The 9/11 terrorist attacks inflicted a wound on the American national psyche that the country is arguably yet to recover from. Islamophobia in America ballooned after 9/11 (with a lot of help from the government and several media organizations).
American citizens were repeatedly fed a particular image of what a Muslim looks and acts like, and were told that ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ was the number one challenge the country faced. Cut to 2017, America has a xenophobic, bigoted President who is hell-bent on enforcing a “Muslim Ban”. How do thousands of Americans react? They march on streets in protest, taxi unions go on strike, CEOs of companies express disagreement, dozens of lawyers land up at airports to provide free legal representation. The admirable thing about these protests is that they are by and large organic in the sense that they aren’t led by any one politician or celebrity. There is no ‘leader’ of this movement. Most of these people appear to believe that their country stands for a set of values, and a Muslim ban isn’t compatible with those values. Many of these citizens refer to the ban as un-American.
I woke up in the morning to see a message from a Muslim friend who lives twenty minutes away from me asking if I will help her and her family if such a thing were to happen in India. “Yes, I will no matter what the cost.”, I promptly responded. To be honest, I am very reluctant to grant myself this confidence about what I will do. Only time will tell, and I hope no one ever has to answer this question. But I can’t help but wonder how most Indians will react. What will it take for so many of us to take to the streets? What is the set of values we stand for? What does being an Indian mean for us?
An attempt to answer this question leads me to another one: how have we reacted in the past? What is our response to the blatant oppression and abuse of civil liberties in Bastar? Or in Kashmir? Or in Manipur? How do we react to the fact that over twenty thousand people die every year because the practice of casteism condemns them to manual scavenging? What was it that made us erupt on the streets (at least in Delhi) after the gang rape in 2012? That certainly wasn’t the last gang rape to happen in India, so why did we stop? My guess is as good as yours. A favorite answer is that well we have jobs and families to take care of. Believe it or not, so do Americans.
I hope that I am wrong, but I think the difference between our brand of patriotism over the decades and their brand of patriotism on display at the moment seems to be that we are constantly engaged in the pursuit of identifying who amongst us isn’t Indian enough, or, as is popularly known these days, who is anti-national. Does our sense of kinship diminish as we travel towards the eastern states? Is it contingent on many markers of identity such as religion, race, region? It isn’t the case that a resentment for the ‘other’ isn’t on display in America but over there the battle in terms of numbers at least seems to be evenly matched. In America, thousands of Americans also went to protest against their army waging war in Vietnam. They didn’t feel the need to endorse everything their Army did. As opposed to India, where even when our Army crushes our fellow citizens we feel the need to express solidarity with the Army. Any Indian against the Army automatically becomes the enemy.
Sanjay Rajoura, who is an acclaimed stand-up artist, says that our docility probably begins from our homes, where we teach our children to “respect” (here respect means blind obedience), and this reverence for all authority continues well into adulthood. Questioning is a terrible sin. A protest is akin to the worst kind of betrayal.
So, what does the basket of Indian-ness contain? Let me first list the obvious and easy answers. I peek into this basket, and I see the national anthem, the national flag, victories in sports (especially cricket, especially the men’s cricket team), enmity with Pakistan and China, some politicians, some movie stars and some cricketers. I can’t think of others at the moment at least. But these aren’t quite the answers I am looking for and/or feel satisfied with. I think what I really want to know is — what is the length, breadth, and depth of the fraternity and/or kinship we feel for each other as Indians. What scale of atrocity and oppression will it take for so many of us to say we will not sit down and watch this happen while those in power oppress? Even if, especially if those being crushed belong to a community the ‘majority’ has complicated relations with. I don’t have an answer. Maybe, I am terrified of looking in the mirror. Are you?
This article was first published in Mumbai Mirror