I was on the phone with an old buddy from Delhi when the door bell rang, and I placed him on hold. He heard me thanking the visitor and guessed out loud if I was being pampered yet again by my neighbours. I suppose he had heard from my mother how much I was cared for in Bangalore where I am staying temporarily as a PhD researcher, how a hot meal on my table awaits me every time I get back into town from my field travels, that a list of my favourite foods is stuck on my next door neighbour’s refrigerator, and that not a day goes by without being asked if everything is all right. When I sated his curiosity as to who “these people” were, he repeated, “Muslim family? Sweety, are you sure you’re safe?”
My stunned silence he took as confirmation of his concern. He continued, “They don’t enter the house when you’re not around, do they?” and then said in a more jocular tone (except that he wasn’t joking), “bomb to nahin banaa rahe hain tere ghar mein ghuskey? Why are they being so nice?” His worries, which he feels are genuine, are not isolated apprehensions, or coming from someone whose house has been used to make bombs, or out of any real experience of feeling “unsafe” around a Muslim. They are part of a set of constructed fears that demonise and exclude, that discriminate and victimise, that see anti-Muslim hostility as normal and even respectable, and that take all of five seconds to turn a “pampering”, “caring” neighbour into a threat and a problem that the world has to deal with.
It was no coincidence that the very same evening Sakina, my neighbour’s daughter, came back, moist-eyed, trying to make sense of what she was told in office. One of her HR colleagues at work had blazed out loud, days after news of terror poured out of Mumbai, that “these people (Muslims) should all just be sent back to Pakistan…. Employees at the Taj are suspected to have plotted with the terrorists, god knows how many employees, at what all places, are scheming more attacks.” Sakina found herself retorting that just because people shared their names did not mean they were alike. They were not kin. How would the Hindu colleague feel if he were asked to leave his own country or sent away to another place and forced to consider it his own. But the calmer question she posed to me, with whom she was unpacking later the import of all that was said to her at office, was, “Why did it feel foolish and far fetched to even suggest that the colleague could be asked to leave this country? Because it is his country more than mine, right? He has a greater right to determine who stays and who goes…” I was stunned into silence for the second time that evening. Because she was so goddamned right.
It is only the privileged and politically correct English-speaking liberal literati Muslims like theatre person Aamir Raza Husain who can have the luxury (and the nerve) to mobilise all Muslims to prove themselves good citizens, and as equal participants in the fight against terror. It is every Muslim’s responsibility in such times of crises to portray his or her patriotism to the world, he says. But I wonder why my friend should do it? Sakina, who sat glued to her television set for the three days of the flushing out operations at the Taj, mourning the loss, mourning the apathy, the insensitivity, the complete failure of those we choose to put in power to instil a semblance of safety in the lives of their citizens, and mourning the near complete success of some to practise their best brand of divisive politics.
She does not need to demonstrate her loyalty to the country and her hostility towards the perpetrators of terror any more than Hindus need to establish a distance from the kar sevaks who carried out a planned barbaric act on the Babri Masjid; or the carnage in Gujarat that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Muslims; or the Hindu terror suspects who bombed people in Malegaon. It is no coincidence that we call this “small section” “Hindu fundamentalists”, whose aims and means the rest of the community has nothing in common with, while the Muslim is just plain and unmarked fundamentalist or even terrorist.
On a recent TV show that was another frenzied response to the Delhi bomb blasts, a panel was discussing what people thought about banning the Bajrang Dal like the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). Non-resident Indians were texting in from London, Sydney, Tuscany, Tennessee, from all over the world, really, to show that they were very much a part of the public discourse in India. While SIMI was decidedly anti-national, the Bajrang Dal was only anti-cultural. One got to hear the most absurd claims about how non-threatening Hindu terrorists were. A well-known panellist even said that comparing the SIMI and the Bajrang Dal was like comparing an AK 47 with a water pistol. These are precisely the discourses that conjure up a national Other who is menacing, violent, untrustworthy, worthy of exclusion and discrimination, and guilty until proven innocent.
One does not even need to look as far as the overt expressions of exclusion. It is in what would generally be understood as the Ã¢â‚¬Å“non-violentÃ¢â‚¬Â expressions that the most virulent and violent expressions of Othering lie. Ã¢â‚¬Å“And why must they use a loudspeaker to project their azaan (Muslim prayer) five times day,Ã¢â‚¬Â a Hindu friend of mine remarked in an irritated tone when we were sitting in my home in Bangalore, a few kilometers away from the Masjid. When I digested that comment and was able to speak at all, I asked in what ways that was different from the sandhya aarti (prayers offered to Hindu Gods at dusk) performed daily at a temple barely two kilometers from her house, where solid brass plates were beaten in a certain rhythm to match that of the percussion drums, that were, in turn, co-ordinated with the constant ringing of the brass bell Ã¢â‚¬â€œ producing a shrill, loud concert for nearly an hour, every evening. She said well at least they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t use loudspeakers.
A colleague of mine, with whom I was grocery shopping the other day, echoed a similar process of constructing Ã¢â‚¬Å“the different.Ã¢â‚¬Â We were in the billing queue, and were growing impatient waiting. The burqua-clad lady whose purchases were being billed at the time, had three kids in tow, and many things in her cart. Bugged with the wait time, my colleague commented, Ã¢â‚¬Å“bacchein toh allah ki den hainÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.tum sotey raho, woh detey rahengeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.Ã¢â‚¬Â (offsprings are your gifts from Allah, you continue being in bed, He will continue bestowing moreÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.,Ã¢â‚¬Â expressing at once, both literally and allegorically, the unselfconscious and irresponsible and lazy Other. The comment would have been only less unbearable had there not been this confident white woman (French, I thought from her accent) with a whole entourage of kids Ã¢â‚¬â€œ twins on the shopping cart, one holding the womanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hand, and an older child taking care of a younger sibling near the aisle Ã¢â‚¬â€œ five in all Ã¢â‚¬â€œ right there, in front of us, but completely invisibilizing herself as an irresponsible family planner. This is a very familiar and oft-quoted Ã¢â‚¬Å“complaintÃ¢â‚¬Â to stereotype the Muslims in our country, that they are responsible for the galloping population growth rate of India. It is the dread, the fear, and the dislike that this discourse produces and that brings about the culture of social exclusion that we see in the country today.
I left India four years ago to be a graduate student at a US university to learn about post-colonial theory, politics of knowledge and representation, discourses that construct the Other, and other scary things. I have come back for my PhD fieldwork to the right place, and I am still wishing that I wouldn’t get my field data so easily.
Photo Credit: Thaths of a Kerala Muslim family
(The authorÃ‚Â is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Minnesota)