On the day Delhi riots broke out, I took a cab home after work. As I sat in the car and Ola’s IVR system welcomed me with my full name, I flinched, while the driver turned around to take a look at me. I immediately cut my name short on the cab aggregator’s application to make sure my religious identity never comes up like that again because I didn’t want trouble. I have also stopped using my last name ‘Islam’ on social media and other public platforms for the last couple of years to avoid being identified instantly.
In another instance, I almost felt choked when I accidentally uttered ‘Ya Allah’ after sneezing in a restaurant. For the rest of the time, I avoided making eye contact with everyone, including the waiters.
The fear of catching coronavirus may have made many Indians practice social distancing of late, I have been distancing from my own identity — my Muslim identity — for quite some time now.
Muslimness not allowed
Over the years, I have developed ways to veil my religious identity, making extra efforts — both consciously and subconsciously — to not sound, look or act Muslim. But the last six years have been tough because of the rampant and aggressively open Islamophobia.
At a rally against ‘jihadi’ violence organised by Hindu extremists and led by BJP leader Kapil Mishra after the Delhi riots last month, a middle-aged man told me that the problem lies with the word ‘secular’ in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. The protest rally had speakers talking about ‘jihadi hate’ of Indian Muslims and how they must be stopped.
As a Muslim, I have heard words like ‘jihad’, ‘love jihad’ and ‘kaafir’ only in public spaces filled with anti-Muslim hate and bigotry. It shows how Islamophobia has engulfed India — to the point where any form of ‘Muslimness’ is vehemently disallowed, resulting in a forced exclusion and expulsion of the Muslim identity.
Islamophobia made me repel being a Muslim
“Ye to bolegi he (of course she would speak like that), Taskin is in the task of shaming India,” a classmate of mine wrote on Facebook in a discussion over the Narendra Modi government’s policies, which I had criticised. The audacity with which he dragged my name, hitting at my religious identity over a policy debate, made me nervous.
Most people I meet tell me after knowing my full name, ‘Oh, you don’t look Muslim’. While it’s not only sickening to hear but also extremely belittling — every time — the realisation that I am not easily identifiable as a Muslim does sometime bring a sigh of relief.
“Aap muslamaan ho? Hum non-veg nahi allow karte (you are a Muslim? We don’t allow non-vegetarian food),” a landlord had once told me ‘indirectly’ before the broker revealed to me that he doesn’t want to rent the house to Muslims. In August 2019, when Article 370 was diluted, I had to shift to another house. During my search, many brokers simply refused, saying, “Ma’am aapke liye abhi ghar milna mushkil hai (it will be difficult to find a home for you right now).” On several occasions, domestic staff have refused to work in my home even as they came to nearby houses, letting me know that they do not want to wash the dishes of ‘a Muslim’.
Islamophobia impacts the everyday lives of Muslims, whether you realise it or not. For instance, after the Zomato incident with a Muslim delivery person, I have become particularly conscious not to order ‘beef’ or ‘buff’ dishes from food aggregators for fear of being identified and targeted. I fear that a Hindu delivery man would come with the food and complain to the majority Hindus in my neighbourhood.
I also now avoid Muslim spaces, the company of ‘overt’ Muslims, and try not to hang out with too many Muslim friends in a group. I pay special attention not to rub my hand over my head when I hear the Azaan or not to say ‘Allah Hafiz’ when I meet someone elderly — all just to either hide my Muslim identity or, in case where it’s known, prevent coming across as ‘too Muslim’.
Sadly, it is only the fear psychosis and the continuous struggle to fit among the majority, to not have my religious identity called out directly or indirectly, that has forced me to repel being a Muslim and not the flaws in Islam.
Not just my story
In a conversation with some friends during the Delhi riots, we discussed what would happen if Hindu extremist goons came to attack Muslims in our locality and what would I tell them if they barge through my door asking for my name.
This reality check made me go numb because I know the ill-fate of Indian Muslims, especially with bigoted laws like the Citizenship Amendment Act and the proposed National Register of Citizens exercise. Especially with the never-ending anti-Muslim hatred that the ruling BJP has been continuously propagating, with Prime Minister Modi himself passing remarks like “those involved in arson can be identified by their clothes” and Home Minister Amit Shah calling Muslims from neighbouring countries “termites”.
My liberal friends argue that there isn’t anything to be so conscious or afraid of. They don’t see, or perhaps choose not to see, that it’s only Muslims who can truly understand the pain of being a Muslim in present-day India.
The liberals must know that no matter how much they try to sell the idea of a pluralistic society, the fact remains that Indian Muslims will always have to hide their ‘Muslimness’ and be the minority who live at the mercy of the majority.
Muslims and Hindus are not equals in India, and never will be. It is just an interesting idea in discussions and debates for liberals of the Hindu majority to conveniently overlook the increasing communal divide.
Views are personal.