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Why I went to a Shakha!

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I have lost a photograph. I had kept, rather hid it, under another photograph in my album. It was clicked on the Ridge Ground, Shimla somewhere in the months of October or November, 2019. The crystal clear sky of the city and a disciplined hustle-bustle of The Ridge in the background had added charm to the photo. In front, there stood the two youth of 21 in clean full-sleeved white cotton shirts, oversized khaki nickers held tight with brown canvas belts. With black forage cap on heads, the thing that was of utmost joy to us was the long bamboo stick which reached well above our heads pointing towards the sky.

The most notable virtue of the photograph was the similar expression on our faces. The cleaned-shaved faces looked beatific with wide gleaming eyes. Was it in black and white, it reminisced me of portrayal of freedom fighters in our history books.

On one particular day, members of a Right Wing Student Union seemed pretty busy in the university premises. Activities near the main gate and the conversations in the tea stalls were gesticulating an important event ‘on the way’. My class fellows who were associated with the union were not on the desks for few days. I could hardly spot them in university campus. My day was passing well after being satiated with ‘Aaloo pranthas’ and basking in the pleasant sunny weather of hill queen.

While sitting on the bench, I noticed a friend of mine, a member of the student union approaching me. After a hand shake, I enquired about his assiduous schedule. He told me that RSS sammelan was being organised in Shimla on the historic Ridge Ground. And he was busy in performing the duties assigned to him. I tried to explore the nature of his duties. He straightforwardly asked me:

“Be ready on Sunday. You will have to come with us.”

“Where?” I asked.

“The Ridge.” He answered in a affirmative tone.

“Leave it. I cannot.” My statement rattled him a little.

“Listen, Vishal (my roommate) is also coming. I’ll come to hostel tonight and talk to you people. Bye for now.” He left the bench hurryingly.

I was left puzzled. “Why should I go? And, how can I?” A monologue started with in. Born to a government salaried ‘babu’ father, I was raised in a family where ‘political ideology’ couldn’t be put on the shelf for display. Even our ‘religious ideology’ lied in the fact that we were born in a Hindu family. We could worship Lord Rama but ‘not only Lord Rama!’ We had to contain ourselves in certain boundaries so that we could not be labeled as Bhartiya Janta Party persons.

Once, as a teen, I uttered “Jai Shri Ram” while playing with friends. A village shopkeeper instantly snubbed me and asked me to ‘leave for Ayodhaya’ at once as it was Congress government in the state. But, what made us to fear for being labeled? Posting of my father in remote areas of the state! One day, I asked my father to take me to a rally to which a film star was going to address. He refused. I insisted again and he came up angrily: Do you wish me to get posted at Lahul Spiti?

I could not witness political rallies. I missed listening to few great leaders. Voting for my family members remained a ‘highly clandestine affair.’ I could not hail the victories of my favorite parties. ‘Hindutva’ couldn’t be ceremonised as it was only a ‘BJP’ affair and ‘BJP’ could not be endorsed because it carried ‘Hindutva’.

Just before the dinner, ‘my friend’ arrived in my room. Me and Vishal had already discussed the matter. I was reluctant to go to sammelan but Vishal was ready for the sake of ‘friendship’. ‘My friend’ asked us straightway to be ready next morning at 5:00AM. “I’ll be taking you to Saraswati Vidya Mandir ground for some instructions.”

Sun Yaar! I can’t go. Suhail also advised me to not to go there.” I pleaded.

“Suhail is a Muslim. Why will he let you go?” My friend said. “You will have to come. At least, for my sake!”

If in any sense, a friend has any right in your life, I was feeling the burden of it.

Next morning, we queued up in the said ground. There were around a thousand of people. Few including children, were lined up in proper ‘Ganavesh’ (the term which I came to know later). Their body language reflected an over dose of enthusiasm. I anxiously glanced the faces of as many as people. Most were in the shock of getting up too early or may be carrying a feeling of ‘Why I am here?’

After some warm-up exercises, we lent our voices in the chorus to some patriotic songs which I had hardly heard before. A session of instructions followed this. Time schedule to reach the venue on coming Sunday was conveyed. And we were asked to collect the ‘Ganavesh’ to be worn on the day from a room near the ground. It was a huge pile of khaki nickers, brown canvas belts and black caps. “Choose your own fit” was not any option as hundreds of hands were stretched forward altogether and cruising their way to reach the pile. ‘Ek shirt aur baarah hath’ was on display. Anyhow, Vishal and I managed to get a ‘Ganavesh’ for us. Finally we were handed over a ‘lath’, a long bamboo stick also.

As we had a spare day in between, we decided to wash the uniforms before wearing it up. After getting it washed and dried, ‘trial-room’ rituals started. The shirts could not come up ‘white’ even after repeated soaks in the best detergent. Nickers demanded more fats around the waist which was not possible right then. Canvas belts, however, were made accustomed to hold the nickers after piercing them with a nail. Caps were interchanged with other hostel mates to acquire the perfect fit. As socks and shoes were not provided, we polished our own black leather shoes to a perfect shine. The ‘provided shirt’ was replaced with our own white Peter England shirt. Till now, I had started to enjoy the affairs along with Vishal.

Finally, the day arrived. Much before the time, we were ready cladded in the well-ironed and well-creased ‘Ganavesh’. Black shoes were sparkling in our feet. Very often we stared ourselves standing in front of the mirror, adjusting the black forage cap. Dry, bare lower legs were massaged with mustard oil. Holding our bamboo sticks, we roamed in the long corridors of our hostel, greeting each other with chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’. I must explain here that ‘Hindutava’ was nowhere there behind these chants.

We had occupied our seats at the venue on fixed time. It was a pleasant Sunday morning with the sun radiating its warm light rays to fill our bodies and souls with overwhelming joy. The stage was all set. ‘Rajju Bhaiya’ had arrived. Speeches were followed by one another which could not reach my ear drum except few words like ‘Dr Hedgewar’, ‘Sarsanghchalak’, ‘MS Gowalkar’ and ‘Hindutava’. During the whole event, the thing from which I couldn’t take my eye sight off, was ‘Swayam Sewaks’ who were distributing the refreshment. A bit late but got our share. As the event concluded, it was the time to share our experiences with other friends which were ‘nothing’ but funny bits. At last we got some photographs clicked in that unique attire.

‘Swayam Sewaks’ had reached the hostel back. The wardrobe was shredded off immediately and handed over to the authorised person. Now it was the time to think how to take off the label ‘Swayam Sewak’. I started to avoid the discussions of the ‘sammelan’. Photograph was hidden behind another photograph in the album. I explained it to many that it was all against my wish. But, Suhail has started to call me ‘kachhadhari’ and it irritated me the most. Anyhow, with time memories of ‘sammelan’ faded off. I was the same person again who believed in ‘Hindutava’ unless it doesn’t get reflected on my face.

Years followed. Gujarat riots occurred. A train carrying Hindu ‘kar sewaks’ was burnt. Communal turbulence was prevailing and political parties were at the receiving end. Riots had become an integral part of communalism in India. Media equipped with ultra-modern technologies, started to show its presence on the ground zero and taking it to the door steps of common man. Everyone from Kashmir to Kanyakumari started to feel the heat.

Along with political and religious leaders, common man was coming out to be vocal on these issues. Emergence of social media platforms lent voices to the dissent. Hatred speeches were dug out and were accessible to all. An agenda in ‘school history books’ was revealed out. Media establishments were ticked ‘anti’ and ‘pro’. I too came to know the difference between ‘killed’ and ‘martyred’. Meanwhile, Narendra Damodar Das Modi was emerging as a new definition of a ‘National Hero’ embracing all the nouns (‘gunda’, killer etc) to his favour. A ‘party of two’ had planted its saplings across India. Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter’s ‘good morning’ posts were being replaced with ‘Jai Shri Ram’.

I started reading about different ‘ideologies’. I googled the ‘Hindu Exodus’ of 1992 in Kashmir. I didn’t search ‘JNU incidence of 2016’, instead read the JNU history. I tried to ‘visit’ Naxalwadi. A critical analysis of Congress, Left parties and Jan Sangha was done as per my mental aptitude. A ‘Proud Hindu’ was taking birth deep inside. ‘Hindutva’ was taking a new shape in me. Posts on social media were getting my attention and liked or commented. A fear of my father’s posting or annoying Suhail was eloping.

Yesterday, I ransacked my whole cupboard and other parts of my house looking for the photograph. I searched it behind each photograph in my albums. But, all in vain! I wanted to get that photograph scanned and adorn my Facebook cover with that. And yes, with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ written in bold letters! Couple of days before, Suhail has posted a photo of a religious issue on Facebook asking-‘Mudi should rejine’. Really, I’m missing that photograph.

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