But let’s do that as Indians; rather than Hindus and Muslims
My father’s best friend was a Muslim. It feels pretty darn weird to write that. And it feels like a betrayal of some kind to describe Masood Uncle as a Muslim; to see him through the prism of his religion; to reduce him to his religious identity. Especially since I never really saw him as ‘Muslim’. He was just ‘Masood Uncle’, the tall, shambolic man who grew up with my father in Lahore in Pre-Partition India, and whose visits I longed for when I was a kid.
Masood Uncle timed his visits to Calcutta around Eid, so that his wife could spend time with her family in the city. And in the run-up to the festival, we would all be geared up for a visit from the Masood family. They always arrived unannounced, laden with gifts, and stories from across the border.
My father’s face would light up on seeing the friend of his childhood joshing and joking with his children. We, in turn, would have a million questions about Pakistan, quizzing both men about their growing-up years. And once the fun and games were over, we would settle down to eat at a table groaning with food. It says something about their friendship that Masood Uncle – as dedicated a carnivore as any – showed every indication of enjoying the vegetarian fare on offer (my grandmother would not even allow eggs into the kitchen).
In all those years, it never ever occurred to me to think about Masood Uncle’s religion. Yes, he was a Muslim. That was clear. But it was also irrelevant. To me he was simply another adult who showed me love and affection, who had the most amazing anecdotes about my father, and who was a link to the past that my family had surrendered when they left their home after Partition.
So, why am I describing Masood Uncle as a Muslim today? Why am I even thinking of him as a ‘Muslim’ rather than just a person with whom my father shared a special bond? I managed to spend four decades of my life without doing that, so why start now?
Well, it was a trending hashtag that started this chain of thought. It exhorted those on social media to #TalkToAMuslim and was accompanied by pictures of people holding up placards saying things like “I am an Indian Muslim. I’m human too. You can talk to me.”
The hashtag was born out of the best of intentions: a desire to push back against the bigotry and intolerance that we see all around us today. But while I could see why it resonated with some people – both Hindus and Muslims – I couldn’t help feeling a bit disheartened by it.
It also set me thinking. Can we really fight the ‘othering’ of Muslims by reinforcing the perception of them as the ‘other’? Are we really helping by asking people to interact with Muslims just because they are, in fact, Muslim? And wouldn’t the people who respond to that exhortation be the ones who interact with Muslims in the normal course of events anyway? The ones who treat Muslims as aliens in our midst are unlikely to change their views because of a hashtag, no matter how long it trends on Twitter.
That’s as far as I got before another thought pushed itself into my brain. Maybe I come to this discussion from a place of privilege; maybe I don’t really see things the way Muslims who deal with everyday alienation do. As author Nazia Erum tweeted, “For those who believe the hashtag…is unnecessary, you need to turn in to conversations happening in your house, your kid’s classrooms and playgrounds. Otherization of Muslims is already complete. Demonization is what we are fight.”
But then, as if to prove the point that Muslims are not some homogenous monolith, came the comments from those within the community who had an opposing point of view.
Arfa Khanum Sherwani of The Wire tweeted, “I think what #TalkToAMuslim does is it hurts your self respect as a Muslim and dehumanizes you as an Indian. The bigotry and hatred is real but such response to it only stigmatizes the community. Don’t reduce Indians to their immediate religious identity. Don’t let them win.”
I could not agree more. The way to fight ‘otherization’ is by refusing to let people be categorized as the ‘other’ because of their religion identity. We need to see people as people, not as Hindus or Muslims, if we are going to battle the blatant bigotry we see around us.
I think my friend, Shahid Siddiqui, editor, Nai Duniya, put it best: “Talk to me if you respect me, if you enjoy my company, if you find me interesting, if you like me. I don’t want your charity or protection. I want respect as any other citizen of this great nation called India, Bharat or Hindustan.”
Shahid had a new hashtag for his tweet: #Don’tTalkToMeBecauseIAmMuslim . I have to agree. You should talk to Shahid because he is one of the brightest minds in the commentariat, the sharpest analyst of contemporary politics. And yes, he has a great sense of humour too. The fact that he is a Muslim is entirely incidental.
That’s exactly the point journalist Mahrukh Inayet made as well: “Like me. Don’t like me for my gender, my religion or my profession. Like me for who I am. And let’s please end this nonsensical conversation.”
There’s just one point where I would disagree with Mahrukh. We shouldn’t end the conversation, no matter how nonsensical it may seem. It is important to keep talking to each other. It is imperative to keep listening to each other. But let’s do it as Indians, not as Hindus and Muslims.
Let’s not worry about each other’s faith. Let us instead put our faith in humanity – and in common decency.