Translator’s Note: The article was originally published in Bangla in Anandabazar Patrika on 27th October, 2015. It was translated by the Delek Team and published with the author’s permission. This is a completely true incident.
Father and Son are watching Salman’s Khan’s new commercially successful film on TV. In one of the scenes, a few aggressive men wearing saffron turbans enter the Pakistani Embassy and start vandalizing random property. Immediately, the 10 year old son jumps off the sofa and began screaming: “Beat those Pakistanis up, beat them bad”. His father is a Muslim man and a professor by profession; he has named his son after a Vedic saint. Initially taken aback by his son’s reaction, he gets to know after enquiring that when this very film was shown in his school, a few boys had become similarly agitated and shown hostility towards the Pakistanis on screen. The man tries to explain to his son that despite political conflicts, Pakistan is also just another country, the people there are not our enemies. However, he remains troubled by this incident.
The doubt is cleared in a couple of days. The son reveals that many of his friends in school have been teasing him by calling him a Pakistani. They shout “Hey look, a Muslim, a Pakistani” at him as he passes by. Speechless, the man tries to make sense of this—this is one of the most famous convent schools in Kolkata; most students here come from educated middle class or upper middle class families. How does such vile sentiment enter the minds of the school’s young pupils, marring the tireless efforts of the school administration? Why should a ten year old have to deal with such animosity just because of his religious identity? As he tries to grapple with these thoughts, they evoke a few fragmented memories from his adolescence. This was the 80s. An India-Pakistan cricket match was on. Every time Pakistan lost a wicket, he shouted in glee. The feeling of triumph was less on account of his love for cricket, and more to show that he felt a sense of belongingness and loyalty for India. It’s been many years since then. He had not been able to rent a flat in a Hindu locality; when riots broke out in a another state far from here, neighbours had accumulated in front of his house spewing threats; while in university he was assigned in a room in a Muslim specific hostel though he opted to stay with everyone; once in his professional life his colleague had refused to eat with him after knowing of his identity. But all that should be in his past. In the current scenario, India has sent a mission to Mars, Polio has been completely eradicated, the prime minister has promised a bullet train to citizens. Women pilots are now employed in the air force.
Is it really all in the past? Or does the story of Muslims remaining outcastes in our society is an ever-present and relevant narrative? Hence a 10 year old has to try his might to prove that he too belongs. The apathy and the misidentification that had kept his father always at the margins of the mainstream, are more overtly polluting and rigid today. People die in this country today for allegedly consuming beef and their murderers are not brought to justice. A Muslim singer will get his show cancelled; books by Muslim publishers are banned. There is a systematic state effort to saffronise education. Our prime minister stays silent. The country, its society, and its families— all are in the grip of a terrible parochialism— the ‘other’ religion, the ‘other’ culture, the ‘other’ worldview can’t be tolerated. When the state mechanism itself fuels this culture of intolerance, the situation indeed becomes very worrying. There is a constant fear that with the state’s support or perhaps at its directive, organisations like the RSS are trying to propagate a majoritarian Hindutva ideology in India’s social, political and cultural realms. There is some hope when writers, artists and intellectuals talk about it. Some of them renounce their state awards to garner public consciousness about the larger picture connecting these events. However, their protests are also interpreted as political opportunism by this regime. If in this climate, a Class 4 student recognizes his classmate on the basis of his religion and discriminates against him, there’s nothing to be surprised about. It’s a symptom of the times we live in.
What can the man teach him in such a situation? He is quite helpless, like many other Muslims in these dark times. Should he tell his son to clutch on to his religious identity and associate only with people of his own community, so as to encourage a ghettoized lifestyle? After all, the question of Muslim development has always been tied to the issue of such a narrow communal insularity. The same has been politicized by the Right, the Left and the Centrist parties. The quick reactionary response to the overtly hostile Hindu Fundamentalism that is growing in the Muslim-majority areas of the State, is growing from this anti-progressive ghettoized sensibility. The politics of violence multiplies and hate competes with hate. Should this man accept such politics as the only way of survival? Or would he do what he has always done till now—talk to his son about an India which had grown out of diversity, a narrative which is both guided by and described by our constitution?
Durga Pujo is over. Like every time, this year too, this child is celebrating this festival of all Bengalis. However, as he participates in the festivities, is there a voice in the midst of this mirth, who had whispered to him, how he is an outsider and a trespasser in these traditions? Maybe his father would now teach him with even more conviction, the story of this eternal land, which has been a refuge to many, where all opinions, all languages, all religions, all castes and creed are welcome with equal love. But would his son believe in this story of his eternal country, after being discriminated against unnecessarily?
Dr. Tajuddin Ahmed is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Aliah University, Kolkata.