“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”
All the way back in 1993, in the week Delhi voted to elect its Assembly, a friend dropped in to spend an evening. We were meeting after six years, which was when we had passed out from college. We rewound time to nostalgically recount, and relive, our experiences – the mirthful as well as the scandalous, and the joy in not doing what was expected of us.
But the warmth of the past began to recede as the present crept on us through a question the friend asked as soon as he saw the ink mark that was put on my finger when I had voted a few days ago.
“Who did you vote?” he asked.
I, in turn, asked him whether he wished to have dinner at home or go out, neatly dodging his query in the hope of ensuring the present did not cast its shadow on us.
After all, the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya had been demolished months ago, dividing the nation between those who questioned the status of Muslims in India and others who felt the community, under duress as it was, required assurances. Till then, the past hadn’t been the territory we sought to colonise through such falsehoods as insisting that the Battle of Haldighati was won by Rana Pratap, not Akbar.
So who could tell in what ways my friend might have changed because of the nationwide mobilisation of the Bharatiya Janata Party against the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya? Six years had passed since we left the college, and it was precisely during this period, beginning 1986, that the Ayodhya movement gained momentum under the aegis of the hydra-headed Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, disarmingly referred to as Sangh Parivar.
I was impelled to protect the innocence of the past from the corrosive politics of the present.
“I hope you did not vote the BJP,” my friend remarked. It was a relief to hear him say that. I hadn’t voted the BJP – and he, obviously, knew it. In those days the BJP hadn’t started notching victories big enough to claim, rather ridiculously, of having polled a large percentage of Muslim votes.
Perhaps my friend wanted to assure me that he and many others from our shared past remained committed to bonding beyond the boundaries marked out by our religious identities, to the idea of India forged in the crucible of the national movement and subsequently shaped through the Constitution. But the friend talked of a college mate who had undergone a metamorphosis. “He has become a kattar (hardcore) Hindu,” he said, insinuating that our college mate bristled against Muslims now.
So then, is it possible to stimulate hatred in the manner films can make you weep? It is this question which divides the life before the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 and the years thereafter.
Before 1992 we undoubtedly had the identity of the community in which we were born. There was an awareness of a degree of separateness between Hindus and Muslims. At times, the degree of separateness was enhanced to the point you felt vulnerable, as you invariably did during the days when a riot here or there grabbed frontpage headlines.
It was indeed impossible not to have experienced the sense of separateness during the grisly 1980s, marked as the decade was by the riots of Meerut, Moradabad, Aligarh, the Nellie massacre and, not to forget, the anti-Sikh killings of 1984. As Delhi burnt after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, I remember a Muslim friend from college wonder, “If they could do this to Sikhs, imagine what might have happened had her assassins been Muslims.”
Before 1992, though, the abnormal never became the new normal. The degree of separateness waxed and waned, your religious identity just one of the many strands defining the individual. In school days, though, you were made conscious of your separateness through questions that at times were hilarious. For instance, I was once asked why Muslims remember the Mughal emperor Akbar when they utter Allah-O-Akbar in their prayers. There was always the perennial question on circumcision, a question which hinted to “them with the foreskin” being different from “us without it.”
But there were other startling experiences. In the summer break during school days my brother and I would visit Mosul, Iraq, where my father taught applied mathematics in the university for seven years. In the first year he hadn’t yet bought a car. A friend of his would pick us up every weekend and drive us to the hills to the north of Mosul, now part of Kurdistan, for picnic.
I noticed the wife of my father’s friend never joined us on our getaways. Curious, I asked my parents about her absence. My father explained, “She is a little old fashioned. She doesn’t dine with Muslims or eats from their utensils.” It was a shock to know that. No less was the normal tone in which my father had delivered the answer.
In the years of the rise of Hindutva, I have often pondered over that childhood experience in Mosul. What was I to make of my father’s friend who could not dissuade his wife from observing the principle of purity or pollution? Was he an exalted soul who left his wife behind at home to take two children around the picturesque countryside, injecting fun and frolic in what would have been otherwise staid weekends?
I narrated my Mosul experience to my father-in-law once, ending it with those two unresolved questions about my father’s friend. He promptly replied, “Pehle zamane mein bartan alag hote the par dil ek the. Aaj Kal bartan ek ho gaye hain par dil alag alag hain. (Earlier, our utensils were different but our hearts were one. Today, we share our utensils, but our hearts are separate.)”
Was he exaggerating the degree of separateness existing between communities, the Hindus and the rest? I do know that there are many hearts which beat in rhythm with love and camaraderie, dismay and anger. But I also know a lot many hearts which don’t, a testament to the ideals of our founding fathers having been shredded in the high tide of Hindutva.
The shredding of ideal is intimated to us every day – the headlines announcing that yet another Muslim has been pummeled for ferrying cattle, the WhatsApp videos depicting Muslims being compelled to chant Jai Sri Ram, their demonisation through a comprehensive rewriting of history textbooks, inter-religious relationships given the veneer of jihad, and the tormentors of Muslim women posing as their liberators from the shackles of triple talaq. You could just go on and on.
What distinguishes living in the years before 1992 and thereafter is that the degree of separateness never wanes. It doesn’t even remain static at the degree measured yesterday. Regardless of how many hearts beat in unison, the Muslim heart certainly skips a beat at every victory of the BJP.
This is because you know that even the abnormal will not become the new normal, but will keep getting redefined to produce a more pathological version every passing month. You and I will wonder who among our school and college mates from the pre-1992 days have succumbed to the pathology of our time. This pathology introduces into our past a virus which can wipe clean from our memory the images of innocence, and togetherness, and love.
We will then forget our past selves and believe we are today what we were yesterday, that it is normal to be separated from each other by the line of hatred. It is this apprehension that makes me wonder what a Union Minister in the Modi government who was my classmate in a Jesuit school we studied in Patna thinks of Hindtuva foot soldiers bashing up padres in India’s outback.
(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid).