“Imagine Honey a transgender and Anando a dwarf cooking together at Anando’s home…Let alone each other, they didn’t know anyone so different from themselves before the Samjho toh Express arrived in Kolkata. In normal Public Initiatives, youth engage in mostly protest modes. But in Samjho toh express, we felt it was high time that youth should be engaged in a constructive way. Adults and adult led spaces have created identity stereotypes by creating ghettos where the ‘other’ is demonised and excluded. Our way was to give young people a taste of the forbidden fruit – a cross border relationship with someone they never in their wildest imagination believed they could befriend…..
We believe in today’s world where intolerance rises to new levels every day, there’s an alternative way forward to simply solve this. That is, by ‘talking’ or ‘having conversations’. India with secularism and free speech enshrined in its constitution, has been at the epicenter of a curious debate these past few months: Has the world’s biggest democracy become an intolerant nation?
This is clearly seen by increase in the number of communal violence in India. In the first 5 months of the 2016, 278 communal clashes have been reported. In 2015, India witnessed 751 clashes as compared to 644 in 2014. This clearly shows an increase in the levels of intolerance in the country at this given point in time.
Another glaring example of this reality was the killing of a Muslim man by his Hindu neighbours. The reason? There was a rumor that a carcass of a cow was seen nearby. Over the next few weeks, at least two other Muslim men were attacked: one over rumors that he was transporting beef, the other for allegedly smuggling cows. And the story continues unabated today. In Gujarat, the flogging of Dalits for skinning a dead cow has triggered spontaneous street protests not seen in years, and contributed to circumstances that seemingly led to the resignation of Chief Minister Anandiben Patel.
Infact there have been a spate of attacks seemingly fueled by intolerance across India and unfortunately young people have played an instrumental part. The numbers of communal violence incidents are rising continuously. The national response has included a growing chorus of anger directed at the government and ‘one another’…but is this the only choice?
In a society as complex and diverse as India, the challenge is to ensure that this huge segment of our population becomes a vibrant, constructive force that can address social issues and create a more just, equitable and peaceful world. The youth have enough potential to change the current scenario and make this society an inclusive one to live in, but unfortunately it appears that they are also the easiest to manipulate. We strongly feel that a space needs to be created where young people can come together leaving behind their identities and make friends beyond labels.
Samjho Toh Express was a public initiative initiated by Commutiny – the Youth Collective and supported by Misereor, Oxfam and Change Alliance. which has aimed at cultivating cross border friendships through an experiential journey which helps the youth in reflecting and breaking the stereotypes that they hold for the ‘others’. Samjho Toh Express is a play of words on Samjhauta express, a train ran between India & Pakistan to spread the message of friendship, love & peace across borders. Similarly Samjho Toh Express aims to spread the message of friendship beyond labels. As Samjho Toh Express means to understand and also express, without expressing the walls of labels won’t be demolished.
Therefore a collaborative effort of 21 partners across 14 states over the course of past nine months, the journey directly engaged approximately 350 young people from diverse backgrounds, reaching out to 5000 young people who not only participated but also volunteered and joined the Samjho Toh journey in various ways.
The journey of the Samjho Toh Express is divided in three parts. The journey begins at ‘Junction’ where young people from different background come together to understand what stereotypes are and to break them. They make new friends towards the end of the junction. Then these new friends embark on the journey for 30-45 days to get to know each other and understand their background. Then these new friends come together in form a culmination at ‘Manzil’ and share their stories of learning and change with the world.
We feel in today’s context there are very few spaces to really understand & experience each other. STE provided this space to many young people to understand & engage with their own stereotypes & initiate the journey of crossing their identity labels. One such example is of Sahil and Sayantani.
Sahil is a boy from an orthodox Muslim background. He doesn’t have friends from other communities and is an introvert by nature. Sayantani, on the other hand, is a Hindu girl; she’s outspoken and has many friends but mostly from a similar background.
Could these 2 people befriend each other?
Today they are good friends. This turnaround came through a process…. They came & participated in the STE event organized by Prantakatha, one of CYC’s forum members. They chose to become friends post the event and decided to embark on a new journey of understanding themselves & each other. During the event, when photographs of the journey were uploaded, Sahil’s discomfort was obvious. While Sayantani was not troubled at all by it, Sahil felt that photographs with a girl from a different community may not go down well with members from his own. He requested for the photographs to be removed and this disturbed Sayantani.
Since it was causing trouble between new friends, a facilitated conversation was required. During this conversation it was bought out that Sahil as an individual didn’t have problem with it but its ‘the people he lives with’, ‘his community’. Post the conversation Sahil felt confident and was ready to challenge and understand the construct of his conditioning, his thoughts. So he also took this beyond his individual space, in to his family whom he feared would react in a certain way, to help them break their story & see the relationship between a ‘girl’ and a ‘boy’ in a different light.
Similarly Arunima and Joynal, who participated in Samjho Toh Express in Assam organsised by We Are Young (WAY) Foundation, come from different sections of society and they had their own sets of inhibitions. Arunima comes from an elite class of the society where she had accessed to almost everything before she asked for it whereas, Joynal was a muslim from lower class where meeting ends was an everyday struggle. Since her childhood Arunima was told to not to not to mingle with people from lower income belt and there is a preset notion that people from the lower income group in Guwahati who do not speak proper Assamese are illegal Bangladeshi Muslim Migrants.
When Arunima and Joynal were paired up, initially it was challenging for both of them to engage as they had some notions about the ‘other’. But slowly with facilitated conversation and opportunity to deeply engage with each other, they came out of their shells. Through one of the activities they engaged their parents and helped them in understanding why such initiatives are needed. Although Arunima was always told by her family not to engage with people from lower income group but after meeting Joynal Arunima’s family’s thoughts changed and they promised to mentor Joynal for becoming IAS.
Similarly many such beautiful change stories have emerged clearly showing the impact of the initiative. It is at the mindset level that we need to work to rewire the circuitry young people have been brought up with. A survey conducted by CYC also clearly indicates that to solve a problem, interventions at mindset change level are also as important as infrastructural, legal or systemic. The problem is a lack on investment in psychosocial interventions.
This campaign has been yet another example of how stepping out of our comfort zones and challenging our own mindsets can result in a long term change in the way we view the world and participate in it. The wave of friendship beyond labels continues to spread as the Samjho Toh Express chugs along to other destinations.
The need of the hour is to create more inclusive spaces for young people to understand and engage with their own identity as they explore the ‘other’, while they are still forming their worldview.