Back when I was in school, when news anchors didn’t spew hate and political debates were limited to the dinner table, I used to celebrate the secular fabric of my country. Its diverse and accepting nature appealed to me.
Belonging to a minority community didn’t matter then – or maybe it did, but not as much as it does today. I remember singing the national anthem at school, excited and bursting with patriotism. With my friends, it never felt I was different in any way – they accepted me for who I was and so did I.
Polarisation, communal profiling and bigotry were concepts far from my understanding. With more awareness of such issues and just how prevalent they are, I found myself recently recalling a part of my past that I shouldn’t have tolerated; rather, one that shouldn’t have happened at all.
Over the last few years of school, August 14 would arrive and I would have to undergo an annual nationality test.
While students would be busy preparing for the Independence Day celebrations, some of my classmates would come and wish me ‘azaadi‘ – even though it was only August 14.
It would fill me with anguish. I knew why they mocked me. I knew it very well.
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It’s because I’m a Muslim. And “technically”, according to some of them, I “shouldn’t be on this side of the India-Pakistan border”.
I would go home and cry after tolerating similar slurs all day at school – where I would be wished ‘Happy Independence Day’.
But one day, I decided I was going to be more assertive. “Don’t say that again. I am an Indian, not a Pakistani, ” I said.
I was asked to not be a spoilsport and said that it was all just jokes. But they saw I was furious and apologised. I felt better after that, but the jokes never really stopped.
I didn’t complain to my teacher, don’t bother asking why. Maybe it was out of fear of losing my friends. So whenever I received such wishes after that first confrontation, I would just smile and state simply that I was Indian.
Sometimes, even I would reiterate to myself that “these are just jokes”.
I now know that they weren’t just jokes. They were communal slurs being thrown at me in a bid to humiliate me because of my religion. These were slurs and insults that can adversely affect a child socially, mentally and emotionally. Using stereotypes about a community and collectively targeting them is something people have been adept at for ages. What I underwent is a form of bullying stemming from just that.
Why am I writing about this after ten years? Thanks to the vitriolic national conversation these days, it wasn’t long before my brain regurgitated these memories.
These incidents don’t mean I don’t have friends from other faiths or hold a personal grudge against anyone. I have some very dear people in my life who happen to be Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and our relationship till date is unaffected by such factors.
But the point is, why do I and so many like me have to undergo such nationality tests to prove I belong here? Why can’t we start seeing a person beyond religion or caste and teach our children the same? In such an advanced world, how long will religion-based hate govern us?
I am an Indian Muslim and I am as Indian as any of you reading this. Not any less.
So please do not wish me on August 14.
Ayaan Khan is a first-year student studying Statistics at Ramjas College, University of Delhi. He’s particularly interested in journalism and poetry.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty