CategoryGuest writers

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Religious Prejudice: Lies, Damned lies and Statistics

We have all grown reading about the Hindu-Muslim conflicts. But unlike the caste system, I personally never believed that religious discrimination and persecution of minorities had ended. It has been 70 years since Independence, and we haven’t made much progress in abolishing the same. Resentment and prejudice against minorities, particularly Muslims is common in India, but we have simply not acknowledged the sheer existence and scale of prejudice and discrimination. Hence, there has been little public debate or empirical analysis to establish the presence of discrimination and/or identify its sources.

The exclusion and discrimination of Muslims and other religious minorities is not episodic, but in fact, both everyday and institutional. It runs across all sectors and runs so deep that this religious prejudice appears normal to most people who perhaps don’t notice it or are unaware of it. This belief runs so deep that the government and media successfully managed to misreport and link a global health crisis of Covid 19 to  the Muslim community, increasing the social tension between the Hindu and Muslim communities and leading to increased discrimination, harassment and attacks. 

Over the past few months of lockdown, it is hard to tell which is galloping faster: the coronavirus or Islamophobia? From saffron flags on vegetable carts to the widespread use of expressions such as ‘corona jihad’, it has been a free fall and people have forgotten that – ‘A virus has no religion.’ These indirect anti-Muslim feelings have given way to direct hate-mongering. Social boycott has been compounded with economic boycott fostered with fake videos of Muslim vendors deliberately smearing fruits and vegetables with their saliva. The fake stories grab the front-page headlines and occupy centre-stage in raucous filled television shows; the rebuttals and clarifications are always too little, too late and unreported by the mainstream media. The damage has been done and the WhatsApp media industry is in full swing regurgitating misinformation and malice. As a country, we are split wide open.

Today, it has become more important than ever to recognize that religious identity remains an important axis of discrimination in India, and act to change this. The most dangerous and unfortunate part of any system of apartheid is the fatigue of those who are optimistic despite the discrimination. As each optimist begins to lose hope, the discrimination wins and gets rooted a little more firmly.

As Pablo Neruda said in his poem, ‘If you forget me‘:

Well, now,

If little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you, little by little

If suddenly,

you forget me,do not look for me
for I shall already have forgotten you.

Today’s guest writer, Shoeb Khan, is a dear friend who I know for more than 10 years now. He runs his own architectural practice called Amakin. He, like any good friend, is a helpful person who would leave everything to go help a friend in need. I have attended his wedding and have been hosted in his family home with the utmost warmth and love and treated as one of their own. And yes, he is a Muslim.

Everytime someone talks about a particular community with hatred, I wonder, if they have ever tried to personally know anyone from these communities before following this set notion in their minds. There are bad people in this world who do bad shit, and they come from different communities, castes, genders and economic backgrounds. Generalising and pin-pointing certain communities is anything but fair. 

I met him when I was 18 and, believe it or not, he is my first friend from the Muslim community.  Now when I look back, I feel quite shocked that in the first 18 years of my life I rarely ever came in contact with or knew any Muslims, in my school or my neighbourhood or even anyone amongst my parents friends and acquaintances. Yes, that’s how isolated we are – completely unaware of how this community is marginalised and mistreated on religious grounds. When someone you know is wronged, you feel enraged but when you don’t know the person or community being wronged, you just ignore it and move on with your life. Doesn’t it seem really unjust and prejudiced?

So today, we are going to hear from someone who has been a part of the biggest religious minority community in India and faces the harsh realities of the same every single day. 

Shoeb Khan, Architect - Founder of Amakin Studio, India

I am Mohammed Shoeb Khan and I am a Muslim. My great grandfather, a member of the Muslim League, consciously took the decision of staying back in his HOMELAND and called India OUR country. My grandfather and father followed his footsteps. Even though my father went to Saudi Arabia in his youth, he came back and got settled here. I also decided to stay here even when most of my privileged Muslim as well as Hindu friends opted to leave for better opportunities in the West. There has always been a hatred in the minds of people against our community but if I have learnt one thing, especially during the past six years, is that I am really hated for my identity as a Muslim in MY country – India.

March 2020- The Muslim community was accused of spreading the corona virus on purpose, on the basis of misinterpreted data and biased testing sample set.

December 2019- The notorious Citizenship amendment bill was passed with a majority in both houses and made an act. 

November 2019- The controversial judiciary decision pending for almost 3 decades was pronounced by the Supreme court awarding the disputed 2.77 acres of land to one party and ‘GIFTING’ 5 acres of land to the other party anywhere in the country. 

July 2019- The conflicting Triple Talaq bill was passed with a majority in the parliament.

June 2019– Tabrez Ansari was stopped by a mob while riding his motorcycle in Kharsawan, Jharkhand, accused of being a bike thief, forced to chant ‘JAI SHREE RAM’ and beaten up resulting in his death.

April 2017- Pehlu Khan, a resident of Haryana, was stopped by a mob of around 200 people in Alwar, Rajasthan while on his way from a cattle fair in Jaipur Rajasthan and beaten up resulting in is death.

September 2015– Mohammed Akhlaq’s house in Bisara, Dadri, UP, was ambushed by a mob, accused him of having beef in his house, beat him up in front of his family resulting in his instant death.

February 2002- Ehsan Jafri, a former MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT, residing in Ahmedabad, Gujrat, was dragged out of his house along with several others and attacked and killed with swords and bats by a mob.

In all the above listed incidents, there are 3 major similarities, a certain community, a certain leader and a certain political party. A strongly optimistic person would fly them by as mere coincidences. I consider myself in the category of the long list of sarcastic ‘anti-national’ pessimists like Anurag Kashyap, Farhan Akhtar, Javed Akhtar, Javed Jaffery, Rana Ayyub, Ravish Kumar, Swara Bhaskar…

Incidents like these cast a disturbing shadow on my identity. I have seen some of my closest friends and colleagues changing their attitude post 2014. It’s as if there was this huge national shackle on this country’s majority, which our dear ‘KING DAENERYS’ arrived to break. I have seen posts and statuses online from many people and have been disgusted to the point of resignation and loss of all hope of redemption of ‘MY’ countrymen. 

The question then arises, why the hypocrisy for the past 73 years? If I was always unwelcome here, why was I allowed to be a member of this society, a natural citizen of this country in the first place.
Oh! I know, who would ‘THEY’ play ‘HUNGER GAMES’ with, if not for me.

‘DESH KE GADDARO KO, GOLI MAARO SAALO KO’.

Here are a few personal instances of my life that left me dumbfounded at the bigotry and blind biases of both citizens,government servants and authorities of India.

My architecture college is near the famous Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai which is a high security area. Anyways, one day out of several bikes, my bike was stopped at a random police check post called ‘Nakabandi’. One of my hostel seniors (not a Muslim) was with me. FYI- both of us had beards. After the routine checking of all official documents, the policeman started asking me strange questions regarding my permanent address, my family background, my father’s business ventures etc. I felt strange and got agitated and asked him why were these questions relevant and addressed to only me from a bunch of people stopped. And he calmly replied because of our appearances and since we had untrimmed beards. (That’s right-the 21st century it is!) I did not know what he meant by that statement but his attitude towards me was highly condescending and unacceptable especially since he was very calm and respectable to my fellow passenger with an untrimmed beard.

Another incident that really boggled my mind was at the airport back when I was barely 18 years old. My parents were returning to Saudi Arabia and their flight was from Mumbai. This was at a time before the new T2 was constructed when the family members of the passengers were allowed into the airport upto a certain point to see off their loved ones. I wanted to give my father a hand with the luggage and family members of other passengers were being allowed inside. But out of the blue, I was stopped without any explanation. It was only later, I realized that this was because of my name and the fact that I was a Muslim.

All of these could be bitter coincidences but after the past 5 years of chaotic and shocking experiences nationally, I have begun to see a pattern in all of this. There are several such events in my personal life as well as lives of my family and close friends, but the idea is not to point fingers at all the government servants in all the government institutes or to gain sympathy but to highlight tyranny at the smallest of levels like my person to the highest of levels like in the case of Advocate Shahid Azmi. Wherever I go, even today, on learning my name, people’s behaviour alters, and suspicious glances are exchanged. Suddenly, it feels like all they can see in me is the fact that I am a Muslim, nothing else. 

In the words of the great MARK TWAIN, ‘I have seen Chinamen abused and
maltreated in all the mean, cowardly ways possible to the invention of a degraded
nature, but I never saw a policeman interfere in the matter and I never saw a
Chinaman righted in a court of justice for wrongs thus done to him.’

After a brief period of heartbreak, depression and anger over the situation, I came to the conclusion that our country has a rich and eternal history of resistance and resilience towards such atrocities and if we do not learn from it and apply it into practice in our lives in such hard times, we might as well resign being its citizens.

The power of organized educated democracy at the social level, the power of education and institutes at the system level, the power of the pen at the intellectual level and the power of words and speeches at the political level can and will bring the change. Maybe, we might not live to see those changes, but we certainly can be the trigger that starts the wheel rolling in the right direction.

I end with a few lines from a beautiful poem by Sahir Ludhianvi that moved me severely. 

P.S. – Pardon the tough Urdu words, I am sure the essence of the overall poem shall sink in everyone’s heart. 

Dharti ki sulagti chhati se bechain sharare puchhte hain
Tum log jinhen apna na sake vo ḳhoon ke dhare puchhte hain
                         Sadkon ki zaban chillati hai sagar ke kinare puchhte hain                           Ye kis ka lahu hai kaun mara ai rahbar-e-mulk-o-qaum bata

Ye jalte hue ghar kis ke hain ye katte hue tan kis ke hain
Taqsim ke andhe tufan me lutte hue gulshan kis ke hain
Bad-baḳht fizaen kis ki hain barbad nasheman kis ke hain
kuchh ham bhi sunen ham ko bhi suna.

Kis kaam ke hain ye din-dharm jo sharm ka daman chaak karen
Kis tarah ke haiñ ye desh-bhagat jo baste gharon ko ḳhaak karen
ye ruhen kaisi ruhen hain jo dharti ko napak karen
ankhen to utha nazren to mila.

Jis raam ke naam pe ḳhuun bahe us raam kī izzat kya hogi
jis dharm ke hathon laaj lute is dharm ki qimat kya hogi
insan ki is zillat se pare shaitan ki zillat kya hogi
ye kis ka lahoo hai kaun mara
ai rahbar-e-mulk-o-qaum bata

Now you might all ask- But what about all the terrorist attacks we have faced in the past? That is real. It is not something made up by the media. Well, to that I, VD, would just like to conclude by saying that – Yes, that is real. But so are the thousand of violence stories against these communities which are happening everyday and going undocumented, without any justice served. A person just doesn’t wake up one day and become a criminal or a terrorist. It is almost always, his past that leads him to chose that path. And we are all responsible for that past. 

We must always remember, the more we traumatise, isolate and persecute the minority communities, the hate crimes against them will keep increasing in turn leading to rise of ‘rebels’ who then try to take justice in their own hands. Also, you just can not hold an entire community accountable for something done by a handful of people. There are many Hindu criminals as well, but that doesn’t make you and me bad people as well, or does it? 

The only way to end terrorism as we know it, is to accept and include these communities in our society. Treat them as equals and fellow citizens. 

Social equality for all is the only way to live peacefully in the future.
VD

P.S. – There have been many shows like ‘The Family man’ and ‘Paatalok’ on Amazon prime recently showing this issue quite well. If you want to do some more serious reading you can check out the book ‘Begunah Qaidi’ by Abdul Wahid Shaikh (available in Hindi and Urdu, will be soon made available in English as well) or his youtube channel. Go watch these, think, reflect and change your thoughts and actions. 

All Roads Lead to Home

Today, we are living in an unimaginable situation. The whole world has come to a standstill. People are stranded in different countries and cities, away from their loved ones. Many have lost their jobs and dying to come back home. For people stranded outside India it is almost impossible to get a flight back, as only repatriation flights are running. Also, for people stranded in different cities within the country, even though flights are running there is a fear to travel.

Palak Kapadia, 24, Copywriter by profession, storyteller by heart

Palak, our guest writer, spent the last year pursuing her postgraduate studies in New York City. You can check out some of her work at https://www.palakkapadia.com/. Having recently flown back to Mumbai in the midst of the pandemic, on a special request and in a hope that this will help many others, she has noted down her entire experience. If you’re planning to fly to India soon or know someone who is (or you’re just bored in quarantine), here’s the whole play-by-play.

One month before the flight:

I was graduating and my visa was set to expire on June 25th. This had been a major source of anxiety to me for the last few weeks because India was (and continues to be) under complete lockdown, operating only repatriation flights. I didn’t want to risk overstaying my visa.

Like several other Indian students, I came very close to being stranded in the USA with an expired visa. I found out about the Vande Bharat mission repatriation flights and signed up on the Indian embassy’s website to be considered for the same.

At the time, they were evaluating all applications on a case-by-case basis and contacting those eligible to travel personally to book the flight. This would mean that I wouldn’t know until a couple of days before or even the actual date of the flight that I had been chosen. As you can probably imagine, things seemed rather uncertain.

Two weeks before the flight:

On June 8th, Air India announced on Twitter that they were going to open bookings for Vande Bharat flights from their website. The plus side, this meant no more uncertain waiting for the embassy to get in touch. On the downside, I’d be competing with the rest of America in a fastest-fingers-first contest to get a seat on one of only 5 flights to Mumbai.

At 10:30am on the dot, I had 4 friends, my parents and myself trying to log on and make the booking. I’d assigned everyone a specific date from among the 5 available so that we’d have backups. After a good 45 minutes of cursing our way through the archaic Air India website, my roommate finally managed to make it to the payment gateway on the Air India iPhone app. I thus got my tickets from Newark (EWR) to Mumbai (BOM) for June 22nd, 2020. My one way ticket was priced at $1361.40. VERY expensive but honestly, I was just grateful to be going home.

I got two emails from Air India – an e-ticket and an itinerary receipt. The tickets have all the instructions you need to pack and prepare for the flight. I was also asked to fill and sign an Undertaking stating my date of travel, flight no., purpose of travel, etc. However, I see now that it has changed slightly and the new document can be accessed here: https://repat.videshapps.gov.in/user_registrationPg

Two days before the flight:

The baggage allowance was as follow: 2 x 23kg of check-in luggage and 1 x 8kg of carry-on luggage. The website didn’t mention specifically if an extra personal item/laptop bag was allowed, I decided to bring one.

I also read online that having a negative COVID test could help waive off the institutional quarantine so I got myself tested, just in case. However, I was asked to quarantine in a hotel regardless (more on that later).

Web check-in is mandatory for all passengers. The web check-in opened 48 hours before departure and I was able to pick a window seat as I’d have liked to. In order to prepare for the flight, I printed my boarding pass, the 2 emails (e-ticket and itinerary receipt) and the undertaking. The email also mentioned that they may inspect the card used for booking the ticket at the airport. Since my tickets were booked from my roommate’s card, I was asked to carry a photocopy of the front and back of her card with CVV covered, self-attested by her authorizing the use of her card for the purchase of my ticket. I brought this with me but it was never inspected.

On the day of the flight:

I arrived at the Newark airport at 8am (4 hours before the flight) to find a long queue already. The queue snaked through the waiting area and extended outside the terminal. There was barely any social distancing. While waiting in line, we were asked to fill and sign another undertaking stating that we don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19, are traveling at personal risk and consent to institutional quarantine in India at our own cost. Those who hadn’t printed the original undertaking were given a copy to fill at the airport.

Queue outside Newark airport

My temperature was also taken in this queue and was written on the undertaking. When asked, the medical staff told me that the cutoff to fly was 98.6°F. (For context, the average human temperature is 98.3°F, mine was 98.4°F.)

Next up, the embassy staff inspected our passports and collected the undertakings. Onward to the check-in counter.

The check-in counter was the point at which the normalcy of the airport returned. My bags were weighed. They’re quite strict about the weight-limit. One of my suitcases was slightly overweight (26kgs) and I was asked to reduce 3kgs. I panicked a little bit because I was holding up the line and decided to toss out the first heavy thing I could find – my bag of toiletries. (In retrospect, that was a bad idea because it was liquids that I couldn’t move to my cabin luggage.) On remeasuring, it weighed 24.3 kgs and was accepted. So I got out of that mostly unscathed, just a few lotions/face washes short.

My cabin bag was never weighed and personal item wasn’t questioned. But I may just have been lucky in that regard.

This whole process took well over an hour. Newark airport doesn’t have free trolleys but I highly recommend paying for one. I didn’t and I was exhausted by the time my bags were dropped. If the travellers are senior citizens or need wheelchair assistance, family members are allowed to accompany them till the baggage drop to help with the luggage.

After this, the process was as usual – border patrol inspected my passport, visa and tickets. There was the usual security check and I proceeded to my boarding gate.

In a major moment of panic, I realised my passport hadn’t been stamped. But a quick Google search revealed that passports are no longer stamped on exit from the USA, an electronic record of entries and exits is maintained on your form i-94 (https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/#/home). It takes a couple of days to update, mine has been updated now just over a day later. Phew!

At the boarding gate, thermal testing was done once more and passengers in middle seats were given additional PPE in the form of a full fibre robe. It was finally time to board the plane.

In the flight:

Air India crew welcomed us on board in full PPE. Every seat had a kit containing a mask, face shield and 6 sachets of sanitizer. Meals were kept packaged on all seats as well.

Kits on each seat consisting of food, water, masks etc.

Every time I board a flight and see the middle seat next to me is empty, I do a little prayer that it stays that way. For this one in particular, when they announced boarding was completed and the middle seat was still empty, I was overjoyed.It allowed me quite a bit of social distancing in an otherwise full flight.

I noticed some more empty seats on the flight. In fact the entire row behind mine was empty. I wonder now if they’re doing anything to accommodate emergency cases on these but at that moment, I shamelessly reclined my seat as far back as it would go and settled in for the 15 hours.

Other than mild turbulence, the flight was uneventful. What we think of as flying essentials (think in-flight entertainment, constant snacking, open bars, etc.) was a distant dream.

Contact with the crew is minimum.

Food and water are on your seat already. I found it to be sufficient but I had brought some of my own just to be safe (and also because I wanted my last slice of Artichoke pizza before I said adieu to NYC). The food itself was fine. I had requested a Jain meal, I have no idea if it was honoured or they had a standard meal that could work for everyone. Regardless, this is what it looked like:

Meal 1: A basil-tomato-mozerella sandwich, cheddar cheese and crackers, buttery spread (not butter lol), cookies and cream mousse and no-fat blueberry yoghurt.

Meal 2: Bread roll, buttery spread, blueberry muffin, protein bar, oatmeal and raisin cookies and no-fat blueberry yoghurt.

Snack: Orange juice, Haldiram Aloo Bhujia, fried vegetable straws, butter cookies and Cadbury Dairymilk.

Personally, I thought the food was great. Well, as great as airplane food can get! But if you’re hoping for Air India’s usual piping hot paneer and dal makhani fare, you’re in for disappointment. (For all their flaws, Air India has some of the best airplane food, fight me!)

If you’re a picky eater or for older people who don’t vibe with continental meals, I’d suggest carrying your own food. I would also recommend bringing an empty bottle of water so you can fill it after the security check.

There is no in-flight entertainment to avoid contamination. So download a lot of bingeable Netflix. The seats have a USB charging port for your phone/tablet. No newspapers/magazines are provided, bring your own.

There are no pillows/blankets provided and the flight gets chilly, so bring a light jacket and blanket.

I stayed the hell away from the bathrooms because I had zero desire of contacting anyone’s bodily fluids, pandemic or no pandemic. So I cannot comment on how clean/unclean they were.

I spent the journey drifting in and out of sleep and watching Netflix’s Elite (Spanish Gossip Girl, perfect for mindless bingeing). I also realised how easy quarantine has made sitting in one place for 15 hours straight.

Lastly, we were given a self-declaration to be filled in duplicate with all our details and confirming we don’t have any COVID symptoms.

After landing:

Like clockwork, we landed in Mumbai 15 hours later. Deboarding the plane took longer than usual as they were letting people out in batches.

There are several pitstops at the Mumbai airport. Thermal testing is done once again and you submit the self-declaration filled on the plane to the health ministry officials.

At this point, you must download the Aarogya Setu App and that is checked by the officials to monitor how much of a risk you pose. Having an active Indian SIM card is essential because you need an OTP to sign up.

Even to access the WiFi at the Mumbai airport, you need an OTP.

Those who didn’t have a sim card could purchase one from the Airtel kiosks at the airport. I had mine but it hadn’t been recharged in a year so it wasn’t functional. I had to ask one of my co-passengers for help to connect to the WiFi and recharged my SIM using Google Pay. Don’t make my mistake – recharge your SIM a day in advance 🙂

We then moved on to immigration and baggage claim which was business as usual.

After that we were given a list of hotels we could pick from to quarantine in. The list has the phone numbers of the hotel and you can call to check availability and book. Again, an Indian SIM is a must for this.

I asked if I could quarantine at home as I got a COVID test in the States and the reports were negative. However, I was refused and told home quarantine is only for specific cases such as pregnant women or people coming back for a death in the family.

I chose to quarantine at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai. The tariff is INR 4000 per day inclusive of all taxes and 3 meals.

I was then directed outside the airport where a fleet of BEST buses waited to drive us to our respective hotels. We had to pay INR 100 for the bus fare. They accept cash and Google Pay. Having some Indian currency on hand helps simplify the process a lot. I was lucky I had enough on me to cover my fare and even help a couple others.

After a long and humid bus ride with several pit stops to drop people off, I arrived at Grand Hyatt in Santacruz. The whole payment (INR 28,000) has to be made upfront. Since, I didn’t have enough cash or an Indian card on me, my parents were allowed to come to the lobby and pay for my stay.

Meeting them after a full year, albeit from 6 feet away with only air hugs and flying kisses, was the highlight of my very long day.

I checked in to the hotel and that’s where I am now. Writing to you from a fancy room that I can’t leave for the next week. There’s a set food menu and my meals are brought to me.

View from the room in Grand Hyatt, Santacruz

Arriving at the hotel and taking a long bath, I felt a ball of anxiety unravel from the pit of my stomach. I realised then how stressful the whole ordeal of traveling during a pandemic had been. Even though my experience was pretty positive, I had been harrowed internally by the idea of being in such close proximity with 300 other people for 15 hours. I realised the magnitude of the fear and stress only as I finally felt it dissipate.

It made me extra thankful for embassy officials, Air India’s crew and BMC officials who put their lives on the line every single day just to bring us home. This may sound preachy but it really is something I need to acknowledge.

Please don’t be the person who is a brat on a repatriation flight. People are taking major personal risks just to do their job. Don’t make it harder than it is.

Can’t sleep on a plane without a glass of wine? Stay awake just this once. The power socket on your seat doesn’t work? Put away your phone. Read a book. Look out of the window.

There is a time and place for criticising the government. And there is a time and place for being cooperative.

Yes, this isn’t ideal. None of this is even normal. But at the end of it, you get to come home. And that, to me, is reason enough to be grateful.

If you have any more questions you can ask them in the comment section below.