My friend Mustafa Quraishi said the strangest thing the other day. A photojournalist whose father was a well-known bureaucrat, ensuring that he’s had a privileged upbringing, Mustafa was among friends having a laugh over politics, when he said, “I’m really glad about this entire ‘Hindu Terror’ thing.”
Mustafa always says outlandish things, which is what makes him so entertaining to his friends, but this was odd even for him. “Seriously,” he said, with a grin on his face which doubly made us uncertain of where this joke was really leading up to, “After the Batla House encounter, they said the new age terrorist was educated, he had a good job, maybe a girlfriend — just like any of us. Do you know how scary that is? Basically, they could suspect any of us.” Apparently, one of his colleagues’ favourite joke for years was to greet Mustafa by saying, “Kaun sa blast karwa rahe ho?” (Which blast are you planning now?) “After Hindu terror, I make sure I greet him every time by saying, ‘Sirji, aap bhi? Kya plan kar rahe hain?’ (You too? Which blast are you planning now?)”
We all laughed a bit nervously and carried on talking about other things, but unlike the other stuff, I couldn’t get this out of my head. All this while, I’d been covering this issue like the silly, insignificant political controversy that I thought it was. Sushil Shinde called it Hindu Terror, his party disowned the statement, the BJP slammed it and they all agreed in public, that terror has no religion. But that’s not how it was in people’s lives, was it?
I mean, just this week, in Parliament, Iftikhar Gilani, a fellow journalist and someone who has actually been detained before being acquitted of spying charges, stepped out of the building. We don’t really know each other but we cover Congress together so we just acknowledged each other before I heard him greeting somebody. “Kya ho raha hai?” another journalist asked. Iftikhar said, “The usual.” “Aap kya kar rahe ho, ya main poochoon, KYA KARNE ja rahe ho?’’
I don’t think I could have imagined the emphasis in the other’s voice. I didn’t know Iftikhar very well, so I couldn’t ask him whether he too, like Mustafa, always encountered this insult disguised as very poor joke. I was so embarrassed at what I saw as a deep, discriminatory slur that I couldn’t even look towards them. I couldn’t chat with Iftikhar and tell him that I felt angry on his behalf and for what his children had to go through recently. After Afzal Guru was hanged, he was put under house arrest because the Delhi Police thought as separatist leader SAS Geelani’s son-in-law, he would mobilise support for protestors. Iftikhar protested most about how his 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son were also locked up in their rooms by the Delhi Police, and that just killed me. A journalist who has security clearance by government of India and Ministry of Home Affairs was locked up, his children harassed, his neighbours told off for letting him live in their neighbourhood, because the government was insecure about its decision to hang Afzal? If the Indian state was so proud of law taking its due course, of doing things by the book, why were they so afraid of Iftikhar allegedly mobilising protests?
The incident shook me up because I felt, it could happen to any one of us next. But then I was reminded, it wouldn’t happen to me or my husband because we were Hindus and part of the majority community that liked to make disgusting, revolting jokes towards the minority community. Isn’t it funny how we like to ask our Muslim friends which team they support when India and Pakistan are playing? Isn’t it funny when they don’t get a place to stay or are frisked much more than others or their food looked at suspiciously?
Amidst all this hilarity, I guess we forget or don’t care how we are spreading hate. In a recent article, Mustafa’s mother, senior journalist and author Humra Quraishi, writes about the deep sense of insecurity that binds everyone in the Muslim community. She meets mothers in Ahmedabad, Malegaon and Hyderabad, who tell her about their children being detained repeatedly by police as terror suspects without any evidence, and then returns home to Gurgaon and faces bizarre stereotypes about being Muslim, herself. “What am I supposed to look like? Doing salaams or stuffing meatballs into my mouth, I suppose, if not cooking and eating biryani every day, or going out of doors on the arm of a bearded, achkan-clad, hatted man with a brood of squabbling children trailing me,’’ she writes in the article.
Here’s what’s worrying me — if the Muslim experience in India isn’t getting any better between Humra’s and Mustafa’s generation, where’s the hope? We talk about alienation of minority communities and blame the politicians, and they certainly deserve the blame. But what are you and I doing to change things around? I guess I just don’t have a sense of humour anymore because I’ve started finding a lot of jokes very unfunny.
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and the author of the election travelogue Braking News.