Two Muslims have been laid to rest. On the same day. Their deaths followed with equal fervour by the media, and the nation. Other than the faith they shared, and the day of their burial, there was nothing common between the two. One was loved, the other hated. One was the people’s president, the architect of our nuclear programme, which put a hostile neighbour on alert, and India in the elite nuclear club.
The other was a ‘blood-thirsty terrorist’ who financed his brother’s sinister plans to bomb Mumbai and kill 257 innocent Indians. One ‘will be sorely missed’, the other ‘deserved to be put to death’.
But the saddest difference between former president APJ Abdul Kalam and 1993 Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon was that one represented the ‘idea of India’, and the other ‘the idea of Muslim’. One was ‘a true Indian’, despite being a Muslim. The other was a traitor, because he was a Muslim.
A day before Memon was hanged, a widely-shared picture on Twitter showed both Memon and Kalam being laid to rest. Kalam had the Indian flag’s chakra above his head, Memon had a green crescent. Kalam was the ‘Indian’, Memon was the ‘Muslim’. When urban, tech-savvy Indians, in their celebratory frenzy, refer only to the Muslim-ness of Memon — with comments such as ‘his meeting with 72 virgins’ — it’s important to remind them that the man they claim to love so much, Mr Kalam, was also Muslim.
It was Kalam’s Muslim identity that came into play in his elevation to the country’s top Constitutional post, his previous scientific achievements notwithstanding. Kalam was made president in July 2002, barely two months after the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. Then BJP-led NDA government, in an effort to “offset” its anti-Muslim image, decided to nominate Kalam as the presidential candidate, striking off the list previous favourites such as Krishan Kant and PC Alexander. Kalam was made presidential candidate because he was Muslim, not despite.
Once Kalam occupied the Rashtrapati Bhavan, his image, his persona was free to take a flight of its own, with no diversions caused by political manipulations. He spoke directly to people, and inspired them to follow their dreams. He invited children to the Rashtrapati Bhavan and engaged with them, thus earning the epitaph, ‘People’s President’. He read the Upanishads and the Gita, and played the rudra veena, thus epitomising the ‘secular Indian’. His Muslim identity took a backseat, and he became a solely national figure. His journey, in its finality, came to represent the‘idea of India’.
Long back, in 1993, Memon, too, ‘was’ an Indian. Not an ideal Indian. But an Indian nonetheless who aided his gangster brother, Tiger Memon, in bombing dead 257 people to avenge the previous killing of 900 Indians in communal riots. For the public, Memon was among the many Indian Muslims who were aggrieved over the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. He was not a ‘secular Indian’ but an ‘Indian Muslim’ partaking in terrorism to ‘set right the wrongs’ done to his community.
As Memon spent 22 years in jail, world events conspired to foreground his ‘Muslim-ness’ and background his ‘Indian-ness’. From 9/11 to 26/11, from al-Qaeda to ISIS, one terrorist attack after another and one gun-toting militant after another proved ‘all terrorists are Muslim’. (Those who killed Muslims in much larger numbers in the last 22 years, however, were only ‘criminals’ or ‘rioters’ or ‘waging war against terror’). It became a convenient narrative that right-leaning governments used across countries, including India, to spread fear about the ‘Muslim enemy’ and win votes of majority communities.
1993 was now a distant memory. Memon was almost forgotten. Till the Maharashtra government announced last month that it would hang him on July 30, as his mercy plea had been rejected by the President. Suddenly put back in public view, Memon fit the post-9/11 box of the ‘Muslim enemy’. He killed 257 people not because he was just a revengeful Indian Muslim, but because, like his co-religionists worldwide, he is driven by his faith to violence. This misplaced idea has found much favour in the times of a BJP-ruled government and social media — that new playground of armchair hyper nationalists.
Between the constructs of ‘Indian’ Kalam and ‘Muslim’ Memon is a 180-million-strong swath of ‘Indian Muslims’. For a community besieged by illiteracy, poverty and stereotypes of being anti-national and violent, Kalam was a badge of honour. For the same ‘Indian Muslim’, Memon is no martyr. The community has faith in the Supreme Court and respects its verdict. But there is an acute sense of sorrow. Not because Memon was punished. But because the culprits of the 1992 Babri demolition and the 1993 riots are walking free. If a Muslim victim has little hope of justice, a Muslim convict is equally less deserving of clemency — evident from the commutation of the death sentences of a Sikh militant and Rajiv Gandhi’s Tamil assassins to life, but rejection of Afzal Guru’s and Memon’s mercy pleas.
The godsend irony of Kalam passing away just three days before Memon’s hanging has put the Indian Muslim in the dock. The ‘Indian-ness’ of Kalam is being used to berate any Indian Muslim questioning Memon’s hanging. “Go to proper school, and become like Kalam. Go to madarsa, and become like
Owaisi,” the Twitterati say condescendingly. (Hyderabad MLA Asaduddin Owaisi, who called for justice for the 1993 riot victims when Memon was to be hanged, didn’t go to a madarsa but to a ‘proper school’, followed by universities in Hyderabad and London).
Kalam seems to have become a property of the BJP and its followers. The government is now planning to rename Delhi’s Aurangzeb Road to APJ Abdul Kalam Road “as per people’s demands”. An ‘evil Muslim’ ruler’s memory is being replaced by the ‘good Muslim’ Kalam. Sincerely, BJP and followers, an Indian Muslim doesn’t need to be illustrated on how to be ‘good’ Indian and how not to be ‘evil’ Muslim. Or how not to be ‘potential terrorists” — the term used by Tripura governor Tatagatha Roy to describe those whoattended Memon’s funeral. Or how “there should have been more skullcaps at Memon’s funeral than at Kalam’s”, as some have suggeted’. That’s asking the Indian Muslim to choose between being an ‘Indian’ (as represented by Kalam) and being a ‘Muslim’ (as represented by Memon). The Indian Muslim will not choose between the two. Not if that’s a yardstick to prove his/her Indian-ness and disprove his/her Muslim-ness. For, both Kalam and Memon were Indian Muslim. Neither was more or less Indian or Muslim than the other. Both belonged to the community. One made it, and the nation, proud, the other let it, and the nation, down. One’s death closed a happy chapter, the other’s opened old wounds.