In recent years, India has woken up to the contributions and sacrifices of our Armed Forces to the nation. The men and women in uniform have suddenly been put on a pedestal. As the daughter of a father who served in the Army Medical Corps for 35 years and as the wife of an officer who is still serving, I have always valued the privileges that have come from being a member of an armed forces family. But over the past five years, I have come to realise that being a part of this organisation has provided me with an additional advantage: the advantage of having a better chance at survival in New India, an India where one can be lynched on the grounds of one’s religious identity.
Since 2014, I have noticed a gradual change in the behavior of a section of Indian society. People have openly started expressing their hatred for religious minorities, a sentiment that is fuelled by the hate speeches and dog-whistle comments of political leaders. Incessant propaganda has been launched to demonise Muslims. The results are obvious for everyone to see. The communal lynchings that started in 2014, when 24-year-old Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh was beaten to death in Pune as he returned home from his prayers one evening, has grown into an epidemic.
I have watched with alarm as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has tried to divide the community between Good Muslims and Bad Muslims. Bad Muslims, apparently, are those who dare to wear their identity on their sleeves and demand to be treated as equal citizens of India. Bad Muslims are those who refuse to chant “Vande mataram” or “Jai Sri Ram”. According to the narrative being spread, you can either be a Muslim or a patriotic Indian.
When I was growing up on Army cantonments around India, I always cherished my Muslim identity – but it wasn’t the only thing that defined me. The multicultural environment of the Army made sure that I imbibed India’s syncretic values, but not at the cost of giving up my religion.
Being Muslims who are part of the Army community, of course, marks us out as Good Muslims – which should make us immune to the kind of atrocities against members of our community that have become all too commonplace.
But even though I live in a secure environment, a nagging fear inhabits my mind every time I step out of the cantonment. If I am travelling alone, I make sure that the vehicle picks me up outside the Army gates, so that the driver is immediately informed about my patriotic credentials, something that may protect me from mishaps. If I’m travelling in our own car, I’m always grateful for the bold letters on the signboard at the back spelling out “ARMY”; the word feels like a “suraksha kavach”, an amulet protecting me from the evil eye.
Every time I return home, I feel a sense of relief. The Army cantonments have been my safe haven for decades. But what about the millions of less privileged Muslims, who live in an exposed environment and are at risk of getting lynched over trivial issues like carrying meat, an altercation over a seat in a train or just for sporting a symbol of Muslim identity such as a skull cap or beard.
Proving our patriotism
But increasingly, I worry that the mere fact of my association with the forces may not be enough to guarantee my safety. After all, in 2015, Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched by a mob near the Uttar Pradesh town on Dadri in spite of his son serving in the Air Force. Last year, we saw how a retired Army officer and Kargil veteran, Mohammed Sanaullah, being detained after his name went missing from the National Register of Citizens in Assam. Thirty years of service in the Indian Army didn’t shield him from being declared a non-citizen.
While Hindus are deemed to be patriots just by virtue of their religion, Indian Muslims are time and again required to furnish proof of their devotion to India. Even the ultimate sacrifices of Army rifleman Aurangzeb who was abducted and killed by militants in Kashmir last year and of Lieutenant Umar Fayyaz who killed in similar circumstances in May 2017 by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen militants are seen only as individual acts, not as proof of the patriotism of all of India’s Muslims.
This New India makes me anxious.
Nazma Parveen is a doctor who lives and practices in Kolkata.
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