Not Being the Other 

Karl Marx had warned that the spectre of communism was haunting Europe.

There’s another spectre haunting India. The identity of the phantom will never be revealed. You and I will engage in a more participatory process, unlike our democracy. You are free to identify and name it after reading this opinion piece. Before I am mistaken as a communist and my opinion is brushed away with accusations of being prejudiced, even though all opinions are driven by some prejudice, I must clarify that I am a non-aligned.

Now again, I am not a Jawaharlal Nehru lover. Maybe, a little. But definitely not a proponent of the Indian National Congress. Sigh, it is difficult to write or say anything in this atmosphere without one’s thoughts being branded as prejudiced, or worse, ‘anti-national’. However, do my assurances matter? Nevertheless, my name makes it unpalatable for many to consider my statements seriously.

I must warn you now itself. This piece of writing is entirely personal. But isn’t everything? This is merely an articulation of a mixture of my anger, frustration and extreme agony.

My religious identity, despite being an atheist, was made most felt to me in 2017, at a post-dinner conversation at a friend’s house. The discussion ventured into politics, as it mostly does, after a glass of whiskey, or maybe two. Now this may offend my community’s sensibilities and make them doubt my credibility and that of this article, just like people in today’s time doubt Nehru’s, because he used to drink and spoke to women as equals.

The proximity to this family must be gauged from the fact that I have participated in this family’s pujas and have sung bhajans. This family and the other friends held, and continue to hold, extreme affection for me, which makes the incident all the more difficult to forget.

An incident of another Muslim’s lynching – as had become normal by then – came up for discussion. Feeling safe in a room of loved ones, devoid of religion, so far, I attributed culpability on the ruling dispensation’s leaders. As a fresh student of law, my vigour and zeal for justice was poignant.

“The press makes more of these incidents than they actually are,” said a friend.

“But this is big country where such incidents normally happen and used to before as well,” said uncle.

“But, is eating beef not a crime?” said the recently made best-friend.

Normalisation of murder turned into justification of murder. Conversation turned into questioning. Questioning turned into interrogation. Interrogation of a Muslim. A Muslim, who felt a secure environment turn hostile within minutes and sentences. Hostile to my presence, my identity and to my breath. Loved ones suddenly acquired a religious identity. I became a Muslim and was being asked if lynching is not the correct reprisal for eating or being accused of eating beef.

I felt cornered. My vigour turned stale.

Also read: Lament of a Small Man

Was it interrogation or was it genuine concern to know about a Muslim friend’s worries? Statements against Muslims were accompanied by an acknowledgement of me being an exception.

“But, Labeeb, you are different. Not like the other Muslims,” they uttered in unison.

I surprised myself in the biggest way. I agreed to myself being different. Maybe to make myself feel secure. Or maybe to exist in denial about my friends holding such views with utmost conviction. I convinced myself that my friends were correct and that my community deserved reprisal.

People are at unease when presented with complicated analysis and solutions. Thus, when a community is targeted and blamed for the nation’s problems, absorbing hatred comes easy, as opposed to understanding social, political and economic problems. Governmental corruption and inefficacy lie hidden. An easier solution is provided. A target that is visible and executable, figuratively and literally. This substantiates the contention that we live an era of post-truth wherein truth loses when excessive information is pit against the word of demagogues.

Multiple questions haunted my mind. Either the above-stated theory is true, or, the psychological denial of my friends’ state of mind has driven me to engage in this intellectual ordeal. Which of the two theories explains that the grave mishandling of the pandemic, fall in the Indian currency’s value, or massive rise in petrol prices – to name a few developments – that are all deemed to be merely caused by extraneous factors?

If that is not plausible, the last defense made is, “in a country of 130 crore people, how much more can one man do?”

Had we not elected a government? Or do we seriously believe that a man runs this country alone? Or does the voting majority simply ride on such defenses owing to blind hatred? The extent of demagoguery is evident by the fact that I do not have to identify the individual for you to identify him.

Also read: What Is This ‘New India’ That BJP Speaks of?

I thought I had put such questions to bed, even if the innumerable ‘maybes’ existed in the deepest corners of my mind and my friendships continued. Two incidents enabled these questions to haunt me again. The new Gyanvapi Mosque spectacle and watching a politician in-person. The former is doing rounds in the political arena. Hence, I will elaborate on the latter.

This politician allegedly stoked communal tensions along-with threats of skinning people alive in the aftermath of the death of a Maulvi’s son. He switched political parties and won a by-election from a constituency with a substantial Muslim population. My mind started searching for answers, rather painfully. I thought, is human memory really that short? Are people really that forgiving? Or do they believe that this other party’s demagogue is so efficient that she will keep this allegedly communal politician in check?

Maybe all these are true. Maybe none are. I do not know. But, unlike our leaders, I am delivering on my promise. I simply vented my agony. In this ‘new India’, I could get arrested for this. But, as Hemingway had said, I did not just write, I bled. So are many humans around you, as you read this.

Do you care?

Labeeb Faeeq is a lawyer at the Calcutta High Court, West Bengal.

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty