I’m your typical Indian urban millennial. Well-travelled, yoga-loving 20 something tuned into the most recent trends in pop culture. I am also a confident, well-educated and assertive woman balancing the dichotomous tightrope of our traditional upbringings with the westernized outlook we’ve been soaked in since childhood.
I am also Muslim.
I have many Indian non-Muslim friends who are like me. We share common interests, backgrounds and tastes. My identity as a “Muslim” hasn’t really differentiated me from other fellow Indian millennials.
Except when it has.
Growing up in the Delhi of the late nineties and the early 2000s, I had been sensitised to my “Muslim” identity when I was as young as 7 years old. I attended a posh convent school full of feisty girls from army families. I remember in second grade, I was trying to colour between the lines in Art class, when (let’s call her) Gouri asked me if I was Pakistani. I looked up, wondering what a Pakistani was. Was it a bad thing? My 7 year old mind conjured up an ugly image of a Pakistani – person/creature/thing – whatever it was – and said “No, you are”. Gouri Chhabra got annoyed and told me that I was a Pakistani because I was a Muslim.
I snubbed my nose at her simplistic argument and avoided her since then. I remember asking my mother that day about what a Pakistani was. My mom laughed, gave me a kiss and told me that Pakistan was a small neighboring country where a lot of Muslims had migrated to during the Partition. This led to loads of revelations about Pakistan, the Partition and my Muslim identity.
In third grade, I was having tiffin with (let’s call her) Loveleen and some others during break time when Loveleen looked me in the eye and told me:
“Tu musalman hai na? Mere dada dadi boley sab musalmano ko Pakistan jaana chahiye. Teri family kyun nahi gayi?” (“You’re Muslim right? My grandparents told me that all Muslims should go to Pakistan. Why hasn’t your family left?”)
This was right after a Hindi class where we had studied some corny story about Hindu-Muslim unity.
But by this age, I was slightly more aware of the sentiment behind this statement. I tried to reason with Loveleen telling her that I was Indian and my family had lived here all along. We had nothing to do with Pakistan. Loveleen would have none of this, shaking her well-oiled long braid and denying me a non-judgmental space to express myself.
By the time I got to sixth grade, I knew better than to give any hint about my Muslim identity. I never told anyone I prayed, or fasted. But still, it was hard.
If the teacher mentioned Islam in class, everyone stared at you, burning a hole in your skin with their penetrating gaze, you just quietly looked down, deep into your book, turning red with embarrassment, until they looked away. Especially when your teacher Mrs. Sahni, wasted no time bad-mouthing all the ‘Muslim’ Pakistanis responsible for the Kargil War and then looked at you, as if expecting an explanation for the actions of the Pakistani army.
What annoyed me even more was that Muslims were only acceptable as actors, entertainers, comedians and chefs, but never as regular Indians. And the horrendous portrayals of Muslims in the media didn’t help either. My insides cringed when I saw those sarkari posters depicting Indian Muslim families with the man wearing the stereotypical skull cap and the woman with her head covered. I abhorred our representation in Bollywood movies as either over-familiar sidekicks with an army of kids, only remembered for Biryani and Sewaiyyi (vermicelli) or as terrorists, strutting their stuff in PoK. Surely, I felt, there must be more to their perception of us than a plate of biryani and AK-47s?
The irony was, I didn’t come from an orthodox family. We were one of the more “progressive” Muslim families in the country. My father was a senior bureaucrat in the Indian Government and my mother never wore the Hijab. We practiced Islam in its true spirit, followed the Sharia and Quran and prayed regularly. My siblings and I had only non-Muslim friends and celebrated Diwali with more gusto than Eid.
As I grew up and became a bit more adept at the ways of the world, I realised that the problem was never about me. The problem lay in the discriminator, the proclaimer of prejudiced statements about my Muslim identity. It was about the hate or anger that person felt towards my community because of some perceived wrong committed on some member of his/her family in 1947 by a person who happened to share the same religion as me. Later this became 9/11 or 26/11 but the comments were always some variation of: “You are Muslim and therefore a Terrorist/Pakistani. You don’t belong in this country. Go back to Pakistan”.
It never mattered that nobody in my family had ever been to Pakistan or came from there. Nobody cared about such trivial things. The truth was that because I prayed to the same God as these alleged perpetrators of violence, I espoused their wrongdoings and was thus a traitor.
When I moved to law school for higher studies and interacted with students from all over the country, I saw first-hand how people’s perception of my Muslim identity was more demonstrative of their own insecurities. Nobody was born to hate. The kids who had mocked my religious identity in school were merely echoing what they had heard from their parents, who in turn were merely products of the socio-political environment they had grown up in.
The Punjabi’s felt a deep animosity for Muslims because they lost many family members to the bloody Partition. The Jats from Haryana had historical land disputes with the Muslims in Mewat, and used religion to incite fear and keep communities divided. In UP, MP, Maharashtra and Bihar, religious politics, though divisive, could ensure a huge bumper of votes in elections, provided the politicians played their cards right. Down south, the religious divide wasn’t that bad, but religious politics was a favourite tool of politicians in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Kashmir was another sore spot for the rabid nationalist.
Most Indians recognize this. They know that religion is a tool used by politicians to harvest votes for the next election. Maybe it is for this reason that the majority of non-Muslims I have encountered have been progressive in their outlook. My friends, who are well-educated Hindu liberals couldn’t care two hoots about any “religious differences” we may have. Our friendships are based on deeper considerations like our shared love for travel or our daily musings on the next twist in Game of Thrones. In fact, if it wasn’t for my name, nobody could tell me apart from them. To my friends, I’m Indian. More Indian than the crooks we call our political leaders today. We are all the same – just a bunch of young uns’ navigating life.
Growing up Muslim and millennial in India has been a crazy ride. Yet I feel the worst is over. While there are still a fair share of rabid Hindutva bigots one can encounter in daily life, the majority of the country accepts Muslims as a part of their own. We are no longer a minority (at least Najma Heptullah doesn’t think so!) and should thus stop feeling like outlaws.
Unfortunately, it’ll be a long time before this feeling of persecution and anxiety that shrouds the average Indian Muslim disappears completely. It will take some effort on the part of the common Hindu as well as the common Muslim. Practices like discriminating against young Muslims in jobs, or not renting out homes to Muslims must end. At the same time, Muslims need to strive harder towards a solid education, let go of petty concerns and be more demanding of those who they vote to power. This is essential for them to fight that feeling of a lack of control in their lives.
Only with sustained effort, an open mind and time, will we be completely rid of communal elements. In the meantime, millennials like me will continue to write about our fascinating encounters in this frenzied country we call home. For now, here’s a beautiful and touching video by Being Indian on the world of diversity that exists among Indian Muslims.