No Longer a Room for Two

, Rana's Space

(This post was written by me on 28/07/2013
It has been viewd by thousands and commented upon by many. I am shifting it here as I have built a new composite web site)

Ai logon tumhara kyaa?

Main jaanun mera Khuda jaane

This is a song written by Bulleh Shah and made famous by Abida Parveen.
I often listen to it on repeat and ponder on the concept of religion, secularism and nationalism.
Having been brought by very enlightened and broad minded parents, the concept of
“My way or the Highway”, was a totally alien one to us.
The concept of communalism was unknown to us. My parents had gone through the horrors of partition riots but they had purposely never told us about it, because as far as they were concerned it was behind us and they had chosen India and we were all Indians. We lived very comfortably in a pluralistic society, where we went to the police lines jhanki on Janm Ashtami and ate prasad, lit diyas in our house on Diwali, fasted in Ramzan and just as we visited our friends to wish them on Holi and Diwali, they came over to wish us on Eid.
We would send Kababs (if non- veg) and siwaien to our friends and I would eagerly look forward to gujiyas (I still do) on Holi and for homemade sweets on Diwali.
I would tie Rakhi to my neighbor’s son and till date I am his Didi and we are in touch.
Christmas was an even more colourful event. We would go to the town to see the lights put up in shops and gorge on cakes and pastries and listen to the beautiful “Silent Night Holy Night”.
Having studied in convents our repertoire of hymns and carols was quite big.
On Diwali, we would go a little late to visit our friends in order for the Lakshmi Puja to finish. Similarly, our friends would wait for the Eid ki namaz to be offered before they made a beeline for our house.
We all knew that the other prayed, how they prayed, when they prayed but that was because years of comfortable association had percolated these facts into our minds. Nothing was ‘ in your face’, nor was it flaunted, nor was it ever part of the drawing room conversation as it is today.
It was a very comfortable, easy relationship where we all gave each other space, interacted and came close as and when occasion demanded It was a happy joint family where we lived in different houses, prayed in our different ways, but under the “chatr o chaaya” (patronage) of a common head of family, the Indian nation.
Though as a child I never knew what the word “secularism” was, to me it seems that this was it. I don’t ever remember having ever asked what religion or caste they belonged to.
Though today i hear various versions of secularism, and now even nationalism and I wonder what has happened to those days of innocence.
When I got married, I shifted to Jamshedpur and once again settled in very comfortably into a thoroughly cosmopolitan society. It was exactly the same as the one I had lived in all my life and my circle of friends, who became family for us just became a little more extended.
My husband was from Banaras Hindu University, I was from Aligarh Muslim University and we frequently attended each other’s alumni get-together and at times even organised them and hosted our friends at home.
My husband and I belong to the same faith but never during our years in our various universities did we ever get the sense of anyone being the ‘other.’ We were all students, following a common dream of a better tomorrow for ourselves and our children.
We were all Indians.
We were all our country’s future.
Our children grew up in this atmosphere.
I will not comment on the politics that followed in the 90s or the reasons behind it because those are well known facts and interpreted by everyone in a different way.
But I do know that life for us as I knew it changed irrevocably after 22nd January 1992.
It was the first time I realised that we no longer lived in the same multi-plural society of my childhood.
My children (aged 8 and 4) and I boarded a train – Jhelum Express from Pune. Those were the days we travelled by 3tier.
The train was reasonably full but with everyone seated on their allotted seats. I had a middle and upper berth. We were going to Delhi for a wedding.
As the train started to leave the platform, a big group of boys jumped into our compartment. They were carrying the  flags of a political party and on their forehead some bands with different slogans on it.
This was the last train to Jammu and a call had been given for mobilization of youth to come to Srinagar to hoist the tiranga there. Though Kashmir is a national issue, this episode had unfortunately taken a chillingly communal tone. I am not qualified to comment on the Kashmir issue and this post is not about that either.

Since we were a largely apolitical family, we knew nothing of this and there were no 24/7 news channels to apprise us of the event or do a head count either. My husband had to go on some company work so I was travelling alone with the children.
The rath yatra had been undertaken before and the country had been whipped into a communal frenzy. However, since we lived in corporate colonies we were more or less shielded from it. Our children knew nothing of this.
The journey from Pune to Delhi was 26 hours or so.
Within a few hours our compartment was over flowing with (mostly) youth chanting pro Hindu, anti- Muslim slogans along with slogans to claim Ram Janm Bhoomi.
With a chilling certainty I realised that if this frenzied mob knew that we were Muslims, the same people who just after Pune had offered us food, would not hesitate to throw us off the train too. I put my children on the top berth, admonished my son that he was not to call his sister, ‘Apa’ or in fact talk at all since it could reveal our religious identity. The irony is that till that point my children who knew we were Muslims by birth had never even realised that it mattered to anyone else, one way or the other. This was the first time they realised what religion could signify in public life.
How I and my traumatised children spent those 26 hours is not something I can even begin to describe. There was no question of going to the toilet or anything and we were all three crowded on the top berth and would only get off only once we reached Delhi.
But what I can describe is the conversation I had with many of the young boys travelling in it. Most of them were from villages along the way. They didn’t really know much about the political issues of the day, except that they had been invited by local leaders to go to Kashmir to fly the tiranga. I doubt any of them knew much about Kashmir or the significance of the flag hoisting there.
But down to the last person in the packed to the gills compartment everyone was in the grips of a religious excitement to build a temple on Ram Janm Bhoomi .
Many told me of the communal passion which had been whipped up by various leaders at local, state and national level who had visited them.
From time immemorial politicians have cynically used ‘mob mentality’* to achieve their goals.
Whether it was Marc Antony who turned the anti – Caesar crowd into a pro- Caesar one with his rhetoric or Martin Luther King whose words gave an impetus to Black rights movement , the power of speech in mobilising and at times brain-washing mobs is well known. It is the intentions of the speaker which if right or wrong ends up either inspiring or creating a mob mentality.
I stayed awake the whole night to stand guard over my children as they slept.
By this time Delhi was approaching and the entrance to the doors were blocked at every station by even bigger hordes pouring in and I had no idea how we were to get down.
I asked one of the leaders if he would help us get down. By now few of them had realised from our demeanour that we did not share their religion but they had spent 24+ hours with us and realised we were also the same flesh and blood as them.
He said, ” Didi aap ghabraiye nahin, aapki aur aapke bachchon ki suraksha ab meri zimmedari.”
I also realised one thing I had often heard as a child, “Log achche -bure nahin hote hain, kabhi haalat, kabhi soch, kabhi waqt bana deta hai unhe.’
At Delhi station four of them encircled us and our luggage and literally threw us over the bodies of those who were entering the compartment. Four of their friends had jumped out of the window to receive us. I didn’t ask their names, they never asked me mine but I will be forever grateful to them.
They were our saviours and they re- affirmed our firm conviction in plurality of India.
Till today I shudder at the memory.
Till today I shudder at what could have been.
Till today I shudder at what we have created.
Till today I shudder at the thought of how we use innocents to achieve our political purpose without a thought that we have created a mindless religious stooge out of a normal human being.
We all go through some similar experience at some time or other at hand of another community. The challenge is to rise over it and keep faith in the vision of our founding fathers.

And this brain washing is not limited to one particular religion. We are seeing it in every religion. In the sub-continent it has grown out of hand and we hear of violence in the name of Islam on an everyday basis.
Today we have a society divided by the ‘R’ word.
Hindus view Muslims with suspicion and Muslims view Hindus with suspicion.
Today in independent India we have become slaves to religious biases.
Religion, which means a way to reach God, is now a powerful tool to wield upon those who do not share yours.
Religion is now a tool to whip up passions by referring to past and perceived injustices to gain votes.
Religion is now a means to create fear in majority of being made to feel less special in relation to the minority.
Religion is now being used to make minority feel unsafe at hands of majority, to influence votes.
Religion is no longer private, one to one with Creator and created but a room where there is everything else except piety.
Religion is no longer a Room for two.
Religion is now a room with a view
: a view from which votes, seats, power and the ultimate, the Prime Minister’s seat can be very clearly seen.

*(The term “mob mentality” is used to refer to unique behavioural characteristics that emerge when people are in large groups. It is often used in a negative sense, because the term “mob” typically conjures up an image of an aggressive, chaotic group of people)

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