Two Tales on the Labyrinthine Illogic of Bigotry and Islamophobia in India

The comedian George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, close-knit family in another city.”

So how exactly are young people these days dealing with being in increased contact – whether actual or via phone – with loved ones whose political views run the gamut from exasperating to downright inexcusable? During times of crisis, we may be forced to speak to (and engage with) those who espouse unspeakable views.

Two friends reached out to me recently to tell their stories. Both are Hindu and Gujarati, and both wished to remain anonymous because they wanted to share some of the hateful things they have heard from their loved ones. These sentiments may ring brutally familiar to most of us, but what I found useful was the two very different ways my friends tried to cope.

My friend Sandeep* is under lockdown with his family in Ahmedabad; my friend Karan* lives in the US but is in regular touch with his family over WhatsApp.

Sandeep’s family owns an air-conditioning business. During the initial days of the lockdown, when requesting repairs and technical assistance was still not allowed, Sandeep’s family was inundated with calls from many Ahmedabad elites, asking them to send AC repairmen over to their homes to both fix malfunctioning air-conditioners and install new ones.

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Although Sandeep did not disclose the names of these clients, he said that some of them had homes with 15 or 20 rooms, and that they were so powerful that saying ‘no’ directly wasn’t feasible.

This is unsurprising. If this pandemic has shown us anything – it is that money buys immunity. The privileged have been able to abscond from reality on deserted islands and ski resorts, while those who have always had to stand in line merely stand in longer ones.

What was disconcerting was the solution Sandeep’s family found to this dilemma: they began to say that the only technicians available were Muslim. Immediately, the request would be rescinded.

Sandeep’s family does indeed employ Muslim technicians, but like so many, they distinguish between the Muslims they know – whom they view as the few exceptions to the rule – and Muslims as a concept. Being cloistered at home with his family made Sandeep more aware than ever of the contradictions that form the shaky scaffolding of their prejudice.

Evenings in his joint family home are often spent watching a frothy Turkish soap opera, with his relatives rooting for its protagonists and chastising its villains. But when Sandeep pointed out that these beloved characters were all Muslim, his father said, “They’re good when they’re there, but get spoiled when they come here.”

His father and uncle have both travelled to Dubai and admired the opulent modernity of the state, but shrugged off the fact that it is an Islamic country. This, of course, is a common symptom of racism: the presumption that the other is bearable from a distance and insufferable at home. And it is unsurprising that the two entities which Sandeep’s family exempt from their general denigration of Muslims are wealthy and tourist-friendly places.

Mark Twain famously said, “When red-headed people are above a certain social grade, their hair is auburn.”

For the labyrinthine illogic of bigotry which Sandeep’s family adheres to, Muslims “cease” to be Muslims when they show any (supposedly incompatible) signs of modernity or prosperity, when they are above a certain social grade, or when they are far enough. Our current government is not much different, shifting tack from genocidal hate speech to vague messages of fraternal love as soon as several prominent figures from the UAE spoke out against India’s unrelenting persecution of Muslims.

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When I last spoke to Sandeep, he said he had been able to puncture some of his family’s assumptions. When they criticised the Tablighi Jamaat meeting as being supposedly emblematic of an entire community’s indifference to law, he had pointed out how crowded daily aartis had continued at the Jain temple near their house, unbothered by regulations to the contrary.

My other friend, Karan, faces a far more difficult challenge. His WhatsApp is flooded with vitriolic messages and rumours that would seem farcical if they were not so repugnant. Amongst these are the conspiracy theories that Pakistan “collaborated” with China to spread COVID-19, and that Muslims abetted the spread of cholera in India from the years 1817 to 1831. These rants range from the presumed aberration that was Abdul Kalam to the proclamation that there was no queen Jodha Bai.

When Karan tried to reason with his relatives and friends, he was rather unoriginally labelled “sickular” and “anti-national,” two adjectives which the sane amongst us have come to see as badges of basic decency.

Sandeep continues to counter his family’s views, and he says that he has seen a change over these many days of lockdown. He has been able to persuade them to think, if not think like him yet. For Karan, this experience has been more fraught, but he hasn’t given up yet.

The way onward for both – and for anyone in lockdown with family members or relatives who harbour these views – seems the same. If it is safe to do so, argue with them, educate them.

People all over the world are homeschooling right now. It’s time to do our bit.

Anushka Joshi is a student at Wadham College, Oxford University.

Featured image credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters