On this Independence Day, I want my name back…

76 years after Partition, there is horror in a name, fear for one's children—and a doubt if one's ancestors chose right, alongside a certainty of New India choosing wrong

A child in Kolkata offers namaz near Red Road on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr (photo: Saikat Paul/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
A child in Kolkata offers namaz near Red Road on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr (photo: Saikat Paul/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Moumita Alam

The train was about to leave the station.

I was returning from my workplace. As usual, I was in the general compartment.

A police officer entered the compartment. This is an extremely usual occurance, though, just another day. But on this day, it seemed different.

A shiver ran down my spine. I felt self-conscious. Conscious of my name, the name which had never made me feel so helpless as on this day. I was terrified, numb. The horrid visuals of the RPF jawan killing three helpless people were running through my head.

The Khaki passed by with a faint smile and tired eyes. He didn't ask my name. I sighed in relief. And felt shame for being so apprehensive. This is the New India we are living in. Where one's name can be a source of horror.

Today, India celebrates its 76th Independence Day.

A couple of weeks ago, in the classroom, I asked my students, "What do you understand by the word 'Independence'?"

One brave girl replied that India got its freedom in 1947.

The others were silent. They didn't have an answer.

I gave silent thanks to them that they spared me, by not asking that same question of me. I would have felt that same emptiness. What do we understand by the word 'independence' in India now? All the founding values of Independent India are eroding fast.

Secularism, liberalism, pluralism, and diversity—all are under attack. Now Parliament, which is supposed to be guided by a secular Constitution, watches someone reciting the Hanuman Chalisa inside it.

Eschewing all constitutional moralities and ethics, a prime minister now attends the foundation-laying ceremony of a contentious Hindu mandir, making the minorities feel disowned. His silence is like the highest Himalayan peaks, where the snow never melts even if women are marched naked on the street.

Though his one-way communication goes on. His mann (mindset) and his baat (words) are more important than the people who have elected him! So we see farmers spend months in the cold demanding justice, champion wrestlers are treated like criminals, Manipur bleeds but bulldozers maraude freely through the streets.

Now, as a parent, I feel afraid if someone asks my child's name in school, or her food habits. I feel numb—and I have no choice but to teach my child that we don't eat beef. It is like a recitation of the holy verse. Again and again. Tirelessly, endlessly, without fail. What if the child fails to remember…! We have been reduced to "the contents of a tiffin box". Our identity has been reduced to food, to our choice of food.

This basic denial of the choice of food, the collective process of stigmatising a community for a particular food is perhaps something unprecedented in the history of India. The idea of India has become a monochromatic vision from what was once plural or at least seemed to embrace plurality. This new vision doesn't recognise that it is all the colours, all the hues that make India beautiful.

And the machinery, the party which wants this monochromatic idea of India to flourish is now more blatant, more ferocious, without any ethical hiccups. So as I'm writing this, houses are being bulldozed in Haryana. As I'm writing this, a panchayat in Haryana has passed an order to disbar a particular religious community from entering their village.

After so many years of Independence, we have not solved the basic issues of roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter). Instead of ensuring makaan (homes) for all, the houses of people are being bulldozed. Rotis are still, as in the words of famous Bengali poet Sukanta Bhattacharya, “পূর্ণিমার চাঁদ যেন ঝলসানো রুটি (the full moon seems like a burnt roti—to the hungry indigent). 

Yes, still millions of Indians curse the full moon, seeing in it a mirage of a burnt roti, before going to bed on an empty stomach. India ranks 107 out of 121 countries in the Global Hunger Index. India ranks below Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Mali and Sudan.

The GHI, which is jointly published by the Germany-based Welthungerhilfe and Dublin-based Concern Worldwide, which ranks countries by “severity”, gave India a score of 29.1—a hunger level in the “serious” category. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization’s The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World: 2022 Report, 224.3 million people, or 16 per cent of India’s population, are undernourished. Per the FAO, 53 per cent of reproductive-age women are anaemic. 

While millions are starving, those in power are clapping for the few millionaires.

Unemployment is skyrocketing. Youth unemployment is 23 per cent. Millions of youth have no option but to work as migrant labourers in the unorganised sectors, without job security and in deplorable working conditions.

The dropouts from schools (not on paper, though!) and from madrasas are increasing. The boys go to different states to find odd jobs to support their families—though they enrol their names in educational institutions to the benefit of (and hoping for some benefit from) the government schemes. The schemes for minorities are being scrapped. The shelving of the Maulana Azad National Fellowship and the pre-matriculation scholarship for minority community students from classes 1 to 8 are the latest examples. These children don't attend classes. They come only to sit for the exams. Sometimes we lose them in the murky markets of unemployment and hunger.

There is no data on these young boys. They don't exist in the imagination of the state.

And the rest, the well-off people, are busy with the 400-plus media channels barking. They bark only in hatred. And in a neo-liberal market-driven economy, people don't have franchises to check what's fake and what's real.

When India was partitioned in 1947, a large number of people didn't choose Pakistan; rather, they chose to stay in India. They choose the idea of India. The India that promised to be secular, diverse, and plural in its ethos. Maulana Azad represented these Muslims. These Muslims rejected Jinnah's ideology and embraced the ideology of Nehru and Gandhi. They stood with Azad, who was firm, confident and proud when he declared in 1940:

I'm proud of being an Indian. I'm part of the invisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to the noble edifice and without me, this splendid structure is incomplete. I am an essential element, which has gone [on] to build India. I can never surrender this claim.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

The Muslims who chose India in 1947, unequivocally hailed India as their mother, as their aashiana (nest.) The Partition left them bleeding as India was bleeding. The Partition crippled them. The famous hunchback cartoon of Maulana Azad published in the Urdu magazine Nuqoosh in February 1959, drawn by the eminent journalist Irshad Haider Zaidi, is representative of the pain. At Delhi's Jama Masjid in 1948, an anguished Maulana Azad bemoaned the Partition:  

Do you remember? I hailed you; you cut off my tongue. I picked [up] my pen; you severed my hands. I wanted to move forward; you broke off my legs. I tried to turn over; you broke my back… Today mine is no more than an inert existence or a forlorn cry. I am an orphan in my motherland. This does not mean that I feel trapped in the original choice that I had made for myself, nor do I feel that there is no room left for my aashiana [nest]. What it means is that my cloak is weary of your impudent grabbing hands. My sensitivities are injured, my heart is heavy.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

The pain of the Partition screams loud too in the nazm of Faiz titled 'Subh-e Azadi':

ye daaġh daaġh ujālā ye shab-gazīda sahar vo intizār thā jis kā ye vo sahar to nahīñ
Faiz Ahmad Faiz

The Muslims who chose India negated and rejected Jinnah's idea of a nation based on religion. They kept their trust in the leadership of Gandhi, Nehru and Hindu–Muslim bhaichara (brotherhood). But now, after so many years of Partition, Muslims regret and sometimes curse their forefathers for choosing India. In Modi's India, Muslims are being targeted and treated as second-class citizens. 

From the 2002 Godhra riots, to the Delhi riots, to the releasing of the perpetrators of the Bilkis Bano rape case, to the garlanding of the perpetrators, to the blatant show of strength of the bulldozer, Muslims in India are seeing it all. 

When today on 15th August, the prime minister hoists the national flag, I hope he will speak up for all the hues and colours that make India a great nation. Hope he will reduce my fear of travelling by train. Hope he will give me my name back. I hope he won't reduce my identity to my food. Hope he will understand that bulldozers can't be a symbol of Indian democracy.  

But 'hope', though a strong word, a big word, is a four-letter word. And his silence is so deafening that it suffocates the word 'hope'

So a mother, a poet doesn't have a choice but to teach her child to live without a surname: 

Living without a Surname 

I stopped abruptly before 

writing my daughter’s surname 

after her name on her school bag. 

I wanted it to remain hidden from 

the constant gazes of the curious eyes. 

My daughter asked me, 

Why did you leave my name incomplete? 

I hushed her. 

Told her, 

“It’s better to live without a title 

without prominence, with a low profile.” 

A Muslim woman carries her child in a Muharram procession on Ashura, in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir (photo by Faisal Bashir/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A Muslim woman carries her child in a Muharram procession on Ashura, in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir (photo by Faisal Bashir/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Getty Images

I teach her every night not to utter in school 

her favourite dishes. 

She crams even in her sleep– 

Every meat is chicken 

Every (beef) biryani is chicken or mutton biryani. 

We are not that type of Muslim, 

We don’t eat beef. 

I teach her to keep hidden 

who we are 

and leave a part of her behind our doors. 

The school bell rings, 

but it doesn’t ring for her as it does for others. 

Can I have my name back, India?

(Moumita Alam is a poet, an author and a teacher based in West Bengal. Views are personal.)

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