Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday on 15 January is being celebrated to reinforce the fight against racism. Dr. King succeeded in fighting against racial segregation in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and ended up paying the ultimate sacrifice along with other Black leaders of the time including Malcolm X.
Along with acknowledging Dr. King and his team of civil rights leaders which included women and white Freedom Riders in successfully stirring the conscience of a nation, we also acknowledge that the religious/linguistic discrimination is prevalent on the subcontinent and that it is dividing and traumatizing our next generation, the implications of which we will have to bear within the next decade.
Nazia Erum’s very important, landmark book Mothering a Muslim, rips open this openly kept secret in the government and elite schools of India, particularly the NCR (National Capital Region). Her accounts, interviews and analysis on the growing religious and linguistic segregation in public and private schools since the 2005 implementation of the educational policies shows how much we have let this slow poison permeate our social and cultural fabric.
The book could do well for the Chairman of CBSE, the Educational Minister and the various PTA bodies, along with the Associations of Principals, Head Teachers, administrators and curriculum experts our country seems to have been cultivating by the dozen, to wake up and take notice about the religious and linguistic segregation prevailing for some time and which took a concerned mother networking with other conscientious mothers to expose.
I am very concerned about my community’s issues with integration in a Hindu majority country where national rhetoric is high on jingoism and patriotism. I believe if change has to come it has to start with one’s own house and mohalla, and eventually ripple out to the town, village, city and state. So when I keep hearing many non-Muslims expressing outrage about Kashmiris, and often viewing me as someone who should be in Pakistan by virtue of having a Muslim/Kashmiri background (after they have figured out and gone beyond my dark skin, which throws them off for a couple of weeks), I politely agree with their grievances of the regressiveness in my community, and then firmly steer it towards the regressive trends in their own.
One’s own fart smells fragrant, as a social media friend Imtiaz Mehmood often quotes, showing the mirror to prejudiced, biased bigots. Muslims have it tough, having to prove their identity, loyalty and support to the flag, 70 years after Partition, and struggling with the violent fringe in their midst who harbour Caliphate dreams, and also pulling up closet Islamists with misogynistic, homophobic, casteist tendencies who unwittingly lend credence to ISIS/Hizb type groups, all the while condemning the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from their Valley in the 90s.
It is tough and we reformers have accepted it, it will always be tough in a culture which denies every atrocity done by Muslims, while trumpeting the brutalities committed by the majority. It will be tough in a culture which labels every criticism of the regressive practices in its people as Islamophobia, and yet publishes reams and reams, holds seminars and conferences on the discrimination, murders and lynchings done by the extremist groups among the Hindus and lone wolves in a gun-toting America.
Reformers aggressively advocate change amongst themselves first, cleaning up our own houses, before rightly protesting against the national rhetoric spewing hate and othering the Muslims. Remember, this is a culture which kills cartoonists, and puts Christian women in jails for trumped up blasphemy charges, as well as assassinating a fellow Muslim lawyer who stands up for that poor women. Not only that, it goes further to build a mausoleum of the killer who defended the honor of the Prophet and stones rationalist students to death on university campuses. Yes, we have it tough.
But if our children and grandchildren live in peace and harmony in a time when borders won’t matter and the chief national concerns will be beating medical diseases, disasters and climate change, then all these risks and efforts are worth it. Hence, the important book of NaziaErum. It can act like a bridge between communities – recognizing the reform that is needed yet at the same time raising a voice against the religious and linguistic discrimination happening around with larger ramifications. Nazia writes about a case of schoolyard bullying when the daughter of a “highly educated woman with a bright corporate career” was called a Paki!
This woman, incidentally my namesake Arshia Shah, had given “her daughter a liberal upbringing and had never factored in her Muslim-ness being thrust upon her daughter” until now. In Arshia Shah’s own words: “I told my daughter that if anyone else ever said this to her again, she must ask them what they meant and why they were saying it…I decided not to take any action myself because…. to some extent I could understand, although not justify, where that offensive and insensitive statement came from. The boy was a Kashmiri Pandit. I always regret how the Muslim community never came out strongly enough to condemn the exodus of KPs or the ’84 riots. We just did not do enough. ”
Yes, it’s tough on us, because our own fellow compatriots don’t do enough. They never make enough noise when the victim is a Hindu facing prejudice by a Muslim but will be loud when it’s a Dalit hassled by the debilitating caste system kept in place by the upper caste Hindus. This penchant to overlook the rot among us is what produced Syed Salahudin and the Tsaernav brothers of the Boston bombing. I don’t want to hear the argument that since it’s a majority Hindu country, so the onus lies on them to protect the minority groups. Trust is built when the intention is the same from both parties and the actions speak and prove the intention. Refusing to hold funeral prayers for Kasab has an equivalent to hundreds lining up for Yakub Memon’s in Mumbai.
There are many instances where our intention is revealed and segregation enforced. Our mosques are not opened to the non-believers. It’s ironical since our shrines thrive with people from all sects, creeds, faith from all over, tying strings and asking dua or ‘mannat‘ and returning when the mannat is fulfilled. All kinds of people sit on in the qawwalis and naat sharief at Nizamudin in Delhi, Ajmer ShariefDargah and climb the steps of the Makhdoom Sahib at Srinagar. Why can’t the same be extended to the local mosque? The historical Jamia Masjid in Delhi is a tourist attraction, as soon as the muezzin calls for the customary prayer, the tourists are politely told by volunteers to keep away from the sanctum sanctorum, while the prayers go on. I cannot imagine the same in the historical Jamia Masjid at Srinagar, where people of other faiths would have had a glimpse into the culture and theology of Islam.
Jewish Rabbis mingle with Christian pastors and Muslim imams in Jerusalem and quite a few have started publishing their travel blogs or faith blogs, extending the interfaith exchanges to the World Wide Web. I am not stopped at the ancient Shankaracharya temple in Srinagar on the hill for the ‘prasaad‘ but I am yet to develop confidence in my four decades of life to enter a mosque even if to consult the imam sahib, in my mohalla. Every time I visit Amristar, a visit to the Golden Temple is a must, no qualms about “matha tekna” either; my child feels sad for the Jallianwala Massacre equally as he does for the Holocaust when we have a discussion, but I cannot say the same for his previous classmates in Srinagar feeling remorse for Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Yazidis in Iraq and the Ahmedis in Pakistan.
It has to start from us. We have to own our mohallas, our mosques. This ghettoisation of communities has to stop. If we don’t open our mosques to women, the transgenders, the queer, how will the Muslim phobia ever be fought? There are women only mosques opening in the West, there are increasing number of gay imams, the rituals and traditions of praying are getting flexible as secularism makes inroads into a deeply political ideology and the relationship between the believer and God/Allah is left alone. Once this is done, it will be easy to start pulling on the other side to stop the hatred and ‘Othering’, once we ourselves stop doing it.
Nazia Erum points out that since 2005, schools have started segregating students along linguistic lines by allotting Section A to those students who study Sanskrit as a Second Language apart from the Main Language English, and Section B to those taking up Urdu in districts of Bhopal, a city in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. What happens is, apart from exceptions, Section A has students from one religion only and Section B from another. In a country where the national rhetoric is pitching Sanskrit as a Hindu language and Urdu as Muslim language, it is easy to see why the “Paki” slur was even attempted in the playground. The school boards deny this of course, but Nazia has painstakingly put together a list of elite schools in the NCR (National Capital Region) where this is being practiced to ease the arranging of time tables. Implemented since 2005, the clear dividing lines are visible 13 years later as the rising schoolyard bullying incidents show and the young, impressionable generation is religiously and linguistically segregated with official sanction.
A community already conscious of its place, role and function post 9/11, trying very hard to defeat the extremist interpretations and pushing forward Sufistic, and Shaivite strains in Islam, has it tough when its children start facing this discrimination which their grandparents or parents never witnessed in the 70s or 80s India. It could be made easier if we open up our mosques to non-Muslims, invite them in, accompany our kids to the mandir, just as they bring theirs for blessings to the dargahs. The rabid imam spewing hatred in Friday sermons will have to be called out, just as we vociferously stand up to the Praveen Togadias and Yogis hell bent on allotting colors a religion – saffron for Hindu and green for Muslims. The mosques, mohalla, classrooms, staff rooms have to be owned and it can only be done if there is enough evidence to show that the minority community is willing to clear the rot amidst themselves. Then only can the majority be pushed to give the minority their due.
Equally it is important to arm ourselves with the information regarding the local political candidate. Is he spewing hate? Is he high on development rhetoric and ignoring the rising incidents of violence on the streets, in broad daylight when a poor laborer is hacked to death and his murder live streamed on social media? How many community leaders are inviting him to their interfaith meets and “iftaar” (fast-breaking) parties, and actually sitting him down and listening to his stories of belief and faith. Instead of dismissing each other’s mythology, narratives and ideologies as nonsensical (they both appear nonsensical from a rationalist’s point of view) why not take the core messages of humanity and tolerance and build bridges so that the legacy of the Partition can be overturned?
The subcontinental rhetoric can be changed from hate, intolerance and divisiveness to that of tolerance, love, understanding and acceptance. These are our kids, little Zainab, and Mashal Khan, and Azania Safiyah Khan, the girl called a Paki on the playground by a Kashmiri Pandit boy, obviously brought up on the resentment his parents harbored, Nirbhaya (Jyoti Singh), the Delhi assault victim of December 2012, Malala Yousufzai, the teenage cowherds lynched from the trees by Hindutva goons in a remote district of India – I could go on and on. These are our children suffering the legacy of the divisive politics of our forefathers, and the silent consent of the majority who let a few elite groups and a colonial power decide our fate.
The mothers of these children surveyed and interviewed by NaziaErum are brave, having to make tough decisions to save the hurt to their flesh and blood, from calling back their sons from boarding schools, to writing to the school management and forcing them to send the involved parties for counseling whether they be parents or children. They may just have galvanized the National Curriculum Policy makers to invest in the education and training of teachers and sensitise them as well as empower them with tools to this schoolyard bullying and religious and linguistic segregation.
Own the mosque, the mohalla, the school playground, the classroom. Check the local political candidate. That is what Dr. King did. Mobilized a community with malice towards none, after a shy, quiet woman had the strength to say ‘No’ to apartheid laws. We have a lot of Rosa Parks in our midst, for a start the Mothers from these 12 cities will do.