The Indian Muslim’s agony of being the “other” among our own

The Muslim in India.
The Muslim in India.
Image: Reuters/Brijesh Singh
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I cannot put a date to exactly when it happened, but gradually, over many years, people around me began to identify me as “Muslim.” This was “new” and, I suppose, the beginning of a process which placed me with the “Other.”

Firaq Gorakhpuri has a wonderful couplet to describe the phenomenon: “It needed prescience but we were growing lonely in a crowded world.”

In 1990, the late Vinod Mehta, distinguished editor, author of Lucknow Boy, and a friend of at least sixty years, beginning with school, invited me to write a column for his magazine from a “Muslim perspective.”

I glared at him. Et tu, Vinod? We had grown up knowing each other’s families, enjoying the same food, books, movies, played sports on the same grounds and waited on Saturdays with bated breath for the well-groomed ladies of Isabella Thoburn College to troop onto the pavements of Hazratganj. Our differences, if any, were about Jeeves and Blandings Castle—we would argue about which sequence of books was funnier.

And now, as editor, Vinod was slotting me with the “Other.” In a sense, I suppose he was following a trend because of the way things had worked out after independence. If the country were to keep up the pretence of secularism, and equality, it needed the “Other,” although those of us who ‘belonged’ to this category seemed to be in short supply…

Another reality dawned on me. In a fifty-year career no Muslim had ever helped me strategically and for a good reason: after Partition Muslims seldom reached positions from which they could dispense favours. One or two who did were cautious, averse to helping members of their community. That would open them to the charge of nepotism or communal bias…

And yet, it could have all been so different. In the course of the book, I have investigated the major missteps that took place after Independence and pointed out in some instances how matters could have been better handled. But only rarely did the political and personal will of our tallest leaders rise above electoral, sectarian considerations. And their personal ambitions.

If enough people in power had decided to take a different path, things would have been radically different. Of that I am convinced, after decades of being an observer and citizen of the subcontinent.

On the ground, people would have responded positively to the idea of coming together, even if strategic or other considerations had driven them apart…

Why have our politicians, power-brokers, ordinary citizens, failed to reach out, to bridge the divide between Hindus and Muslims.

In Allahabad University, during the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, I put a simple question to the packed audience consisting of teachers and students, almost equally divided between Hindus and Muslims. “Have the Hindus in this audience ever seen the inside of a Muslim home?”

One or two murmured “my father knew Persian” or “my mother cooks chicken” as evidence of his or her emancipation from religious parochialism. But, no, none of them had ever been to a Muslim home.

Likewise, the Muslims in the gathering had never visited a Hindu home. At that moment, a truth hit me between my eyes. We have lived in a state of un-institutionalized apartheid for decades, even centuries…

The Muslim as the “Other” hit home particularly hard one day in 1996 when our maid, Ganga, asked my wife to join her in the kitchen to talk about something “in private.”

The Indian cricket team was then in the quarter-finals of the ongoing World Cup. She said, “My husband and I were watching TV last night and wondered which team you and sahib favoured.” My wife, a teacher by instinct and profession, patiently explained the story of partition and how there were many more Muslims in India than in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, Rangili, the young girl who helps Ganga, teased Jamil, our driver: “Teri team haar gayi (your team has lost).” Jamil, never short of words, shot back: “Agar meri team haar gayi, to teri team ka kaptaan Pakistani hai (If it is my team which has lost, then the captain of your team is a Pakistani).” The Indian cricket team captain at the time was Mohammad Azharuddin. This completely foxed Rangili, who marched off to Ganga’s quarters complaining that Jamil had described the captain of the victorious Indian team as a Pakistani.

Jamil was in the dock. Ganga, who is a “Nepali” from Darjeeling, embarked on a mock trial of Jamil. Her husband Jagdish joined in.

“But are you not a Muslim?” Rangili asked cheekily.

“Yes, but not a Pakistani,” Jamil replied.

“Muslims are Pakistanis,” Rangili persisted.

“Azharuddin is also a Muslim,” Jamil said.

My wife furnished more data. “Azharuddin, who received an award as captain of the winning team, is a Muslim; Sidhu, the man of the match, is a Sikh; Vinod Kambli, who hit a century in the previous match, is a Christian.”

Ganga eyed my wife suspiciously, “You mean the Hindu did nothing?”

My wife was beginning to lose patience. “An Indian team is an Indian team. There are no Muslim or Hindu teams in our country,” she asserted.

Ganga found this illogical. “If the Pakistani team is a Muslim team, why should the Indian team not be a Hindu team?”

Ganga’s logic gave Jamil yet another opening. “If you want a Hindu team, you cannot have Azharuddin as captain.”

Jagdish intervened aggressively, “If having Azharuddin as a captain means that we cannot have a Hindu team, we should not have him as captain.” This angered Jamil.

“Who are you to remove Azharuddin? In fact, you should shut up because you are a Nepali.” “But I am a Hindu,” Jagdish continued.

“Does a Nepali Hindu have more rights in India than an Indian Muslim?” Jamil asked fuming…

Alarm bells are ringing—India needs to affirm its commitment to pluralism, diversity, and religious harmony and not pander to politicians—whether from the left-of-centre Congress or the right-of-centre BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party).

Excerpted from Being the Other: The Muslim in India by Saeed Naqvi, with permission from Rupa & Co. We welcome your comments at