risk of incurring police violence and the ire of opponents. The mental health costs of this moment, as the personal and the political get mixed up, are likely to have a long-term impact.
As a 28-year-old woman from Delhi says: “There’s a lot of gaslighting within my family, especially from the men. I am constantly being warned not to fall into other people’s traps just because I don’t subscribe to my family’s beliefs." Even a cab driver was surprised that a woman like her, who looked like someone from “a decent family", had put Jantar Mantar, the site of protests against the CAA and NRC, as her drop-off location.
This is a sad, though common enough, reality for the young, especially the women, who suffer the brunt of patriarchy. An 18-year-old woman from Kolkata says, “I am repeatedly told by my parents that I am too young to understand the nuances of politics, and that historical incidents justify what the government is doing now." Her experience resonates with the recent fiasco involving Sana Ganguly, the 18-year-old daughter of former cricketer and now BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) chief Sourav Ganguly, when she posted an allegedly anti-CAA message on Instagram. Her concerned father spared no time in clarifying on Twitter that his daughter was too young to know anything about politics.
The 18-year-old woman from Kolkata has been told by her mother that Hindu women were tortured in the aftermath of the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992—when she was not even born. This line of argument, she says, usually moves to sweeping remarks about the lack of birth control among minority communities, her mother’s paranoia that weapons are being hoarded at mosques, and so on. No data or factual evidence acts as a deterrent.
Although this woman wants to study international relations when she enters college next year, she has been expressly forbidden by her upper-middle-class parents from applying to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi or Jadavpur University (JU) in Kolkata because they don’t want her to turn into a “Naxal".
History burdens every generation with its unique baggage. Partition survivors find it hard to convey the horror they lived through to those who were born much later. The ones who witnessed the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi struggle to express the devastation to others who were not exposed to it. These fragile acts of communication tend to get muddied further by complicated interpersonal relations.
Patronizing behaviour from (usually well-meaning) parents and extended family that blows up into fights needs to be viewed in a “relational context’’, says Ayesha Kapur, a Delhi-based psychotherapist. “In many cases, these bonds are already historically fractured, and the current environment becomes a trigger and a deal-breaker," she adds.
The struggle is also multi-dimensional: not only of the children with their parents but vice versa too. For the older generation, the idealism and the passion of the young may appear misguided. “Every family has its own way of dealing with stress and tension," Kapur says, “some push it under the carpet, in others an uneasy calm prevails, or a full-on fight erupts."
The art of non-violent communication has a long history, going back to the 1960s, when it was propounded by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, but its relevance is gaining ground with each passing day. One of the key principles outlined on the website of The Center for Nonviolent Communication, headquartered in the US, is the importance of “deep listening". It is only when we learn to hear what others are saying—as well as what we are saying to them—that mutual compassion becomes a possibility. In the age of social media wars, the art of attentive listening and having civilized conversations may seem like an anomaly, but efforts are on to keep it alive.
For instance, in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, Karin Tamerius, a psychologist and founder of the non-profit group Smart Politics, came upon an inspired idea to help people navigate conversations with family members who held politically different opinions from them.
Tamerius chose the “Angry Uncle" as a figurehead who remains ubiquitous across cultures and contexts. He is the hectoring mansplainer who holds a view contrary to every belief you espouse. His condescending, avuncular guffaw turns dinner-table niceties into violent war cries.
As Tamerius wrote in an article for The New York Times in 2018, the Angry Uncle Bot is programmed to respond with provocations to both people on the left and the right of the political spectrum. The chatbot offers a handful of options as possible reactions to each statement. Then it analyses your pick and explains where you went right or wrong while making your choice. It’s a fun, though instructive, game which enables self-reflection.
Real-life situations are seldom as controlled. A stray remark can escalate into a full-fledged row in a moment. Those who are not confrontational by nature or like to avoid negative encounters with the people they love, tend to avoid fights, but internalizing emotional trauma can result in long-term psychological damage.
“I have always been a person with strong political opinions and never shied away from speaking for the rights of minorities," says Aishwarya Subramanian, a 31-year-old marketing professional based in Bengaluru. “As a result, I have the reputation of being a ‘sickularist’ in my family circles now."
The last few weeks have been topsy-turvy, though. Many people Subramanian knows, who so far billed themselves as “apolitical", have started speaking up. “Although I have stopped speaking to some members of my extended family, I did have a full 45-minute-long conversation with my mother when she wanted to understand why people were out on the streets to protest against the CAA and NRC," she says.
Some relationships may be too fractured to be fully mended but, Subramanian says, she had a fulfilling conversation with a friend who was surprised when she countered his arguments with data from reliable sources. “Most of my family get their facts from WhatsApp and social media, which is both a bane and a boon," she says. She refers to fake news-busting websites frequently to debunk myths, though facts don’t necessarily fly. “I used to avoid family functions as a rule, but now I plan to go, ask difficult questions, and put people in a spot," she says, unwilling to give up.
On the brighter side, as the public discourse around the news cycle grows shriller and views get more polarized, a few individuals and organizations are trying to create platforms where people can gather and express their minds, no matter what their opinions.
Recently, journalist Raksha Kumar sent out a call on Twitter for strangers to come to her place in Mumbai with a friend who holds a politically opposite opinion from them about the CAA and NRC. The idea, she says, was to get people “out of their echo chambers and encourage them to speak to others outside their circle".
This “social experiment", as she wrote in an article on The Print website, left her pleasantly surprised. When one visitor proclaimed a pro-CAA view, the others tried to argue with him rationally. “What would have otherwise been an acidic quote-tweet about whether this man had an affordable Bangladeshi domestic worker became a well-reasoned conversation on just wages for the domestic workers and humanitarian concerns India should have as a nation," Kumar writes. One woman brought along her mother so that they could stop their fight over their political views for a while and have a “conversation in a different place and amidst different people".
At Katte: The Creative Community, a space for artists and performers in Bengaluru, performance artists and educators Shabari Rao and Maitri Gopalakrisna have started a weekly workshop that is going to run at least until the end of this month. In this “Space to Reflect", they have created a zone that is “non-judgemental and safe", where “contradictions, confusions and fears are welcome".
Each week, two facilitators are taking a limited number of pre-registered participants through a session of 2 hours, where they are encouraged to let their guard down. “This isn’t a platform to impart information or change anyone’s perspective, rather it is meant to help people deal with social and emotional fatigue," Rao says. For those who are having trouble talking to family, this could be a space to unwind—emotionally and physically.
The agenda can involve simple exercises like a physical warm-up, walking around the space, looking each other in the eye, smiling at strangers—actions that may seem easy but may sometimes feel tough to execute. “Like many, I needed a moment and a space to relax, to breathe a bit, to clear my head," Rao says. “There are people who are doing stellar work in organizing protests, but we also need spaces to recover from these events."
The silver lining
A willingness to connect, exercise empathy and listen without prejudice can be the first steps towards healing broken bonds, especially within close-knit structures like the family. When parents and other family members listen to the young, or are at least willing to respect their views even if they don’t agree, a special synergy can be forged.
One of the most powerful visuals of the anti-CAA protests was posted on social media on 22 December by Guneet Kaur, a 30-year-old media professional based in Delhi. She photographed her father, Harjeet Singh, holding a placard saying: “It’s so bad, even the parents are here!" While the phrase itself is a play on a meme that has been going viral since the protests began to escalate, the message won many hearts and minds on the internet.
“It’s such a privilege to come back to a family that understands you, where you don’t have to justify your anger," says Kaur. A former student of Jamia Millia Islamia, she was involved in politics in college, but her parents never stopped her from following her instincts. On 22 December, Singh had joined her out of curiosity, to see what was going on at the protests.
“In 1977, when (political leader) Jayaprakash Narayan launched his movement against the Emergency, I was in college, and took part in the protests, not because I was politically active but because I simply happened to be there," Singh says. “I have not been involved in politics since, though I feel it is our duty to protest against injustice." He was impressed by the peaceful protests his daughter took him to. People, too, were struck by his presence. They asked him questions and recorded videos of him.
There was a piece of paper lying nearby. At one point, Kaur picked it up and wrote down the slogan. “It was so sporting of him to hold it up," she says. “And look what happened! I never get as many likes as that post got!" The image has turned out to be moment of “catharsis" for those who have to fight, lie and oppose their families to participate in protests, Kaur says. “You can understand what the young are thinking, their stakes in this movement, only when you go out among them," Singh adds.
As Nelli said in her tweet: Revolution, indeed, starts at home.