I WAS BORN eight years after India won her freedom—a time when the country was much poorer, much hungrier, and more hopelessly trapped in historical bondages of caste and gender than it is today. But as I recall in my recent book Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India, I remember my childhood as a period defined by a culture of egalitarian and secular idealism. There was an ethos of relative restraint among people of privilege, both on conspicuous consumption and the public display of prejudice.
I studied in an elite boys’ boarding school with many feudal hangovers, but still we were oblivious of differences of religion, class and caste between us. For our school prayer, my British school principal chose a song by the poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal: ‘Lab pe aati hai dua’. Today, this dua, or prayer, which affirms that no religion teaches enmity and seeks God’s blessings to be of service to the suffering and oppressed, has been ghettoised in India, restricted to madrassas. Of course, caste and communal inequalities were rampant even when I was growing up, but airing one’s prejudices was neither commonplace nor socially acceptable among the middle classes.
Above all, according to the new globalised ‘common sense’ of our times, Muslims are sympathetic to violence. For a long time in India, these pernicious beliefs were nurtured through a chauvinistic retelling of history, in which Muslims through the medieval age were portrayed as invaders who looted the country, subjugated its Hindu populations, demolished Hindu places of worship, and forcibly converted millions of hapless Hindus to Islam at the point of the sword. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his first address to Parliament, chose to reinforce this reading of India’s history by speaking of 1,200 and not 200 years of India’s slavery, thereby extending the period of India’s bondage not just to the years of colonisation, but to the millennium in which the majority of rulers were Muslim.
Contrast this with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s words, “Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour.” This could be the voice of every Muslim who chose secular India over a Muslim Pakistan.
Every major bomb explosion is almost immediately followed by a government statement claiming that one or more Islamist terror groups were responsible, and this is relayed by the press—without even a disclaimer, or the word ‘alleged’—and accepted as truth by popular public opinion. No one asks how the government is so certain. If it knew in advance, why did it not prevent it? And if it did not know earlier, how was it so sure within minutes of the blast? This obvious official disingenuousness is possible because it falls on the fertile soil of popular prejudice against Muslims for their alleged allegiance to terror. This is followed by large-scale arrests of Muslim youth under terror laws, often for several years, after which they are finally discharged after destroying long precious years of their youth. Some courageous and impartial investigations by some of the country’s finest policemen, such as Hemant Karkare, have revealed that many of the terror cases earlier attributed to islamist organisations were actually the handiwork of shadowy outfits with allegiance to hindutva thought. However, this has barely entered middle-class consciousness, and certainly not drawing-room conversations on terror. It is thus that middle-class Indians are able to block out the idea that many terror attacks are established to be conspiracies by people who owe no allegiance to any faith, including their own.
Both in mixed employment and housing spaces, to the extent that they exist, there tends to be a bias against Muslims who are religious or wear cultural markers like beards or headscarves. They are seen as ‘fundamentalists’, whereas a temple-going Hindu man, with his forehead conspicuously strewn with ash, rice-grain and vermilion, is merely god-fearing. But even those who are more cosmopolitan in dress and demonstrate no perceptible religious fervour are still frequently stereotyped, on the presumption that they carry regressive ‘Muslim’ positions on issues.
But the most disappointing finding for me is the experience of middle-class Muslim children in elite schools. Many Muslim friends report stories of their children returning from school in tears, because they were called ‘Osama’ or a terrorist, or advised to ‘return’ to Pakistan. In 2012, of 92 schools in Delhi (mostly elite private schools) that provided some sort of information on their websites, as many as 20 (or their branches) admitted no Muslim child, while 17 admitted only one Muslim child each. Although Muslims comprise about 15 per cent of Delhi’s population, less than 0.5 per cent of those admitted were Muslim children.
India today has more Muslim residents than both Pakistan and Bangladesh, and their ancestors voluntarily chose to live in secular India over Muslim Pakistan. The patriotism of a Hindu who chooses to migrate to the US is not questioned. On the other hand, the large majority of Muslims I encounter are grateful that their parents or grandparents chose to continue to live in India. Recall Maulana Azad’s passionate opposition to the idea of Pakistan: “As a Muslim, I for one am not prepared for a moment to give up my right to treat the whole of India as my domain and to share in the shaping of its political and economic life.”
There is also remarkably little radicalisation among Indian Muslims. Despite widespread anguish after the carnage of 2002 in Gujarat, there are very few credible reports of survivors taking up arms against the state. It is not that they have submitted passively to injustice. They have relied mainly on the instruments of democracy and law to fight the grievous wrongs they suffered, in solidarity with large numbers of non-Muslims.
It is this shared sense of solidarities across faith and identity that I speak of in my book Looking Away, which endures, under great stress, in India. The majority of Indians continue to demonstrate in the ways they live their lives, and in the choices they make even while facing injustice and inequity, their shared and equal commitment to India’s secular democracy.
Mander, a writer and social worker, is director of Centre for Equity Studies.