Shabab Khan| Current Affairs | New Delhi | Lucknow | Varanasi
Never in my 37 years have I thought for even a milli-second of living anywhere else except India. Not even when, in the wake of the Ayodhya agitation, I received a stream of poisonous hate mails and a packet of turds (in a mithai box!!). I love the multilayered multiplicity of India, its synergies and paradoxes, its many diverging and converging cultural streams, its colour and chaos, the hit-and-miss jugaad of past and present, malls and mandirs, East and West; its unexpected but inherent certainties. . .
In any case, good or bad, it is MY country.
So it feels strange to be told, when I critically question any aspect, that I should go live somewhere else – Pakistan, for instance. I am utterly amazed that Aamir Khan’s confession of momentary vulnerability should be termed a “moral offence” by no less a person than M J Akbar! I used to so admire the reasoned clarity of his writing.
I have always over-used adjectives. My English teacher would red-pencil an acerbic commentary. My favourite rebuke was “oxymoron”. I loved its sound as well as its meaning – two adjectives contradicting each other.
These days I am being turned into an oxymoron myself! “Indian Muslim” is an identity increasingly suspect by self-proclaimed “patriots”; one’s own patriotism requiring constant justification plus a certificate proving one doesn’t eat beef or critique the nation. That a well-known Sadhvi can dub Shah Rukh Khan a Pakistani agent and not be arrested for libel, instead accruing a trail of approving social media comments, or the culture minister awards A P J Abdul Kalam the accolade of being a good man “despite being a Muslim”, is not exactly a comfortable feeling. That someone can be lynched to death for having meat in his fridge is even more eerie.
I love India and intend to live and die here, but I also want to be able to freely question its imperfections. Just as I have the freedom to say that Islam has been hijacked by a gang of demonic and utterly vile hoodlums and that the rest of us. Muslims seem helpless to combat this evil. One’s religion should have absolutely nothing to do with freedom of speech. Nor should “tolerance” play a part in this equation.
“Intolerance” is a horrible word, even more horrible in practice. But “tolerance” is only marginally better. I don’t want to be “tolerated” in a condescending, rather grudging acceptance – as if I (and other minorities) were something not very nice that won’t go away! I want my being here to be taken for granted. I feel an integral part of this nation, and I want everyone else to think so too.
“Tolerance” implies you can just about exist as long as you don’t step out of line. An attitude typified by the Haryana chief minister’s comment that Muslims can stay in India as long as they don’t eat beef! I think we need to do better for our minorities – be they Muslims, Christians, Dalits, transsexuals, tribals, women in miniskirts, people with same-sex partners, artists flying fanciful Styrofoam cows in the sky… None of us want to be “tolerated”.
We want to be ourselves. It’s not a favour – it’s a constitutional right.
It’s not that prejudice didn’t exist before. Even in the sanitised bastions where Chetan Bhagat claims we phoney liberals are bred – boarding school, an English-speaking upper middle-class home, life as a design professional in Delhi, my work with carpet Weavers- there was the occasional blip: landlords reluctant to rent one a barsati, overheard jokes about the violence, randiness, and breeding capacity of Muslims, the aforesaid box of turds.
These occasional infelicities were counter balanced by great warmth and acceptance by most. But these days, such crude generalisations, generally born of ignorance, seem to have hardened into a dividing of lines. An “us” and “them”, escalating into violence as well as words – and given full licence. A tacit assumption that being a minority means being acquiescent and silent. There are new social media fatwas: Young school kids sending chain WhatsApp messages urging their friends to boycott Shah Rukh Khan films because he’s a “Bad Man”; a lakh offered to slap Aamir Khan; Urdu writers being whitewashed from the curriculum.
It seems incredibly difficult for many to understand that, Christian or Muslim, Aamir Khan or Aam Aadmi, most of us are just thoroughly ordinary Indians, seeking happiness, sanity and security like everyone else. Part of the fabric of India, wanting our own voice. Why can’t we all simply “adjust” to each other and the cultural baggage we each carry – just as we do in our over-crowded trains and buses, amicably negotiating awkward tin trunks and crying babies, miraculously bonding.
(Author is an Export Entrepreneur, Journalist, and Social Activist)