Published in the New Age Victory Day Special; republished in Cerebration.
A Hindu man I know got married recently. Speaking of the occasion, one of the guests (a lecturer at a university) expressed his dissatisfaction at the arrangements. The food was not as expected, and apparently the guests were not properly taken care of. Then the man said, “Maybe because they were Hindu, you know, they weren’t too well disposed to us Muslims!” His words suddenly struck me forcibly. It could very simply be that the family members were bad hosts; But because this was a Hindu family, it had gathered some communal shade.
We were waiting in front of Ecstasy, the store for men’s clothing, just before Durga Pooja when there was a power failure. There were some young boys hanging out there, indulging in harmless fun – sharing a cigarette or a joke, checking out girls. Then someone said jokingly, “All the Malus are spending like crazy for Pooja, let’s go kick some Malu ass”.
A girl I had attended Holy Cross College with, remarked blithely when some of us invited a varsity classmate to sit at the same table with us at TSC, “Why are you asking him to join us, don’t you know he’s Hindu, they’re dirty you know, they smell bad.”
The university lecturer remains close friends with the Hindu groom, the boys outside Ecstasy did nothing more than join in laughter at their friend’s suggestion; a year later my college classmate declared that the Hindu boy was her closest male friend. These people I speak of are not bad people; they do not hate people because of their color or their creed, they do not resort to violence to resolve issues. If you speak to them about the minority problem in Bangladesh, about the increasingly violent face of religion that has emerged in recent times, they will express their horror and their anger at atrocities that occur in the name of religion – any religion. Yet somewhere deep inside lies a kernel of something dark, something that is communalism, as surely as the massive terror of Gujarat and the ‘isolated’ incidents of Banshkhali’ and across Bangladesh are communal.
Communalism does not just mean going out into the streets, burning, and looting “their” houses, raping “their” women or slitting “their” throats. Communalism is the little things we do and say; the stereotyping of people. Communalism is watching a little girl with a dirty dress and snot running down her nose and thinking that Hindus are dirty and don’t take care of their children.
When violence related to the demolition of the Babri mosque was raging across India, I was a teenager, growing up in the enlightened and sheltered environment of a university campus. I remember a boy a couple of years younger than myself living nearby, his father also a teacher like mine. He was the quiet type, the classic four-eyed geek in appearance. He was also Hindu. One evening, when some of my friends were passing by his apartment, they decided to throw stones at his window. And they also shouted names at the apartment- “Malaun!” they called out; and “Muslim Killers”, “Babri Bashers”. It was harmless fun, I heard again and again later, no different from the time when we all used to tease the nerdy types at school. The harmless fun left three or four windows broken in the apartment. The next morning there were complaints from the neighbors at this kind of unruly behavior. There were also several late night anonymous phone calls, whispering obscenities at the boy’s mother. The boy’s father never actually made a complaint.
Is that communalism? Yes or no? Perhaps, in the light of Gujarat or the lesser happenings in Bangladesh you will say “Of course not” in an affronted voice. But when one day I will wake up and find that the Hindu family next door is gone, suddenly left town with most of their belongings, their land sold away quietly with even their closest Muslim friends without a clue, I will remember the sound of windows breaking. Whenever I will hear anyone announce with pride that the terrible events surrounding the Babri Masjid, or the Gujarat riots were not reflected in Bangladesh, or that things like the Banshkhali tragedy are horrific but isolated incidents, I can’t help but think of the Hindu boy living near our house. No, he was not beaten up, his sister was not raped, and they were not uprooted from their house. Of course these things did not happen to him, for ours is a tolerant community and we think of them as one of our own. But in this world there exists more than one kind of violence. The harmless fun indulged in by some high-spirited teenagers gave that Hindu family one message very clearly – they were not part of us. The boys didn’t mean any harm. Some of them were even childhood friends of the Hindu boy growing up side by side. They hung out together, talked about girls, shared their first puff on a cigarette. They didn’t really have animosity in their hearts when they threw those stones. But they did throw the stones– at the one apartment among thirty others that housed a Hindu family during a time when religious tensions were high across the sub-continent.
But still we are not communal people. Incidents do happen occasionally here and there, but these are isolated incidents, and can happen in the best of nations, among the best of people. There are always a couple of bad apples in any given barrel. The kind and scale of the horror of Gujarat is almost unthinkable here. Almost unthinkable. Almost.
I fear less the seeable violence- that is the violence and hatred that bares its fangs and takes away your house, your home, your family; the violence that says that you are Hindus/ Muslims/ Christians and you do not belong here among us. I prefer that violence. That is something you can put your finger on, point at and say “Look, look at what they have done to us!” But in Bangladesh it is the violence of the mind, violence that is implicit that we need to fear, the violence that slowly eats away who you are; the violence that is a voice calling out “Malaun” in the darkness, the violence that laughingly throws stones at your windows, the violence that is a strange voice on the phone at the dead of night.
Those of us who come out and say “Kick those malauns back to where they came from”, are the easy ones. These you can look at, and easily identify as evil people, hate mongers, people who would like to sow discord in the fabric of our human coexistence.
But then there are the others, the people like you and me. Liberals who think that they are fair minded and tolerant, yet who retain a kernel of mistrust regarding the existence of “them”; these are the ones we truly need to fear.
Bangladeshis proudly pronounce that this is not a communal nation. I myself when talking of racism and communalism have boasted that yes, compared to our neighboring nations we are much more tolerant and non-communal. But the trap of self-complacency is a dangerous and ever widening pit. It is so easy to fall into it forever.
One thing about discrimination – be it for or against any religion, race or gender – is that at one point the degree or intensity of discrimination becomes less important; measuring our own evil against the evil of other nations does not absolve us of our own guilt. Expiation does not lie within the words: there are people who are worse than we are. The fact that the man next door cracked his wife’s ribs does not mean that my crime of a single slap on her cheek is less of a sin. The fact that communal riots happen in India or Pakistan but not in Bangladesh does not indicate that we are better human beings. Or that the poison of religious and/or racial hatred has not seeped into our minds.
So the question comes up again– are we communal or aren’t we? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between. Truth has a disconcerting habit of being neither black nor white. But what we need to do today is look deep within ourselves. The question to ask is not simply whether we are or aren’t communal people; the question is, are we content with what we are? If we are happy with who and what we are, then it does not matter whether we are communal or whether we practice unfair discrimination. For if we ourselves feel no discontent, then there is no power in the world that can make us amenable to change – any change. If, however, we feel that whatever the reasons, we, the majority, have failed to provide minorities of this country with an environment where they are able to stand up straight and strong, to speak with courage and dignity about the human condition as experienced by them, then it is time for us to rethink the identity we have created for ourselves.
A few isolated experiences of one individual are what this essay started off with. I have a number of non-Muslim friends, but have never actually thought of the fact that they were minority people, never considered what meaning that fact held for them, how it shaped their selves and their lives. I was content just knowing that they were around, they were my friends. I have only recently realized that the experiences narrated in the beginning of this piece were “experiences” at all. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things they are unimportant. However, with the rise of violence directed against a certain kind of people, it has become necessary to reexamine all our comfortable assumptions regarding a number of things – not in the least, assumptions regarding our selves.
There are times in the lives of individuals as well as in the lives of nations, when ignorance itself is a sin. If we choose not to see, not to know who and what we are, then it is easy for the oft cited “elements with vested interests” to escalate a sense of “otherness”. It appears that all the potent ingredients needed to reach that final stage are being aroused and assembled in Bangladesh. However, it is for us to decide whether the truth is too grey to be seen; it is for us to decide whether the escalation towards a larger violence should continue unchecked. The angry young poet Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah once asked, “Stop, question yourself, which road will you take?” It is time, we ask that question of ourselves.