I was born into a Hindu family and, for the first 16 years of my life, I dutifully practiced the same faith as them. As I grew up though, I began to feel detached from my religion and found myself moving to a more agnostic/confused position of faith. I still passively participated in all the rituals that are a norm in a religious, Brahmin Hindu family. But, deep down I stopped identifying as Hindu. For a few years, I lived in this state of religious limbo. This state of limbo included some time spent studying and living overseas – a time when I had the opportunity to settle there. But, of course, I chose to come back to India, my beloved country.
All this while, my name – and the privilege it brought along – meant that I could afford to benefit from perks of being a Hindu Brahmin male in India without really ever understanding how it feels to be on the other side of the rope. Despite not being a religious person, never visiting a temple or, praying to any Hindu deity, my name and the unspoken entitlement it brought, made me comfortably oblivious to the discrimination that others – who didn’t come from the same privilege – face.
That was, until I changed my faith and converted to Islam.
I won’t get into why I embraced Islam and the story behind it, because I don’t want this to turn into a Hinduism vs Islam debate. That is not what this story is about. Although, I have full faith (nod to irony) that it will eventually become about that in some way. That unfortunately, is one of the many things wrong with our society today. In fact, it’s the main reason I’m choosing to remain anonymous as the writer here. Anyway, I did what I did because I had the freedom to religious expression – and I exercised it. A freedom that the great constitution of India, morphed by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar – provides me. Incidentally, Dr. Ambedkar himself had faced discrimination on the lines of caste and denounced Hinduism to adopt Buddhism. But then again, this isn’t about Hindusim vs Buddhism either. This story is about how my life suddenly changed, how my privilege suddenly vapourised and how discrimination – from the farthest, closest, expected and most unexpected quarters – came crashing down on me, the moment I stopped being a Hindu. No, wait, the moment I started being a Muslim.
It’s incredible to suddenly learn that having a Muslim name in India is, at the very outset, an impediment. If it were a race, then imagine all names standing at the start line and the ‘Muslim sounding’ names standing a couple of paces back. Because as soon as you tell someone your first name, pat comes the question, “are you Muslim?” That’s where the discrimination begins. I imagine Dalits/lower caste Hindus face something similar but are instead asked about their surname and the follow-up question, “what caste?” Why is this discrimination? Because the moment someone asks you this, even before you answer, they are doing a mathematics of segregation, assumption and prejudice in their mind. Rest assured, the rest of the conversation will be in some shape of form influenced by this aspect and, more often than not, the influence will not be a positive one.
The discrimination is more subtle from those who know me from before. For example, if I want to grow a beard, just because I think it’s cool to do so, a friend would casually remark, “Haan ab toh dadhi rakhega hi (You will of course, grow a beard now).” Or, if before the latest cricket World Cup match between India and Pakistan I say that I’m not sure if India is in the kind of form to maintain their perfect record against their neighbours then someone would be quick to ask me if I’m secretly hoping India underperforms and Pakistan wins? Most recently, someone who knows well that I’m a vegetarian made a point to ask me every few days if I have started eating meat now. Then, there are the relatives – distant and not so distant- who make sure they drop the sympathetic, sombre line about how I have “taken an extreme step” and “not thought about my family”. It’s worth noting that my family is 100% supportive of my decision – to the point of my mother offering to get up at 3.30 a.m. during the last Ramzan to make Sehri for me. An offer I declined while my insides swelled up with extreme pride and love for her.
However, it’s the more blatant and, at times, aggressive prejudice which bothers me most. Some people who know about my past get questioning, demeaning and argumentative to the point of being confrontational about my new faith. They come across like I owed them the allegiance of faith and I’ve done a disservice, a great betrayal by joining the ‘enemy’ ranks. They ask me who has “misguided me” and tell me how “these things can lead to riots”. These are all affluent and well-educated people who justify religious genocide with their tit-for-tat reasoning. They casually say things like “Muslims are dirty and dangerous”. Then they pause for a second to realize I’m a Muslim now too and make it worse by saying, “I hope you also don’t become like the rest of them.”
It bothers me because I was 16 when I realized I don’t identify as a Hindu anymore, and it was a full 12 years before I became a Muslim. In those 12 years, whenever I told someone that I didn’t relate to Hinduism anymore, they’d give me a comforting, warm response about finding my own way and taking my own time to “understand things”. In the last two years, since I have adopted Islam, the same people have distanced themselves from me, abused me and at times, even threatened me – when all I have actually done is try and find my way and chosen my own means to understand things.
So, if a person like me has faced all these and many more forms of discrimination, alienation and intimidation in only two years of being a Muslim, I can only imagine what people who grow up and spend their entire lives as someone from a minority community, or a lower caste, face. Some of them also have to struggle against class, but many are affluent and well placed, much like myself, and yet, the discrimination they face is just as ever-present. The constant fear they live in is just as palpable. Just as real.
Yes, it is the great constitution and freedom in India, which gave me the ability to choose my own faith. Yet, the attitude of people living in the same India is now making me question my faith – not in the religion I have chosen, but in this great country that I have grown up calling home. Can I really spend the rest of my life surrounded by the same type of fear and resentment – simply because I made my own choices? Can I honestly hope to start a family, to raise children in my own country without worrying constantly about their social and physical well-being?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. So, I’d like to ask you a question instead.
If the India that I grew up loving – the one I came back to when I had the opportunity to spend the rest of my life overseas – is no longer the India that exists, then am I to continue living here, amidst fear, resentment and hate? Should I never consider leaving, because if I did, you would call me anti-national – even though it is you who has made my India a shadow of its former free and glorious self?