Should the religion of the driver whose presence of mind and courage saved over 50 Amarnath yatris be highlighted by the press? Whatsapp messages received by this writer had headlines saying: “Muslim driver ne bachayi Amarnath yatriyon ki jaan” (Muslim driver saved the lives of Amarnath yatris).
Similar headlines were used in Muslim news websites such as twocircles.netand Caravan Daily. (‘Muslim driver’s courage saved lives in Amarnath attack’, July 11).
However, none of the mainstream print media gave such headlines. Some did, however, name the driver in the headline, making his religious identity clear, and leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. One can understand the pride some Muslims must feel on knowing that the driver was from their community. At a time when the community is the target of mob attacks that can occur anywhere, so-called “Muslim appeasement” is being railed about everyday on some leading news channels on prime time, and social media is full of anti-Muslim fake news, this one act disproves all the propaganda.
Here was an ordinary Muslim who cared neither for his own safety nor for the fact that his passengers belonged to the “other” community that was tormenting his own. By driving a bus full of Hindus through a hail of bullets straight to the army camp in Kashmir, a place where day and night, Muslims are attacking the army (thats the general impression among TV viewers), this Muslim gave the ultimate proof of his patriotism.
Can this narrative stand rational scrutiny? In interviews to the media (where, incidentally, his name takes myriad forms, Salim Shaikh, Salim Gafoor, Salim Mirza), the driver says he had no option but to keep driving, or be shot dead.
He also attributes his brave deed to the advice given by the man who sat next to him. Harsh Desai, the bus owner’s son, told him to keep going, he says. Hiral Dave’s report in Hindustan Times (July 11) quotes him as saying: “out of the blue, it started raining bullets… for a fraction of a second, my mind went blank. But I heard Harsh yelling – Java do, java do (keep moving, keep moving). I ducked and kept driving.”
Going by the logic of the above narrative, the interviews should highlight the fact that the “brave Muslim driver” was guided by the quick-thinking “Hindu bus owner’s son”.
That’s the road one has to take when one starts inserting religion into acts where it’s irrelevant.
Some journalists argue that today, the ruling BJP and its followers are anyway portraying everything in religious terms. Secondly, such highlighting of the “Muslim brave heart” would in some small way dispel the Islamophobia so prevalent in the media worldwide.
What are the implication of saying “Muslim driver saves Amarnath yatris”?
Let’s consider for a moment that the driver had been a Hindu. Would anyone have given the headline: “Hindu driver saves Amarnath yatris”? Obviously not. It would’ve just been “driver braves bullets” etc.
So emphasising his religion while lauding the driver’s bravery, implies that as a Muslim, he did something extraordinary, or at least different from what a Hindu driver would have done.
Taken to its logical end, what does this imply? That for a Hindu driver, it’s just routine to be brave in the face of bullets from terrorists. Or, a Hindu driver would naturally do all he can to save his own community which is being attacked by Muslim terrorists. But for a Muslim driver to be brave, or, for a Muslim to save members of the other community, specially when the attackers belong to his community, is something uncommon, newsworthy.
That implies that the driver first thought about the faith of his passengers and then decided to drive through the firing. Are we praising Salim or damning him?
What if Salim had decided to abandon the bus and flee? He says himself that that would have meant sure death, he would have been gunned down.
But suppose he had lost his nerve, or, decided to make a bid for an impossible escape, would his religion have been highlighted? If some newspaper had said: “Muslim driver abandons busful of Amarnath pilgrims”, would that have been OK?
Once we start highlighting religion while reporting brave or generous acts which have little to do with the person’s faith, we should be ready to accept the same highlighting in reports about unsavoury acts too. We can’t have double standards on this, say that only positive deeds are linked to a person’s faith, but negative ones aren’t.
Reports about Salim’s bravery have brought out that this was his ninth trip to Amarnath, that his brothers are drivers too, and one of them has been driving Amarnath yatris for the last 11 years. Driving Hindu pilgrims on a life threatening journey has been part of their routine work. They could’ve refused such work, but they didn’t.
The bus company who hired Salim is called Om Travels. A Hindu company in Gujarat, named after a quintessentially Hindu religious symbol, hires a Muslim driver to take Hindus on a pilgrimage. The owner’s son put his own life and that of his customers in the hands of a Muslim.
These facts are rich in themselves, indicating how deep are the workaday links between Hindus and Muslims, and how they’ve remained untouched even in a state known as the first successful laboratory of Hindutva, and even in the face of the current poisonous atmosphere of lynchings and hateful propaganda.
The help given by the locals to the hospitalised pilgrims and the spontaneous outburst of condemnation in the Valley is another testimony to this.
That’s our secularism in action. The websites saying “Muslim driver saved Hindu pilgrims”, and those wishing that had been the headline, are doing a disservice both to the driver and to secularism.