Ramzan mubarak….or actually another version Ramadan Mubarak—the messages are flying around. With thinking faculties dulled over the years one did not pay heed until a very close friend from Lucknow just pointed out, “I don’t remember this greeting when we are all in college.” And yes nor did I.
Nor did my aunts and cousins, all of whom more religious than I lived in the milieu that we now so denigratingly call ‘Muslim’. Ramzan happened, a month of prayer and fortitude, and then the celebration of the fasting with Eid. And then the shopping, the festivity, the sawain, the cooking, the greetings, with Hindus and Muslims participating equally.
In fact the Muslims stayed home on the day of Eid and flung open their doors while non-Muslim neighbours, friends, colleagues dropped by to feast. For us it was always associated with food, festivity and an occasion to invite all friends at work, in schools, in colleges to partake of the delicious fare.
So this time when a post-work friend wished Ramadan Mubarak, I gently reminded him that I was perhaps the wrong person for the greeting. But didn’t I come to your house on Eid, he responded. Yes, I replied, but for me it was a cultural occasion, an open house to mark harmony and peace and of course show off my culinary expertise! We laughed together.
I pondered over Ramadan.. Why have we stopped using Ramzan? Then a scholarly friend pointed out, we have also stopped that poetic, lovely Adaab we grew up with and replaced it with the formal and rather pompous Salaam walekum.
Adaab was a common word, used by all communities, an informal sweet greeting. And a cousin said, also we have replaced Khudahafex, the Persion term for ‘may God be with you’ with Allah Hafiz, a new concoction that again finds its roots in the Saudi world. A counter to an established, and well known, goodbye greeting. Now Google informs, ‘Allah is an Islamic word” Really, didn’t know that Islam was a language. Oh well, one lives and learns.
So in trying to identify the turning point, the mind took me back to the 1980’s — the start of my journalistic career and also a move away from a sheltered, closeted life in Army cantonments. And a Nehruvian ethos where all was fine and rosy, and would remain so in this ideal India….
Twitter just interrupted me, and again the hate and the venom blasted at the sensibilities with videos of Muslims being beaten and made to chant Jai Sri Ram, Muslim vendors stopped from entering colonies to sell their wares, hate filled messages urging people not to buy from Muslims, (sell to Muslims will follow if it has not already), with hospitals segregating Hindu and Muslim wards, Muslims being turned away from hospitals, and Muslim migrants and the poor not being given rations ….. Even young adults from Jamia, JNU, have been slapped with cases and arrested while the country is licking the wounds of a stringent lockdown.
It is hurting. Not because a person is a Muslim or a Hindu or whatever—because if the response to the pandemic will be just limited to religious identity then we are indeed lost—but because we are citizens who have shared an ethos, a history, an idea that is India. And it hurts when a virus of fearful proportions is used cynically to divide people in a manner that has evoked strong reaction from the world of course, but has generated true concern within India about her future and her well being.
The campaign run in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic here has been virulent and extremely nasty. There can be no two views on that. It has also been rather successful as the cacophony of the rabid media has penetrated walls, and been embraced by the most selfish and hence the most terrified of all classes with alacrity that is alarming. Ignorance and over-reliance on partisan media and virulent social media has created an environment where the Muslim has been effectively targeted, pilloried and attacked.
In the process the campaign against the minorities has moved on to a new dimension where economic and medical boycott has assumed a realistic form. There have been reports over decades of landlords refusing to rent to Muslim tenants with housing societies in states refusing to open their gates to minority residents.
This segregation virus had spread to Delhi and other cities as well, but then was not taken up seriously initially until it started following a pattern, as Indian landlords have exhibited similar behaviour at times against single women, bachelors, queers and others. A prejudice associated with the middle class to which many of us belong, a class that is intolerant and most susceptible to prejudice and rumours.
But even as the country is fighting Covid-19 with a faulty and weak medical infrastructure, the ‘other’ is already bearing the brunt of the fear ramped up many notches because of accompanying ignorance. Hence when the Tablighi were identified as the ‘virus carriers’ this fed into deep seated prejudice like nothing else, with no questions asked from the authorities about how the congregation was allowed, how visas given along with a demand for exact figures along with some kind of informed writing about the Jamaat and Markaz per se.
Instead a fear psychosis was created and projected on to the Muslims as a community, and turned into a boycott of a kind never seen after Partition in this country. The late Kuldip Nayar used to tell us stories about those days, speaking of railway stations where there was Hindu Paani and Muslim Paani. Stories that seemed like fables, but that are coming back to literally haunt us again.
Whose fault is all this? The BJP and the RSS who have an agenda that they have never hidden, and now with the help of compromised and bought television channels and a system thrown into disarray, are taking their dream of a Hindu Rashtra forward with blinding speed. They are obvious, but what about two other culprits –the Muslim elite and the political class per se who laid out the dastarkhwan (table replete with delicacies) and virtually invited the right wingers in to partake while they watched with some glee?
The role of the Congress and the Opposition I have written about several times, and will write again in the next article. But the revelation for me has been how today the Muslim poor is paying with their lives —as in north east Delhi, as in the lynchings, as in the ongoing economic boycott—for the mistakes and compromise and selfishness of the Muslim elite. Lest someone get me wrong, my family perhaps qualified for the elite club too, belonging to the better privileged socially in every sense of the word.
The Muslim elite betrayed itself. It was the first to flee to what it thought were safer pastures when the country was divided. Those who stayed back, did so of their own volition but many went on to follow a highly selfish, and self absorbed trajectory accepting the government-of-the-day’s agenda and earning the epitaph ‘sarkari muslim’ in the process. Being educated, articulate, genteel, the elite started spreading its wings for itself leaving the poor Muslim masses to fend for themselves.
The clergy, ignorant and fundamentalist, moved in with a stream of madrasas, and a doctrine that did not take into consideration the economic distress of the poor, but sought to fill their heads with a mumbo jumbo where religion—- as we see it in reverse today—-held sway, and mosques became more important than housing. Poverty was ignored by the one, and exploited by the other.
The elite went on to fill the seats in Parliament, in government, in the judiciary. Even became Presidents. But said not a word about the poor, lived for the privileged and by the privileged. Community service did not exist in Muslim elite or clergy —as it does in the Sikhs who might wear the religious symbols but are completely secular in the dispensation of charity and help— both self seeking groups working to get more and more out of the system. The political parties helped —carrying the clergy on its shoulders during elections in particular in the mistaken belief that these men would be able to turn the tide in their favour.
Iftar became a big event for all, every Minister and President held fast breaking dinners, grand feasts for the powerful and the well-to-do. These became an occasion for the elite to highlight its position in the power hierarchy. A rubbing of shoulders that did not pause to glance over at the poor who moved from hell hole into hell, bearing the brunt of non-implemented policies and of course discrimination that has always held sway over Indian society.
Be it against women, Dalits, Muslims or any other at a given point in time. And exploitation —in the case of Muslims by self seeking clergy and the political parties. The elite of course, ignored their existence altogether and used the minority status to full advantage.
But the efforts at what was really little more than appeasement continued, and to earn the votes were publicised heavily. Even though the spoils barely reached the poorest of the poor, often being eaten up by the well to do. Haj subsidies — we reported as young reporters of how elite families availed of these with little left to dribble down to the poor in rural India; various 10 and 15 point schemes — tomtommed by the political class as major achievements but doing little more than creating a backlash of sorts; and so on and so forth.
These were not measures to actually help the poor minority masses to rise from the hovels, but actually to keep them there and drive them further in. Madrasas instead of primary schools — and a refusal to modernise these by the clearly reluctant to relinquish its hold on the ‘flock’ as until very very recently.
Visits by prominent political personalities to Imams, instead of to the ghettos where the poor were dumped in several states without even drinking water. A deliberate, and very successful effort, to divide poverty by religion in the ignorant belief that these gestures would get the votes. The media too played its part, focusing on the ignorant clergy and the self serving voices in the power elite to speak for the minorities. The secular voices, more grounded in reality, and indeed the community itself, were ignored and marginalised.And often the secular voice itself was not willing to speak up for the Muslims, lest it stain the mantle of neutrality it had so carefully preserved.
Today the ‘other’ has been created on the basis of this dastarkhwan, the prejudice and the backlash has been cashed in. And added to with fake news, lies, and distortions. The anger is being encouraged to voice itself, even as government is diverting reaction to growing joblessness and hunger to the Muslim masses easily. For the masses feed into the stereotype —the interesting fact about stereotyping is that when we attack the other we are unable to see that he or she is actually a mirror image of ourselves. One has seen this over and over again during communal violence, the poor in torn chappals brandishing weapons and with it new found power to beat the very poor ‘other’ to death or into submission.
The Muslim elite could have seen the writings on the wall in the 1970’s and emerged out of its bubble to take responsibility for the others. The Sikhs did it after the brutal violence of 1984, to a point where they have earned accolades across the world. The rich and the poor and the clergy joined hands to exert compassionate power through langars, a concept of feeding all without discrimination.
India’s mosques exercised discimination, did little for charity and closed doors when the need was to fling these open wide. The power elite amongst the Muslims should have risen to the occasion and used its influence and ‘deals’ with the government not for self aggrandisement but for the uplift of the poor masses who have been sinking into quicksand, with the pace accelerated after 2002.
And now its the poor Muslim who is paying the price for the acts of omission and commission by those who should have known better. As the song Vincent albeit in a different context goes :They (we) would not listen, they did not know how Perhaps they’ll listen now.” #KhabarLive