Even animals drink from the same pond but temple at Ghaziabad would not allow a Muslim to quench his thirst

Giving water to the thirsty was once deemed a duty. Now a Muslim teenager in Ghaziabad has been assaulted for the ‘crime’ of quenching his thirst at the temple and a video uploaded by way of warning

Even animals drink from the same pond but temple at Ghaziabad would not allow a Muslim to quench his thirst

Sujata Anandan

Several years ago – it almost seems like another era – I was reporting on mandal (equivalent of panchayat) elections in Andhra Pradesh and was hosted for the night by villagers in a sort of dharamshala in what seemed to be in the middle of a jungle. There was a scorpion and a fat lizard in the room, so I didn't sleep all night – instead I sat glaring at them through the wee hours, daring them to harm me but too scared to shoo them out of the room.

So when I heard sound of temple bells early in the morning, they were too alluring not to follow. I started in the general direction of the sound which took me deeper into the jungle until I came upon a charming, ancient-looking temple and I decided to go in. But the priest in the courtyard would not let me enter the sanctum sanctorum without determining my gotra.

Now this seems silly but I did not know my gotra, nor had I heard of a thing like a gotra.
“What is gotra?” I asked the priest. He was blown out of his mind.
“Do you know your caste?” he asked me, rather contemptuously.

Now this I did, simply because I had had to fill out that section in my HSC form though I had not known it till then. My class teacher had to send a note to my father at the ridiculousness of his daughter not knowing her caste, which brought my father hot-footing it to school to meet the principal.

“Why is a child's caste important?” he fired at the principal.

“ I do not set the rules or the form. They want to know the students' caste to determine if they need reservation,” the principal told my father. “Well, we don’t and that's all I am going to mention in the form,” my father said. The principal looked like he had swallowed a frog. I don’t remember how they finally resolved that dispute but at home I insisted my parents tell me our caste – everyone in class knew, why should I be the only one without a caste, I demanded. My parents tried to explain that they were both products of British education with family who nonetheless fought bitterly against the British and for freedom. Neither did British schools need to know your caste nor did an independent India need caste as a crucial criterion. So they thought they would bring up their children without any knowledge of their caste, they said. They had both dropped their caste-defined surnames long ago.

I did not understand that until much later but now, in that temple, I was glad that I at least knew my caste – the priest was relieved not to have to stop me from entering the temple: he would surely have got into trouble with both the government, people and perhaps the Naxalites wandering about that jungle.

Then much in the fashion of a Catholic baptism, he sprinkled some water on me, touched my forehead with some silver instrument, gave me a gotra and allowed me to proceed to the sanctum sanctorum. “Next time you come here, ask your parents for your gotra,” he said resentfully. I knew I would never return, so I did not see any point in picking an argument with the man. But then some years later, I had another encounter with the deep-ingrained prejudices of Hindu society when, in the blazing hot summer, my friend took me home to meet her mother. The lady seemed delighted to welcome me but just would not get up to offer me a cool drink or even some chilled water. After almost dying of thirst,  I had to ask, “Kuchh thanda paani toh pila dijiye!”

I couldn't understand the shock on the woman's face when she said “Aap hamaare ghar ka paani peeyengi?”

Frankly speaking, I did not get the context, This was something else that my parents had failed to warn me about. I had never bothered about my friend's caste but her mother was afraid if she offered me anything to eat or drink, I might be offended and ruin our friendship. At that point of time all I wanted was a chilled drink but later both my friend and my mother told me. My friend said she rarely took other friends home for this very reason. My mother said she and my father never told us anything about caste distinctions because both felt all human beings were equal.

I had watched an aunt, compelled to host some Muslim businessmen friends of her husband, separate their plates and glasses and sprinkle Gangajal all over her house after having to host one of them. My father too used to have huge guest lists but we never knew anybody's caste or religion – my mother was vegetarian but as a concession to her dinner guests she served eggs (omelette curry, etc) and even after that there was no separation of dishes, except that they were cleaned quite thoroughly.

So now it is excruciating for me to come across the story of a Dalit bridegroom riding to his wedding on a horse in Rajkot, Gujarat being dragged down and beaten and the  young, thirsty Muslim boy beaten to the bone for daring to drink water from a tap at a temple in Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh. When in school, we read about a king lost and fallen ill in the jungle, tended to by a lowly hunter. When he recovers, he wants to reward the hunter but the man turns down all the gold and jewels the king offers.

Pyaase koh paani pilana hur manushya kaa kartavya hai,” he tells the befuddled king. He cannot accept a reward for a basic human duty, he says. Even in the animal kingdom the lion and the gazelle would drink at the same pond at the same time and the lion, if not hungry,  would not allow his carnivorous proclivities to interfere with the deer quenching its thirst.

The bigots in India have become worse than carnivores. And they have destroyed the spirit with which my parents brought us up to respect all human beings, to quench the thirst of the parched, to consider ourselves equal to all others and superior to none and generally to be not just good Indians but good human beings too.

I cry for my beloved India.

(Views expressed are personal)

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Published: 14 Mar 2021, 1:00 PM