Prejudice the new normal

The politics of otherisation has now reached the chambers of our minds with a stamp of officialese, courtesy a regime that predicates religion as not only proof of identity but loyalty

Now that the embers of the Delhi riots are being washed away by an unseasonal rain, drowning the sad memories of how we can become refugees in our own land, there is talk about “heroes.” There are reports of how Hindu families sheltered Muslim neighbours in the city’s northeastern parts as the mob rampaged through their homes and hearths. There have been umpteen reports about Hindu samaritans helping the battered and bruised, rushing them to hospitals, arranging aid supplies and setting up shelters. There was also this report of a Hindu man taking down a saffron flag from atop a desecrated shrine and restoring our faith in humanity. Some would say this represents the syncretism of our civilisational ethos, the fabric of a cultural legacy that can never be torn asunder, the equality of humans as it is meant to be. Others, depending on which side of the discourse they are on, would probably call it the big-heartedness of a triumphalist faith over another. But in the end, it is all about characterising a good deed, even lionising it as one, rather than normalising it that is deeply troublesome. It is this need for categorising our behavioural pattern that represents why “otherisation” has deeply penetrated us at the societal level.

So much so that the majoritarian guilt syndrome is just as consciously executed or recognised as the awareness of minority victimhood. I am glad I grew up in Kolkata, where the cheek by jowl co-existence that we need to define so fervently these days was always a lived experience. During my kindergarten years, it was the Muslim weavers at my father’s jute factory who would drop me to school and back, bicycles on normal days, atop their shoulders on rainy days. My parents thought nothing about me playing with their children in the common playgrounds in front of their staff quarters. I cannot forget Qurbaan, who would buy me clothes from his meagre budget during Eid, along with those for his children. His wife would cook an elaborate feast that he would bring over to the house and we would all partake of the flavours and joys together. He and his family were a constant in my life till the day I got married. Then there was Abdul at my grandfather’s home in Lucknow, who embodied the summer afternoons of my long and lazy vacations, when I would read in the courtyard and he would tell me stories while pounding and mincing meat on his wooden board for the finest kebabs that I could almost swallow. If my grandfather encouraged my reading those afternoons, Abdul would regale me with animated stories and legends of Lucknow nagri, so much so that I am still teary-eyed about this city even when both have gone. Feel it in my pores as the lanes of Qaiserbagh and Aminabad. There were many others, drivers, shopkeepers, the candyman, gardener, the barber and what not, what you would call service-deliverers in today’s terms. But my bond with them was never about a relationship of convenience. Growing up with them was in the normal flow of everydayness. It was never to be screamed out as exception, simply because it was the rule.  It was also about an informal but worldly-wise education. Today, in retrospect, such experiences would be labelled as my father’s liberal experiments with classlessness, his brashness in entrusting a significant part of my childhood to strangers who were just about skilled but not educated enough, and along with my missionary education, an erosion of my Hindu mooring. The fact is he had strengthened it in the process.

Nowhere is every puja, be it of Lakshmi, Saraswati or Narayan, solemnised at home with such frequency as it is in Bengal. Be it a bout of jaundice or malaria, my mother would immediately perform a puja for gratitude and fortitude. The home pujas made divinity supreme over rituals and prioritised the personal God over the regimented one. The worship of Durga and her Kali avatars, which the zamindars turned into huge community, all-faith affairs, has historically codified plurality as a socio-cultural-religious credo. In the Bengal that I grew up in, pujas were a matter of people’s pride, an efflorescence of its creative expression, not an emotion to be whisked and shredded to prove a point. By throwing me into this eco-system, my father had never ever betrayed his pain and anxieties over the Partition, of which he was a sufferer. He knew displacement, denial and destruction first hand but chose to resolve it his way like many others, levelling the furrows than upturning them further. He was very particular about not privileging anyone over any other.

He found solace along the river at Dakshineswar, a Shakti peeth dedicated to Kali and her most ardent devotee, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who embraced a multi-faith approach to divinity as a cosmic essence, soul evolution as the only enlightenment. Swami Vivekananda, who carried on his legacy and who kept Hinduism relevant as a world religion, is sadly only quoted for exhibitionism while his plurality gets trampled day in and day out.

Midway through life now, through its many comedies and tragedies, weddings and funerals, there have been Muslim friends, peers and colleagues who have stood by me as steadfastly as family. Quite naturally. So it bothers me immensely when they question their Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, when they ask whether their parents and grandparents were right in choosing India as homeland during Partition or when they wonder about applying for citizenship or work visas overseas. How does one console them for their systematic marginalisation, the dilution of their stakeholdership in nationhood? There is no explaining to young Muslims how their ancestors fought the elitist Muslim League’s imagined fears of slavery in a majoritarian land, when current truth is stranger than past fiction. Would we have imagined marking the entrance to our homes with religious motifs as a necessity than choice? Or thought about reconverting shrines that are few centuries old than building new ones? Would we have imagined classifying vegetables and meat as Hindu or Muslim? That’s precisely what is happening in Uttar Pradesh, with vendors tagging their religion on their signages. So after identity theft, there is going to be an economic denial. As a “not so god-fearing Hindu,” hosting guests for dinner with decided preferences could now be tricky business.

The politics of otherisation has finally set in. It is an accumulation of prejudices, both latent and overt, simply because it now has a stamp of officialese courtesy a regime which predicates religion as not only proof of identity but loyalty. It has seeped in because of a nationalist thought factory that spins history lessons as a retrospective duel with invasions than learning lessons from them. You cannot blame the fundamentalist fringe like Bajrang Dal or Vishwa Hindu Parishad anymore. For their thinking is mainstream now, accepted by the educated elite in drawing rooms. They may have pushed in from the fringes but it is the porosity of the intelligentsia which has yielded to their osmotic pressure. Because we need an excuse to justify our failures. And an easy one at that. Unlike the economy, global trade winds and poverty that we have no control over, we need an aggressor we can tame visibly. So we have created a new enemy within our own and transferred all our non-functioning abilities to “termites” and “viruses” detected after 70 years of incubation. Mainstream acceptance is the most dreaded monster, for it means obeying handed down guidelines and abjuring any responsibility towards nation-building.

The establishment’s segregatory policies and practices have hurt and alienated the enlightened “Indian Muslims” whom it is so desperate to reassure in public. Not that the latter aren’t trying; if the recent protests over the citizenship law are any indication, then Muslims have emerged as rightful citizens protecting their existence than outsourcing their crusade to either the clergy or votebank politicians. Many elite Muslims, so far confined to their own spheres of excellence, are now stepping up as demanding citizens. Yet they feel vulnerable without the armour of a stereotype. Though there have been no major separatist protests that you would associate with minorityism in other nations, we could see a radicalisation of an unknown kind if justice fails them now. For the “Indian Muslims” have never sought any autonomy or privileges as their co-religionists in Kashmir have, and they have existed pan-India with local sensibilities. They have considered India their holy land.

The public parade of anti-CAA protesters in Uttar Pradesh, some of them proven activists, presenting them in a rogue’s gallery and recovering costs of damage to public property from them, legitimises this hatred as mainstream and taints an entire community with the same brush. There is no room for dissent, just acquiescence. No space for conscience, but extremism.

What we once dismissed as hilarious is dead serious. Consider the diktat warning Muslim men against marrying Hindu girls or women or the toxic masculinity of Hindu men declaring their right to marry Kashmiri women post the abrogation of Article 370. Such claims are finding a ready receptacle in drawing room chatter over evening drinks. A Hindu may not know all stanzas of Vande Mataram but a Muslim unable to recite them — albeit under fear of the gun as seen in the Delhi riots — is a traitor. It is not that Muslims haven’t been ghettoised or targetted before for political gains. They have. But the problem now is that we have cast them away in the poisonous gas chambers of our minds.

(The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer)