Your terrorist, my Indian

Are Indian Muslims second class citizens in a secular democracy? Nasrin Sultana Delhi July 11, 2006. Seven bomb blasts in Mumbai, more than 200 people killed. Back here in Batla House near Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, Firoz Ahmed is scared and panic-stricken. No, he does not have any relative in Mumbai, nor does he anticipate going there in the days to come. He thinks one hundred times before leaving his wife and children at home. No, he is not scared of any blast in Delhi. He is scared because of his religious identity. He is worried because of the routine police raids that happen in his locality. He is worried because this is a collective trauma. There are several Firoz Ahmeds in Delhi and across India, secular, invisible, citizens of India, surviving in the shadow of fear, terrorised by being branded as terrorists. Whenever there is any violence or blasts, often it is the Ahmeds, Khans, Rehmans, Siddiques, Hussains, Naqvis, Ansaris and ‘people with certain surnames’ who are cornered for police interrogation. They do not belong to any terrorist organisation, they have no history of crime, they do not have to prove their patriotic identities; yet, they are pushed to the wall because they belong to the Muslim community.  

  • December 22, 2000. Attack on  the Red Fort. Suspected: Muslims.
  • December 13, 2001. Attack on Parliament. Suspected: Muslims.
  • October 29, 2005. Serial blasts in Delhi. Suspected: Muslims.

The cliché and the myth is that ‘all Muslims are terrorists’ or by and large have a tangential link with terrorism, or are hidden sympathisers. The truth is the whole community can’t be barricaded for the barbarism of a fanatic few. Hindus can’t be blamed as a whole for the fanaticism of a few Hindutva fundamentalists, and surely, American neo-cons do not represent the entire Christian population.“Despite public protests and persuasion, Muslims are routinely being branded as terrorists,” says a businessman in Jamia Nagar, Delhi. Locals say that the first thing the Delhi police does when chasing suspicious clues linked to terrorism is visit Jamia Nagar, Batla House, Zakir Nagar, Zor Bagh, Abul Fazal or Gaffar Manzil. Why? Because Muslim population is high in these areas, and they are all clubbed together as ‘anti-national’ by the police.Saheba Bibi, 80, resident of Batla House, says, “Koi hamein dekhne nahin aate, jab kabhi dhamaka hota hai, sirf police aati hai ghar ki talaashi lene” (Nobody comes to see us, whenever there is a blast, only the police come to meet us.)The case worsens if a student happens to be Kashmiri. He is surely a very vulnerable person when it comes to a suspicious police. Says Junaid Akbar, “It seems it’s a crime to be from Kashmir. Everybody treats us as if we are terrorists. I am as much an Indian as any other Indian of any religion. For me, like others, religion is just a way of life.” Ironically, the Kashmiri phobia extends to absurd limits. Saima, a Jamia Millia Islamia student in Delhi, says her parents were apprehensive when she was asked to share a room with a Kashmiri girl in the Jamia Girls’ Hostel. Her parents were unduly worried if their daughter was made to stay with a girl who might have links with terrorists. Saima resents this attitude, these kinds of allegations are baseless, nobody can be judged by her regional and religious status, she says. “What’s wrong in sharing a room with a Kashmiri?” Indeed, it is extremely difficult for Muslims to get rented homes in any part of ‘non-Muslim’ Delhi, even if they are educated and holding important positions in the corporate sector or in the media and academia. ‘Mixed couples’ find it difficult to rent a flat, even if the male or female happens to be a Hindu. For single women, surely, all doors are shut, and for Kashmiris, not even Muslim homes are open. That is why, demographically, Muslims are ghettoised in the Capital’s so-called ‘Muslim zones’ such as old Delhi, Jamia Nagar, Mehrauli and Nizamuddin. Tahsina Islam narrates how she was denied paying guest accommodation in Delhi’s South Extension. Parents are apprehensive about getting their wards admitted in any of the Muslim educational institutions. Muslims are often denied admission in schools and colleges. Many Muslims feel that this attitude stems from political hostility towards Pakistan. ‘Whatever is Islamic is from Pakistan and whatever is from Pakistan is Islamic and thereby symbolic of Islamic fundamentalism which is another form of terrorism.’ Innocent, ordinary, hardworking Muslims surviving a daily life are trapped and branded in this vicious circle. Shakeb Ayaz, a journalism student in Jamia Millia, says, “Muslims are attacked on these issues to link them up with Pakistan. Anything from Pakistan is evil and bad and we are also clubbed with this xenophobia, though we are Indian citizens. This is a jingoistic hate campaign and done to whip up people’s emotion.”  Others cite the example of Narendra Modi, how he attacked ‘Miyan Musharraf’ to basically attack all Indian Muslims, and how the mob in the carnage were shouting that Indian Muslims should go to Pakistan. The fact is, as veterans point out, Indian Muslims refused to go to a ‘theocratic State’ in Pakistan and chose to live in a secular democracy. In fact, many returned from Pakistan or chose to leave it, to settle down in India.The media is also accused of sensationalising the issue, perhaps to grab higher TRPs and ad revenue. Shams Perwaz, president of the Jamia Millia Islamia Students’ Union, says, “People generally don’t consider the differences between Hindus and Muslims, but it’s the media which tells that there is always a Muslim hand behind any mishap. The media sensationalises by creating a false picture.” That is, the media follows the police version blindly, does no objective investigation and never makes corrective self-criticism if it makes a mistake.Non-Muslim students, for instance, dislike this ‘M- stereotype’. Shruti, a Jamia student, says, “My parents were never apprehensive that I will be studying in a Muslim institution. I am happy that I am learning a new culture. I have many Muslim friends here in the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC).” Ashwini, her classmate, has a different take: “Sometimes I feel insecure in the hostel as majority of the inmates are Muslims. At the same time, being a Christian, I feel close to them; after all, we are from the minority community.”Long beard, Muslim cap, a Muslim name and even a Muslim educational institution: the combination can be deadly.  Mohammad Umair, an architect, a former student of Jamia, recalls, “We always tried not to show our JMI identity card as it would invite unwanted problems many times.”Educated Muslims feel suffocated. Questions Marya Jabeen, a Jamia student, “If this is not pseudo-secularism then what is it?”Are Muslims or minorities second class citizens in a secular democracy liable to be branded as terrorists by irresponsible fanatics and political parties, the police and sections of the breathless ‘breaking news’ media? Is it not a similar ‘Freudian slip’ like former Australian cricketer Dean Jones condemning Hashim Amla, the South African cricketer, as a “terrorist”; or French footballer of Algerian origin, Zinedine Zidane head-butting Italian footballer Marco Materazzi, because he abused Zidane and called him a “terrorist”? On the one hand, India touts itself as the world’s largest democracy, able to handle its diversity, on the other is the reality where a large section does not know which the next target is of trumped-up hate. When fascist strains run through all systems of checks and balances where does that leave the ordinary Indian citizen?