August 2013: Most of us will never know the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination this minority faces in India and the world over.
Someone asked me many years ago whether there is discrimination in India. While my first reaction was to say no, I realised that, in actual fact, I would not really know—because, for all intents and purposes, I am the privileged majority. Apart from being a woman, which hasn’t been debilitating in my sociocultural environment, on paper I’m Hindu, and upper caste to boot. I’m pretty and fair, educated and speak English. What discrimination would I face? For me, the world is an oyster, a fair meritocracy sans hurdles that I cannot cross. This, I take for granted.
But this is not how life must appear to those who are pre-judged for their names and their attire, and are racially profiled every day, all the time, and by everybody: the uneducated, the System and the classes alike. As soon as my last domestic help realised that the delicious phirni had come from a Muslim friend on Eid, he refused to eat it and said, “Main un logon ka khana nahi khaata.” Most Muslims who travel internationally will tell you that that ‘random security checks’ at airports aren’t really random—ask Shah Rukh Khan, who was “detained at the (US) airport as always” last year. Try renting a home in Mumbai as a Muslim—it is bad enough for families, but for a bachelor it’s near impossible. At my previous office, a colleague re-joined a day after he’d quit because he couldn’t find a rental home close to his new workplace in Andheri, and travelling to and from his parents’ home in central Mumbai wasn’t a viable option! My former landlady, Hindu married to a Muslim and bearing his surname, had kept Muslim tenants before us. She describes having to battle the housing society to let the family stay: I’ve heard her use the line “All terrorists are Muslims, all Muslims are not terrorists” to defend them and her own family time and again. And recently on Eid, Himalaya Mall, one of Ahmedabad’s five biggest, decided to charge Muslims, and them alone, a Rs 20 entrance fee; while a sign outside a shopping centre in faraway Texas said, ‘No Muslim Parking… Your car will be towed’.
I’ve never had to feel these things. But Sahil, my husband, whose name is of Urdu origin, will never forget his encounter with a fellow holidayer in the UK a few years ago. While his family was in the room, he decided to explore the hotel and neighbourhood, where he met an older man, also from Mumbai. They exchanged names and not much else, and Sahil didn’t think much about it. Later, he found his father, who has a Hindu name, in conversation with the same man. “This is my son,” he told the man. “Oh,” the man said to Sahil, “I’m sorry I didn’t speak to you. I thought you were Muslim.”
I come from a completely secular family. My Dad was a non-practicing Hindu; Mum goes to church once in a couple of months. Asked what I am, I’ve always said I’m neither—not Hindu, not Catholic, I’m apathetic agnostic. I can say with absolute conviction that I have no sort of religious prejudice—if anything, I’m uniformly and collectively disdainful of them all.
Given this proclamation, when I went through my phone book to send Eid Mubarak messages, I was surprised at how few Muslims I know (and, ask yourself, how many do you know)? As such a major minority, they have had a disproportionately small representation in the 11 mainstream educational institutions I’ve attended up to my Masters, as well as in the companies I’ve worked for and in my social circles across cities. Instead, a great many of the carpenters, upholsters, painters, labour, etc that I work with, in my alternate career as a set designer, are Muslim.
I generalise, I realise, but my intention is to call out the fact that this discrimination is detrimental to a whole community, a vast number of people. In covert and overt ways, deliberately or subconsciously, they are systemically, culturally and personally denied easy access in to mainstream life and resources that we take for granted.
Admittedly, I’m not as immune to subconscious stereotyping as I’d like to be, though I am constantly on the lookout for any seeds of indoctrination. It is a well-documented fact that 9/11’s biggest and most unfortunate legacy is the demonising of all Muslims by American politicians and people, and the media worldwide, and the associated discrimination. A few years ago, I found myself driving in a small lane in a Muslim part of town at 8.30 on a Friday evening. Men in white kurtas and topis returning harmlessly from their prayers surrounded my car. I was terrified—partly because mobs of men scare me, more so because these were Muslim men. And I was ashamed and full of self-loathing.
It made me question whether my (in)tolerance of religion is really as uniform as I’ve always said it is. I wondered how I—with my logic, and belief in the individual beyond pigeonholing—could allow myself to be preconditioned against a huge percentage of people by society, culture and the media. But we all are, aren’t we?
And then we wonder why Muslim people seem to carry a chip on their collective shoulder, are in parts defensive and offensive, and why they choose to remain wary and sequestered. While we can argue the chicken or egg question without ever reaching a conclusion, we cannot deny the role we, the majority and the media, have played in creating this chasm. Or the responsibility we bear to bridge it.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in August 2013.