Author :IRENA AKBAR, an art curator, entrepreneur, and a former journalist.
Cornered and demonized, the Indian Muslim struggles between fear and hope. The Indian Muslim is dealing with a silent, undeclared psychological war that the State has unleashed on it.
This year, I did not want to serve ‘them’ biryani on Eid. But that is not our ‘tehzeeb’, our culture, my father insisted. So, on June 26, one guest after another – some among them likely BJP voters – visited us and relished the biryani, the qorma, and the kebabs. This, as the image of Junaid haunted me – his body soaked with blood, after he was lynched in front of a silent, complicit crowd of 200 in a train in Delhi.
Our guests on the day of Eid had absolutely nothing to do with what Junaid suffered, and I hate and condemn myself for resenting them. This wasn’t me. This isn’t me. And I wonder at the distance my heart has travelled from exactly a year ago, when I would be filled with excitement at our whole family preparing dishes for our Hindu guests (we have no Muslim guests for Eid as they are busy in their homes). Not too long ago, when I used to work in Delhi, I would sometimes carry a pot of biryani from Lucknow after Eid for my non-Muslim colleagues and friends. The sight of Hindus enjoying Mughlai/Awadhi cuisine at Karim’s in Delhi or Tunday Kababi in Lucknow swelled me with pride at our Ganga-Jamuni culture.
So, why did I now begin to resent a woman with a bindi on her forehead or a man with a kalava tied to his wrist enjoying a kebab at Tunday Kababi? Because I suspect he/she hates me. Hates my people. Hates the Muslim owners and cooks of Tunday even though he/she loves their food. Loves it that they had to shut shop during the crackdown on meat suppliers in UP. Loves it when the business of Muslim butchers is stifled even though he/she buys meat from them. Hates my co-religionists who wear topis and grow beards. Loves it when they are lynched in trains, in the fields, on the highway, inside their homes. Hates women who wear burkhas but pretends to support them on triple talaq. Shares fake videos about ‘evil’ Muslims on WhatsApp. Rejoices at the arrest of 15 Muslims after India’s loss to Pakistan in a cricket match on the basis of a false complaint.
No, I don’t hate them. They hate me. I am only angry they hate me. And I resent them for their hatred towards me. They pretend to fear me and my people, but in reality, it is I, and my people, who fear them. We are 14 per cent, they are close to 80, so we are the ones surrounded by the mob. And I fear that in their hatred, they will support the mob if it lynches yet another Muslim. Or, they will vote for a party that felicitates the killers or those who incite them to such murders by giving them Z-Security or a ticket to contest elections. I dread the plans that such parties may have already drafted for late 2018 or early 2019, a few months before the next general elections.
These fears are not exaggerated or unfounded. Between Akhlaque in 2015 and Junaid in 2017, each time a Muslim has been lynched in this country, every other Indian Muslim has died a slow death. The death of her confidence in the State which is supposed to protect her but doesn’t, the death of her trust in fellow countrymen who keep voting for the unabashedly anti-Muslim BJP, the death of her will to dispel the fears of the majority, and assure them that she is not the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’, but as Indian or even as human as they are.
I am acutely aware that not every Hindu is a supporter of Hindutva. His vote for the BJP could be based on promises of vikas, or the incompetence of other parties. As a Muslim, I am painfully aware of the pressure of stereotyping. I have lost count of the number of times I have asked non-Muslims to look at me, at their Muslim neighbours, friends and co-workers, at their Muslim tailors, at Muslim actors and filmmakers to clear their misconceptions about us being terror sympathisers.
So, when my mind slips into the realm of stereotyping, I pull it back and look at my Hindu neighbour whose NGO employs underprivileged Muslim women, at my Hindu cook who did not take a single day off during Ramzan and would prepare iftaar for us, at the Hindus who helped me put together an art exhibition I recently curated, at my former Hindu colleagues who supported me when I was going through a rough patch, at my Facebook newsfeed filled with posts by liberal Hindus denouncing cow terrorism, at the writers who returned their awards to protest against Akhlaque’s killing in 2015, at the recent Not In My Name protests triggered by Junaid’s murder.
The mind of an ordinary Indian Muslim like me is caught in a constant tug-of-war – pulled by fear on one end, and by hope on the other. When my heart sank at the killing of Junaid, a faint glimmer of hope also emerged. The outraged liberal, secular Hindu got out of his social media mode and onto the streets to protest the lynching of Muslims being carried out in his name, under the banner ‘Not In My Name’. It was a reassuring moment for the besieged Indian Muslim, and she wholeheartedly supported it, joining in the protests, much like American Muslims who joined the Whites in the ‘IamMuslim’ protests in the US following Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’.
The next day, the Prime Minister disapproved of killing in the name of the cow. But a few hours later, another Muslim, Alimuddin Ansari, was lynched in the name of the cow in Jharkhand. He was violently thrashed and his face held up in front of the camera — as if it were a trophy — before his killers dealt him the final deathblows. The incident has strengthened the pull of fear against the pull of hope in the mental tug of war for the Muslim.
When a community is alienated and demonised consistently, its members often just retract to their shells. Most Muslims fear expressing themselves freely on social media, and avoid political discussions in offices, RWA meetings and kitty parties, and some are even wary of carrying non-vegetarian food on trains. When we drive past cows roaming the streets of Lucknow, we are careful not to get too close. No, we are not a paranoid family. Other Muslims have expressed similar caution. A Hindu can afford to slouch in his seat if the National Anthem is being played in a cinema hall, but remember how a Muslim family was forced out of a theatre in Mumbai for allegedly doing the same?
The Indian Muslim is dealing with a silent, undeclared psychological war that the State has unleashed on it. This war’s strategy is clear: Demonise the Muslim in the mind of the Hindu in some form or the other – the cow-eater, the ‘love jihadi’ on the prowl for Hindu girls, the anti-national who won’t chant ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’, the monstrous husband who divorces his wife via instant triple talaq, the descendant of the ‘rabid anti-Hindu’ ruler Aurangzeb, etc. Use chest-thumping TV anchors and fake videos on WhatsApp to set the discussions for the living rooms of the urban Hindu, or the chaupals of the rural Hindu. The overwhelming majority of Hindus is peace-loving, so it will react by keeping distance from the “horrible Muslims” and vote against “pseudo-secular” parties. But the violent, jobless youth may catch hold of a Muslim farmer, or a young boy wearing a topi, and beat him to death. That these youths are glorified as ‘gau rakshaks’ and not penalised emboldens them.
But cleverly, such murders are not done together at one time and at one place. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote in The Indian Express, ‘A big riot would concentrate the mind, make a damning headline. A protracted riot in slow motion, individual victims across different states, simply makes this appear another daily routine.’ Once the Muslim has been demonised, corner him further. Don’t wish him for Eid. Boycott the iftaar held by the President. Shame him for not saying ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ (sorry, the Urdu ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ doesn’t work), and do politics over yoga-namaaz, Ramzan-Diwali, shamshaanghaat-qabristaan. Send the message loud and clear to the Muslim: ‘You, your vote don’t matter.’ And send the message to the Hindu: ‘Muslims have been finally shown their place after 1,000 years of subjugation of Hindus by Muslim rulers. You have won. You are safe.’
Thus, the mind of the majority, the Hindus, is quietly and successfully diverted from the real issues that matter to them as Indian citizens — development, jobs, investments, ‘achche din’. No chest-thumping TV anchor shouts down panellists over the lack of jobs. Everyone is only talking cows, beef, and triple talaq. The diversionary tactics of the State have also taken away the mind of the Muslim from what matters to him as an Indian citizen – development and jobs. All that matters to the Muslim now is his right to a life of dignity and safety, one that is led without fear. Something the ‘New India’ is snatching away from him.