India is a land of all kinds of hereditary privilege. And perhaps the central outcome of privilege is being relatively safe amid all kinds of chaos that grips the country. I come from one such privileged group—savarna Hindu, upper-middle-class, intergenerationally English-educated, cosmopolitan, and progeny of Delhi-based Central government employed parents. It is the safest subset of Indians to belong to.
As a progressive Indian I have tried to educate myself about the reality and experiences of those groups not as privileged. But, to be honest, fear of mass violence and threat to life has never been a part of my lived reality. And one doesn’t experience fear or understand the vulnerability of another identity until it begins to affect one personally.
Six months ago I married a young Muslim activist. Slowly, after the wedding festivities died down, and I began to spend normal time with my in-laws, we began to get used to each other. To be honest, my Hindu identity, and their Muslim identity, didn’t really mean so much within the familiarity and comfort of the home setting. I felt at home, candidly recounting some wild stories of my youth to my mother-in-law, much to my husband’s horror!
My brother-in-law, a graduate from Aligarh Muslim University, got a job and began living and working in Gurugram. I was back in Delhi, and he came to see me at my parents’ house. We discussed his new job and he told me he was at a paying guest accommodation in Gurugram. He narrated how when he took some friends to have biryani at his sister’s house in Shaheen Bagh, the rest of the PG residents had chided the ‘biryani-eating gang’ for ‘risking their lives and safety’ by going into ‘those areas’. My brother-in-law was talking about how stereotypes against Muslims were infiltrating common sense of even educated young people like his colleagues. I nodded. He said that he felt insecure staying there and was considering moving to Shaheen Bagh or Okhla (Muslim majority areas in Delhi). I frowned—wasn’t this an overreaction? I mean, Gurugram was a tech hub and a cosmopolitan town neighbouring Delhi. Surely he didn’t feel unsafe there. I didn’t say anything. Some months passed and my brother-in-law moved to Okhla.
On July 31, following a viral video announcement by a triple murder accused Bajrang Dal leader about his attendance in a religious rally in Nuh, in Haryana, riots broke out. The communal conflagration turned bloody, killing two police personnel and others. As the situation was brought under control in Nuh, in neighbouring posh Gurugram retaliatory mobs torched a mosque in Sector 57 and killed a deputy imam. More incidents of arson followed and soon there were riots in Gurugram.
I was looking up the news when I suddenly remembered with shock and consternation that my brother-in-law worked in Gurugram. I dialled his number hastily, wondering if he was having to make a dangerous daily commute. He answered that he was safe, had quit that job just 10 days earlier and was now working in Noida. I breathed easy.
Some days later my husband had to travel and was packing clothes. He took out a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and announced he was changing. Surprised, I looked at the freshly starched kurta-pajama he had on and asked why he was changing? He said with a wry smile, “I already have a beard. In kurta-pajama I will pakka look like a Musalmaan!” And he casually went off to change.
An uneasy feeling emerged in the pit of my stomach as I realised that none of my privileges would protect my love, my partner, and now, my family, from the effects of the hate politics that was destroying everything good and decent in our country. The fire truly had come home.
The writer is an award-winning Bollywood actor and sometime writer and social commentator.