Shobhaa De | As Id nears, stories of hope amid a toxic climate of fear

This has been one of the hottest months in recent history, and I am not talking about the heatstroke inducing temperature alone!

I am writing this column to wish everyone Id Mubarak! This has been one of the hottest months in recent history, and I am not talking about the heatstroke inducing temperature alone! Most of our Muslim brethren have observed the holy month of Ramzan, keeping rozas and praying for peace. It’s been a tough April for multiple reasons. One of my closest friends, along with her husband, have just about pulled through, after suffering a series of serious medical setbacks. “It’s Allah’s shukr that we are alive,” they said, back in their home after a prolonged period of hospitalisation. Their devoted children did not leave either parent unattended for even a single minute. Now the whole family is looking forward to celebrating Id-ul Fitr, especially the grandchildren. As always, I will be receiving something special from their home — a tradition that has remained unbroken for decades. I am a member of their extended family, just as they are of mine.

If only more stories could be like this one. Over a posh Italian dinner, I had tears in my eyes when I thought of the tremendous hardship my dear friends had gone through, struggling for their respective lives in two separate hospitals. A person at the table said: “Oh… but all your friends represent the Muslim elite. My problem is with the ‘other’ Muslims.” On seeing my horrified expression, there was a quick rephrasing of what had been said, but the meaning remained the same. Considering this person is an American passport holder, the arrogant and offensive remark disturbed me sufficiently to argue back. Big mistake! Consider this comment: “Muslims in India don’t behave like they belong here…”. Had this person conducted a survey? Researched the subject? Spoken to Muslims about what exactly they feel about their country — India — that is as much theirs as it is mine? The conversation had begun to get toxic. I reminded this same person it was her Muslim driver who had rushed to help her at 6.30 am when she had suffered a fall and there was nobody else around. He had steadfastly stood by her during her own medical emergency. He is a poor man. An honourable man. And a proud Muslim.

“He’s an exception”, she said flatly. With a snigger she trotted out that rubbishy cliché — you must have heard it a zillion times — “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.” I felt deeply ashamed to be at the same table, but didn’t want to embarrass our host or create a scene.

The same day I had talked to a “non-elite” Muslim, who had shared some great news with me — his daughter had passed a tough, competitive exam and been recruited by a top international firm. He himself was a semi-literate person, a trader, who had invested every extra rupee to educate his children. The odds were daunting… they remain daunting. As the politically-motivated hijab row debates carry on, not for a moment is anyone bothering to even think how challenging it is for Muslim girls to get the same educational platforms as their Hindu sisters. When these opportunities are given, so many young girls shine and go on to build strong careers. That is the way forward… the only way. But going by the sly, subversive and dangerous tactics creeping into the system, it appears as if political parties want to further isolate and marginalise the next generation of Muslims — both boys and girls. The millennials have already faced the heat and battled prejudice. India’s Muslims are being systematically pushed out of the mainstream, but nobody dares to talk about it, fearing retribution.

I have been called a “Pakistani agent” often enough, and accused of being on the payroll of dodgy Pakistanis politicians. I receive hate mail, death threats and face abuse each time I post something positive about Muslims, or even wish “Id Mubarak” on social media platforms (I wish “Happy Diwali” and “Merry Christmas” too). So far, such greetings are not considered “crimes”. Emphasis: So far! Because we still call ourselves a secular nation, according to our Constitution. “It should be changed…” — I hear people say bluntly. “After all, we are the majority — India should declare itself a Hindu nation. Then let the Muslims figure what they want to do — stay or leave. About time they knew their place.” How glibly these words roll out. Like it’s as simple a decision as booking a ticket to Disneyland or staying behind to deal with hatred.

People also talk casually about the “violent Muslim” as if it’s a part of the DNA of every Muslim, no matter which part of the world he or she comes from. “What about violent Hindus?” I counter, citing recent examples. “It’s always a reaction… we never attack. We retaliate.” These are people one has grown up with talking like despicable bigots. My daughter was asked in all seriousness: “Will your mom allow you to marry a Muslim?” What a question! As bad as asking: “Will your mom allow you to marry an alien?” The lady asking it is neither a Muslim nor a Hindu. She’s Sikh. Why didn’t she ask: “Will your mother be okay if you married a Sikh?” Because, so far, the Sikhs have not been demonised the way the Muslims have been. But who knows what may happen down the line?

Another self-declared scholar talked about Yogi Adityanath and how well he is handling his state after winning the last Assembly election. “He is firm and means business. The Muslims in Uttar Pradesh have got the message loud and clear — behave, or else. Frankly, there’s no other way.” “Bulldozer justice” does not require justification. It’s enough to accuse “someone” — of throwing a stone at a Hindu procession. A militant procession with men brandishing swords and pistols. Such a shame that Arvind Kejriwal began spinning the Rohingyas and Bangladeshi refugees yarn after the riots in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri. “Someone” threw a stone and showed disrespect. That someone has to be a Muslim! Bring on the bulldozers and teach them a lesson.

Rewriting the history books is the easy part. Rewriting culture can be a lot more challenging!

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