I was such an idealist in 1992, that you could call me a dumb idiot. My friend Vismita and I were hired to conduct film making workshops for teenage girls in a village. We were giving our hearts and souls to our work. We were changing the gender dynamics in the world, one teenage girl at a time. After an exhausting day at Meethapur village, as I headed towards Jamia, changing a couple of busses – I noticed that many shops were closed and traffic was unusually low for a rush hour. I got down at Holy family and took a Rickshaw. The University campus was crawling with men in Khaki – some in full riot gear. I wondered if there was a students’ protest. I reached a relatives house in Zakir Nagar and thought someone had died. ‘unhon ne Babri Masjid shheed kar di (They have martyred the Babri Masjid)’, my khala said, her voice breaking. I averted my eyes to avoid seeing tears.
It reminded me of another day, when I had averted my eyes to avoid the deep despair on my father’s face. It was the morning of Alvidai Juma sometime in the late eighties. There was always a buzz in the air as the faithful came out in hordes for namaz on this very auspicious day in the month of Ramaz. AMU campus was dotted with young men dressed in crispy white Kurta Pajamas and gol topis but instead of the nearby Masjids, they were all getting into hired busses. They were going to pray at Babari Masjid. People were filled with camaraderie, like they do when they believe they are going to achieve something momentous. A neighboring Uncle gushed that it was beautiful to see this josh in the community. My father was furious at him, he said this is a momentous mistake. He was extremely critical of Syed Shahabuddin who had become a house hold name by then and was instrumental in mobilizing muslim youth to save the Babri Masjid. I had heard my father address a small group of leftist students. ‘The disputed site should be treated as a law and order issue. Let the police and legal system deal with the miscreants who want to break the lock and start Puja there. Making it a communal issue will spell disaster for India and is fraught with dangers for Indian Muslims.’
After I came to Delhi, it was a shocker to get exposed to politics where Uma Bharti could call Syed Shahabuddin a ‘Ullu Ka Pattha’ and get away with it. Despite the rath yatra, the continuous flow of audio cassettes bubbling with hate and the growing use of the phrase, ‘jai shree ram’, it was still a big joke for us. My friends and I often ribbed each other with ‘kar di na mullon waali baat,’ or, ‘mandir wahin banayenge’.
After the fall of Babri Masjid and the riots that broke out, I still felt relatively safe in Delhi and believed that my family was safe in Aligarh. It was only when my brother came down from Ranchi, where he was working that a sense of dread entered my head for the first time. A very dear friend come over to meet us. She said she was hurting inside and felt a sense of shame as a Hindu, at what is happening in the country. She wanted to apologize to every muslim on the road and that is why she was desperate to meet me. But in the course of discussion, when my brother shared that he had travelled under a fake Hindu name, she got angry. There were reports of some Muslim men being pulled out of a train and killed. She said, ‘if people like us start changing our identity, what will become of India.’ She was furious, we were defensive and there was much heartache in that tiny one room apartment in Delhi.
It’s hard now, to think of a time when feeling safe was our default mode. After Gujarat 2002, fear is like the hum of a running refrigerator. It is the dread you feel if you have to deal with a govt. agency and wonder if they’ll treat you different because of your name. It’s the escape routes you subconsciously plot in your head when you move to a new area, if a mob came looking for Muslim homes in your condominium, it’s the regret you sometimes have that you gave your daughter a name that identifies her as a muslim. It’s also the resolve renewed ever so often to not allow this fear to make you bitter or hateful in return.
I don’t remember how the discussion about my brother using a fake Hindu name ended. I don’t know when it dawned on me that the angry argument that day, was a desperate attempt to hide from ourselves how utterly helpless we had all felt. Life as we knew it had changed. The safe, secular, privileged fortress of our imagination had been breached and we all knew that averting our gaze would not make the ugliness disappear.