On Monday, when reports of a Railway Protection Force constable allegedly seeking out and killing three Muslim men – all of them bearded – on a Mumbai-bound train reached Shadab Anwar, he was alarmed.
He called up his brother, Mohammad Saad, the 22-year-old imam of the Anjuman mosque in Sector-57 Gurgaon, urging him to cancel his plans. Saad was supposed to take a train home to Sitamarhi, Bihar, on Tuesday afternoon.
“I felt it was not safe for him,” Anwar told Scroll.
In a video shared on social media, the constable, Chetan Singh, can be heard hailing Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath as the body of one of the Muslim men lies at his feet.
“They operate from Pakistan, this is what the media of the country is showing,” Singh is heard telling passengers in the video. “If you want to vote, if you want to live in India, then I say, Modi and Yogi, these are the two, and you’re Thackeray.”
According to the family of one of the victims, 43-year-old Syed Saifullah, the constable had also asked him his name, before picking him out as a target.
As it turned out, Anwar was right to be worried about his brother’s safety, though it was not taking a train that put Saad, the deputy imam of the Anjuman mosque, in harm’s way.
On Monday night, barely an hour after Anwar spoke to his brother, a mob attacked the mosque, set it on fire and killed Saad. The attack on the mosque came hours after communal violence had broken out in Nuh, 60 km away.
The Haryana violence may have displaced the railway shootout from the headlines but the constable’s murderous assault on three visibly Muslim men has struck fear and foreboding into the Muslim community, with many saying they are now afraid of taking public transport.
‘I too would have been his target’
When the video clip flashed Mohsin Rashid’s screen, the 40-year-old social activist from Rajasthan’s Tonk district said that it sent chills down his spine. “My first thought was: If I were travelling in that train, I too would have been his target,” he told Scroll.
Rashid sports a beard and a moustache, and often wears a white salwar kameez and a waistcoat.
Others, too, echoed Rashid’s anxiety. Dr Aqsa Shaikh, an associate professor of community medicine in Hamdard Institute, Delhi took to Twitter to post on Tuesday: “As a Muslim woman who dons dupatta on her head and looks Muslim, I feel unsafe travelling in trains”.
Shaikh, who lives in Delhi, told Scroll that the killing of “visibly Muslim men by a railway constable has shaken us”. “As a Muslim transgender woman who wears a hijab, the threat is at multiple levels,” Shaikh said.
Author Rana Safvi, too, tweeted that while “trains are my preferred mode of transport within India as i am nervous about flying…today onwards I have decided to fly.”
She told Scroll that while her appearance does not give away her religious identity, she felt vulnerable “because I am recognisable”.
Her privilege gives her relative protection, Safvi said, but added that she shares her community’s anxieties. “If I see a Muslim boy, with visible markers of his identity, I now send a prayer hoping he returns home safely,” she said. “Only we understand what we are feeling.”
A 22-year-old woman from Hyderabad, who declined to be identified, also told Scroll that she has been rattled by the Mumbai train killings. “It is a big risk now, you never know who will attack you,” she said.
She said her cousin is supposed to take a train next week but is reconsidering the option. “He does not have a long beard but what if someone asks him his name or checks his identity card?” she said.
‘We avoid public transport’
Many Muslims said they have felt vulnerable in public spaces for some years now, especially if they wore visible markers of their religious identity. The Mumbai train killings, they said, has only reinforced their anxiety about occupying public spaces.
Sheikh, for example, said she has already begun to avoid trains and buses. “My family and I have also stopped carrying non-vegetarian meals when we travel,” she added.
While Shaikh prefers to travel in her car or take a flight for inter-city travel, she pointed out that not every Muslim can afford it. “It will restrict the mobility of Muslim women, curb employment opportunities for Muslim men,” she said.
Rashid said he avoids striking up conversations with strangers on trains, wary that his visible Muslim identity could invite trouble. “You never know how they will behave if there is an argument,” he said. “Whenever someone is praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the Bharatiya Janata Party I nod in agreement.”
He said his family also advises him to avoid reading namaz while travelling by train.
Similarly, Mahmood Alam, a 22-year-old from Haryana, recounted how he skipped his prayers while travelling by train to Mumbai from Delhi in February.
“I thought if I offer namaz, somebody may raise an objection or make a video,” he said. “So I skipped my prayers and then offered them after I reached Mumbai.”
‘A test for us’
A few Muslims, however, said that the violence and discrimination against Muslims will not convince them to give up symbols of their identity.
Umair Alware, a 23-year-old law student in Mumbai University, sports a beard and sometimes wears a skull cap. “I don’t think that people will shun these markers. They will continue to be visibly Muslim,” he said, adding that there have been past instances of violence against Muslims and religious people continue to be comfortable in their identity. “It is a test for our perseverance I feel.”
Sabah Khan, co-founder of NGO Parcham, a group that works to break caste and religious stereotypes, said she now introduces herself with her full name to ensure she communicates her religion when she meets people.
“I do not carry any markers of identity and people often mistake me for a non-Muslim,” she said. “People tell me that I don’t look like a Muslim and it is suggested as a compliment. It infuriates me.”
Khan said that while Muslim men and women have always faced discrimination because of their appearance, the hate has been emboldened under the current rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “The regime has made it possible to act on your hate,” she said. “The regime has sent out a message that it will protect people who act on that hate.”
For Mohammad Qasim of Ballabgarh Haryana, the video brought back painful memories from 2017 when his 15-year-old brother, Junaid Khan, was lynched by a mob inside a train going to Delhi.
Before his killers stabbed him, they mocked him for wearing a cap and accused him of being a beef-eater. “I have never set foot inside a train after that incident,” Qasim said. “When my mother and I saw this video [of the railway constable], we cried. How can one travel in a train when even the police target you for your religious identity?”