The book opens with an unputdownable 42-page introduction that delves into the root of fear and despair among Muslims who have embraced the country as theirs but are polarised because of the identity they bear.
The shock and shame of communal riots, orchestrated mass violence and lynchings that served political agendas and led to societal divisions during the past decades hits you, as journalist Ghazala Wahab lays bare instances from her life.
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She meticulously balances her narrative because she wishes to build a bridge of conversation. While she addresses fellow Muslims asking them to embrace modernity and be an integral part of positive change, she also alerts non-Muslim Indians about their perception of Muslims based on prejudice and hearsay, not facts.
Self-examining her own community members, she admits it never struck her how an average Muslim struggles to stay alive because she looked at things from her position of privilege. As she researched, she found equal opportunity and justice are only concepts and that law- making and law-enforcing agencies act in contradiction to vilify and stigmatise Muslims.
It is a vicious cycle, writes Ghazala, because the post-partition Muslims have remained an irrelevant votebank and sought security in their ghettos perpetuated by illiteracy, poverty and unemployment. The mullahs and clergy have easily taken them under their religious fold to exploit them. The general backwardness of the community has fed into a sense of loss of identity and unmet aspirations for Muslim youth, men and women.
In the mid-80s, Ghazala’s father shifted from their ancestral home in a middle class mohalla to an upscale Hindu-majority neighbourhood in Agra. His successful business and hobnobbing with the powerful, gave him the comfort of keeping his family under a security net. But that was till Agra was engulfed in violence post-kar seva after BJP leader L.K. Advani rolled out his rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodha in October, 1990, and was subsequently arrested. As sporadic violence spread across north India, Ghazala’s family wondered where they would be more secure — in their new neighbourhood or in a Muslim majority insulated mohalla.
Ghazala’s father called his brothers to safety and her mohalla uncles requested them to move back to the old Muslim locality. Ultimately everybody stayed where they were as fury was unleashed on their community everywhere. A young collegian then, Ghazala, her parents and three siblings were at home when an angry mob led by a neighbour shouted slogans, smashed windows, pelted stones and damaged their car. Desperate phone calls for help went unanswered.
When Ghazala’s father went to the police station to enquire about the adult males who were forcibly picked up from the mohalla during search operations, senior officials known to him avoided him. Those he thought had accepted him treated him as nothing more than a Muslim when it came to communal division. For Ghazala’s father it was not about being a victim but it was more about the humiliation, a betrayal of belief.
Her family survived the riots but it left a scar. Her parents chose to go silent and it irked Ghazala that a victim should feel ashamed. She saw the same resignation and defeatist attitude when the Babri Masjid was razed. It unnerved her because she sensed it was a turning point not just for her family but for most Indian Muslims.
“Civility was the first casualty, replaced by communal prejudice and demonstrative religion,” she writes.
Many members in her extended family began to draw comfort from religious conservatism. She talks about a cousin who started wearing a headscarf and told her she was more comfortable with her Muslim friends as they didn’t have to pretend with one another, whereas to her Hindu friends she was a validation of their liberal outlook.
The conversation disturbed Ghazala as she never perceived two distinct identities in herself — a Muslim and an Indian. The issue was complex and so were several disparate questions.
Ghazala leans on poignant narration about the average Muslim being confused and scared through examples of those who have hidden their identity and reverted to Hinduism under perceived coercion. “They could never participate as equal partners in the country's development. Only 2.6 per cent of Muslims are in senior-level jobs and a small number have achieved a reasonable upward mobility,” she writes.
On a positive note, Ghazala says Muslim society is changing. The protests against CAA/NRC in December 2019, she feels, has given rise to an assertive community even though her 1990 experience returned to haunt her in February 2020 when her paternal aunt’s family panicked as a mob reached their northeast Delhi colony. Anger and helplessness resurfaced when her aunt called her for help and her uncle refused to escape or abandon his life’s savings. The sense of fear doesn’t leave, she says.
Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India ; Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Company, ₹999.