Opinion Op Ed 06 Feb 2020 Gated Republic: Who ...
Sriram Karri is the author of the bestselling, MAN Asian Literary Prize longlisted novel, Autobiography of a Mad Nation

Gated Republic: Who stole my Muslim neighbour?

Published Feb 6, 2020, 4:30 am IST
Updated Feb 6, 2020, 4:30 am IST
Without an iota of doubt, almost everyone who resides in our building is secular, democratic and broad-minded.
We have a swimming pool, a gym, a club house, a garden, children’s play area, campus-wide CCTV cameras and round-the-clock security, a closely connected community; and no Muslim fellow-residents. And in that way too, we are a lot like most other flats, urban residential communities and gated communities, many a facility and no Muslims. I am not too sure but I doubt there are any dalits, either as owners or tenants.
 We have a swimming pool, a gym, a club house, a garden, children’s play area, campus-wide CCTV cameras and round-the-clock security, a closely connected community; and no Muslim fellow-residents. And in that way too, we are a lot like most other flats, urban residential communities and gated communities, many a facility and no Muslims. I am not too sure but I doubt there are any dalits, either as owners or tenants.

Neither the name nor the address of the gated community I have been living for nearly a decade as a tenant of a flat really matters. It is a lot like almost all the others in most big Indian cities.

We have a swimming pool, a gym, a club house, a garden, children’s play area, campus-wide CCTV cameras and round-the-clock security, a closely connected community; and no Muslim fellow-residents. And in that way too, we are a lot like most other flats, urban residential communities and gated communities, many a facility and no Muslims. I am not too sure but I doubt there are any dalits, either as owners or tenants.

 

Now, there is no law preventing anyone from purchasing a flat. No overt discrimination based on religion or caste can be detected during the purchase of property in this slice of life; yet, some sections are represented far below their national composition, or none at all. These communities are rather homogenous, with a global flair, at least four families out of 120 being foreigners, Americans presumably, expats working in nearby tech majors.

Without an iota of doubt, almost everyone who resides in our building is secular, democratic and broad-minded. Yet, we have never ever discussed this, and we do talk a lot about politics, about events, trends, and are obsessed with what is fair, and what is not.

Now, there is Khaseem Ali, who manages our building’s office and most of its affairs. All helps — maids, cooks, personal driver, gardeners, security guards and housekeeping staff — mostly comprised of those from an “underprivileged” section, euphemism for “lower caste”, dalits if you wish to be exact — report to him. Asif is our on-campus plumber, Wasim is our on-call electrician, Rehmat, on retainer, manages our piped gas supply, while Yusuf attends to errands as a carpenter-cum-pest control resource.

Khaseem, Asif, Wasim and Rehmat are reportedly happy with their employment with us, each having been around for nearly longer than a decade. They are happy to partake in our festival celebrations on Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali, Dussehra, Sankranti and Christmas — and grateful for the symbolic iftar party we throw only for them, with several vegetarians contributing to order mutton biryani and haleem.

Three decades post-liberalisation, this living format is a new normal for most Indians. It reflects a huge metamorphosis over a long journey from how we were raised, in the 1970s and 1980s, where a somewhat clichéd Amar-Akbar-Anthony-Akal are brothers kind of secular integration was a reality.

From colonies in towns and cities, often belonging to the government sector — armed forces, steel plants, railways, banks — to schools and colleges — as mates, neighbours and friends — Muslims were present in every part of our lives as equals, in the larger image of our country — socialist, secular and democratic. The diversity was deeply and heartily celebrated. Petty politically-incorrect disputes aside, religious differences were never a burden, most certainly not a blemish to be corrected. It has changed, obviously.

Who stole my Muslim neighbour? When did I stop missing his absence? Why did I never notice it before? If done in phases; the first being an outright veto enforced in super-constrained real-estate jungles of Mumbai’s high rises; the second one was perhaps mutually accepted segregation — of voluntary ghettos and separation of zones.

We traded them away for swimming pools and gated security, cameras and multi-level car parking. With rising incomes and lifestyles mirroring the West, founded on an unshakeable belief in fairness of meritocracy, we did not notice them vanishing. In holding merit as a fair infallible principle, we assumed it would be perfect too, ensuring a fair representation for everyone in a free, globalising new world.

Institutionalised bias sneaked in and not only changed demography drastically, it changed our character, even implanted a flawed idea of a perfect microcosm, of a gated community.

After a fleeting season when it did not matter who you were born as, and were defined only by what you aspired to become — we reverted to the oldest roll call — each one of us burdened and destined by the past, the most ancient of lotteries, a fall of sperm caught in an ovary — your birth defining the limits of your aspirations and achievements.

For a generation that mistrusted socialism and hated anything manufactured by the government, we created colonies with high walls of entry-barrier where only the private sector was respected. We sought private schools to protect our children from government schools; we strove for private hospitals to save our parents from government hospitals, and private security to protect our families. Private television, private airlines, private telecom, private Internet, private mobile telephony, private banks, private insurance, and private social security post-retirement — we were creating utopias.

The middle classes paid taxes not for government services but to keep the State away; it was just a stay-away fee for politicians, protection money to politics to not enter our little worlds. They did something more. They divided and separated us in a way that we did not notice. Or choose to.

It is an unimpeachable truth of Indian cities today, clusters of living segregated by religion or caste, and every possible narrow bias at work. Throw in a few exceptions, which prove nothing, save help maintain a charade. It was not just a housing issue, because the colony has always been imagined in the mould of a country. We used to build our colonies as we believed our country was. Now that the colony has been metamorphosed, who could prevent recasting the country in the image of a gated community?

Small towns are aspiring to be rapidly recast in the image of mega-cities, perhaps have the same formulae laid out. The divide will spread in the days ahead. There will be no protests. It is a glittering success story after all, a rising skyline, its underbelly invisible.

Across the country, they are protesting against the amended citizenship law. Those who never protested when we build colonies in which they had no place, none surprised the gated community had cancerously grown to gulp the nation. After all, they too countered our walls with their own bit wall, the voluntary ghetto.

The ploy worked like magic. Once the Muslim was obliterated from the colony, it was easier to suspect, demonise and hate. Much like a nation was divided and two nations forged out of it long ago, two colonies, silently partitioned, without violence, without protest; two colonies and never twain shall they meet, or interact.

The only interaction was formal, not as equals, a worker and a paymaster. When Khaseem comes over to work as a manager, as long as he never questions why none of his ilk can reside there. When they come in as Uber drivers and Zomato delivery boys, briefly, and even those can be filtered, sorry, don’t want a Muslim driver, hey, don’t send me a Muslim delivery boy.

Those who worked with pride in corporations providing equal opportunities, created an exact opposite kind of home place. Separate restrooms for drivers and maids. Separate lifts. A place for everyone based on their birth-station.

One property at a time, we demolished the Preamble. We fought against socialism, yet somewhere along the way, secularism died too. Colonies grew into cities. A city filled with racist communal gated communities that brook neither diversity nor dissent, an elite echo chamber, with organic food, Netflix, bicycle paths, Saturday night parties and Sunday morning social responsibility activism. One in whose image the Republic is being reshaped.

Whether nightmares of a dreadful Hindutva dystopia keep you awake at nights, or dreams of Akhand Bharat enable you a blissful sleep — your nightmares or dreams of our nation tomorrow — we are already in it today. A mini, gated, brave, new Republic!

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