When the Editor asks, ‘Is the Divide Deepening?’, I do not find myself thinking immediately of the depressingly familiar tragedies that must have prompted his question—the communal rioting, mob lynchings and cow vigilantism that have scarred our society—nor even the manufactured controversies over hijab, halal meat and azaan on loudspeakers that have recently served to marginalise our country’s Muslim minority. Instead, I find myself thinking of three seemingly trivial anecdotes that came to my attention in recent weeks, which illustrated the divide more directly, if less starkly, for me.
Episode One: In Jaipur recently, I met a blonde Lebanese lady who had been coming to India for 15 years to deal in handicrafts and jewellery. Visibly foreign, she had been warmly welcomed in the past; when she introduced herself as Nour, people would say, “Oh, what a lovely name! We have the same name in India! We know it means ‘light’!” Today, she says, things have changed. When she says her name is Nour, the reaction she gets is immediate: “Oh, you are Muslim?” The question, and the tone of the query, says it all. She is less sure now that she will be coming back as often.
Episode Two: A former Indian ambassador, who had enjoyed something of a reputation during his MEA career as a hawk on Pakistan and on Islamist terrorism, told me of a friend of his, an eminent surgeon in Kabul. The surgeon, alarmed by the rising influence of the Taliban in his country, decided, at this ambassador’s prompting, to send his wife and children to India (not Pakistan!) to live and study, free from resurgent Islamic fundamentalism. They rented a flat in Gurgaon, enrolled in a good school. But within a year they realised this was no longer the India the surgeon had remembered when he took his decision. The most painful blow came when the children’s playmates in their apartment building announced to them, “Our parents told us not to play with you because you are Muslim.” My ambassador friend, in shock and despair, said he advised the surgeon, “Take your children to Dubai or London. I am ashamed that I encouraged you to bring them up in my country.”
Episode Three: An Indian at the United Nations, an experienced peace negotiator who had served in many trouble spots across the Middle East, found himself in an Arab country in a tense meeting with an Islamic militant, complete with beard, turban and Kalashnikov. The ice broke: even though it was Ramadan, the militant lit up, offered the UN man a cigarette, laughed and joked expansively as they discussed a thorny issue. Then he asked, almost casually: “And where are you from?” When the UN official said “India”, the mood changed instantly. “India? I have heard how you are treating Muslims there. Get out, UN man, or I will not be responsible for what happens to you.” The UN official tried to remonstrate that the militant was misinformed, as did the European UN official accompanying him, but the militant would not be mollified. His sources, he said, were multiple: he might be a militant, but he read and watched the world media. The meeting was over. The Indian got out by the skin of his teeth.
Yes, I am aware of the limitations of analysis by anecdote. But these three unrelated and disconnected incidents, all of which came to my notice in a span of two or three weeks, reveal the extent to which the communal divide has deepened in our society. The toxin that has been injected into our body politic, in pursuit of the petty political goal of communal polarisation, has inevitably had repercussions that go far beyond the specific electoral gains that might accrue to the forces spreading the poison. It has envenomed our society, turning India into something it never was.
What has changed can be anatomised. Things are now being said from public platforms, and recorded and widely distributed via social media, that in the past would have been considered inappropriate to say even behind closed doors in your living room. Bigotry is openly expressed and hate speech has become so commonplace that it no longer arouses comment. There was a time when India’s central and state governments went out of their way to set an example of communal harmony and convey public disapproval of its opposite. Today, the authorities hardly ever raise their voice to condemn such utterances and, if violence follows, take no action against those who instigate it, provided they belong to the “majority community”.
I grew up in an India where the “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb” was celebrated and “national integration” was a slogan and a practice. Today, nationalism is equated with majoritarianism and integration implies only submission to the dominant community’s narrative.
In my childhood, “entertainment tax” used to be waived on films like Amar Akbar Anthony, the tale of three toddlers separated in infancy who are brought up as Hindu, Muslim and Christian and unite at the end to defeat the bad guys. Today, it is waived on a film like The Kashmir Files whose screenings end in patrons baying for revenge against Muslims.
In the India the world knew, Indians were treated with respect and honour across the Muslim world, not least because they were seen as a land that Muslims proudly hailed as their own. Today, Indians are associated with the persecution of Muslims and rampant Islamophobia.
There was a time when we would boast with pride to foreigners that despite having 180 million Muslims in India, only a handful of Indian Muslims had joined the Taliban, Al-Qaida or Daesh, because Indian Muslims had a strong sense of belonging to India and a stake in its success. Today, the talk is increasingly of a fearful and alienated minority, of Muslims choosing to leave India wherever they have the option and others being radicalised, not by Islamist preachings, but by their own experiences in India. Intelligence officers now assume that the receptivity to extremism is growing.
The communal divide is not just deepening; it has poisoned our society and is transmuting it for the worse, unleashing unpredictable consequences and untold dangers for all of us. The era of national integration is over; we can only hope our rulers find enough wisdom to prevent an era of national disintegration.
𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘢𝘶𝘵𝘩𝘰𝘳 𝘪𝘴 𝘢 𝘓𝘰𝘬 𝘚𝘢𝘣𝘩𝘢 𝘔𝘗 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘳𝘶𝘷𝘢𝘯𝘢𝘯𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘱𝘶𝘳𝘢𝘮, 𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘪𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘯 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘗𝘢𝘳𝘭𝘪𝘢𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘚𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘥𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘊𝘰𝘮𝘮𝘪𝘵𝘵𝘦𝘦 𝘰𝘯 𝘐𝘯𝘧𝘰𝘳𝘮𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘛𝘦𝘤𝘩𝘯𝘰𝘭𝘰𝘨