It is strange that the BJP which denounces Muslims for their distinctive religious identity should now insist on their sartorial separation
What if the Muslims of Rajasthan who attended Narendra Modi’s Jaipur rally had turned up in normal attire, indistinguishable from their fellow Hindu Rajasthanis? What if wearing their traditional attire as they were told to, they had chosen to sit wherever they wanted, perhaps with the Hindus from their districts?
That would’ve been no good. To show the world that the prime ministerial candidate is loved by the community he has shown no love for, the community had to sport the markers of its religious identity. It also had to sit together as one huge bloc — a sea of beards, skullcaps and burqas.
Daadi, topi, burqa: these three words lost their original meaning years ago — at least for Mumbaikars. Thanks to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, they were transformed into symbols heavy with meaning, their very mention evoking hatred. These were the words on which the original Hindu Hriday Samrat used to pour acid in his newspaper Saamna. Vivid word-pictures used to be drawn of “traitorous” Muslims in “mini-Pakistans” wagging their beards. Ranting against Congress leaders, he would castigate them for wearing green caps metaphorically. When they actually wore them at iftaar parties, his rage would know no bounds.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been no different. Last month, when Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan wore a skullcap at an iftaar, Uma Bharti called the gesture “cheap.” Why, Mr. Modi himself recently used the word burqa to connote a negative meaning — a veil behind which the cowardly Congress chose to hide.
As for beards, the genesis of Gujarat 2002 may not have happened if the sight of bearded Muslims at Godhra station had not triggered an automatic violent response among the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) cadre who got off the Sabarmati Express that terrible February morning. “Daadiwale mullah ko maaro,” they yelled as they ran amok, hitting out with their lathis and pulling beards.
But it was mullahs or maulanas who were given preference by the BJP while choosing who should participate in Mr. Modi’s Jaipur rally, an Ajmeri Muslim revealed. There’s another loaded word. “Maulana Mulayam” was the abuse coined for Mulayam Singh Yadav when, as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, he ordered firing on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadre who attacked the Babri Masjid in 1990. Maulanas are the “fanatics” always blamed by the BJP for keeping Muslims “backward” and away from “the mainstream.”
Strangely, every time Muslims want to enter the “mainstream,” it is the Hindutva parties who push them out. The ghettoisation of Gujarat’s Muslims in 2002 took place under Modi himself. Mumbaikars have seen how wherever Muslims lived with Hindus, spoke the same language and looked no different from them, they were systematically attacked. After the 1984 riots in Thane, an RSS man recounted proudly that of the 57 killed, 55 had been Muslims, and two had been Hindus sheltering their neighbours. In Mumbai in January 1993, in the large, open, mixed colonies of Pratiksha Nagar and Abhyudaya Nagar, Muslims were made to flee. All of them relocated to congested Muslim areas.
During the last days of the January 1993 violence, many a Muslim seen alone in a “Hindu” area was lynched, then given a fittingly “mainstream” end by being burnt alive to the chants of “Jai Sri Ram.” The only way the mob knew he was a Muslim was by his beard and cap. It made me wonder, how did Muslims dare venture out sporting such attire? Could they not have shed their religious identity to save their lives? But would that have been enough? Pulling down trousers to ascertain religious identity became common, specially outside Masjid Bunder station, where hundreds of Hindus and Muslims alight to work in one of the city’s oldest markets.
For the Jaipur rally, the BJP distributed 5,000 caps and burqas free. Women who normally don’t wear burqas turned up wearing them. It’s been an article of faith for the RSS to denounce Muslims who stress their distinct religious identity instead of accepting what the RSS wants them to: their “Hindu ancestry and cultural heritage.” Muslims in a Maharashtra village were forced to shave off their beards when the RSS conducted one of their many Ram Mandir campaigns in the State in 2001.
In Godhra, for five days before coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express was burnt on February 27, 2002, the police, expecting VHP hordes back from Ayodhya at night, ensured that no bearded Muslim remained inside the station after 3 a.m. A burqa-clad woman was advised to remove it before she got on to the Sabarmati in Faizabad, soon after the train started.
It’s this symbol of religious identity that Mr. Modi recoiled from in front of everyone just two years back, when a maulana offered him a skullcap at a so-called sadbhavna rally.
Yet, to drum up support for this man, the order given to the Muslims of Rajasthan was: ``Make sure you look like a Muslim, not like a Hindu.’’ Ironically, many Rajasthani Muslim groups are known for being culturally indistinguishable from Hindus; strange, then, that the BJP, which normally sees separatism behind every expression of cultural difference, should now be insisting on sartorial separation.
(Jyoti Punwani is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)