What is it like to be an Indian Muslim?
Last week I met someone—a former Infosys grandee—who knew me only through my writing. As we were chatting, he asked me a question along the lines of: Are you a Bohra or Suleimani? I was neither, I said to him, and added that I was a Hindu from a family of Krishna-worshipping Vaishnavites. He wondered why it was that I was thought to be Muslim by some (particularly, I think, on social media). My speculation was that it was because I was given names like “Aakar Ahmed Patel”. These were given because of some of the things I wrote. In India, one is parochial in intellect and it is assumed that one who writes in defence of Muslims must necessarily be Muslim.
I have always found the name-calling to be amusing and often clever. But this conversation led me to think of what it was actually like to be Muslim in India. That is what this piece is about.
What is it like to live under segregation? I prefer that word to “ghettoization” because overuse has desensitized us to this second word. We no longer pause when we see “ghettoization” and reflect on what it means. It means a community that we have shunned and rejected as being unequal and unfit to reside with us.
Ghettoization falsely implies a sense of voluntarily choosing to be huddled together. This, as any number of stories of Hindus rejecting Muslim neighbours and tenants will prove to us, is a lie.
Anyway, so what must it be like to grow up and live in segregation? Being told and reminded specifically where you cannot live? I do not know. When I went to college in Vadodara and was looking for accommodation, the landlady of the private hostel that accepted me had only one question for me: “Patel cho?” Are you a Patel (which made me acceptable)? I puffed my chest out and said “ha”, as if this was some great achievement instead of a display of bigotry on both sides, hers and mine.
I was reminded of that instance when I saw a very moving piece by the Congressman Shehzad Poonawalla for the Rediff website. The headline was, “What if it was Haider Pathan and not Hardik Patel?”
It stopped me in my tracks. What if a Muslim had gathered 500,000 Muslims and made as angry and as provocative a speech as Patel had? We would have totally lost it as a nation, I accepted. But that it took me all these years to realize that shames me. I had become totally inured to the monstrous manner in which we segregate Muslims even in our minds.
What must it be like as a Muslim to watch our television debates, the way that they have been put together in the last 10 years—with high intensity, roiling in emotion, and disproportion-ately focused on Muslims and Islam? It would be depressing and one would be forced to look away, unless one wanted to seethe all the time.
The fact is that Muslims have no agency in India. They are the worst represented major community not just on the subcontinent but anywhere in the democratic world. Two hundred million strong but with 22 members (eight from Bengal) in the Lok Sabha. Hindus are no longer shamed by such numbers but I wonder what a Muslim makes of them. I cannot say, but I can understand what they feel when angry Hindus bang on about appeasement to Muslims.
That is the main thing that would have disturbed me as a Muslim, I think. Having lived through the reality and understood it, one would then be confronted with this relentless, middle-class Hindu focus on Muslims as the problem. See any story in The Times Of India and go through the comments written by readers. I have been writing in Pakistan’s papers longer continuously than any other Indian and I assure you that either they are editing their nastiness out of reader comments, or we Indians have some truly vile people in our midst and they are not a small minority.
The Hindustan Times website on Wednesday morning (as I write this) leads with the story: “Dadri violence sad, Oppn trying to polarize, says PM Modi” (changed later to “PM Modi on Dadri violence: What is Centre’s role in these incidents?”). Immediately under that is the story “Gujarat: VHP asks non-Hindus to stay away from garba”.
I do not here want to get into who does the polarizing in India, though I am absolutely clear, and so I am sure are most of you. What I want to say is that the unwilling instrument of this polarization is the Muslim. I am thinking of how a Muslim would read these two headlines. Very differently from me, and I cannot pretend to understand the smallest aspect of what Muslims go through every day in this country as they confront each day’s news. I can pretend to empathize but being Hindu allows me the good fortune to switch off and ignore it because it isn’t ultimately about me.
It is a fine thing to be male, middle class and Hindu in India. Even in a deprived part of the world, one is privileged.
If I had actually been Muslim in India, to go back to what I was saying at the start of this piece, I would not have found any aspect of this amusing.
I would be very, very angry.
Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.
Read Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge column here.