Letter to Chachaji on
Hindus, Muslims, and the Gujarat Riots
by Raju Rajagopal
My Dear Chachaji:
All of us here are shocked, outraged,
and saddened by the recent events in Gujarat. The unholy
nexus between religion and politics seems to have once
again taken the lives of hundreds of innocent people
in the very birthplace of Gandhiji. Our friends in Ahmedabad
tell us that the state machinery has been openly inciting
violence against the Muslims, and Sangh provocateurs
were trying to disrupt even relief lines to riot-torn
families. We have also seen reports of peace marchers
being harassed and concerned citizens being intimidated
into silence. All this, in a state where, just a year
ago, civil society had responded so marvelously to the
Don't you think there is something terribly wrong with
a society where otherwise decent citizens, whether in
Godhra or in Ahmedabad, can deliberately torch women
and children? And law enforcement officials can stand
on the sidelines making excuses for mob violence? "It
is the Hindu psyche," reportedly justified one
police official. 'Psychosis' may have been a more apt
How did we ever let things get to
Chachaji, I can almost hear you:
"It is the damn politicians. Those rotten goondas
who run our country!"
But are they the real culprits?
Deep down, who is letting those
politicians and the so-called religious leaders get
away with mass murder? I think it is you and I, ordinary
citizens, who refuse to confront our misconceptions,
ill feelings and, sometimes, outright hostility towards
other communities, even during peaceful times. When
violence does break out, we stand on the sidelines,
mute spectators, shackled to our biases, unable to stir.
I think it is we who provide the Oxygen in which extremists
thrive and wreak havoc on our communities. We are the
An unfair indictment, you think?
I have thought about it long and hard. And my mind keeps
harking back to our long discussions on how, through
their silence, ordinary Germans allowed the Nazis to
co-opt them in their platform of hatred for the Jews.
Don't you see an eerie parallel in the deafening silence
of civil society in Gujarat following its own 'kristallnacht'?
Remember how often you and I used
to debate international politics (much to Chachiji's
consternation)? But when is the last time you and I
had an honest discussion about our Muslim citizens?
Yes, yes, I think I know your views on the matter. I
have heard you and Papaji often talk about 'those Mussalmans.'
I have even sheepishly laughed at bigoted jokes by my
dear cousins. But the fact of the matter is that I never
had the courage to confront any of you with my true
feelings. Why unnecessarily hurt the feelings of my
near and dear? Guilty on Count Two.
Chachaji, all that changed last
week as we witnessed the mayhem. I have decided that
enough is enough. I shall hold my tongue no more! I
am convinced that true harmony will come to India only
when we start openly embracing one another's humanity.
And that is not going to happen by merely talking to,
or at, the 'other' community. We must begin an honest
dialogue about our prejudices within our own community--with
parents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters and
cousins, and neighbors. And hope like hell that saner
voices in other communities will do likewise.
Shall we then, you and I, begin
today by placing our own biases on the table?
Chachaji, I have always known you
as a well-read, fair-minded person, who in his heart
believes in a secular, tolerant, democratic society.
Yet, when it comes to our fellow Muslims, you have always
seemed ambivalent. And, if I may say so, ever since
BJP came to power, that ambivalence seems to be slowly
turning into resentment. I can understand the trauma
that your generation went through with partition, the
wars with Pakistan, the situation in Kashmir and, more
recently, the bane of terrorism. But laying every real
or imagined historical wrong at the doorsteps of today's
Muslim citizens? That is what the Sangh Parivar has
been trying to do for decades, with few takers. And
now, even those who should know better are beginning
to casually toss around terms like 'self-hating Hindus'
and 'pseudo-secularists' in their discourses. It gives
me the sinking feeling that they are succeeding, after
all, in their sinister plan to steal our souls.
"If they don't like it, let
them go back to Pakistan!" How often have we heard
this from relatives and friends around the comfort of
our dinner table? I don't recall anyone ever objecting.
We could have. We could have told them that, like you
and me, Indian Muslims too grew up in their own villages
and towns, with their own parents and grandparents,
and with their own set of prejudices. That no one has
the right to question the legitimacy of an entire community
in a democratic society. And when we set them apart,
we are making a bold leap of faith that the Hindu community
is a monolith, an illusion that VHP has been trying
hard to foist upon us. Chachaji, if we don't say NO
to demonizing an entire community today, can 'Marwaris
go home' and 'Tamilnadu for Tamils' be very far behind?
Uncomfortable as it may be, let us face the reality:
India is home to the third largest Muslim community
in the world, and they are here to stay.
What about Ram Uncle's favorite
grievance, "Why should only Muslims be allowed
four wives and Triple Talaq?" I wasn't joking when
I used to snap back with, "Uncle, aren't you happy
with auntie?" It is one thing if we Hindus feel
that laws regulating our personal lives are unjust --we
have had plenty of opportunity to modify them, and we
have. It is quite another when we deliberately attack
another community under the guise of the Uniform Civil
Code. Does Uncle seriously believe that polygamy among
Muslims is the norm, and monogamy among Hindus universal?
Has he forgotten those 'two-timing' relatives of ours,
whose antics he used to humorously refer to as 'Krishn
Sure, a uniform code would be a
wonderful thing to have. But, per our constitution,
any initiative for legal reform must come from the minorities
if only we, the majority, would give
them the breathing room for debate. When we haven't
been able to reform ourselves on matters of child marriage,
dowry harassment, treatment of widows, and pernicious
discrimination against Dalits, fifty-two years after
adopting the constitution, what gives us the right to
expect Muslims to change their traditions overnight?
"Indian cricket has sunk to
rock bottom," bemoaned Praveen Mama the other day,
as we were watching a one-day match together. For a
man being swept away by Hindutva, he wasn't just trashing
the Indians, but was actually admiring Pakistani gamesmanship!
Thank goodness, the Sena folks hadn't gotten to him
yet. At the end of the day, we couldn't resist the temptation
to ask him how he would have reacted had an Indian Muslim
expressed the same views as he had. He stared at us
for a long moment and didn't say a word. But I think
he understood. Understood how absurd it is that the
game of Cricket had become the ultimate litmus test
for a Muslim's 'loyalty.' Do you see what an awkward
position we have placed our minorities in? Unlike Mamaji,
they can't even appreciate a good game when they see
one, let alone talk about their friends and relatives
in Pakistan, without their loyalty being questioned.
And what does our society hold out
for one's 'loyalty'? A fair shake in our civic space?
I remember our experience in buying
a flat last year. As we were getting ready to sign the
papers, we had casually inquired about the other owners.
"Don't worry sir, we don't sell to any Muslims,"
came the cocky response. We were shocked! As we picked
up our papers and stormed out, I don't think the poor
sales lady understood what the fuss was all about. The
episode reminded me of Mummy, who years ago had hurried
home from her chit-chat with neighbors to anxiously
share the gossip that a Christian family was moving
in next door. "At least they are not Muslims,"
she had consoled herself! Poor Mummy has sure come a
long way since, but I am not so sure of the rest of
our society. So I wasn't in the least surprised when
our old neighbor Chari Saab, who only a few years ago
was ready to disown his daughter for marrying a Muslim
boy, asked me for help the other day in securing employment
in the U.S. for his son-in-law. "He's having a
tough time with his Mohemeddan name," he confided.
So much for 'appeasing' our minorities.
I know what you are thinking. Why
is only discrimination against Muslims deplorable, when
our society seems to practice discrimination at every
possible level (FCs vs. BCs vs. OBCs vs. SCs/STs vs.
the State vs. FCs
and so on)? It's just this: we
don't demand any other community to prove their 'loyalty'
again, and again, and again.
Speaking of appeasement, Chachaji,
I notice that you too have started to use that term
lately. But, tell me, why is the term used only in the
context of minorities, and only when it comes to Congress-bashing?
Aren't political parties of every stripe and color pandering
to this or that voting block all the time? Why, even
the BJP made flimsy attempts recently (and failed miserably)
to woo the Dalits. So, why is appeasement so sinister
when it comes to Muslims, when it is the name of the
game in every democratic society? Only, here in America,
we call it lobbying. If, on the other hand, by appeasement,
they mean that Muslims are getting preferential treatment
over Hindus, what a laughable claim, when every reasonable
socio-economic indicator presents a sorry picture of
the state of India's Muslims. Frankly, appeasement is
a RSS red herring and, unfortunately, many of us are
falling for it.
That brings me to Chachiji, the
gentlest human being that I have ever known. Anything
and everything I know today about our traditions and
our religion, I owe it to her. Those wonderful stories
from Ramayan and Mahabharath that she used to tell us
as children are some of the best memories of my childhood.
Thanks to her gifts of Amar Chitra Katha, our children
too have acquired a great sense of our open and tolerant
culture. They can hold their own on a discussion of
the psyche of Karna or the subtle meanings behind Lord
Rama's controversial actions.
As far as I am concerned, Chachiji
couldn't hurt a fly if she tried. So when she would
talk about her wonderful tailor, and used to add a postscript,
"Poor chap, he is a Muslim," it never used
to bother me. I wasn't going to give her a lecture on
patronization and stereotyping. When she used to come
home from her Veda classes and tell us how even a Dalit
or a Muslim can be a Brahmin, "if only he is pure
of heart," I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
How was I ever going to explain to her that may be Muslims
didn't aspire to Brahminhood? I never tried. Of late,
she has been talking about how great Hindu society might
have been, but for all those brutal Muslim invasions.
Having just returned from a trip to Somnath, how could
I argue with her? But when I asked her yesterday what
she thought of the Gujarat violence, and she said, "What
can we do? They did it first," it hit me like a
ton of bricks! She was now on their side! Methodically,
step by step, they had managed to steal my dear Chachiji's
What am I to do now? Tell her grand
children that her Ram, whom they remember so fondly,
is the same Ram Lalla who wants a shrine built for him
'at any cost?' Even if it be a mountain of dead Indians?
That the Mandir she so aspires is to be built with bricks
of hatred and the mortar of intolerance?
Chachaji, when the framers of our constitution defined
a secular India, they tried their best to put in checks
and balances to protect our minorities, without at the
same time taking away the rights of the majority. Reasonable
people may disagree with their definition of secularism,
but I think they did a masterful job of understanding
what it takes to preserve the integrity of our nation
of nations. But even they couldn't have foreseen how
one of the most egalitarian constitutions in the world
could be rendered impotent overnight by our entrenched
personal prejudices for the 'other.' As I write this,
Gujarat appears close to a constitutional meltdown.
A highly communalized citizenry seems to have taken
the law (or should I say lawlessness) into its own hands,
with the acquiescence of the State. The cancer seems
to be spreading to other states now. And no one-not
the Central Government, not the judiciary, not even
the National Human Rights Commission--seems ready to
challenge the "Tyranny of the Majority."
As a social activist from the frontlines
of Gujarat told us, "This is not the time for us
to feel ashamed of being a Hindu, or a Muslim, or an
Indian. It is our silence that we should be ashamed
Chachaji, don't you think it is
time for you and I to break our silence?
Shall we make a start by proclaiming
from the rooftops, as loudly as we can, that the Sangh
Parivar does not represent us? That they profane Hinduism?
Shall we, for the sake of our country and our future
generations, reclaim our souls now, before it is too
I remain (I hope) your favorite