Today, the Supreme Court of India delivered its verdict on the Ayodhya land dispute. The Ayodhya case and the religious divide it has created has cost this country dearly. It is important that the tensions around the verdict subside and similar contentious litigations do not crop up again. So, India needs to forget this case and all the emotions around it as effectively and as soon as possible.
In medical history, there is the case of Solomon Shereshevsky, a man who couldn’t forget anything. For example, he could recall every word of a book that he had read days earlier. One would have thought he would become a genius because of his memory. On the contrary, he became a misfit in life. The information overload in his brain interfered with his cognitive ability.
Many of us might not realize that forgetting is one of the most efficient processes of the human brain. It is constantly discarding from its memory system information that is not essential for future use. Studies have shown that forgetting is also integral to a process called hedonic adaptation--the tendency of the human brain to get used to even the most positive and negative things in one’s life. Due to forgetting, these events tend to have a decreasing impact on one’s daily decisions. This was proven by a study by researchers from Northwestern University and University of Massachusetts. They studied happiness levels of those who won a large state lottery, and of those who had become paraplegic due to catastrophic accidents. Overall, neither the lottery-win increased happiness as much as the researchers thought it would nor the catastrophic event affect the victim as much as they thought it would. Psychologist Robert Puff wrote in Psychology Today "When we experience a major event, say winning a lottery or becoming paralyzed, our mental thermostat may temporarily swing up and down. But over time it returns to its usual setting". But in the Ayodhya case, forgetting might not be that easy.
The Ayodhya issue was a lot about one’s religious identity. The emotions around the case are so strong because religion is one of the strongest determinants of one’s identity. During the Ayodhya litigation religious leaders and political parties used religious identities to create a potent weapon of mass consolidation-- creation of in-groups and out-groups. Identifying with one’s in-group (those similar to us) and rejecting one’s out-group (those against us) is a strong trait humans have had since the days of evolution. So the divisions this case has made in Indian society are much deeper than the impact of other events. If the common man in India has to forget the Ayodhya issue, one needs to create a strong alternate identity that slowly helps subsume one’s religious identity.
As was mentioned in my last Mint article, building a national identity goes a long way in bridging the chasm between religions. The EU is an example of identity creation where nations that were at opposite sides of the worst two wars in human history have come together as one. But using national identity to override religious identity is a slow process. One can picture this much like a message written in sand. Every time ocean waves reach the shore, they make the writing less legible until it eventually disappears entirely.
It is important that any attempt to rekindle past memories of the Ayodhya litigation is avoided. There should be no statements or actions by anyone that embarrasses those who lost the case. Time eventually eases the emotional pain of even the most catastrophic event in one’s life. So it may be advisable to delay the construction of a new temple as long as possible. The longer it takes to build it, the easier it would be to heal the wounds of those who feel they’ve lost.
The other important strategy that is used to help the human brain to forget is interference. In this strategy, memories are made less accessible because of interference from related information acquired before or after the formation of those memories. In light of the waves example, it means that instead of waves slowly corroding the message, someone comes and writes another message over it. This makes the message harder, or even impossible, to read. This overwriting could be achieved through a new experience or new information.
It is a brilliant coincidence that the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya case has come on the very day India and Pakistan open the Kartarpur corridor for Sikh pilgrims. The corridor’s inauguration is an event that will help interfere with the existing memories of Pakistan as a hostile nation. We need to design several similar interventions to interfere with existing memories about the Ayodhya dispute.
There are several religious festivities in our country that are examples of collaboration between religions. For example, there are religious festivities where the oil for burning lamps for festivities come from the elders of another religion. Similar collaboration between religions should be encouraged in Ayodhya. Ayodhya should also have a memorial that plays up the religious unity of this country. Any gesture by the winning side to reach out to the other will go a long way in creating strong harmonious relationships in the future.
No doubt, the faster Indians forget the Ayodhya case, the smoother will be India’s journey into the future.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.