“The discrimination is not made openly, but a Negro who goes to such places is informed that there are no accommodations, or he is overlooked and otherwise slighted, so that he does not come again.” wrote Ray Stannard Baker, an American journalist, almost a century ago.
However, when I look at things in India right now, the American journalist’s analogy of discrimination holds true. The bias grounded in religion in India is no subtler. It’s out in the open for everyone to see. The list of recent incidents is endless and each one seems harsher than the other. Where to start? Clueless. So, I will start with what I faced recently though it is much smaller in intensity than what my co-religionists have faced in the past couple of years. Thankfully, I was not lynched. I was only classified one among the many filthy people living in this country.
Discrimination is a new norm in India. People accept it as something normal. There is no substantial journalistic work around religious discrimination even though it is rampant. So, let me narrate my own experience of being taunted as one among the many dirty people living in a Muslim ghetto called Jamia Nagar, in Delhi, by an Ola cab driver.
The incident is about June 17, a day after Eid was celebrated in India. For us in the profession of reporting, festivities bring along more rendezvous opportunities. As a part of this, I was invited to an interfaith gathering in Delhi’s BK Dutt Colony, a posh area located in Central Delhi. After a series of lectures on harmony and pluralism by prominent civil society activists, I rushed to have my meal. To my surprise, in a gathering organised by a prominent Muslim lawyer, the food was completely vegetarian. Later, I was informed that this was a precondition of one of the special invitees who does not like sharing plates with people who also have a taste for non-vegetarian food.
Anyway, since the food was good, I gulped it down and thought of myself as some kind of reluctant vegetarian at that moment. This was my first lesson in learning to accept cultural hegemony for that evening. But there was more to come, which was overtly humiliating.
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I booked an Ola cab from there to my home in Jamia Nagar. The Muslim ghetto! Yes, the Batla House encounter took place there and in the popular imagination of the Hindutva right-wing supporter, it’s a hub of home-grown ‘Islamic terrorists’.
Going against Ola’s norms, the driver strangely asked me where I was headed to. I, with some kind of subconscious guilt in my head, promptly said, “Jamia Millia Islamia” and not Jamia Nagar for that would mean that he would refuse bluntly. Jamia Millia Islamia, being a Central University, is more cosmopolitan and accepted. Thankfully, he agreed to come.
Soon, I was happily sitting in an AC cab after a tiring day. But this joy did not last long. As soon as I shared the OTP number, which now made my driver aware of my real destination, some 500 metres ahead of the university, he made a murky face, looked back at me and applied the brake. We were now some 500 metres away from my pick up point. The driver asked me to get down. In utter shock, I asked “Why?” The reply was, “Just get down.” I insisted on knowing why until I was told that he didn’t like going to places where filthy people lived. He meant Muslims since the locality has 95 per cent Muslim population.
The silent rebel inside me got into action. For a moment, I felt like a Gandhi. He was thrown out of a train in South Africa much before he became a Mahatma and the harbinger of Indian freedom struggle. I decided to protest and I swiftly dialled an emergency number that connected me to Delhi Police which assured me of immediate help and also to some company representative.
In the meanwhile, there were some threatening overtures from the driver. I got down of the car. I was afraid. This was my common Muslim moment.
Oh, I realise that I have ‘exaggerated’ too much and have been playing the ‘victim card’. So, I would just point out that despite initial insensitivity and indifference, Ola did take some action and terminated the driver permanently. But that’s not the solution. If it were, the company would have to terminate a large number of its drivers for having a similar mindset. Any affirmative action would mean that Ola and similar companies run a large-scale sensitisation programme and also bring in some policy changes.
But this was just one incident. I still have some privileges that allow me to write these pieces and talk to the media and ‘play the usual victim card’.
But there are so many who can’t even express what they have to face. They are just victims who can’t play the victim card. The list is long. From those being lynched because of their religious identities to those who have been denied jobs because of their Muslim identity. Just when I am writing this piece, I have been following a case where an Airtel customer wanted not to be served by a Muslim official. More recently, I got a call from Junaid’s mother. I am not sure if we still remember him. Junaid was lynched last year on a train to Ballabgarh in Haryana for him being a Muslim. His mother today is a helpless woman trying to overcome her loss and again believes in the idea of India.
Identity, the perception of minority groups and their relationship with the majority residing in India have got some attention recently because of the recent spate of killings. The general message conveyed in newspaper headlines and news bulletins have worryingly shown that underlying prejudice and hatred towards Muslims have disturbed the social fabric of this country. And there is ample empirical evidence to substantiate this. According to PEW research of 2017, India was ranked as the fourth worst in the world for religious intolerance. The countries which ranked above India were all affected by civil wars.
However, the government still claims that it is committed to preventing atrocities against minorities though its MPs, ministers and leaders continue to spew venom against Muslims.
However, We, as Indians, need to introspect as to what we are heading for. Do we really want India to be in the permanent shackles of poverty, ignorance, and bigotry? If that happens, we will never let Vivekanada, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Azad rest in peace.