This article is about a five-week experimental journey called Samjho Toh, which I was part of in the chilly months of February. The essence of the journey, much like its name, has been, to encourage us to understand diverging political ideologies from our own, through series of appreciative inquiry, partner tasks, and a collaborative goal.
When was the last time you changed your opinion on something and admitted to it? Was it easy?
One of our most unique abilities as humans is the power to change our minds. But as we become trapped in echo chambers of our own making – huddled up with like-minded friends and social media feeds, are we losing that ability?
The Anti-CAA protests and the Delhi pogrom saw massive polarization between people with opposing ideologies.
In the wake of 2020, New Delhi witnessed violent communal riots that left a lasting dent in the secular fabric of the nation. However, this was not all. There was massive pressure from social media to un-friend or even worse, block people from the “opposing camp”. There was no doubt that Political differences had begun to impact personal relationships. Still, in no way should such polarization be seen as a recent phenomenon.
In fact, the Pew Research Centre found out in 2014 that people are becoming more polarized each passing day, and are less likely to compromise. However, this was the first time it was impacting me so personally. Could I even sit on the same dinner table as someone who supported a politician I didn’t without dissolving into an argument?
Looking back, I started understanding how microcosms like college debate circuits work. As a proactive debater in high college, I remember being wary of the aggressive debating culture. I will be kidding myself if I tell you that a debate competition is a conducive space for healthy dialogue and discussion. Barring the forced shaking of hands after a debate, there is no scope for agreement. You either win an argument or lose it. No in-between.
So where does a young person like me find a space to be able to freely express themselves, interact with diverse people, and change their opinions without judgment?
College seems like an ideal space from afar. However, growing-up in a left-liberal family and then going for my undergraduate degree at Lady Shri Ram College I never learned how to interact with people who had differing political ideologies than me. I was surrounded by people who were ‘liberal’ so to speak, as my friends and I ended up agreeing on most issues. I joined Instagram in my first year in college, and whenever I would come across someone who supported a party that I disliked, I would unfollow them immediately. I soon realized I was trapped in an echo-chamber. And I wanted out.
Curtains lift, band music plays, Enter Samjho Toh. I learned about ‘Samjho Toh (to understand)’ from one of my friends who was interning at Pravah in collaboration with ComMutiny – the Youth Collective ran this experimental project. It aimed to bring together young people with diverse political ideologies and social backgrounds in one room and encourage conversations, to understand and go beyond their differences.
The people I was surrounded by had similar opinions and ideologies as me.
I still remember how anxious I was on the first day. What was scaring me was the question, “How will I socialize or even be able to talk to people who think so differently from me?”. I had warned myself that I had to be ready to interact with people who had different political stances, but had not fathomed, the depth of these interactions. Labels like ‘pro-dissent’, ‘apolitical’, ‘right-wing’, and ‘leftist’ were thrown all over the room in the first set of introductions.
The room got further divided when we were asked to take sides on the question- ‘Is violence justified for the right cause?’. After a heated discussion between the teams ‘for’ and ‘against’, we were asked to pick a partner from the ‘other side’, with who we wished to interact more. My worst fears were coming true.
However, I went for the kill. I took on the most argumentative person from the lot, told myself, “I’ll convert him, explain to him a thing or two”. The interaction happened over a plate of Rajma Chawal, thus didn’t go as bad as I expected. Later, we were allotted weekly tasks which we had to finish with our partners. These tasks included writing poetry together about communal harmony. While we did these tasks, we ventured into discussing politics based on the news articles we would upload on our WhatsApp Status. Even though WhatsApp stories became a frequent point of contestation between the both of us, to my surprise, we became good friends.
Gradually as the workshops went by, we were told we had to create a song together on communal harmony. Now, this was one tough task. Since the group had an extremely different understanding of what the former meant for them – we first would have to reach a common ground.
So, we began by talking about ‘Our Idea of India’. An unfacilitated discussion took place where we spoke about the values and principles the country stands by or should espouse. The group had differing viewpoints on the idea of secularism. The question that arose was, ‘Is India actually secular in practice?’. A debate – about whether the recital of ‘Sarasvati Vandana (mantra for Goddess Sarasvati)’ in government schools contradicts India’s commitment to secularism – left the room divided. Finally, we arrived at conclusions for a few issues, while agreed to disagree on others.
The process of songwriting was next. This was what got us close together as a group. We had to finally set aside our differences and co-create a song that would define our learning from this journey. I finally realized that I could make friends with people who had different ideologies and stances. Even though verbal conflicts continued to persist, but this time, we tried to empathize with each other’s opinions instead of imposing our own.
Throughout the journey – one question kept haunting me. Is ‘Samjho Toh’ about changing someone else’s political thinking? Or is it about changing your own? Well, it’s neither. It doesn’t start with that aim, anyway. What this program wished to do was create a culture of dialogue instead of debate. It aimed to replace the anxieties we have of proving ourselves right all the time, with the ability to accept new perspectives and be open to changing our own.
What started as a boxing ring – ended up becoming a harmony lab. On our last day, some of us even decided to carry forward our friendships and started a group study circles on social issues that we were passionate about. In the lockdown period, seven of us got together (online of course) and created a group called – ‘Learn-Unlearn’. We aimed to benefit from the group’s diversity and looked at issues from each other’s perspectives. Each Sunday one of us picks a social issue we are passionate about and conducts an online session on zoom for the others. This is followed by discussion and feedback.
While some sessions have been well received, others have been followed by heated conversations. But this is the point – some conversations will end up tugging stereotypes and notions we had held for a long time, very close to us. Thus, we have to be ready to unlearn what we have learned all these years. Unlearning thus becomes a major aspect of our journey as young people who want to evolve as leaders!
However, there are still a few questions in my mind, concerning empathy. How am I to blindly empathize with someone who discriminates between religions? Shouldn’t I vehemently speak up against the suppression of a group? Well, this experience wasn’t able to answer these for me. However, what it did make me understand was that violence and non-engagement are never an answer. It is only through dialogue; will we ever be able to create constructive structures.
There will always be diversity- racial, religious, and even political – how we deal with it is up to us. The famous Heineken beer ad puts it wonderfully, “We sure are worlds apart, but let’s open our worlds to each other.”