'Why Can't a Muslim Woman Choose India as Her Home?'

In Shyam Benegal's 'Mammo', the fatality of the argument that the Muslim identity is a monolithic one that cannot face persecution in an Islamic country, was proven.

Outside, on the kerb of the majestic tomb of the Sufi saint, Haji Ali, in Mumbai sits an aged widow. She sat in another tomb in another time, not in Mumbai, but in Lahore. Both the times, feeling perhaps the same – lonely and without a home.

This was Mehmooda Beghum or Mammo, the protagonist in the critically acclaimed film Mammo.

What makes Mammo relevant for us today is the dangerous route we have taken in our citizenship laws in the past few months. While the debate has taken a backseat for a while, in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic, with all the protests having been stopped, the challenge is far from over.

The Citizenship Amendment Act still continues to be the law of the land and thus questioning it should also continue. In this context, Mammo is a pertinent film that must be revisited.

‘Mammo’ (1994). Photo: IMDB

Written by the erudite Khalid Mohamed, the film is based on the life of his grandmother’s sister, Mehmooda Beghum or whom he called ‘Mammo Nani’. Mammo is the story of a woman both ‘seeking’ and ‘claiming’ ‘home’ in India. But what complicates her search for a home in India, is her Muslim identity and her status as a ‘Pakistani immigrant’.

It was brought to the screen in the year 1994 by the director Shyam Benegal as the first in his trilogy on Muslim women, the other two being Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001).

Partition, sub-continent and idea of ‘Watan’

In 1947, the Indian sub-continent was ‘partitioned’ with borders being drawn on headcounts of Hindu and Muslim religious identity. But the story of partition is far from over. The Partition still lives amidst us, not only in every case of religious violence but also as an important reference point for questions of belonging, home and citizenship in the sub-continent.

Mammo was one amongst the 12 million people who had been displaced and forced to leave their homes overnight when borders were drawn. Born in Panipat, India, she lived in Pakistan for a larger part of her life.  But even after years, for her, ‘apni mitti, apna watan’ was India.

Also read: From ‘Shikara’ to Shaheen Bagh: A Shared Tale of Pain and Longing

In the film, Mammo continuously asserts that India is her country and her home. On one occasion, she tells Riyaz, her grandson, that “Apni mitti apni mitti hoti.”, when the latter gets angry at her for her condescension for congested roads of Mumbai as compared to wider roads of Lahore and asks her to go back to Lahore. On another occasion, she establishes a quick connection with a taxi driver with a similar assertion of being from Panipat.

Her claim to a home in India is not limited to her grandson or taxi drivers – it is also extended to the agents of the state. Not as any legal claim but as a legitimate feeling of belonging and connection to India. Every time a state authority approaches her, she asserts – although meekly – that India is her country. India is her land. “Do I not have a right to live here?”, she asks.

She is hardly convinced with the logic given by the state that this is not a matter of two people, but of two nations. For her, India is her watan (motherland) where she was born and where now her only family lives. Drawing of political borders is irrelevant for her ‘claim’ of home in India. Political borders are rather a ‘hurdle’ in her way to claim home in India as the only gazal in the film goes, “Ye kaisi sarhade uljhi hui hai pairo mein, Hum apne ghar ke taraf uthke baar baar chale.”

A still from ‘Mammo’ (1994). Photo: Facebook

While today we are heading towards a citizenship law which attempts to establish India as natural ‘home’ for one particular religion and invariably ‘othering’ minority religions, Mammo is a reminder that feeling of home, feeling of belonging isn’t determined by religion. And Mammo is not alone – she is amongst an entire generation of people of the sub-continent for whom the ‘watan’ was across the border.

Gender violence and gendered citizenship

Mammo lived happily in Pakistan till her husband was alive. But after his death, as a widowed woman without children, she was relentlessly abused and taunted as ‘witch’, ‘barren’ and a ‘bad omen’ by her in-laws. Penniless and stripped of her right in her husband’s property, she was forced to live in a dargah (shrine).

Thus she wrote letters to her sister Fiyazi in Bombay begging to let her stay with her. She promises her sister that she would clean, cook and would not create any trouble.

And she does come to India and makes every attempt to continue to stay here, from making excuses about medical conditions to bribing the officer in the visa department. But ultimately, she is forcefully taken away by the authorities. All the Pakistani ‘infiltrators’ are being sent home, the authorities tell her. She is ‘dispatched’ to Pakistan on the Frontier Mail, just like the train she boarded to Pakistan during the Partition with her husband.

And therein lies an important lesson in Mammo’s journey for us.

For the first time in the history of post-independence India, religion has been explicitly made into a relevant criterion for granting Indian citizenship. While previously as well, amendments were brought to the citizenship laws, never has the relation between religion and the right to citizenship in this country been more blatant.

The Citizenship Amendment Act provides certain specific provisions for citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and Parsi migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. These are countries with Islam as their state religion and hence Muslims cannot be persecuted there – went the argument.

Also read: Pakistani Cinema Had Its Own Way of Looking at Partition Too

However, Mammo’s story shows the fatality of this argument. She is a Muslim in Pakistan but she is also a woman facing violence at the hands of her in-laws and is in desperate need of a home away from them. She is facing violence on account of her gender.

Muslim identity, much like all other identities, isn’t a monolithic one. Ahmadiyas and atheists who have continuously faced violence are examples of the same. The presumption of one monolithic Muslim identity that cannot be and will not be persecuted is a fallacious argument. Mammo is case in point.

In fact, citizenship itself is a gendered phenomenon. Historically women did not have right to be part of the ‘public’ sphere of politics. Women were only recognised derivatively as sisters, mothers, wives etc in relation to men. The trio of CAA-NPR-NRC would also have a gendered impact. Women are more likely to not have access and means to documentation establishing their identity, leaving them more vulnerable. Mammo reminds us of the relation of gender in this conversation on citizenship.

Ultimately, Mammo does live in India. Years later, she returns to Bombay armed with her own death certificate. She has resolved the ‘hurdle’ of political borders by declaring her own death. This time she cannot be removed from the country.

What would the CAA mean for Mammo?

Shashank Shekhar Misra is an alumnus of NLU-Lucknow and is an advocate at the Allahabad high court. Surbhi Karwa is an alumnus of NLU-Lucknow and NLU Delhi. She is currently working as a researcher.