Home Secular Rethink Anuranjan Roy
Anuranjan Roy won first prize in the recent CfP-IE essay contest, 2007 with this essay.

I can’t help feeling a little cynical as I pen this down. After all, the only people who would want to read an essay on “Living with differences” would be the ones who are already aware that there is no viable alternative to it. For those who are convinced that standardization-be it on the lines of religion, caste or class is the way out of the entire world’s ills wouldn’t bother making the effort. But in times when a moderate opinion on any issue is panned and reviled by both warring camps, this is an important exercise in self-motivation.

It’s been over a year since I passed out of Regional Engineering College (REC), Kurukshetra (Now that’s a real place in Haryana, in case you thought it is something on the lines of Rama’s Bridge). It’s been grandly re-christened National Institute of Technology (NIT), Kurukshetra, but we alumni persist with the REC short form rather than the new fangled NIT. RECs represent a unique kind of Institutions where people so markedly different are put together in some kind of weird social experiment. Students from every state have just got to be there, unlike the IITs where only the ‘cream’ shows up (more often than not resulting in states with great competitive environments dominating the numbers). But in RECs, it was a case of state boards, Delhi boards, vernacular medium, English medium, competitive exam based selections and board marks based selections, all tossed together in a mixed salad of sorts. And to the great surprise of everyone involved, manage to function quite well in their own hopelessly complicated sort of way.

As one would expect, stereotyping was everyone’s favourite pastime. Guys from the North are bruising and crude, the people from the East are pseudo-intellectual snobs, the fellows from Western India- oh, ready to sell their souls if there was any money involved, students from the South never looking beyond syllabus books and their ‘own’ kind and finally the North-east- drunk druggies! And this was just stereotype level 1, the data and pre-conditioning for which our upbringing in our respective domicile states had already groomed us to believe. The next level would crop up when passionate as the youth must be, battle lines would be drawn over a minor argument or scuffle. Regions would blend into temporary coalitions and you would discover that:
# Up-ites were all scheming politicians
# Biharis were vicious fighters ready to plunge into battle at the drop of a hat
# Telugus were basically spineless and wouldn’t ever take a stand
# Tamils were out on a mission to subjugate all other South Indian cultures
# Bengalis were so full of themselves that it was impossible to stand them for more than a minute

and a million more such previously unstated accusations that were always hiding in a dark corner of the mind waiting for an oppurtune moment to spring out.

All prejudices and pet hates now out in the open, a tangible bitterness in the air and one would be forgiven for thinking that national integration was a lost cause even after 60 years of Independence. Tense and difficult, moments like these were indeed but in retrospect they bring a smile to my face.

I smile because there is a fact that drifters like me knew. Being a Bengali schooled in Gujarat, and thereby gaining admission through the Gujarat quota, my domicile state was just one identity. We call them State GTs (Get Togethers) and Gujarat GT was something like a degree which was affixed to my name as and when the situation required. I had the good fortune/misfortune of being termed too Bengali or not Bengali enough by different groups at different times. I knew that despite all the cribbing and finger pointing some things would remain unchanged.

When mess food in its vile form was served on our plates, all hands would stretch to that extra large jar of spicy South Indian pickle carried by a benevolent soul. When the Telugu guy next room would be really sick, it would be his Haryanvi classmates who would rush him to the hospital. That the common room would be packed to the rafters with every eye on the TV screen whenever “The Matrix” was on or when Australia was on the verge of losing a cricket match, whether the opponent be India or not. That the precious matchbox doing the rounds to light cigarettes had no regional loyalties and neither did a freshly filled bottle of cold water from the cooler, the furious look on its owner’s face notwithstanding. Xeroxed notes on the night before the exam would have a geographical distribution worthy of a thesis and that the look of shock after a particularly tough exam hardly varied from face to face. The dissimilarities between us were far too many to note down, but it was the most unlikely similarities that invited bemused contemplation.

But of course, not everything was hunky-dory in life at an REC. Some of my fellow students by way of being in the wrong place at the wrong time walked away from 4 years of engineering with regional stereotypes further re-inforced. Some of them gave up the fight to defy the labels of their region, finding it much more convenient to behave the way certain people expected them to, helped in no small measure by constant heckling and jeering. The 50% local strength of the Haryanvi students in our REC frequently saw ‘Us and them’ situations crop up with Haryana-non Haryana tensions simmering. This feeling of insecurity against the majority populace seemed to be a common feature in most RECs if reports from friends in other RECs are anything to go by. Any kind of majority always exerts an unseen and mostly unintentional pressure on the others, and in an atmosphere of distrust, it only requires the proverbial spark to burst into flames.

This is where I realized the sincere need for just inane conversation. By virtue of my network of friends, I always knew that the rumours and whispers about the ‘rival’ group had minimum basis in truth. Some of the people I talked with hardly had anything in common with me, but just by interacting with them I knew they couldn’t be half as bad as the alarm raisers claimed them to be. Sadly for others who were completely out of touch with them, anything anyone ever said about them was as good as true.

Having grown up in Gujarat, I wondered even more how much a little mindless banter could have made a difference. During the 2002 riots in Gujarat, a Muslim classmate and I laughed over the fact that identical stories about a Muslim girl/Hindu girl being abducted were doing the rounds simultaneously in the respective communities. But when put in context of the horrifying violence that rumours like these generated, it hardly seems funny any longer. The fact that virtual LOCs between the two communities in most cities still persist, its sadly evident that peace achieved in such conditions is just a makeshift arrangement.

At the end of the day we are all flawed, emotional beings who have a set of prejudices and dislikes which have evolved out of our immediate environment. Some of these prejudices cannot be shaken off in a lifetime but we can surely do better at preventing them from hardening. Every time one makes a sweeping statement about a community or a caste or a class, its important to rein that in. Situations may yet force them out but keeping those words in for a few seconds more robs them of their sting and in many cases makes one realize the purposelessness of it all.

It is only human nature that we turn to a group that is closest to our way of living whenever we feel the need for security and identity. But reaching out is so much more important even though mutual agreement may be a distant dream. Just by knowing a person with a set of values which we find odd, comes a revelation that we are similar in some ways however few they may be. This similarity is a surprise and lessens to a great extent all our apprehensions about something completely unknown. And of course the all important fact that for any correction of supposed ‘flaws’ in the other, the kind word of a friend is so much more effective than the hate filled invective of a stranger.

It’s a strange world that we live in. The rich/privileged seem to hate the poor for not being able to fend for themselves and the poor/disadvantaged hate the rich for purposefully keeping all opportunities to themselves. The religious hate the ‘modern’ for being too flippant about their God, while the ‘modern’ hate the religious for being book-bound bigots. And so on and forth, rage a variety of differences. I am not idealistic enough to see the world join together in a celebration of our differences in the near future, indeed coming together has its fair share of acrimony. But just knowing our differences and accepting them, before pushing for any kind of compromise is the first and inevitable step in the long, arduous path towards a world which is a saner, more livable version of its present sorry self.
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