“I am a Muslim. And an Indian. And a father, a son, a brother, a friend, an adman, an entrepreneur, a golfer, a biker, a Dhoni fan; and many other things. In no particular order. These are all parts of my identity. These days, I am also worried. This is not a part of my identity. Yet. But I am worried that one part of my identity may be under question due to another part of my identity, even when there is no contradiction between the two.
I grew up in a small mining town in Bihar (now Jharkhand). I attended a Kendriya Vidyalaya, where at one time I was the only Muslim student in the school from grade VI onwards. En route to the school, and back, my school bus used to go past a Kali temple, and a Shiv temple. Every day, twice a day, for 6 years that I took that bus, as the bus drove past the temples, the entire bus chanted – काली माई की जय; काली माई की जय; प्रेम से बोलो, काली माई की जय; and then three chants of शंकर भगवान की जय. I used to be the only Muslim on the bus, and nobody ever asked me to join in, but I always did. Sometimes, I even took the lead. I never felt compelled, nor did raising these slogans make me a Hindu any more than my Hindu friends greeting me with Salaam Alaikum makes them a Muslim. During the morning assembly, and while leading my House during the march-past on Independence Day, or Republic Day, or Sports Day, I led the ‘भारत माता की जय’ slogan on innumerable occasions. It never felt out of place. Nor did I. Before I studied the Qur’an, I studied Ramayan and Mahabharat as a part of the school curriculum, but not for a moment did I resent it. Yes, there were a few instances of me being called a ‘katua’; being suspected of supporting Pakistan during India-Pak games; and even being threatened by a Hindu classmate in grade V that he would convert our classroom to Moradabad (this was during a communal riot that happened to take place in Moradabad which was about 1200 kilometres away). When these incidents happened, I did feel disappointment and anger towards the boys who said all these things to me. But, I was never worried. I am still friends with them. None of these incidents caused any long-term bitterness. The values instilled in me by my parents, especially my father, who had attended an Arya Samaj school, and had his name registered in the school records as ‘Salim Khan Arya’, were good enough for me to not let these incidents get me worried. Upset and hurt, yes. Worried, never. And no, I do not belong to an ‘Arabic-name-carrying’, non-practising ‘cool’ Muslim family. I belong to a regular family of practising Muslims.
After completing class tenth, I went to Aligarh Muslim University for higher studies. That was the first time I saw so many Muslims in one place. Just as being the only Muslim in school never threatened me; being amongst so many Muslims did not add any feeling of security. I felt as I always had. Just one of the guys among other guys. The insecurities and the confidence I had in school, or at AMU, had nothing to do with being in religious minority, or being a part of the religious majority. AMU was also where I saw Muslim bigotry for the first time. During India-Pak cricket matches, the Common Room in my Hall would have a small but vocal group of Pakistan supporters. Often, India-Pak games would lead to a physical fight between some of them and some of the India supporters. All of them were Muslims. Probably the only redeeming feature in these ugly episodes used to be the fact that there were more India supporters than Pakistan supporters. On a few occasions, after the match was over, when the tempers had cooled, and the passion had died down; me and my friends talked to a few of the Pakistan supporters, trying to find out why they would not support India. In most cases, these guys used to be India supporters who had switched allegiance to Pakistan when they were falsely accused of supporting Pakistan by a Hindu friend in the past. Their justification being – if I am being unreasonably suspected of supporting Pakistan, then I might as well. As I had been through similar accusations, I understood where they were coming from, but it was wrong. And our attempts to convince them that it was wrong usually did not cut much ice. We agreed to disagree.
During the 1987 cricket World Cup, when Pakistan got knocked out of the tournament, I happened to be in Aligarh city for some work, and saw a guy sitting on a table by the side of the main road, playing a shehnai. A placard next to him said – in celebration of Pakistan’s loss. That angered me. Not because I supported Pakistan, but because the reference to Pakistan there meant ‘Muslims’. It did. India also got knocked out of the tournament, and me and my group of India supporting friends – all Muslims – went out of the Common Room to a chai dhaba to drown our sorrows. When we walked back to our Hall, we saw a bunch of Pakistan supporters standing at the main gate, distributing laddus, and making sure that only one person could go through the gate at a time; only after accepting a laddu. That angered me too. A couple of the guys in our group suggested that we go away, and come back later so as to avoid a confrontation, but most of us felt that we had to stand up to this nonsense, even if it meant getting into a fight. So, we walked on, a little nervous, but confident of doing the right thing. Good sense prevailed and we were let in without being offered any laddus.
After graduating from AMU, I joined University of Delhi where I was one of the only two Muslims in my hostel which was home to over 150 students. I spent two years there and barring a couple of minor incidents, I was never made conscious of my Muslim identity. All my friends in DU were Hindus, and I was as close to them as I was to my Muslim friends from AMU.
After DU, I started working in advertising. I decided to get married to a Sikh girl. We filed a notice of intent at the Tis Hazari court, and the death threats started pouring in. From VHP, and as far as I can remember, the Bajrang Dal. They contacted my fiancée’s parents through letters and phone calls, threatening them to stop the wedding, or else they would send me to ‘parlok’. It didn’t stop us. My father in-law, a great Sardar with a great sense of humour got them off our backs by telling them that he had managed to convert me instead of his daughter converting to Islam. Those guys never even bothered to crosscheck. I hope someone over there gets fired over this, now that they know the truth.
Soon after we got married, the Babri Masjid – Ram Janambhoomi controversy erupted. I used to work at Clarion Advertising at that time. The only Muslim in the agency. Clarion was a very reputed agency, and I loved working there with some very fine folks. The day after the Babri Masjid was pulled down, the librarian (yeah, Clarion used to have library in those days), a Hindu lady, loudly announced in the office – “it’s a good thing that the Babri Masjid was pulled down. Serves these Muslims right for being allowed to keep four fives”. She hadn’t realised that I was standing right behind her; and I was never more grateful for having studied Ramayan at school. I asked her “do you know any Muslim who has four wives?” Very sheepishly, she said, “no”. “Neither do I”, said I, “but Sri Ram, in whose name the Babri Masjid was brought down, was the son of a man who had four wives”. My response was nothing more than an attempt to score a debating point, but I still smile when I remember the look on her face, thanks to Ramayan.
Me, the Muslim, and my non-Muslim wife lived as much in peace as couples universally do. We had our differences, but religion didn’t make that list even once. Never. We were as much about Eid as we were about Diwali.
If you are still reading this, you may be wondering why am I telling you my story. I want you to know that while my story may be unique to me, there are many Muslims who have had similar experiences, growing up and living in India; and today they are probably worried for the same reasons as I am. I pray in mosques; I have gone to temples with my friends to attend pujas, I have often received ‘prasad’ with both my palms cupped and raised in reverence; I have gone to gurudwaras with my late wife’s family to ‘teko mathha’; I have recited ‘Our father, in heaven…’ when I was studying in a school run by missionaries; I have proudly led cries of भारत माता की जय; but none of it under compulsion. I will say भारत माता की जय, and I will also say Allah-o-Akbar, but I will say neither if am forced to. My constitution says there will be no discrimination against me on account of my religion; the Qur’an says there is no compulsion in religion. I believe in both, and I want to live by both. It is possible. I have done so all my life. And so do millions of Indian Muslims. So, please let us be.
I live in Dubai. Surrounded by many Muslims, in a Muslim country. I have been living here for nearly two decades now, and could go on for another two. Life is comfortable. And peaceful. There are a lot of Indians here. Most of my friends here are Indians. Some Muslims, some Hindus. A Hindu friend’s wife ties me rakhi every year, and I walk around in Dubai with a rakhi on my wrist, and a ‘teeka’ on my forehead. I also have Pakistani friends. I watch India-Pak matches with them wearing my Team India shirt. I have also held an Australian permanent residence visa for many years. But I have always dreamt of going back one day and living in India, in my country. In spite of all my ‘credentials’, I am now having second thoughts. Will I have to prove my love for India in public in order to live there with dignity and respect? Will I be forced to shout slogans that I have shouted for many years without anyone asking me to? Will I be constantly under the microscope because my name is Khan? I belong to India, and India belongs to me; rightfully and equally, as it does to any other Indian. Or does it?”
Submitted By – Shaahid Khan
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