For some time now, we have been thinking of buying our own home, our “forever” home where we would grow old together. We found one after much diligence. It was in a very tony part of South Delhi: wide roads, well-maintained parks, lush greenery, ample parking, in fact everything that comes together rather felicitously to make these neighbourhoods so scenic.
The only fly in the ointment, so to speak, was the presence of a mosque a few houses down the road – an old one, not especially architecturally significant, but one that has existed in that spot for a long time though clearly refurbished and modernised. Also, one that is evidently in use and, according to the estate agent, a bit of a “nuisance” – but only on Fridays, he hastened to add, and also “they” don’t use any loudspeakers for “their ajaan”. However, to compound matters, every floor in that three-storey apartment block happened to be occupied/owned by a Muslim family. After several visits, I eventually chickened out from buying that perfectly lovely apartment in a perfectly lovely neighbourhood.
There seemed to be a giant, invisible yet perfectly legible ‘X’ marked on that building. The proximity to the mosque, and the presence of Muslim homeowners on every floor of that house in an otherwise entirely non-Muslim neighbourhood, brought visions of Ahmadabad, of the Gulbarg Society, of the brutal killing of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri and at least 35 others inside that ill-fated housing society. Well-meaning, liberal friends made me feel small and silly for my chicken heartedness. ‘Oh come, on!’ they chided, ‘That was Gujarat! It can’t happen in Delhi.’ Or, ‘That was a long time ago! It can’t happen now!’ (Though, if anything, recent events in Gurgaon 21 years later prove otherwise.) The rational ones rationalised, ‘Gulbarg was in Chamanpura, a Muslim-dominated neighboured; this is a safe neighbourhood. It can’t happen here.’ And worse still, there was the shaming: ‘You too? You with all your privileges? You can’t think like this!’
Yes, with all my privileges – of education, of class, of having friends in ‘high places’ – I feel scared, more scared than I have ever been in my entire life. I am 60 years old and confess to a crushing fear, one that weighs my chest with an inexorable weight and makes it difficult to breathe sometimes. I must also confess to an almost persistent depression, like a low-grade fever, over the past many months, that doesn’t quite halt the daily rhythm of life; it just slows you down by its continuous, relentless presence, making you feel sad and empty and hopeless.
I suspect I am not alone in this. I feel this fear and depression among a great many Muslims in urban India. I hear it in their silences. I sense it in their steadfast refusal to get drawn into political debates. I notice it in their stoicism in the face of virulent hate swirling about in school and college WhatsApp groups. I spot it in the hastily withdrawn social media posts drawing attention to some recent communal outrage or atrocity. I recognise it in their zeal to distance themselves from instances of any sort of violence, be it a Muslim man killing his Hindu girlfriend and chopping her into pieces or a Muslim man killing his non-Muslim partner in a business dispute.
If my own fear and despair, and that of others like me, is so palpable and pronounced, what of those Muslims who are doubly marginalised by their poverty and illiteracy? Or vulnerable because they don’t have the safeguards and barriers, however flimsy, that ‘people like us’ have in our gated communities and cushioned lives? What of those who live on the edge of survival because they must perforce go out into the real world every single day to eke out a living? What of the plumbers, electricians, painters, carpenters, maids and sundry service providers who don’t give their real, Muslim-sounding names for fear they will not be hired? Or the vegetable vendors who festoon their carts with saffron flags after every call to boycott small Muslim businesses? Or the biryani vendors, kebab sellers, quilt makers, car mechanics who have traditionally plied these trades for generations but now fear for their lives? What of the meat sellers whose makeshift stalls happen to be along the routes taken by the kawariyas? What of the imams and naib imams, often from the poorest of families, who are hired by Wakf boards to serve as custodians of small, isolated mosques surrounded by hostile neighbours?
I don’t ‘look’ like a Muslim so, to an extent, I am safe. Unless called out to chant ‘Jai Shree Ram’ to profess my Indianness, I am largely safe. But what of my name? How can I camouflage that on a railway booking chart? Or hide it when asked to provide proof of identity? While my first name can afford some benefit of doubt for it might pass as a Parsi’s, my surname is a dead give-away. When push comes to shove in the New India that is Bharat, not even speaking English will give me an exit pass if a mob baying for Muslim blood were to gherao me. All my so-called privileges can be brought to naught by a lumpen crowd. The realisation is chilling.
And if I were a man? Imagine, 70 years after partition and after reading all the gory stories penned by Manto and other chroniclers of communal violence, having your pants pulled down to check whether you are a ‘katua’ or not? But what if I did ‘look’ like a Muslim? What if I chose to offer namaz perfectly peacefully and quietly while sitting on my berth in a train? Worse still, what if I had a beard, wore a topi or a hijab? What if I worked as an imam in a mosque? So what if I had just assured my family that all was well, that I was safe given the police presence all around me? What then? What if I, as an Indian, have been conditioned to believe that the tattered fabric of secularism will be held up no matter what? The events of the past days prove these are no longer hypothetical scenarios. This is a lived reality for countless Indian Muslims.
‘Jab mulle kaate jaainge/Ram Ram chillainge’, ‘Hindustan mein rehna hoga/Jai Shri Ram kehna hoga’ and even ‘Goli maro saalon ko…’ by someone who is now a Union minister are no longer isolated instances of random, unrelated personal biases and prejudices. These are dog whistles, a clarion call to a large, restive majority that is being brainwashed to believe they are second-class citizens, perhaps even lower, in their own land. All this is part of a larger narrative, a grand design.
Since we have clearly turned into a nation of ‘whatabouters’, each of these hate-filled, terror-inducing slogans will be instantly and viciously countered with those raised by the PFI or other fringe minority outfits. When rapes, murders, corruptions, scams and scandals are thwarted in Parliament by elected representatives of the people by instances of whatabouts, how can these rising incidents of bigotry and hate not be similarly countered? It’s easier to come back with counter-accusations, to point fingers, to obfuscate, to fling more filth, to parry hate with hate than it is to understand fear, to acknowledge militant, muscular majoritarianism, to call out the elephant in the room.
As we spiral inexorably downwards, as every fresh instance of bigotry is outstripped and outdone by even bigger, bolder, more blatant, more bare-faced occurrences, we don’t seem to pause to think of the consequences. This rampant whataboutery – both at the political and the individual level – is exhausting, predictable and eventually empty. It will derail the India we have known and loved – probably forever.
Rakhshanda Jalil is a Delhi-based writer, translator and researcher. Her recent book is But You Don’t Look Like a Muslim (Harper Collins, 2019).