NK Singh on Muslims in a changing, polarised Bhopal: Resilience in difficult times
Bhopal has elected Malegaon blast accused Pragya Singh Thakur as its MP by an overwhelming majority. How do the city’s Muslims feel about the polarised and changing times?
Bhopal has emerged as the epicentre of BJP’s Hindutva ideology. And the new mascot of this ideology is the feisty Pragya Singh Thakur, an accused in Malegaon bomb blast case who has now become the BJP MP from Bhopal. With the BJP recapturing power with a thumping majority on ultra-right nationalist plank, how do Muslims feel about the election results?
I talked to a number of Muslims in confidence, on conditions of anonymity. These included serving and retired civil servants, corporate honchos, businessmen, architects, journalists and social activists. These are powerful people with influence in the society. These are people whom others, both Hindus and Muslims, approach to solve their problems.
I found a sense of despair. But I also found a belief in the resilience of India’s composite culture. The response was probably not surprising in a community that has gone through it all - post-Partition trauma, resurgence of fanaticism in early 90s and a history of devastating communal riots.
THE SHOCKED BHOPALI
G belongs to Bhopal’s elite class. He lives in a secluded villa outside the town, the abode of the very rich and powerful. In social circles, he rubs shoulders with the high and the mighty. Yet he is so shocked with election results that he is contemplating migrating to Canada where one of his relatives is already settled. Why? “Suddenly, there is a feeling of insecurity.” However, he adds, “I know my roots are in this city, I shall never be able to go probably. But I wonder whether my children need to move out.”
G hates Hindutva. Yet one of his best friends is a well-known RSS patron. “We keep having frank and passionate discussions” that tend to continue long in the night over their favourite brews. Like many others in his community, G is also worried over radicalisation of Muslim youths. “Fielding someone like Pragya Thakur was ominous. That someone like her could win creates doubts about the society we are creating.”
MUSLIMS NEED HAND HOLDING
W is proud of his Afghan antecedents, the rulers of Bhopal for 200 years. He himself became part of the ruling elite by joining the civil services. In a long and distinguished career, he served governments of all political hues, working comfortably with both his BJP and Congress masters. The retired IAS officer is a worried man. “Rampant Muslim bashing” on television channels shocks him. “The hate and bigotry” that he encounters on social media frightens him.
“I am well known in Bhopal. But if there is trouble in the streets, now I hesitate to intervene. My name may induce some people to react differently.” The polarisation has given rise to despair. “This place is not fit for living. Should we live outside?” But he has not lost hope. “There is hope if the system works. Muslims need hand holding. They need reforms. They need education to come out of economic backwardness.”
A FEELING OF ALIENATION
As a grassroot social activist, J has fought several chief ministers in his lifetime. These included powerful people like Arjun Singh, Digvijaya Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. “I was never afraid.” Once during communal riots, he recalls, he challenged a group of men, armed with swords, chasing a naked woman fleeing for her life. “I was alone and of course unarmed, but they recognised me and fled.”
But recently J sensed fear “for the first time in my life”, he says. “A calf collapsed in front of my house, probably due to heat stroke. I became panicky, tried to revive it, called people. I was afraid that I could be blamed for the calf ’s death. Horror stories of mob lynching came to mind. I could get rid of fear only after the calf was revived.”
J has lived in a Hindu majority locality all his life. “Earlier, as an elder and as a person who has done so much for this colony, I could slap any trouble-maker. I thought this was my town. Now I dare not do it. My Muslim identity comes in the way.” This comes from a man who frequently leads rallies of thousands of people.
WORSHIPING FALSE DEITIES
Being a corporate honcho, A is in a different league. He knows everyone worth knowing in the town – politicians, bureaucrats, policemen, media barons. As he represents a big business house, these powerful people know him. He talks in riddles, a language preferred by people in power games. But he lets down his guard for a moment: “The trust barrier has been breached; there is terror in the air.”
Yet, he does not think there is cause for despair. “Many think that these results are a blessing in disguise. It is Allah’s wish. May be Muslims in India have been worshipping false deities all these years.” He is hopeful about the future and thinks that Muslims will eventually overcome their problems with resilience. “The working class may even turn Modi fans. They need jobs.” In English, it means that they may buy insurance.
YOUTHS VOTE FOR MODI
M is a Hindi journalist in a town where even Urdu newspapers are published in Nagari script! So, he is in the mainstream of public life. He is disappointed with the result, but not surprised. “After the polling, I discovered that my son voted for the BJP. I asked him how could he vote for someone like Pragya. He said he voted for Modi.” The development, M feels, is the outcome of the growing feeling that the Congress uses Muslims as a vote bank. He says the composite culture that has existed in India for centuries is too strong to be destroyed by the fanatics. “If we could overcome 1947 and 1992, what is happening now is miniscule compared to that.”
SECLUDED YET SAFE
S is a senior bureaucrat in MP. He was powerful when Digvijaya Singh was in the saddle and he was even more powerful when Shivraj Singh Chouhan was in office. He lives a secluded life in a colony populated by ministers and top officers. “I come in contact mostly with my own tribe, and you have to scratch just below the surface to find out the communal virus.” A particular polling booth in Bhopal with top IAS and IPS officers, he points out, voted overwhelmingly for Pragya Singh Thakur. “The present atmosphere,” he says, “has taught us to be guarded.” He finds hardly any difference because the BJP has returned to power or a particular candidate has won. “I was in fact more horrified during the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, may be because I saw it happening before my eyes.” He says he has not felt discrimination just because he belongs to minority community. So, he is secluded and safe.
(The writer is a senior journalist)