Earlier this month, I walked down Gokhale Road in central Mumbai with a few thousand people. Behind me a woman in jeans and sunglasses raised a placard that said, “Don’t Make this Lynchistan.” Ahead, a troupe of saree-clad women chanted, “Nafrat ke khilaaf, insaniyat ki awaaz” (Against hatred, we cry out for humanity). Drums resounded. Someone raised a slogan against the government’s muteness in the face of increasing violence against ordinary people. Others joined in. Then I heard a group recite and repeat a phrase I had often heard while growing up in the 1980s, “Hindu–Muslim–Sikh–Eesaee, hum sab bhai–bhai” (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, we are all brothers), and I was a puddle of emotion.
At one time, I would have dismissed such overly simplistic platitudes of nationalistic brotherhood, which also annoyingly excludes the sisterhood and many others. But it speaks of the changed times we live in that the mere public assertion of “Hindu–Muslim” in the heart of Dadar moved me tremendously. It also got me into a panic. This was a hard-core Shiv Sena area: the political party’s fortress-like headquarters are around the corner. They have never concealed their hatred of minorities, especially “non-model” ones like mine. Could we really say such things aloud here? Or anywhere else, for that matter? After all, my city, state and nation at this point are governed by a right-wing political party whose very ideology and agenda is the propagation of Hindutva, and that stand openly opposed to religious minorities, particularly Muslims. It is a reality that colours my everyday world and I cannot afford to forget it.
But on this Monday evening, marching from Veer Kotwal Udyan in Dadar (West) to Chaitya Bhoomi, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s memorial by the sea, lulled by the genuine amity I witnessed amidst a miscellaneous horde that included workers, students, trade unionists, lawyers, film-makers, writers, poets, activists and others, I felt I could perhaps overlook this reality for a while.
Collectively, we were protesting against the spate of lynchings and killings of Muslims and Dalits over the past few months by aggressive vigilante mobs ostensibly protecting the cow, and the silent witnessing of these crimes by many others, including the state. Already in the first six months of 2017, 20 such attacks have been reported, according to IndiaSpend, a data journalism site. The horrific stabbing to death of 15-year-old Junaid Khan of Ballabhgarh, Haryana, on a train returning home from Delhi on the eve of Eid still sits heavy in our hearts and minds.
This was the second demonstration against these murders that Mumbai witnessed in a week. A few days earlier, a few hundred of us with banners declaring “Not In My Name” stood in the rain on Carter Road in Bandra (West), a cosmopolitan locality, joining in solidarity 10 other Indian cities holding similar events on the same day. For the most part, it was a quieter protest, where people’s handmade placards with words such as #NotInMyName Fascism, Cowlitics, Casteism, Communalism; Resist the politics of Hate; and Bring Back the Love communicated what they felt.
“Why are you here?,” I asked a Hindu film-maker at one of the demonstrations. “Why wouldn’t I be here? I am angry and outraged that these killings are happening and that too in the name of my religion,” he said. “I also feel quite helpless. We clearly need more tangible action but first we need to speak out together.”
“Why are you here?,” I asked an older Muslim woman professional at the protests. “For this,” she said spreading her arms wide. “To witness this moment, where so many support us. Even if this is a token gesture, I appreciate it tremendously. After all, people came out of their houses to protest for us and with us.”
In early July, as more local citizens’ protests were organised in places such as Nizamuddin Basti and Mewat in North India, and in localities such as Kurla, Jogeshwari and Thane in and around Mumbai, I heard many other Muslims who attended the protests express similar positive sentiments, or heard about them.
After the demonstration on Carter Road, a young Muslim friend wrote on Facebook, “Every time there is a terror attack, I and other non-practising Muslims are forced to participate in rallies condemning the violence, because there would be consequences for the Muslim community if we didn’t. Today non-Muslims showed up to protest lynchings by Hindus with whom they share no affiliation or political ideology, even though there would be no personal consequences if they didn’t protest. They were there because they are as horrified by the violence unleashed on minorities. I have come back feeling happy and hopeful.”
We have waited for this moment, this glimmer of hope.
There was a time when hope was not such an elusive entity for the Indian Muslim. I do not claim to speak for all of the 14% as indeed I cannot—partly because I am personally more privileged by my class, education, profession, and urban location and partly because Indian Muslims themselves are a huge heterogenous category divided by sect, geography, language, class, caste, and livelihood. Still, despite their diversity, what all Muslims in India share is their minority status and, increasingly, their experience of isolation and marginalisation from the state.
The alienation did not start with the BJP coming to power at the centre in 2014; it started much earlier. For me, the Bombay riots of 1992–93, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, were a turning point. The island city was my birthplace and in its lap, I grew to adulthood comforted in the belief that there was no need to shout slogans of “Hindu–Muslim bhai–bhai” because every day we lived that bhaichara, or brotherhood. When they brought down the dome of the crumbling mosque, I was shocked that this was allowed to happen in secular India, but I did not feel hurt. That came later, during the riots, when my house was marked with a chalk piece and we were forced to flee our apartment block, one bag in hand. Prejudice showed up in apparently innocuous things like the time I wore a green salwar suit and got tagged as “showing your Muslimness today.” Or in more major ways, when a job I had almost clinched slipped away because “unka naam achaa nahi hai” (her name is a problem).
I remember after a bomb attack, which had stunned me, being told by a work colleague, “All you *** should go back to Pakistan.” I tried explaining—thinking the comment came from a place of ignorance, not prejudice—that we had never lived in any part of Pakistan and my paternal and maternal grandparents chose to stay in India during Partition because they trusted its Constitution and its makers. Also because this was the only home they had known.
In the 25 years since the Bombay riots and 15 years since the Gujarat riots, while almost all of my close friends have remained close and in fact become protective, I have been amazed at the insensitive things that several other people, including acquaintances, old classmates and neighbours, can say to your face, in WhatsApp groups and on social media. Most of these are attempts to “other” you, treat you as the outsider to Indian society. Since in many ways, such as education, dress and accent, I am not the normative Muslim whom they have conjured in their minds, I commonly get told, “You don’t look Muslim” and “Oh, I don’t mean Muslims like you,” leaving the sentence dangling dangerously.
Other Muslim friends have similar stories to tell. When I interview Muslims both in formal and informal settlements, I see several examples of how religious dogma along with anti-Muslim prejudice pushes them towards conservatism and insularity, all of which impacts their decisions about housing, education, jobs, healthcare and women’s mobility. When they are denied housing in certain neighbourhoods because “we don’t welcome non-vegetarians here,” their children grow up and go to school in community-dominated ghettos with little chance to make friends from other backgrounds. For instance, Shabana, a bright young woman in Mankhurd, had to let go of a chance to attend a better college because her family was apprehensive about it being located in a largely non-Muslim neighbourhood that did not view Muslims favourably.
In the past three years of the Bharatiya Janata Party ruling at the centre and in several states, and the growing influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, these fissures between communities have only deepened. Muslims have been demonised to the extent that bigotry against them has been normalised. Worse still, violence against them is now acceptable and beef is only one of the many excuses, as seen in the Mohsin Shaikh murder case. This Pune-based IT professional was murdered less than a month after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister after violence erupted over an objectionable social media post. The post had nothing to do with Shaikh except that he looked Muslim and was at the site of the violence. In January this year, the Bombay High Court, in a curiously worded judgment, granted bail to three accused, observing that they had no “personal enmity” against Shaikh; only “in the name of religion they were provoked and have committed the murder,” as if that made it a lesser crime.
This is not the India I recognise. There was a time people came home to eat biryani and korma and hang out with you not because you were a pitiable Mussulman but because you were a fun person. At the least, they tolerated your presence in their neighbourhood with politeness and limited interactions. Now you get calls in the night, as my father and aunt did, asking if you stock beef in your fridge and should they come and check. In Mumbai.
At our last family wedding, in Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu–Muslim “love jihad” that was kept under the radar, as much as you can keep an Indian wedding quiet from outsiders, relatives huddled together, discussing politics and the fate of our children in this changing country.
Grief and Fear
These days, I vacillate between rage and grief, cynicism and fear. Mostly fear. I feel this way despite my status as a privileged Muslim. I am not even a Kashmiri Muslim. I play it safe on social media. Play it safe in WhatsApp groups. Play it safe in my writing. Play it safe when confronted with road rage. Play it safe in government offices. Play it safe at airline counters. Play it safe at my children’s school. Play it safe in shops. Play it safe in cinema houses.
When my father was desperately sick with a terminal illness that had completely weakened his limbs, I took him for what was to be our last movie together in a cinema house. He insisted on standing up for the national anthem before the film. I suggested that he sit instead. “They will understand,” I whispered. He, who saw the dawn of independence and reported on wars at India’s borders, refused and continued to stand with the support of his walker as best as he could. I then looked around and wondered, would they understand? What if they had known we were Muslim, would they have then lynched my sick father on suspicion of being a “bad Indian?”
The “Not In My Name” protests nationwide cannot change the fate of those who have already paid the violent price for being Muslim. They might not dry the tears of Junaid’s mother. By themselves, the protest morchas, or marches, and dharnas, or sit-ins, without further serious sociopolitical thought and action, cannot soothe the anxieties of the burkha-clad mother who marched to Chaitya Bhoomi and said she feared the worst every time her young son left the house these days.
At best, they can open a window of optimism that, when they come for us, threaten our livelihoods and children, curse our history and our faith, and stay silent in the face of gross violence, someone somewhere in this country will be distressed enough to speak up, to show up, to act, to stand by our side.
Seventy years after India’s independence, I’ll settle for that.