Under the Narendra Modi government’s rule, India has been divided into sharp binaries in the past few years. And these became even starker since the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and Amit Shah’s plans for a National Register of Citizens.
This is why I initiated a social experiment — away from the social media echo chambers. On the day when thousands of protesters turned up at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan to oppose the Act, I invited ordinary Indians to my house to peel the layers of the CAA and citizenship that Twitter can only dream of.
I wanted an honest and civil conversation about the CAA, which tries to replace the online vitriol and name-calling that the BJP and its supporters had unleashed on protesters.
A neutral space
I asked on Twitter if people were interested in hearing those outside their usual circles. And if they did, would they want to come along with a friend with an opposing viewpoint and discuss the CAA and the idea of citizenship?
To my surprise, about four dozen people expressed interest in a very short span of time.
Some friends who saw my post offered to host this “offline meet up” in conference rooms of their corporate offices, others offered spare rooms in their NGO offices. Every space carries a certain message. Many young university students or family members would have felt out of place in corporate offices, while some would have questioned the neutrality if the meet-up was in offices of organisations that are openly opposing the CAA.
In the interest of ‘neutrality’, I decided to open up my house. A lot of the people were willing to commute from faraway places to reach my house. After 24 hours of receiving responses, I had to make an announcement that we had reached full capacity. My small house would not accommodate any more people.
It was certainly scary to share my address with strangers on Twitter. It was worth it at the end of the day.
Better than Twitter
Early on 30 December, a mildly sunny Sunday, I invited seven people to come along with a friend who holds an opposing viewpoint on the CAA. Armed with buttermilk, biscuits and chips for 14 people, I braced myself for the conversations.
What transpired throughout the day was a valuable experience.
Initially, only five of the 14 turned up. It was a Sunday and commuting in Mumbai is no joke.
Of these five, everyone opposed the police brutality against the protesters. But, not all of them were for street protests. They would not protest on the streets but no one should be harmed for it, they felt. They didn’t believe in such modes of protest.
All of them said they opposed the CAA, but while two had ideological reasons, one person felt that the state lacked the capacity to see such a massive exercise through. “If the state had capacity, should it have passed such a law?” I asked. “No, the state should not limit entry to just one kind of migrants,” he answered. “It should limit entry to all migrants who are entering for economic reasons.”
While others in the room were vocal advocates of opening the borders to all kinds of migrants and refugees, they withheld their disappointment and tried to reason 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.
Over a period of time, everyone loosened up. They began talking about how their families and friends support the law. “A friend who supports the law cited the Spanish law and said everyone who shares Spain’s cultural roots is welcome in Spain more than others. Why should India not have such a law which is religious in nature?” asked one.
This led to a long debate on the idea of India, which was meant to be inclusive and open to all cultures.
After they left, three women knocked on my door. “We are very late, but wanted to drop in to see if people are conversing still,” they said. Two of them resembled each other, I asked if they were related. “My mom,” said the younger one. She had brought along her mother to discuss if Muslims should participate in these protests at all. “At home, we only fight,” she said sweetly. So, she wanted to have the conversation in a different place and amidst different people.
Her mother carefully removed her burqa and placed it aside. With a loud voice, she expressed herself clearly. “We need to be strategic. This is the time for Muslims to let others take on the struggle. If we seek our rights, they will shut us up,” she said. “Like they are doing in Uttar Pradesh.”
Her daughter was distraught. “But it is our fight, why not fight it boldly?”
One person messaged late afternoon and dropped in early evening. With his wife. “I want to understand why she is so anti-Modi and why she supports those who are burning buses,” he said. He fights with many people like his wife online, but can’t take her on every day at home without making his life hell. So, he had driven her from more than 25 kilometres away to reach my house.
We spoke till late in the evening over bottles of wine.
“Wish we spoke more to people,” said the woman. “We end up speaking at people all the time.”
Each of these people had much to do on a Sunday. But they choose to drop in for conversations. I am not sure how much of a change in their viewpoints this brought about. For many though, it was the first time they were talking openly and without fear, with someone who held opposing beliefs.
The nature of Twitter is such that those who turned up were from better socio-economic backgrounds. However, it is not tough to adapt this model to different settings.
Some people came forward to organise such face-to-face meetings in other cities. We will continue holding space.
The author is a multimedia journalist, focussing on human rights. She won the Chameli Devi Award for Outstanding Media Personality. Views are personal.
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