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Home > Communalism Repository > Mumbai rekindles debate about Muslims, their beard and so on

Mumbai rekindles debate about Muslims, their beard and so on

by Jawed Naqvi, 1 December 2008

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Dawn, December 1, 2008

WHAT else could one do to cope with relentless grief? So I joined an impromptu candlelight vigil held by a dozen friends at India Gate, where we paid our silent tribute to the fallen brave of Mumbai. Scores of men, women and children were visiting there anyway, eating ice creams or buying dinky toys. They were ordinary citizens having a holiday due to the Delhi assembly elections. Some of them also joined us in lighting candles.

There was no speech, no slogan, just a silent tribute. I grabbed the balloons from a boy vending them and gave him a candle to light. He hesitated, not believing that he was being urged to join the nation’s grief. Later he said thank you. I am not sure if it was relief at being returned the balloons or for being given a candle to light along with a class of people for many of whom he was no more than a pest. Two other boys in tattered sweaters were walking around the colonial war memorial selling hot coffee. I gave them candles too as I looked after their steaming kettles.

I handed out candles to a group of evidently upper class women. A friend, a woman journalist who doesn’t normally have patience with communal gossip, overheard their conversation. She whispered to me that the women were suspicious of me. She thought it had something to do with my beard and the Afghan cap I wear on cold evenings. Only when I introduced myself and declared that India needed a dictator did they look relaxed. I said Narendra Modi was my hero, even though he sports a different kind of beard. This was a ploy that works when there’s no scope for serious discussion. The women said the country needed Modi as prime minister. I endorsed the view so that they could sleep peacefully that night. We parted on this cordial note.

On the way back, my friend and I discussed how beards had become particularly suspect since the advent of Osama bin Laden. And here, the Mumbai terrorists who themselves were probably clean-shaven pub-crawling college kids, had deepened mistrust that was not just rooted in facial hair. They had succeeded in their mission to drive a deeper wedge among Indians as evident at India Gate.

It didn’t seem to matter to the women that the Jewish rabbi who was killed in Mumbai with his wife also sported a beard. It was irrelevant that Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the revered icon of the RSS wore a mullah-like beard as did the troika of Marx, Engels and Lenin. If anything Hitler and Stalin were always neatly shaved. But that’s not the point. Today in India it has become difficult to say exactly where and how prejudices are given shape such as the kind the women exuded.

The next day, on Sunday, I attended Sabina Sehgal Saikai’s simple funeral at an electric crematorium near the Nizamuddin Aulia’s shrine. She was charred when they found her in the bombed out room at the Taj Mahal Hotel from where one of her last messages from her mobile phone, as she hid under the bed, said: “They have entered my bathroom.” Why the terrorists bombed her room is not known. But it is fair to surmise that reckless TV journalists gave her location to them with the TRP-linked live coverage. Sabina was a journalist at Times of India and we shared a common interest in Indian classical music. She learnt singing from an Ustaad of the Dagar family. The funeral brought many of her friends together. They ranged from the left to the right of the political spectrum. But she was a singularly liberal intellectual who joined causes such as the defence of artist M.F. Husain against religious fanatics.

Given the range of her friends and the grief Sabina left them with, the funeral became a platform to exchange the dominant theme of the occasion: What was to be done? Film actress Nandita Das was among the mourners that broke into a dozen groups or more, each more worried than the other about what was happening to India. Nandita has just made a film about the social isolation of Muslims in Gujarat. She told me some of her close friends had wondered why she was sympathetic to Muslims, and one of them even asked if she had a Muslim boyfriend. What I know is that she has a Gujarati mother.

Let me share a bit of an email Nandita sent to her friends the day before the funeral. It said: “It hadn’t hit me hard enough till Thursday morning…I have to say, it had very little effect on me. My predictable response was, not again...more people will die, more fear, more prejudice and more hatred. But at some level the response was instant and cerebral. But this morning when I got up things felt different. Got a message from an unknown no: “See what your friends have done.” Strangely a close friend of mine got a similar message last night, but from an acquaintance. Just because Firaaq, my film, deals with how Muslims ‘also’ get affected by violence, the terrorists are supposed to be my friends!

“Today a common young Muslim man around town is probably the most vulnerable. I got many messages from my Muslim friends who feel the need to condemn it more than anyone else, who feel the need to prove their national allegiance in every possible way. They are begging to be not clubbed with the terrorists, a fear not unfounded. Then of course there were tons of messages from well-wishers across the world who asked about me and my loved ones’ safety. I too did the same. And strangely that was when tears started rolling down my cheek, almost involuntarily. Guess the thought that if our loved ones were fine, it’s all ok, seemed like a bizarre way to feel. When will our souls ache when anyone is hurt, even those that we have never seen and will never see? The more I wrote back in sms’s and emails that I was ok, the more miserable I was feeling.”

Nandita’s torment may not be unrelated to the way our democracy has evolved. Here you are an unprecedented terror attack by any global standards, which begins with the elections in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and ends with polls in Congress-ruled Delhi. The outcome will not be known till next week. The BJP doesn’t need Muslim votes but it doesn’t want the Congress to benefit from this indifference either. So it mounts pressure on the Congress, accusing it of being soft on terror (forgetting that it was the BJP government that had freed the man who went on to kill Daniel Pearl).

A newspaper declared on Sunday that the government had been finally jolted from its sleep. How did the newspaper know? The evidence was there for all to see, it said. The government had put back on the table the hanging of Afzal Guru, the Kashmiri convict, sentenced to die for plotting to blow up the 2001 parliament, it says. Will that go an inch in curbing terrorism? The killers of Mumbai seemed quite prepared to die. Guru himself wants to be hanged. So what’s the logic in hastening his death ahead of others who have been languishing on the death row for much longer than him? Some years ago they had hanged Maqbool Butt who became a Kashmiri hero. You can’t have vendetta or prejudice for state policy. It’s a mercy that the women at India Gate are not running the government. Or aren’t they?