Living in merciless times: For Muslims in India, the othering starts in school

Many called the AIMIM chief’s demand bizarre, some buffoonery. Of course, there cannot and should not be any law that violates the freedom of speech.

Written by Saba Rahman | Updated: February 10, 2018 5:03:34 pm
Living in merciless times: For Muslims in India, the othering starts in school Many called the AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi’s demand bizarre, some buffoonery. (Express Photo/Anil Sharma)

Parliamentarian Asaduddin Owaisi has demanded a three-year jail term for anyone who calls an Indian Muslim a “Pakistani”. In his address in Parliament earlier this week, he asked: “We (Muslims) rejected Jinnah’s two-nation theory. Even after 70 years (of Independence), I am called a Pakistani. Why?”

Many called the AIMIM chief’s demand bizarre, some buffoonery. Of course, there cannot and should not be any law that violates the freedom of speech. No one can, however, deny that Muslims are subjected to such name-calling routinely. They face it early on in their lives. It comes their way in schools, colleges, the neighbourhood, at workplaces, from friends, strangers — sometimes viciously, often in jest.

After the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, boys in my school would chant “Jai Shri Ram”, ‘Pakistani’, “go to Pakistan” after me. In my college, in Ranchi, during a conversation about that old chestnut, an India-Pakistan cricket match, a Hindu Bengali classmate said with much conviction: “But you all support Pakistan”. Then there were/are snide comments on Muslim population, cleanliness, and food habits that become part of your growing up.

The current times are surely more merciless. In the past few years, Muslims have become fair game for not only name-calling and hatred but also violence and lynching. The pretext could be anything: Your name, your attire, the food you eat, whether you are unwilling to say Vande Mataram, so on and so forth.

More worrying than my stories are those that my niece, now in class IX, brings home from her south Delhi school. A child asked her: “We will make a cake of Pakistan, will you cut it?” After bomb blasts in India or outside, she has been asked if she was a “terrorist” or if she knew one who was.

Recently, a poem, titled “Woh Kehte Hain Mujhe Pakistani” (They call me a Pakistani) by one Syed Zafeer, went viral on social media. Describing the ordeal of a Muslim living in India, Zafeer, like Owaisi, wondered: “Main kyun jaun Pakistan?” (Why should I go to Pakistan?) My father, who decided to bury my mother in Ranchi, her homeland, and not in Delhi where she passed away last year, too, would have asked this.

Bareilly District Magistrate Raghvendra Vikram Singh, after the riots in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj, had a similar question. “A very strange trend has started of late. Take out processions by force through Muslim-dominated localities and raise anti-Pakistan slogans. Why? Are these people Pakistani?” the DM wrote on Facebook.

It took Vinay Katiyar, BJP’s poster boy for intolerance, little time to retort to Owaisi and launch into his usual anti-Muslim rhetoric. “Muslims should not stay in this country. They have partitioned the country on the basis of population… They should go to Bangladesh or Pakistan,” he said.

We have similar examples in another BJP leader, Giriraj Singh, and VHP leader Praveen Togadia who have all waved “go-to-Pakistan” flags at Muslims with no as much as a reprimand from the government.

Let’s also not forget how our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as Gujarat chief minister, added the suffix “miyan” to Congress leader Ahmed Patel’s name during the 2012 election campaign. The point he was trying to drive home wasn’t lost on anyone.

The prime minister is also infamous for calling post-2002 relief camps in Gujarat as “child-bearing factories” where Muslims reproduce with a “hum paanch, hamaare pachchees” gusto. His political career has been marked by a pronounced anti-Muslim position, which, in the run-up to the 2019 election, is expected to be more visible. His Parliament speeches this week have betrayed his plans in the near future.

The increasing anxieties and insecurities of a community, therefore, cannot be ruled out. Nazia Erum’s book, Mothering a Muslim, has come at a time when a large number of Indian Muslim mothers are grappling with this new question: How do you prepare your child to deal with the discrimination that she is being subjected to outside home, in school, in play areas, owing to her Muslim name and identity.

Amid all this gloom, fortunately, we still have heroes who do not let communal hatred get the better of them. Like the Ghaziabad father who defied Hindutva leaders to ensure his daughter’s marriage to a Muslim man. Or, like the father of young photographer Ankit Saxena in Delhi who has refused to communalise a crime and name-call his son’s alleged killers. They are heroes because they refused to see Muslims in India as Pakistanis, even when they were forced to transcend a certain worldview, or face the tragedy of losing one of their own.

Owaisi may want a law, but a law is only as good as the people it is made for.

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