Sometimes people ask me what it is like to be an Indian Muslim. To be honest, most of the time the question does not make sense. When I am writing, reporting, editing, or doing the various things I do to earn a living, I am rarely conscious of either my national or religious identity. Of course, when I apply for a visa, my nationality comes to the forefront, as it does when I file my tax returns, pay my bills, or do most of my professional work. Frankly, quite often the identity that matters most is that I come from Gorakhpur, in Uttar Pradesh. The various issues dealing with land that my dad owned, the house that my mother lives in for most of the year, and the state of many of my relatives matter most. I have to deal with the difficulties and annoyances in getting things done in one of the least well-administered parts of India.
This brings to mind the old quote, "Only the high castes can afford to ignore caste", or to put it another way, your identity - religious, national, regional, gender, sexual, whatever - does not really matter in most cases unless it is used to limit you. For example, a cousin who was killed by a mob, when he was returning from Friday prayers became aware of his identity as an Indian Muslim with a knife in his gut. At times of curfew that I experienced in the 1990s, as well as during the riots set off by Mr LK Advani's Rath Yatra, I was intensely aware of being an Indian Muslim. Kashmiri Hindus had their religious identities thrust upon them as law and order broke down in 1989-90 and they were targeted.
Writer Jaspreet Singh, whose father was in the Border Security Force (BSF) deployed in Jammu and Kashmir, though, told me that he always saw Kashmir as a place of safety. They moved back to Delhi in 1983, and the next year Jaspreet was made violently aware of his Sikh identity. I guess Mohammad Akhlaq, as he was being bludgeoned to death, and his son, being beaten to an inch of his life, were aware of suddenly being an Indian Muslim. This extends to identities beyond the religious. Women, being subject to stalking, ogling, catcalls, restrictions, violence and rape based on their gender, are often made acutely aware of their identity, despite themselves.
This does not mean that the identities are not important. I am proud to be a Muslim. The precepts and stories of my belief system shape who I am, and are an important factor in helping me understand how to be a better person and a better citizen. But that is my choice. It is not being shoved down my throat, nor is that identity generally a factor in how others treat me, or I treat others. I have - being a relatively privileged person - the freedom to shape my identity as a human being and as a citizen of India - to the fullest bounds of my possibility.
When I take part in a discussion on refugees and urban governance at the upcoming Tata Lit Live festival in Mumbai, I will be doing so as somebody who has researched and written on these issues. When I travel to Kabul next month, to moderate a discussion between a Pakistani and an Afghani, on the role of Afghanistan in regional peacebuilding, it is because this is a subject I have studied and worked on. This is the identity I have created for myself. Akhlaq was not allowed to create his identity, because his religious identity was used as an excuse to kill him.
And here is the other thing, is it a tragedy that a Muslim was killed, or that a citizen was? Would it not have been an equal tragedy if the person killed by a mob led by, allegedly, people affiliated to the BJP, had been a Hindu? Or a Christian? Or a Sikh? Or a Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, atheist, or what have you? How many of our citizens have to be lynched before we recognise that the tragedy is not the identity of the person killed, but that our political parties are winning power, again and again, by attacking and murdering fellow Indians?
When I grieve for what we are becoming, it is not merely as an Indian Muslim, but as a human being, but if you extend your sympathy to me because I am an Indian Muslim, you steal that away, put me back in the jail of my sectarian identity, steal from me the identities I have worked hard to make for myself, and leave me an easy target for those with prejudice and stupidity to spare. Recognise me as a human being. Recognise your fellow citizens as human beings. Work to allow them the greatest freedom that they can aspire to. This is what our Constitution, a Constitution we have given ourselves as a free people, is about. Honour it. Make our country something we can be proud about.