It is ironic that noted Hindi litterateur Swayam Prakash’s well-known short story, Partition, was written at a time when its message did not need as much broadcasting as it does today. The story explores the damage done to an individual by an unwarranted altercation whose purpose is to teach the victim Qurban bhai, a small town grocer with a poet’s sensibility a lesson of religious and social subservience. It unfailingly evokes compassion for the protagonist.
Decades later, when the story’s premise has eerily come true, the crucial difference is that it will probably not arouse the same degree of empathy in everyone. Cultural syncretism, born of commonalities such as language, local customs, food, music, literature, takes centuries to grow, but remains fragile. A regular reminder of this brittle nature of civil society comes from television coverage. We have witnessed everything over the past decades, from communal disaffection to episodes of orchestrated mass violence that serve political and socio-economic agendas, but now, as cow vigilante lynchings and love jihad hit lists are frequent occurrences, there is a different kind of harshness emerging.
In such circumstances, Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India, becomes required reading. Cogent, comprehensive, courageous—and all the more moving for that—it reveals how the Indian Muslims, like blacks in the US, have become victims of structural discrimination. The author, Ghazala Wahab, an expert on homeland security, is a well-regarded journalist and executive editor of FORCE magazine. She traces the historical roots of Islam from seventh century Arabia and its arrival in the subcontinent, through multiple pathways that also influenced its evolution.
Internal divisions within the faith are explored. These and other disruptions have left the 200 million Indian Muslims caught in a bind between the ‘socio-political discrimination that they face at the hands of both lawmaking and law-enforcing authorities, which often manifests as physical and mental violence’ and ‘the vicious cycle perpetuated by illiteracy, poverty and the disproportionate influence of the mullahs on the community.’ Indeed, the strongest feature of the book is the detailed unflinching self-examination of the community and the range of contradictory emotions it experiences, ‘from fear to defiance, from sadness to anger, and from parochialism to self-preservation’.
All of which feed its sense of a loss of identity. The book elucidates that though the world’s second largest religion has long been practised in the subcontinent, it has changed retro-regressively, first due the shadow of Partition—that mainly affected the North and, latterly, under the growing influence of Saudi Wahhabism that has fostered a ‘craving for a uniform pan-Islamic identity created by Saudi Arabia’.
Knitting together scholarship, reportage and interviews across a broad range of people, the author humanises the account by delving into her personal history. A significant memory, in the drumbeat to the Babri Masjid demolition, is of her family’s first experience of communal violence as a rioting mob attacked their home in an upmarket Hindu neighbourhood. Wahab, charged with the task of telephoning police officials known to the family, writes that the calls remained unanswered till after the mob dispersed. Close relatives living in an old Muslim locality had it far worse.
The sad realisation that came: ‘They were at home in the social, cultural and economic life of Agra, hobnobbing with the who’s who of the city. And yet, when it came to communal division, they were nothing but Muslims. Forever suspects, forever scapegoats’.
As our society’s internal fissures and historical divides come under pressure simultaneously, this book holds up a mirror and raises important questions: Do states and faiths get to decide how and with whom we maintain relationships? Shouldn’t that be up to each one of us? Does not a government have a duty to protect the lives and property of all its law-abiding citizens equally? And lastly, how do we see our fellow citizens—as brothers or as ‘others’?
Wahab traces the historical roots of Islam from seventh century Arabia and its arrival in the subcontinent, through multiple pathways that also influenced its evolution