Where has all the joy and civility gone? – A senior lawyer reflects on intolerance in India

Rebecca Mammen John

Senior advocate practicing in Delhi

My name is not typically Indian, although in my home state of Kerala, it is a regular, commonplace name. From the time I filled up my bus pass form at university, to more recently when I signed a lease document, I have been asked whether I am a foreign national. Crazy question, considering I don’t look foreign and I am usually dressed in a saree – an attire I am most comfortable in.

I grew up in a neighbourhood where the domestic helps were told that we were not nice people because we ate meat. The neighbourhood incidentally consisted of big fat joint families who bribed every official from every department, so that their big fat businesses could run – sometimes it was so open and brazen, we actually saw the transactions take place from our gate. But they were good people because they did not eat meat. They were good people, who told my mother when she had gone over to distribute sweets, to celebrate the birth of my brother’s twin daughters: Bahut dhuk hua – ek tho Ladka hotha!

And yet, we laughed it off because we believed that they did not represent the spirit of India. At school, I had teachers and friends who cared for me for who I was and not because I “belonged to a different religion”. I entered a male dominated profession and made it worse by practicing criminal law. I have had a good run though, so I have few complaints.

My friends are mostly Hindu. Religion has played no role in the life I lead, in the choices I make. Both my brothers live abroad, I chose to live in India. When my son had to choose a third language in school, almost all his friends chose French – he chose Sanskrit. He plays the tabla and yes he was very clear that he wanted to go to College in India, at a time when most of his batch mates were applying to universities abroad.

Today, my friends and family feel nervous about the existing climate in India. We write about it and we talk about it when we meet. We believe our core values are facing an unprecedented attack and the spirit of India has taken a beating. We could be right or not. But why does it have to provoke such a harsh, bitter, abusive, angry and irrational response? Is it because we have hit a raw nerve? Why is there so much noise? Where has all the joy and civility gone?