Why the names of Muslim soldiers are being noticed in the new India

Unity in diversity: The growing relevance of a forgotten Indian slogan and a lost stanza of the national anthem.

He was an upper-caste Hindu from a village outside the holy city of Varanasi. “Yes,” he said, before I could ask, “the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the man I voted for.” As his taxi hurtled over the Sealink, a cable-stayed bridge spanning a part of Mumbai’s western seaboard, the driver listed his reasons for turning from the Congress to Modi: the promise of vikas (progress) and the possibility that desh ka sthar uncha uthe (India’s position would rise). After a minute’s silence, he spoke again.

Lekin yeh jo ho raha hain, woh galat hain,” he said. Whatever was happening was wrong? I was unclear what he meant, but I let him speak. “Yeh gau rakshak, yeh Musalmanon ki hatya, aapko malum hain na main kya keh raha hoon? [This cow protection, this killing of Muslims, you know what I am talking about?],” he said, tentatively, glancing in his rear view mirror to see if I would disagree. When I said nothing, he spoke with greater confidence.

I want to tell you some simple things, said the driver, 40-something and unshaven. He read the paper carefully every day, and he noticed, he explained, that the last three soldiers who had died along the Line of Control in Kashmir were Muslim (he was almost spot on: Mohammad Showkat, Naik Mudassar Ahmed, Lance Naik Mohammed Naseer, Jaspreet Singh and Naik Bakhtawar Singh were the soldiers killed since July 8). “And who do you think all the policemen who die in Kashmir battling terrorists are?” he asked. “They are all Muslim. Do you know of Abdul Hamid? He was from my area, we still remember him.” Havaldar Hamid of the Grenadiers received India’s highest military decoration, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously after holding back a Pakistani tank attack in 1965, destroying three before a fourth killed him.

The taxi driver stayed silent for some seconds and began to speak again. “Sahab, kuch galat ho raha hain is desh mein,” he said. “Yeh, achanak kahan se aaya ki Musalman bahar se hain, sachcha Hindustani nahi hain?” Something is going wrong in this country. My village has lots of Muslims, he said, and here in Mumbai, I live among them. They are as good or as bad as all Indians. How has it suddenly emerged, he asked, that we are told that Muslims are from outside, that they are not true Indians?

But the question that troubled the taxi driver does not trouble enough Indians, and so Hindu majoritarianism surges, creating new fears and tensions among India’s 180 million Muslims. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that India’s unity – however inadequate and flawed – is at grave risk because attention is not being paid to nurturing its diversity.

Reminder of India’s diversity

Since being a soldier is now a marker of unquestioning nationalism and belonging, let us address what the new divisiveness can do to India’s men and women in arms. There is no data that the armed forces releases, but it is obvious that a large number who serve are not Hindu. We know of Kashmiris serving in the armed forces only when they die, as we do of police officers in a state where a major reason for the current uprising is that many Kashmiri Muslims do not now see a future with a nation turning aggressively Hindu. This is not to say that Kashmiri Muslims had bought into the idea of India, but many could live with a delicate association with a secular nation.

Since secularism is now a bad word, it is important to point out what was once obvious: that minorities, in particular Muslims, have as much claim to India as Hindus. If India – one of the world’s most diverse countries – is to stay united, peacefully, then it must celebrate its minorities and what they do. That is why the media thought it fit to point out (two examples here and here) this: Iqbal Ahmed, the commander of a Central Reserve Police Force battalion that thwarted a terrorist attack in Bandipora, Kashmir, on June 5, abandoned his sehri (early morning meal before a day of Ramzan fasting), grabbed his assault rifle and galvanised his troops. Ahmed was later decorated for bravery.

That is also why videos like the one below are getting passed around among Muslims. A man meets a soldier, begins criticising Kashmiris and soon launches a diatribe against Muslims in general, drawing everything that the Hindu Right propagates, from triple talaq to the singer Sonu Nigam’s crusade against azaans. Finally, the man introduces himself. “By the way, sir, my name is Atul Saxena,” he says. The soldier replies, “Hello, Rasheed Khan.”

These are all reminders to newly resurgent Hindus of India’s diversity. It is unfortunate that such reminders are required and that we must be made aware of a soldier’s religion. But there appears little choice when India’s nuances are rapidly being forgotten in a swelling tide of nationalism that seeks to define itself in narrow, you-must-be-like-us-and-like-what-we-like terms.

Protecting secularism

Over the past week alone, we saw the Madras High Court make it mandatory for private and government offices and schools to sing the Vande Mataram, the national song. We learned that school children in Rajasthan will be taught majoritarian fantasy – that the medieval Hindu chieftan Rana Pratap defeated Mughal emperor Akbar’s army – and that the government in Goa would provide farmers financial aid to look after old cows.

But India’s diversity is too complex, and dangerous, to change by government or majoritarian diktat. In Bengaluru, Delhi’s drive to lend primacy to Hindi generated much passion this week as Hindi signboards on a new metro line were blackened, protestors took to the streets and social media, and the metro authority was warned by a local government authority against insisting on Hindi signage. A few days later, India’s aviation authority “advised” airlines to stock Hindi newspapers and magazines on all flights.

To me, India’s multi-layered realities were embodied in the story that emerged the same week of Thangarasu Natarajan, a Tamilian, Hindu fast-bowler who knows no Hindi and communicates in sign language and English with his Punjabi team mates and whose mother sells beef and chicken fry to get by. The idea of India lives on in the small stories of unknown people, who lend a hand and quietly get along with those unlike themselves, even in areas of strife.

This is a time to recall the old slogan of “unity in diversity”, which, like secularism, is fading from popular discourse. Few politicians now call for “national integration”, a favourite – if, often, hollow – appeal made frequently during the Congress era. I am no fan of the authoritarian Indira Gandhi, but she recognised that “national integration is the internal defence of the country”. She said, “We should not imagine that merely because we are free and have a Constitution, social cohesion will remain on its own. It has to be guarded, just as the nation’s frontiers are guarded.” It is another matter that she ignored her own advice, and, followed later by her son Rajiv, was responsible for first prying open the lid that kept sectarianism imprisoned.

This is also a time to recall the unused, forgotten second stanza of the national anthem, written by India’s poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore (mention of whom Hindu ideologue Dina Nath Batra wants scrubbed from text books):

“Ohoroho Tobo Aahbaano Prachaarito, Shuni Tabo Udaaro Baani

Hindu Bauddho Shikho Jaino, Parashiko Musholmaano Christaani

Purabo Pashchimo Aashey, Tabo Singhaasano Paashey

Premohaaro Hawye Gaanthaa

Jano Gano Oikyo Bidhaayako Jayo Hey, Bhaarato Bhaagyo Bidhaataa

Jayo Hey, Jayo Hey, Jayo Hey, Jayo Jayo Jayo, Jayo Hey.”

(Your call is announced continuously, we heed your gracious call

The Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, Muslims and Christians,

The east and the west come, to your throne

And weave the garland of love...

Oh! You who bring in the unity of the people!

Victory be to you, dispenser of the destiny of India!)

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