By Karan Thapar
March 1, 2021
I am not easily impressed. I have eclectic tastes, which frequently change, leaving me unsure of what I like. So it’s not often I find a book compelling. Ghazala Wahab’s Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India is definitely one such. At times autobiographical, often anecdotal, frequently analytical, and full of convincing research and illuminating history, it tells you what it’s like to be an Indian Muslim.
“When I started to write,” Wahab explains, “I wanted to address fellow Muslims and tell them they needed to look beyond the mullahs and embrace modernity.” But as she became aware “of just how vulnerable Muslims in India are” and how “extremely fearful”, her focus altered. “How does one tell people just struggling to stay alive they need to change their thinking, their manner of living, their approach to religion?” That, you could say, is the predicament facing our Muslim brothers.
Wahab’s journey began when she realised people “perceive two distinct identities” in her — Muslim and Indian. It led her to ask: “What does it mean to be a Muslim in India?” But also a more inward-looking question: “Is it not possible to be Muslim and forward-looking?” This book is an honest but also distressing answer to both.
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Wahab believes there are external and internal forces that hold “Muslims in a pincer grip”. The external is “the socio-political discrimination they face at the hands of both lawmaking and law-enforcing authorities”. It often amounts to physical and mental violence. It denies them equal opportunity, even justice. “This forces Muslims to seek security in their own numbers, and they withdraw into ghettoes on the periphery of the mainstream, thereby limiting their choices in terms of accommodation, education and profession”. The internal force is “the vicious cycle perpetuated by illiteracy, poverty and the disproportionate influence of mullahs”. This keeps “a large number undereducated and, therefore, unemployable”. It’s also “prevented the emergence of a progressive, secular Muslim leadership”.
How many of us, who view Muslims from the outside, understand this? Very few. Of our rulers, even less. This is why Muslims “carry a double burden of being labelled as ‘anti-national’ and as being ‘appeased’ at the same time”.
The world Wahab reveals, the other side of a door we never walk through, is a nightmare. Ponder on what Wahab writes of young Muslims, every one of them born Indian with exactly the same rights as you and I. “Young Muslim men are frequently picked up and held without charges indefinitely under some anti-terrorist law or another.” Research shows “Muslim boys now have considerably worse upward mobility than both scheduled castes and scheduled tribes”. So is it surprising many mothers want their sons to go abroad? “A Muslim boy in India will either be a wastrel or viewed as a rioter and be killed by the police”.
Some too poor to escape — yes, that’s the right word — pretend to be Hindu. They change their names to give themselves another identity. “If I have a Hindu name, no one will bother that I work with cattle skin,” Wahab was told. They’re even prepared to convert. “Magar dil mein kya hai yeh kisi ko kya pata (but how can anyone tell what is in our hearts)?” I don’t know if this is true of a few or many, but does that matter? Even if it’s one, it’s a tragedy that shames us. Yet till I read Wahab’s book, I wasn’t aware of this.
There’s also another dimension — you could call it the flipside — and Wahab is equally forthright in writing of it. Moderate Muslims are not just caught between two worlds but torn apart. “On the one hand, conservative or devout Muslims disparage them; on the other hand, Hindus suspect them”. So what choice do they have but to “keep their heads down and hope they won’t be called upon to take a stand?” Yet these are the people many criticise for their silence. The truth is it’s not easy to be a Muslim in India. Both the world outside and your own community torment you. If you want to understand and, perhaps, see Muslims through their own eyes, this is a book you should read.
Original headline: It’s not easy being a Muslim in India
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