I saw Before Sunset about two years ago and this one line has still stuck around in my head — “Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past”. Contrary to popular belief I don’t quote such lines quite ritually. Because that would be embarrassing; not that I know anything about it(ish). But this week as I was teaching Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and The Last Continent” to my students, the question of ‘Indian-ness’ came up throughout the text. We started off with describing all things Indian — Gandhi, sarees, removing shoes at the doorstep, Malgudi Days (this was mine. My students have no clue of R.K.Narayan) and cricket. Cricket in India is what God is to the Pope; maybe Indians are more loyal to cricket, I’d say.
Suddenly, one of them said, “Indian-ness is hating Pakistan“; a sentence that still chills my bones. A class of 13-year old children (emphasis on CHILDREN) have such strong views on a community they have never actually interacted with, backing their views with various cultural stereotypes all aimed at objectifying and dehumanising a specific people, I stood rooted to the spot, unable to speak for a while. Sentences like, “Muslims are like that. They are a hateful, violent community“, “They SMELL!“, “Why do you think no Muslim is ever on the ‘Most Successful People’ page?” and the old obvious standby “Most of them are terrorists anyway” started swirling around before I could stop them. They even made distinctions between certain sects, making sure to highlight the Gujarati heritage of Khoja Muslims, as if that’s the reason they are ‘different’ and ‘better’ Muslims. Then the Saudi Arabian Muslims are ‘more sophisticated’ than the rest and “the US Muslims are the best, because they aren’t really Muslims at all” concluded the class with a laugh.
By this time my brain has UnNumbed itself and was ready to challenge all these slanderous statements. Poor Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful prose lay forgotten as we discussed at length what kids called “The Problem With Muslims: Class ONE”. Further discussion brought out many more stereotypes I was unaware of. Did you know Indian Muslims sometimes eat humans (supposedly) and this is why we should hate them?! They were very careful in making clear demarcations about just who is a ‘good’ Muslim. Apparently people who they knew were ‘good’ Muslims as they weren’t ‘very religious’ or ‘didn’t like fanatic Muslims’. One student coined this definition by saying his friend “Doesn’t ever say Allah-anything in public“. Their lack of identification as Muslims makes them ‘good’. I really wanted to take off my TeacherShoes and just lock myself in my room. So much hostility messes up my mental health in a huge way; thus I decided to don my Big-Girl socks and face the tiny heathens children head-on.
When I brought up the fascist policies of the BJP , they all drew a blank. The same reaction when I talked about the Godhra riots or the Babri Masjid conflict that India is trying to resolve since the last two decades. Turns out, these kids have selective memories when it comes to Indian History. Textbooks talk of the suffering Hindus faced during the Partition but not one peep of the thousands slaughtered Muslims or the gang-rapes Muslim women had to undergo at the hands of Sikhs. We talk about how selfish Jinnah was for even suggesting the creation of Pakistan but we don’t talk about the reason why the Muslims felt the need to have a separate State on the first place. The idea that Pakistanis don’t really have a say in how their country is represented to Indian media was entirely alien to them. Maoism is one of the biggest threats to Indian Nationhood today, if the media had to have their say. Their side of the debate is entirely obliterated (does this ring any bells regarding systematic silencing?). One could argue that they are just children and kids make erroneous judgments, which is pure definition of poop to my mind. If they can believe and propagate a single-story-view of history, they are capable of understanding history as it ought; objectively and without prejudices.
It doesn’t help one bit that Indian media is pro-BJP either. Somehow, many popular newspapers don’t seem to find the idea of “Hindutva” (which is basically preference of Hindus over non-Hindus. Not that different from Hitler is it?) very disturbing. But when Raj Thackerey actually implements this policy, Mumbaikars can’t stop talking about how exclusionary politics are bad for progress and suddenly phrases like “We are Indian first and Mumbaikars later” start floating in the air. However whenever the question comes up to defend our Muslim brothers and sisters, suddenly everyone becomes apolitical.
Even in cinema, if there is ever a Muslim character, great pains are taken to show how Non-Muslim hir really is or because of how personal the entire narrative is, we end up thinking of the character as an exception to the rule instead of the ‘type’ hir is supposed to be. In that light, the opinions of my students don’t seem so appalling, if the entire world around them is harping one tune, they are bound to sing along (generally speaking). What really gets to me is even their parents do nothing to change the prejudices; if they are the original holders of this view that is. We never pay attention to how much influence the family as a unit has on our minds. I still remember my uncle saying at one point that he could “...identify a Muslim by the way he walks. It reeks of sin” when I was six.
Somehow, when it comes to Muslims, Indians get defensive about our nationality and ‘nationhood’ (which is extremely problematic as the basis of its very definition banks on techniques of Other-ing and alienation) but we will NEVER think of the reason why there is so much hate brewing between our two countries. Fingers pointing towards this leader or that government, this regime is the reason the two countries can’t resolve issues, THEY DON’T RELEASE OUR PRISONERS EITHER! and many (un)entertaining variants of Othering.
History has a history of being selective, this is a truth universally acknowledged. But when it comes to Muslims, Indian history becomes amnesic. We’re so ready to dispel of our past, any event that shows that Indians aren’t the nationalist, collective mist that popular culture extols, that we completely forget the most important lesson: TO BE HUMAN.
This post also appears in Womanist Musings