By Shobhaa De
19 September 2010
It has happened. I guess it had to. Perhaps, it happened a few months or a few years ago. Perhaps, it was always there, but swept under the carpet. Society’s dirty secret is finally out — everybody knows about it but nobody talks about it. Ten days ago, I received a call from a Muslim friend. She sounded a little concerned. Her anxiety had to do with her nephew’s admission into one of Mumbai’s better colleges. His marks were good, his conduct exemplary. He had been a prefect at school and participated in several extracurricular activities. I asked what the hitch was. She sounded almost embarrassed as she said, “Well, we are Muslims and that seems to be the problem in a lot of colleges.”
I was shocked. “Are you sure that’s what it is?’ I said, not prepared to believe it was the situation in some of the ‘progressive’ South Mumbai educational institutions. My friend went on to narrate how her nephew had been subjected to blatant discrimination during interviews and told upfront that it was his surname that came in the way. She apologized again for the ‘trouble’ she was putting me through. She added, “If the boy was not as bright, I would have told him to forget it, and do something else. But he is keen to study science and make a mark for himself — he has always been a good student. If he doesn’t get into a recognized college, his career is as good as over.”
I made a couple of calls to friendly neighbourhood college principals and asked whether they were really screening students on the basis of religion. One of them denied it; the other sheepishly admitted that such a directive was in place, but on an informal level. “We don’t want trouble,’’ the principal added virtuously. When i asked him to specify what sort of trouble a young man like my friend’s nephew could possibly cause, the principal replied, “These days, you never know. How can you trust these people?” What do you mean by ‘these people’? I persisted. The principal whispered, “Leave it. Don’t make me spell it out. In any case, we don’t have a vacancy.” I called up another college. The person was enthusiastic and polite, saying their list was still open and the student I was recommending, definitely qualified etc. Then i was asked for the name. As soon as i mentioned it, his voice changed. ‘Let me crosscheck with the clerk. I think I made a mistake. So sorry, admissions were closed yesterday.” Finally, I spoke to a lady who heard me out and said, “Send the boy to me tomorrow morning. I’ll see what I can do.” This story has a happy ending — the boy got in.
But that’s because his aunt was in a position to make a few calls on his behalf. There are thousands like him in Mumbai and across India, who are up against an invisible wall, unable to move forward, determined not to look backwards, but stymied all the way. When I met the young man and his family, they had tears of gratitude in their eyes. The point is: I didn’t do them a favour. And neither did the college. He was entitled to receive the same access and treatment on the basis of merit alone. Any college should have held its doors open for him. Especially as the colleges he had applied to were in Mumbai and not some backward town in the back of beyond. I felt intensely sad, as I accepted a box of mithai from his emotional relatives. It was as if they had crossed an impossible hurdle when it was just a routine matter of showing your marksheet, paying the fees and getting in. Will this boy ever forget the humiliation? Can his family forget the frustrating days when college after college turned them away on some pretext or the other? Perhaps this experience will toughen the lad and make him excel. Perhaps not. It is the ‘not’ that is worrying. Nearly every known privilege that a non-Muslim counterpart can and does take for granted, is denied to him in what was once a liberal, cosmopolitan city with great colleges and outstanding leaders in every field. Today, those temples of education are practicing a nasty version of religious profiling which is going to lead to major problems if it goes unchecked.
There is no getting away from the current polarization. I used to kid myself that some of my Muslim friends were being ‘paranoid’ when they talked about ‘the problem’ (as we had dubbed it). That ‘problem’ pretty much covered everything — from getting a job to finding accommodation. At the time (post- 26/11), we believed it was a passing phase that would disappear once everything ‘settled down’. Except that nobody quite knew what was meant to settle down or whether it would ever happen. But we consoled ourselves, saying sensitivities at the time were running high -- people were angry and afraid. More than that, people were confused. Two years down the line, there are no alibis, no screens to hide behind. Positions have obviously hardened to such a degree that now city colleges have begun to follow their own quota system and turn down eligible students because they are Muslims. We are a few weeks away from the anniversary of one of the most devastating and tragic events that ripped the city apart. No, we cannot and must not forget what happened. That awful attack was the work of hardcore terrorists. What we are doing may be much worse — we are killing the spirit of innocents. The latter crime may have far more lethal repercussions!
Source: Times of India, New Delhi