I was so far away from my home when the news of the suicide attack on the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) convoy in Pulwama broke that it was almost two days before I really grasped what had happened. The network connection on my smartphone was very poor, and I wasn’t checking my social media feed, which is usually the first source of news for me. I felt compelled to check what had happened when I wasn’t able to make sense of some of the messages trickling in from friends.
By the time I read the news, the targeted attacks on Kashmiri students, shopkeepers and families had begun in various parts of the country. My WhatsApp groups were abuzz with frantic exchanging of information and relief efforts to offer shelter to those who were vulnerable. I wondered if it was safe to offer my home in a Delhi suburb to Kashmiri Muslims while I was not there myself, to shield them from potential harm.
I had been a schoolgoing child in November 1984 when Delhi had burnt all around us in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, as violent mobs had targeted Sikhs in their homes, colonies, trains and at taxi stands. Thousands of innocent citizens across the country had been burnt alive by the time the violence ebbed.
Less than a decade later, I was standing in the canteen of my postgraduate institute, AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, in Jamia Millia Islamia, when we received the news that the Babri Masjid had been demolished in Ayodhya. Our college gates were locked from inside to protect us from potential violence on the campus. We heard gunshots and clashes from a distance. We couldn’t go home till it was late in the evening.
I remember the shock and grief I felt as I changed buses and travelled alone to reach home, surrounded by the lights and chaos of the city at night. How could this have happened? How could a medieval mosque built of stone and mortar be demolished in broad daylight unless everyone who was in charge of protecting it had deliberately forsaken their roles? Before long, there were riots in Mumbai and other parts of the country. Lives were destroyed and terror unleashed on innocents again.
Another few years later, I travelled to Srinagar as a video journalist with my colleague, Shikha Trivedi. We met mothers whose sons had been picked up by security forces and had been missing for years. Mothers who were the last in the family holding on to the hope that the son might return home. A woman who was silent throughout our interaction but then burst into a piercing wail as the conversation turned to the torture marks on the body of her son. She had felt his pain in her own body.
Now I am a parent of teenagers who are as old as I was when I first witnessed the cycle of communal violence around me. How do I break the news to them? If they despair, I can’t bear it. If they don’t react, I worry about what’s going on inside them.
Learning about the deaths of 40 security personnel caused by a terror attack is one level of grief. How does one speak about the response of civil society that is calling for violence against Kashmiri Muslims all over India? Who are these people who valorize bigotry and prejudice, that too in a time of tragedy? We grew up with them, we work with them, we are Facebook friends with them. We celebrate festivals and attend family functions with them.
We must confront divisive discourse and call out those who endorse violence against minorities. We have to find ways to neutralize hate with the power of those who seek peace. We cannot watch helplessly as public discourse is hijacked by hate speech and jingoism. We have to take responsibility for what happens next.
Last week I was moderating a panel discussion at the formal launch of Harsh Mander’s new book, Partitions Of The Heart. Sitting on my left, Prof. Apoorvanand of Delhi University had said we must acknowledge that we are truly living in a time of despair. He said there was no point being in denial about how deeply communal hatred has permeated civil society. “People like you and me belonging to the Hindu community in India have tasted blood and have bought into the delusional idea that India must become a Hindu majoritarian state," he said in Hindi.
I listened to his words and braced myself. We all use words differently to cope with reality when it overwhelms us.
When I was 15, I had first begun to think about what makes me an Indian. Why do I have to accept an identity that is defined by arbitrarily drawn man-made boundaries? An identity that has been acquired by the accident of birth?
If being Indian means that I must hate Pakistanis, then it isn’t a label I will accept. There is no difference between ordinary Pakistanis and Indians—neither of us are terrorists or sympathizers of terrorism. Both of us are victims of divisive politics, both will suffer needlessly from war and cross-border terrorism.
Given how many educated Indians are behaving in this time of national tragedy, being Indian clearly doesn’t compel us to be in solidarity with other Indians either.
What is the purpose of belonging to a nation or a community if it isn’t to add value to our lives? I don’t understand an identity that shrinks the possibilities in my life. That seeks to make me smaller and closed, vicious and violent.
Identities are fluid and intersect with each other. Identities are meant to nurture and protect, not demand toxic allegiance. Just because I feel protective towards those who are part of my community doesn’t mean I seek to harm those in other communities.
As a parent, I can’t protect my children from the reality of what is happening to the world around us. As an adult, I can’t wallow in despair either. Being Indian means only one thing to me. It means being human and doing whatever it takes to stay loyal to the interests of fellow humans.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar