Interview with Rajat Mitra


Rajat Mitra is a clinical psychologist who has worked with Islamic militants and radicalized youth on the one hand, and survivors of mass violence and genocide on the other. He holds a PhD in psychology, is a social entrepreneur, and was given the Ashoka fellowship for working on criminal justice reforms in India.

The many narratives he heard over a thirty-year career of providing support for human rights violations and abuses gave him psychological insights into two of the most disturbing issues of our times: how do radicalized youth cope with religious indoctrination, and how does the psychological trauma of survivors get passed on as narratives from generation to generation.

While studying for a course at Harvard, Rajat became aware of the deep link between trans-generational trauma, collective memory, and the effort to preserve them through poems and literature.

An avid reader of literature, he didn’t realize how and when these different feelings began to take shape and form characters in his mind who began to live and breathe through him, telling him a story that he felt was the voice of a people who had become silent and unheard.

The Infidel Next Door is a moving story that he believes will speak directly to all people whose conscience has ever been shaken by religious persecution in our times.

Rajat is currently working on a de-radicalization program for youth. He lives in New Delhi, India, with his wife and daughter. The Infidel Next Door is his first book.

Psychology

Rajat, you are a psychologist in India. My impression has been that this profession is not widely valued in your country. Could you enlighten me?

Yes, this profession is not widely valued in my country, even less when I graduated thirty years ago. I was ridiculed, laughed at by friends and family alike for choosing a profession that had no future. My initial years of work was in a rehabilitation center for schizophrenics, which added to the ridicule. It was painful to go through that.

In India, religion takes the place of psychology. Different spiritual practices, group singing called bhajans and religious dances still replace psychotherapy where a lot of grief is released. There is no word for psychotherapy in Hindi or in local Indian languages.

All pioneers are treated like this. So, why did you go against all this social pressure? What was your inspiration?

One day, the world seemed darker than usual. I had felt my life has no meaning and walked aimlessly on the streets. I was twenty-four, had no job and was depressed. In the very heart of Delhi, there is a church called Free church and I decided to walk in and take some rest before I decided what to do. I sat there in the shade as it was too hot. Then the pastor came and asked me to come in. He was also a psychologist and trained in counselling. For an hour or so we talked and he talked me out of my low feelings. Then he recommended I join a therapy group, which took place on the premises.

Run by a Christian couple who were both psychotherapists, the therapy group at their home gave me the will to live again, and I decided to become a psychologist. I had dropped my studies because of financial reasons and was working, but with a scholarship I started again and finished my studies. I got a job in a therapeutic center for rehabilitation of schizophrenics. From there began my journey as a psychologist. I started to work in prisons after couple of years and later in an organization working with trauma and human rights.

Moral values

Your book strongly resonated for me, because you are advocating the same values of tolerance, compassion, decency as I am, and both of us do so through telling a story rather than by preaching at people. What is your assessment of these values compared to hate and division in today’s life in India?

I believe the values of tolerance and compassion have remained unchanged in India since time immemorial and remain by and large the same to this day. Zoroastrians, and Jews who came here centuries ago, still retain their religious practices and houses of worship in the same way they had it centuries ago, and there has been not a single attack on them in over a thousand years. This is partly to do with a basic premise of Hinduism, which is followed by the majority of the population in India: all religions and religious journeys lead to God.

I agree with that. One of my cliches is to quote the Shintoist saying: “There are many mountains to God, and many paths up each mountain.”

There is a rising awareness in India today about the role played by religion over the centuries. There is an awareness over the trans-generational trauma that Hindus have faced and there is a grief for many Hindus over the destruction of their temples, including some of the holiest ones. Some counts put it at eighty thousand. Besides that, there is the memory of the conversions that have taken place using deceit and manipulation, and are giving rise to a wave of anger.

This memory of violence needs to find an outlet and healing, much like the way Germans dealt with the guilt of the Holocaust through acknowledgment, or in south Africa where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealt with the historical suffering of Blacks.

The roots of hatred go back centuries in almost every conflict. There is a pattern in each cycle of violence, and as a psychologist who has worked in mass violence and riots, I feel it is very important for me to explain how the hatred is nothing new but being carried over from generation to generation. In that context, I wrote an article that has become very popular in the social media.

Your book resonated with me in a similar way.

Are you saying that the main source of hatred and division is the Muslim attitude of intolerance for other religions? In your story, you have several Muslims who tolerated, and even encouraged Hindus to worship God their way. Is there a hope that this enlightened version of Islam may grow? Can anything be done to encourage it?

I don’t mean that the intolerance by Muslims is the reason for hatred. Many Muslims are peace-loving and do not want any violence. They also tolerate the religion of others. The problem in India lies with a long Muslim rule of nearly eight hundred years, and long periods during which the Muslim emperors destroyed temples and Hindu culture, levied taxes. The memory for Hindus of that remains raw and hasn’t found closure. It hasn’t helped that the grief of that surfaces every now and then, and there is no apology or healing from any quarter. I find that where acknowledgement and a simple apology would close the matter, many Muslims shy away for fear of retribution from extreme elements in their community. I often call it the conscience of the community that is just below the surface and with a little encouragement will find an expression.

Historically, that has been the biggest religious problem in India, even though there are many other religions in India.

I do feel that the enlightened version of Islam can grow provided there are people who challenge and are open to reformation.

Politics in India

Where is India going — energy, environment, economic inequality, conflict with Muslim neighbours and/or China…

This is a vast question, and honestly I don’t know where India is going. India is a survivor nation. The mindset of the people is to survive today. We rarely think of tomorrow and much less that of what will happen to us a year from now. This nature of our psyche is something I have grown up with. Colonialism and slavery have left a deep impact on us.

We are depleting our energies at a fast pace and have little awareness about it. Environment is a non-issue here.

The economic inequality is very high. We are a billion people, and eighty percent do not get a square meal a day, while the richest persons live in homes that cost millions of dollars.

We have two Muslim nations as neighbors, and relations with both are quite bad. This is primarily due to religion. Pakistan was created on the basis of the belief that Hindus and Muslims can’t coexist, and they believe that the Muslims of India should support them while most Muslims of India don’t think so. Another reason is Kashmir. The ‘k’ in the word Pakistan stands for Kashmir, and Pakistan believes that Kashmir should not be a part of India. My book The infidel next door is based in Kashmir.

With China, the relationship is in a sensitive phase. We have a huge land dispute, and at the moment the armies are locked in combat mode. To me, China will find it difficult to become a world power with its abysmal human rights record.

Thank you, Rajat. I am sure few of our readers are aware of the situation in India, and they should be. In today’s world, every country is in my backyard.

I am picking up on the attitude of Indian Muslims. As a group, then, they don’t share the same divisiveness and sense of difference? Are there people among them who are famous for working for tolerance, living together, instead of conflict?

Indian Muslims are considered more moderate than Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many Muslims still have Hindu surnames, showing their Hindu ancestry. Conflicts at individual level are few, as distinct from mass violence around religious issues. Often there is some provocation, like Muslims don’t want a Hindu procession to go from in front of a mosque. They don’t want music to be played during the Hindu festivals. So, when that happens, someone throws a carcass of a cow in the procession or a similar event, making people to go haywire.

Yes, there have been many whom the nations love. Muslims in India have been Presidents, Chief Justices, Air Chiefs, Chief Ministers, and have occupied every other post. What is little known is that Gandhi’s fasts had conditions that only applied to Hindus as he knew that no Muslim will accept his request. Muslims in India do not listen to Hindu leaders.

Yes, some Muslims like Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (called Frontier Gandhi) were like that. At present there is a big vacuum in that field.

Radicalisation

A strong theme of your book is the process by which young people are recruited into violent movements. This is of course a terrible problem globally. Your work as a psychologist is in part with people whom you are trying to rescue, to return to a peaceful life. I find this wonderful, and fascinating. Without giving us a treatise, can you tell us how you go about it?

In India, whenever there is a terrorist attack or a terror module broken, everyone associated with the leader of the group is arrested for questioning and often stays behind bars for years. No lawyer or activist stands up for them. As a result, many lives get ruined. Only high profile cases, maybe one out of a hundred, get proper legal attention, thanks to media interest. Also very tragically, most human rights activists only choose cases that guarantee attention. The rest suffer in silence. The laws related to terrorism are quite harsh and result in torture and abuse.

My work as a psychologist is to interview and assess those people against whom no direct evidence of being involved in a terror act is found, and to see how far they have been indoctrinated. By and large, all of them are heavily indoctrinated in Quranic principles of kafir v/s no kafir and they hate me for being a kafir. They don’t directly express it but it comes out in roundabout ways.

I reciprocate them with compassion, just like Maraglandi of your story. It is not easy, reacting to how they look at others like me, but I don’t challenge them on what they believe to be true. I point out that those who indoctrinated them in militancy or terrorism in the first place have betrayed them even though they themselves claimed to be true Muslims.

Have you had any success in de-radicalising them? And if you have advocated for a particular person, has their treatment improved?

My success in de-radicalizing has been minimal. I haven’t been able to change anyone’s belief, but only helped them to see the pragmatic side of following their beliefs that brings destruction and causing grief to them and their families.

Caste system

One of your minor but important characters is an Untouchable boy. So, the caste system is still a blight on Indian culture, despite Gandhi’s influence?

The caste system does exist, though it has vanished from many spheres. The present Prime Minister of India is from a backward caste, and the soon to be President is a dalit from a lower caste. There have been Governors, a Chief Justice, High Court Judges, Chief Ministers and hundreds of bureaucrats all over the country who are from lower castes or dalits. As someone growing up in a cosmopolitan city, I never knew who was a lower caste or who wasn’t. Forty to fifty years ago, in places far removed from cities, the period and place about which the story is written, it was quite widespread, and permeated every strata of society.

Today it exists in villages, small towns, and in areas like marriage and politics where voting happens on the basis of caste.

There are painful incidents, which remind us that the system is not gone, that it still exists. It is like the Black-White relations in USA or the apartheid system in south Africa. It exists when we read painful incidents.

Frankly, Gandhi didn’t do much to eradicate this evil. Nothing in his writings or speeches indicates his anger towards this evil. He only woke up when he realized that they as a group under Dr. Ambedkar told him that freedom from British meant nothing to them, because his party, the Congress Party, was full of upper castes. They also told him they would keep away from the freedom struggle. It was then that he named them as “Harijans,” God’s children, a term today’s untouchables find very degrading. Painful but true, he opposed the dalit leader Dr. Ambedkar to take on a more leading role in the freedom struggle, even though he was far more capable and a loved leader than Nehru.

This is not to say I don’t support Gandhi. I consider him one of the greatest men who ever lived, but he had his shadow.

I find this surprising. My understanding has been that Gandhi insisted on doing tasks like cleaning toilets, and required his followers to do such things too, and that in fact this was one of his wife’s serious complaints. So, I thought he was a strong advocate for breaking down the caste system. Anyway, from what you’ve said, it sounds like there is gradual improvement.

Dalits find it demeaning that Gandhi focused on one such aspect and wanted to gain the unconditional support of the whole community. They wanted to be given equal status and inclusion in the party, in all walks of life, taken intellectually for who they are. They found the action of toilet cleaning a gimmick, only symbolic. They didn’t like the way he treated Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the greatest dalit leader, whom he constantly sidelined during the freedom struggle. Ambedkar also said later that the British didn’t leave India because of Gandhi’s struggle but because of another leader called Subhash Chandra, Bose who fought them militarily.

Yes, the things have changed and are changing very much. The caste system has broken down significantly. Inter-caste marriages are becoming more common all over India.

Kashmir

The Infidel Next Door largely takes place in Kashmir. What is your connection to this troubled State?

I worked for years with pandit refugees from Kashmir still living in camps set up for them, and heard many narratives that formed the backdrop of the story. I also worked with Kashmiri militants in Tihar prisons, one of the largest prisons in Asia, and heard their stories of indoctrination and hatred. I am also married to a Kashmiri pandit, and many of the family are the direct victims of terrorism who were forced to flee, leaving behind their homes thirty years ago.

Writing

What is the theme of your book? Why should people want to read it?

I have two approaches, depending on my audience. Within India, I am advocating the view that I am exposing the process by which ordinary people can become radicalised, and the solution of mutual understanding. In the rest of the world, I am offering a window into a major conflict on the Indian subcontinent, and how it is a model for what happens everywhere, and a glimpse into the Hindu and Muslim mindsets.

The Infidel Next Door is your first work of fiction. What was your motivation in deciding to write a novel?

It was one of the difficult times of my life. The board members of the organization I was heading had serious differences with me over our direction. While I wanted it to be for the poor and marginalized, the others felt it was becoming more social work oriented instead of a place for clinical work. The organization broke up and I was held responsible. While I didn’t go into right or wrong or tried to judge anyone, at the gut level I felt betrayed and withdrew into a shell and started to write.

I was bothered about the rise of nationalism in India that seemed to be unrestrained, and on the other hand the rise of fundamentalism. I imagined a mosque and temple side and side and what would happen if the protagonist and antagonist were to live side by side and resolve their deepest conflicts between their two religions.

It took me four years to write this.

I am a psychologist and have taken a journey to be a writer. Inside I am full of apprehension as I deal with a sensitive theme in India, and know that many people haven’t taken kindly to it. Yet I feel a force from within to write and not stop. I have several themes that I want to write about in the coming years.

USA

You spent time as a student studying a course on trauma at Harvard. That’s a great achievement. Tell us about the path that led you there.

It was a course on refugee trauma that was for mental health leaders from across the world. That course was where I got some of the inspiration to write the chapters while listening to themes of healing and forgiveness.

To finish, Rajat, thank you for the honor of agreeing to this interview. People who read your book are guaranteed a deep, thought-provoking experience.

It is my pleasure, Bob, and I am offering a free electronic copy of The Infidel Next Door to one person who leaves a comment.

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About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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2 Responses to Interview with Rajat Mitra

  1. George F. says:

    1st comment here. i’ll take that book. Thank you.

    Like

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you for visiting, George. Indeed you are the first to comment. My review of “The Infidel Next Door will appear in the August issue of Bobbing Around.
      By the way, how did you find your path to here?

      Like

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