It all started with a trip to the Ghaziabad RTO. My Urdu tutor, friend, and muhbola chhota bhai needed to get his driving licence made.
A week before, he had spoken fondly of his monthly trip to dargah Qutubuddin Bakhtyar Kaaki with his mother. “It is such a fun drive early in the morning,” he had remarked. “But I can’t drive too fast. Ammi won’t approve.”
His impish grin had spoken of his desire to feel the wind in his hair and the thrill of adrenalin surging through his veins, but his childlike fear of his mom had tapered his wishful musings with a touch of apologetic embarrassment.
“And oh, if the cops get me, I’m done for…I don’t even have a licence.”
“So, what! My friend Karan doesn’t have a licence either. He’s gotten in trouble so many times… and he always manages to get away. Just sweet talk the cops.”
“Your friend can sweet talk the cops, I can’t.”
With a single sentence, the air in my living room turned heavy.
I smiled nervously to break the tension and continued sipping my tea. Sensing my discomfort, he took a bite of his cookie and started a monologue about the kalakand sold by a sweetshop in his basti.
His words stayed in my ears and took us to the RTO less than two days later.
Danish needed a licence at once. The cops would not be kind to him if he was caught without identification, and even though he was always super careful, it was better to not take a risk anymore.
I had a jugaad (like all Delhites) at the RTO, who assured us that the licence would be made and dispatched to Danish’s home in about ten days. During the ride back home, he asked to be dropped off midway. I was happy to oblige.
As he alighted from the vehicle, I wished him, “Assalamu Walaikum, sir,” like I always did after a class. He smiled and responded with a softly spoken “Walaikum Assalam.”
This anecdote should have ended here. But our driver, a man I have known for over ten years, chose to sour the moment with a tasteless if witty addition of his own.
“Walaikum Pranaam,” he said, amusement dripping from his tone. “Sounds better, doesn’t it! They are always talking about secularism… well, look, I made their greeting secular.” I chose to ignore the remark, but it got me thinking. Was there a hidden meaning behind his words?
Maybe Deepak bhaiyya was just having some fun with his somewhat insensitive humour. But what if it was more than that? In my bones, I knew the answer, no matter how much I wanted to deny it. He wasn’t entirely joking.
Deepak bhaiyya meant what he said, and by most definitions, could be classified as a Bhakt.
But I also knew he wasn’t a bad person. I had known him since childhood and my father trusted him completely with my safety. On his end, Deepak bhaiyya had always prioritised my well-being and comfort whenever we went to dangerous and unsavory parts of the city.
To many of my leftist and liberal friends, it is impossible to be a Bhakt and a good person. And I see where they come from. You can’t possibly be a decent person and wish genocide upon your Muslim neighbour at the same time.
But here’s the strange thing. Bhakts do not believe they are advocating genocide against anyone. They do not believe that there is something wrong with their political ideology. And most importantly, they see themselves as victims of anti-Hindu persecution, ironically in India, a secular democracy with an overwhelming majority of Hindus.
These beliefs are not very different than the beliefs held by racist, bigoted, MAGA hat-wearing whites of Trump’s America. And these beliefs almost perfectly echo the words of non-Jewish German civilians from Nazi Germany. But the root of these beliefs in India, is slightly different, and with a little effort, the outcome can be different also.
“They never talk about our pain,” Rajalakshmi, one of my parlour didis said while shaping my eyebrows, when I shared Danish’s fears with her. “But their community makes a pahad out of everything. Why don’t they all go to Pakistan if India is so bad? Upper lip bhi kar doon kya?”
The vigorous strokes of her thread on my jaw left me unable to answer both those questions; though clearly, she answered the second one herself by attacking my upper lip without waiting for my response.
“What pain was she talking about?” I complained the next day to Bhanu amma, my mentor at an NGO I was volunteering with. “I mean, Hindus have everything we could want,” I continued speaking. “…we are like 79% of the population. No one tells us not to apply tilak or sindoor. No one stops us from offering prayers at any ghat or temple. No one has a problem with saffron robes or even Naga sadhus. What was her problem?”
Bhanu Amma patiently heard my rant. Once I was done, she poured me a glass of chilled water and asked me to calm down.
“The pain of Partition is still here,” she said calmly and pointed towards her heart. That is her problem, and mine too, if I were being honest.” I opened my mouth to respond, but she held up her palm and signaled me to hear her out.
“The pain of Aurangzeb’s atrocities is still here. The pain of losing children and parents and siblings in terror attacks is still here. I knew women back in my school whose breasts had been chopped off by Muslims during the Partition riots. They burnt down entire villages of our people, sent here a whole train filled with stinking, decaying corpses. And they haven’t stopped. Look at how they mutilated our soldiers during the Kargil War. And then the bomb blasts the year you were born , the 2008 terror attacks. There is a limit to our endurance. The strings of our patience have been stretched too far.”
Nothing changed in Bhanu amma’s tone as she spoke. She did not bother to mention the atrocities committed by Sikhs and Hindus during Partition. Very humanly, her own people’s pain was the only pain relevant to her.
And why wouldn’t it be? People have a right to grieve, people have a right to hold on to injuries that run too deep. But sometimes, the costs are so high that generations upon generations are forced to atone for the sins of their fathers, with disastrous consequences for the entire society that cannot be predicted until it is too late.
“The least they can do, is apologise.” Bhanu amma said nothing more and went back to
her notebook, oblivious to my inner turmoil.
Her thin, reedy voice, hoarsened by age, indeed held a kernel of truth. Not ‘The’ Truth. But certainly, a truth… someone’s truth. Deepak bhaiya’s truth. Rajalakshmi’s truth. And the truth of the millions who voted for the BJP in 2014 and again in 2019, hoping that their chosen saviour would lead them to pride and honour in their Hindu identity by punishing their longtime oppressors, the owners of the Muslim identity.
Now identity itself is a tricky word. According to post-structuralist schools of thought, identity is dynamic and ever evolving. It can mean whatever one wants it to mean.
But for many more, whose world and reality are measured in solid, tactile bonds of birth, marriage, and kinship, identity is a matter of their immutable self — something that will remain even after they are dead.
It is this identity that compels a man like Deepak bhaiyya to see Danish as the antithesis to himself. It is this identity that raises Rajalakshmi to Hindu and reduces Danish to Muslim. It is this identity that prioritises historical trauma (real and perceived) over actual lived experience.
Like all other faiths, Hinduism is a complex web of beliefs, practices, mythologies, and rituals. And each strand of the web can be seen as a spectrum representing the range of beliefs incorporated in that particular sect. There is room for atheism, pantheism, monism, monotheism, non-dualism, materialism, and any other ism you can think of.
And like all other belief systems, Hinduism has its problem areas too, the caste system being one of the most prominent. Even then, a person can successfully reject caste (and other regressive ideas) and still remain a proud Hindu.
What many don’t understand is that the pride has to come from a place of knowledge and humility. It can’t come from political muscle power or domination over other peoples.
And while history is difficult to overcome, there can never be hope for reconciliation until past hurts are forgiven.
Deepak bhaiyya cannot understand the fears of a 21-year-old boy who is afraid of being caught without his driving licence because his beard and skullcap would give the police implicit permission to mistreat him.
For the same offence, I would be fined and allowed to go in less than five minutes. He could be taken in for further questioning and even scapegoated in much more serious crimes — only because our society already sees him as guilty.
His name, his attire, his language—are all proof of guilt; because of what Aurangzeb did, because of what Mahmud of Ghazni did, and because of what rioters during Partition did.
And for the crimes of all these men, someone has to be punished. Since Danish happens to be an easy target, a large section of Hindus holds him responsible for all the ills of these historical villains that now exist only in dusty old textbooks and propaganda films.
Sounds a bit like that old tale, Andher nagri chaupat raja.
Except, how many nooses will we tighten around innocent throats before our chaupat rajas (and their chaupat prajas) wake up?
Danish cannot erase who he is.
But the Hindu can embrace who he is.
And that is the only answer.
The Maha Upanishad says ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.’ The world is one family.
As one of the holiest and oldest scriptures of Sanatan Dharma, its sacredness cannot be debated and should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric.
This is where the heart of Hindu pride actually lies. Composed of the same elements as the universe, and sharing over 99 per cent of our DNA with each other, the fights that human beings pick over tribe and faith are rather petty in the grand scheme of things. But unfortunately, human nature is what it is.
However, in our personal spheres, there is room to root out this pettiness while acknowledging our old injuries and giving them a chance to heal. Danish is not Aurangzeb any more than Mother Teresa was Hitler.