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October 20, 1997


Farzana Versey

The minorities: persecuted or paranoid?

Dominic Xavier's illustration Let there be a counting of heads. The minorities will remain minorities. Even collectively. The census calls them minorities. The Minorities Commission calls them minorities. And, most important, the majority calls them minorities.

Ironically, the individual person from a minority community is more part of the mainstream than collectively. He becomes then, as it were, suddenly aware of his identity. This, in fact, becomes the crux of the issue. Who am I, is not just rhetoric. It is a deeper seeking of answers which they know but are not too sure others know. In their enthusiasm to make others know, some of them resort to hurling of stones. Others try hard to become "dudh mein shakkar (sugar in the milk)," as someone said. But the effort shows.

Minorities, as a definition, are those who are less in numbers. What happens is that they try and stay together and, therefore, by virtue of their now increased numbers, even if in a limited area only, begin to feel resentful of their minority status. It is an "identity" crisis which manifests itself essentially in group behaviour. But what happens when the individual is isolated as representing a minority? The attitude is certainly not universal, but it is also not unique. It is an opinion that matters.

The main question is: Are the minorities persecuted? Or do they merely suffer from a persecution complex?

I don't feel like a minority but I know what it feels like to be one. I was born a Muslim and I can't help it. This, in its essence, has been the subconscious statement of my religious identity. Continuing to be what I was and yet apologetic about it. This despite the fact that religion has played a peripheral, if any, role in my life. I have never read the Koran. I don't know the meaning of the few prayers I know. Yet when I am asked what I am, I say I am a Muslim. Because I have no alternative.

Earlier, in a moment of patriotic zeal, and the moral science teacher's insistence, one had proudly said that one was an Indian but it was dismissed off as naiveté. Later, with growing years, one was accused of being pretentious. And that has come to be a big tragedy. Because the slotting that takes place is as bad as the slaughtering that the peace-loving majority seems to abhor. Because the fanaticism of the minorities arises as much from the fundamentalism of the majority as its own fundamentalism. It is as much cause as it is effect.

And then, there is the patronising attitude. From being mistaken for a "nice Punjabi girl", on revealing my 'identity' I overnight became man's best friend! Even the so-called educated people around me make it a point to tell me that I am not like other Muslims. I don't know whether I would like the other Muslims to be like me, because religiously or communally speaking, I am invisible. And I don't think most Muslims would like that. Their visibility lies in being together and religion acts as a unifying (though only superficial) force, no more.

There are times when I would have liked to ask half the Muslim population of India to go off to Pakistan. And I will not accept the story that they are applauding the Pakistani sports team only because they are better players. I have been witness to many such scenes and I have tried to hush the applause. I truly feel it is not right but, today, I will admit that, together with this feeling, there is also the fear: What will people say? Yes, it's there. I may not conform but I am forced to 'belong'. I have not been branded but I have been slotted. People will not let you sleep. And you don't suffer from insomnia.

I would like to ask these 'Islamic scholars' to clear the cobwebs from their filigreed minds. So we know now that Islam actually is a very progressive religion. Sad that we need such regressive people to tell us that! What they forget is that we are living the interpretations, very often given by them. One such ridiculous interpretation says that Muslims cannot eat pork because there is a certain germ which, however much you may clean it, won't die. And to think that my Christian friends survive on salami and ham! Of course, this is not the issue here. And I don't know what is written in the Koran or its interpretations and I refuse to look at it only for a quick 'reference'.

If one is speaking so much at length about Muslims, the reason is that the Muslim is considered more of a minority and, let us admit, goes out of his way to show that he is one. There is another problem in being the largest minority. You are so large and yet not large enough. And, unlike the Christians and Parsis, you are not 'anglicised' or adaptable enough. And, unlike the Sikhs, our religion was not born in this land. The Christians, the Muslims, the Parsis and Sikhs are all what they are and they cannot help it. The apology of the 'secular' individual erupts in the volcanic fury of the fanatic.

The question "Who am I?" is replaced by, "Why should I be anything else?" The answer is you can be what you are and something else.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Farzana Versey