My friend was one of those Indians who proudly waved the flag, sang the anthem and believed there were – despite its obvious infirmities – few better places on earth to raise his daughter. The first shock to a lifetime of patriotism was delivered this year by a child who taunted his six-year-old.
You are a Muslim and a terrorist, said the child, who was unlikely to have understood what a terrorist was. But children only parrot their parents, so it was obvious where these accusations came from. Many Muslims, especially in North India, will tell you taunts like these are not new. At some point, they have had to endure the tired but hurtful trope of Muslim, Pakistani, terrorist. But these encounters were largely regarded as exceptions and tolerated because their country and its large majority of Hindus embraced the idea of a diverse, secular India – or at least so we thought.
Now, people like my friend cannot recognize their country. Friends and neighbours are radicalised, buying wholesale into the idea of one nation, one leader, one culture and a host of other imaginary unities, designed to exclude other histories, realities and identities. This is a time when India threatens to universalise the chaos, prejudice and injustice that currently characterizes the drive to prove citizenship in Assam. As the government builds its first giant detention camp – as large as seven football fields, we hear – it is apparent that the bogey of the Bangladeshi is a thinly veiled witch hunt against Indian Muslims. Fear grows every day among minorities about what is and what is coming.
In daily life, caution is a common leitmotif: many North Indian Muslims I know tell their children to avoid packing meat when leaving home – who knows where a mob may coalesce and pronounce judgement on the content of their lunch boxes.
For the first time in his life, my friend says, he sees no future in his once beloved country. In his neighbourhood in Kanpur, a former industrial city with a now-devastated economy, the talk among anyone who has money is to flee. Eight families, he tells me, got together, identified a town in Canada as their new home and moved.
In my friend’s state of Uttar Pradesh, a state that leads every other in hate crimes against minorities over the past decade, Muslims have been particularly affected by a host of central and state policies, from demonetisation to the shutting of slaughterhouses. Businesses have collapsed, the chief minister is a militant Hindu nationalist, his administration is seen to be openly pro-Hindu and those in authority feel empowered to flaunt prejudice, as a Hindu college principal recently did, standing at the gates with a stick, which he waved at young women covered in burkhas, demanding they remove the garment.
As overt discrimination against Muslims gathers pace, their growing depression at the state of affairs and a declining willingness to see them as equal citizens is more evident across India’s great northern plains, the cow-belt so to say, than the rest of India, but a general inclination to accept an anti-Muslim narrative is apparent in most states.
It has been all too easy for the radicalised Hindu mind to accept the tripe that they, the majority, were discriminated against over the centuries and their concerns made subservient to the minority’s. The carefully constructed canards of historic bias and the partiality of post-independence secularism towards minorities are plainly without basis. If there were any truth to the allegations of generational oppression against Hindus – now propagated through billions of WhatsApp forwards as the incontrovertible truth – Muslims would not still be a minority, languishing on the lowest rungs of India’s economy, society and polity.
The truth is not just relative in new India’s post-truth world of fake news and myth, it verges on fantasy, and, so, it is easy to weaponise every absurdity offered about India’s minorities, especially Muslims. From the far, dark fringes of social media, ideas once regarded as lunacy – or close to it – have witnessed the light of legitimacy: vedic planes, love jihad, ghar wapsi, cow rights, support for criminals based on religion. Emboldened by leaders willing to support the lynch mob, biased administrators willing to manipulate the law, courts willing to subvert the Constitution and compliant or complicit media, the once – and still – insecure, radicalised Hindu believes his time has come.
This is not to say all Hindus are radicalised. But the question is not how many are aghast that fellow citizens are judged by their identity, appearance, food habits and that a mob – online or real – could decide their fate. The question is how many are willing to be resist the subversion of justice and the Constitution and the roiling tide of majoritarianism.
Standing against the mob
Hong Kong, a city with fewer people than Bangalore, sent out more people to protest a proposal against liberty than all of India could muster for Kashmir – a metaphor for the subjugation of Muslims – where liberty was locked up. Currently, there are too few prepared to serve as bulwarks, too few willing to go against their leaders and too few willing to challenge the ideology of the era and stand against the mob.
Hope can only come if India hears from more Hindus like Ayush Chaturvedi, the teenager from the prime minister’s constituency of Varanasi. Hope there obviously is, buried somewhere in this vast land, because until last week who had heard of Chaturvedi? He is the young man who stood up at a school event and declared there was no Hindu bigger than Gandhi, but the Mahatma’s “Hey Ram” did not scare any community because it was a symbol of secular India.
Said Chaturvedi: “Kaun kehta hain ki main aandhi ke saath hoon? Godse ke daur mein, main Gandhi ke saath hoon.”
“Who says I am with the storm? In a time of Godse, I am with Gandhi.”