Why I Chose to Have Lunch With a ‘Bigot’ — A 2002 Riots Accused

Wondering why I’d have lunch with a Hindu ‘fundamentalist’ whose ideals I detest? Here’s why, writes Revati Laul.

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It made sense to steal from the title of Amitav Kumar’s book, since I was meeting a man who didn’t believe in rule-books and I was learning from him, how to bend mine a little. Plus, I do call him a bigot to his face.

“Muslim-slayer,” I said this time, with the necessary jocularity, so he could think of it as a ‘joke’, and privately, know it was true. The laughter allowed him to save face in front of his three friends who accompanied him to our lunch. And from that standpoint, it was actually very funny. That a man who called me his ‘sister’ — ‘behena,’ is someone I called a ‘Hindu fundamentalist’ to his face. In the five years we have known each other, he saw me write a book called The Anatomy of Hate, about the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat riots. And he was accused in one of the ten worst cases from that pogrom.

A Risqué Lunch With a Sanghi — And Then a Second Lunch

Yet, we have been in constant touch, and are Facebook friends. We even went on a trip to a medieval temple and then a bird sanctuary and a risqué lunch in Gujarat when we first met. He pulled out a bottle of whiskey in a state where alcohol is prohibited. As he finished several drinks in a few large gulps, he bragged about his exploits as a ‘Sanghi’ — a proud member of the umbrella of institutions of the Hindu right — the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or VHP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, and their political arm — the BJP. “I yanked a girl out of the court premises in UP because she was about to elope with a Muslim,” he said. “I started ‘Love Jihad’,” he declared to me and five friends accompanying him on the trip. I wrote about that lunch here.

Five years later, we were meeting in Delhi for a second lunch.

“You tried to give me a history lesson the last time, so now it’s my turn,” I had said to him. “I will meet you at the National Museum, and then we can have lunch in Connaught Place,” I said, feeling like this could be a conversation that would come full circle.

In the intervening years, my friend was arrested for his alleged crimes, then released on bail.

After a few weeks in jail, he had met me and asked if I could find him a lawyer. “Why? Where are all your fellow Sanghis?” I had said, meaning to twist the knife. His face fell. He kept up the banter for a while and then left.

Was I the ‘Saviour’ of a Man Accused of Terrible Crimes?

We stayed in touch, and this is the main reason for my writing about him now. In between the bragging and all the swagger, there were chinks — spaces that were tentative, uncertain, real — where this man told me how he had “wasted 25 years of his life in the Sangh.” And then he did many u-turns. I kept up with him partly out of curiosity, and a certain vicariousness. But also to understand what was going on here. This man who was accused of some of the most heinous crimes against Muslims, wanted to talk to someone who found that kind of politics reprehensible. Was I his ‘saviour’?

Was I the equivalent of his confession booth, satisfying his need for affirmation from a non-believer whose moral universe he wanted to inhabit?

I wanted the museum visit-lunch to provide some answers.

We greeted each other warmly. He introduced me to his two friends — middling businessmen who were trying to use his proximity with the BJP to get their new sports venture off ground. We stopped at the stone age tools and then the Harappan artefacts. I told my friend that there are new theories about the statue of the bronze woman, that she may not in fact have been a dancing girl. One hand was covered with bangles but the other — not. She could have been an ancient warrior. He smiled.

He was excited to show his friends what he could bring to the table via me. “Look, she knows so much. Look what we talk about.” I had belittled him, he was massaging my ego. He was clearly getting a rise out of this.

A Museum Visit — But No ‘Mughal Section’

We stopped at a sculpture of the Buddha from the Gupta period, sculpted in the Roman style that the Gandhara school of art was known for. “This is a statute of the Buddha, commissioned by a Hindu king in an Italian style,” I said. He understood what I was after. “Haan, us samay me sab log ek doosrey ke saath ghul miltey they, sab mixed tha. (I know, in those times everyone mixed with everyone else),” he said. It was a cookie cutter mould answer designed to deflect from everything that lay underneath.

We were done with the Gupta period and I was preparing myself to launch into an “India is syncretic,” by showing him art and artefacts from the Delhi sultanate, and then the Mughal era.

I wanted to show him how the Mughal period wasn’t Muslim, wasn’t bigoted, and wasn’t what he had been taught it was. But the museum had axed those sections. For the moment at least, all chronology stopped at ancient India. There was no Mughal or British period to follow. Gallery goers would have to go from the Gupta period to thematic sections such as “Indian paintings” and “sculpture,” sans chronology.

“I wonder if this is deliberate and if this has been done at the behest of this government — your people, your kind of politics,” I teased him.

“Thank god there isn’t a Mughal section, or I’d be in for an afternoon of scoldings from you,” he said smiling. And then he threw me a comeback for all the grief I had given him. “They shouldn’t have taken the Mughal section out, because once you do that, you have nothing to use to polarise people with,” he said, grinning widely, flashing his polished white teeth. And then he asked me to drop the references to his bigoted past. “I am trying to move on from there, can’t you stop talking about it just for this one lunch?” he asked.

‘People Are Not Born Secular’

We headed to United Coffee House. I told him of its history, of argumentative Indians coming here to talk about revolution and rebellion. We ordered butter chicken and naan. I went over why I was doing this. What was the point of talking to someone with thirty years of indoctrination in him? Was I trying to be an evangelist, was I getting a kick out of feeling superior while trying to pretend to reach out to a bigot? Perhaps all of that.

But over five years of meetings and conversations, I also knew that talking to people unlike myself was something of a project.

It was a very deliberate and self-conscious way of testing all that I believed. If I was liberal, I had to be able to test my levels of tolerance. If I was tolerant, I had to be able to stomach uncomfortable truths and impossible realities, without hitting out at the ‘other’. If I truly believed in being humane, I had to understand that people are not born secular. Some are, others are not — and that is just an accident of birth. So, if all I ever do in my life is talk to people like myself, am I really secular at all? Or am I guilty of exactly what the Hindu right critiques me for — talking down to those unlike myself.

If I had to really see what I was made of, what my values were worth, I had to genuinely believe in the possibility of change.

Especially when it seemed completely ridiculous or impossible. That meant being able to talk to people with hard-line positions on the things I find the most reprehensible of all. And trying to see if it was possible to have a real conversation.

The Need for Difficult Conversations

If I want less bigotry, I would have to imagine a world with no fixed positions. My friend, the bigot, had already shown me signs of this world. A re-imagined space, where he and I could find a way of speaking to each other while jousting with each other and recognising that I would never let up on calling him out on his violence and hate, and he would never stop laughing at it all and wrestling with this unresolved space between us.

Between my first lunch with this man and this latest one, I have moved some distance in trying to have difficult conversations.

I talk about it incessantly and compulsively, to everyone all the time. I said, “the RSS expands by talking to people not like themselves. And us liberals have shrunk our space because we spend all our time only talking to each other.”

However contrived this ‘reaching out’ may seem, it has continuously surprised me. I have met people in UP who are part of cow protection squads and people tracking down Hindu-Muslim couples in Karnataka as part of ‘Love Jihad’.

How Could a Hindu Right-Winger Suddenly Quit the Sangh?

In a village in Bhadohi in Eastern UP, I met a man who told me that he comes from a family with three generations of loyalty to the BJP, from its previous avatar as the Jana Sangh. And then an astounding thing happened.

On the day the election results were declared, he rang me to say he had quit the party — he was fed up with seeing the gap between what they say and do widen impossibly. And he sent me the following text. “Kya poorna bahumat ka matlab sach hota hai? Toh phir Galileo ka sach kya tha aur Socrates ka? (Does a brute majority give the winner a premium on the truth? In that case what was Galileo’s truth and Socrates)?”

Here was a man from a hard-line Hindu background from eastern UP, talking with so much wisdom about the truth of the 16th century astronomer Galileo?

Galileo was dubbed a heretic for saying that the Sun, and not the Earth, was the centre of the universe. And Socrates’s truth, which also went against the majority sentiment — the Athenian state — for which he was poisoned in 399 BC.

What Conversations With the Hindu Right Have Taught Me

Conversations with people in the Hindu right — from Gujarat to UP to Karnataka — have taught me one thing. That I must not look at this space as a monolith. Like everything else in India, the Hindu right is not one thing, it’s many. It is also full of dissent, which we aren’t giving words to tack it down. Words are the skin around which thoughts wrap themselves. Without it they vaporise. I have learned to listen and give these conversations their due. I am not looking for numbers, percentages of dissenters versus the faithful. I am talking to whoever I come across.

I am trying to see if I can do to myself what I expect of them. Bend. And watch the unexpected happen alongside the expected.

In the end, I am contrarian. Disobedient. When people around me throw up their hands and say, “look what we’ve become,” I choose to upend the overall atmosphere of despondency and say f@#$ that! It’s with this sense of ridiculousness and renewed purpose, that I boldly go forth to talk to people entirely outside my comfort zone. And see what shifts — this side and that.

(Revati Laul is a Delhi-based journalist and film-maker, and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Context/Westland, now in stores and also on Amazon.in. She tweets at@RevatiLaul. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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