CBC TV recently played a four part documentary on India called India Reborn. The series was well done and diverse demonstrating India to be a paradox of a country. From filthy, filthy rich people to the dirt poor, India is a country of all colours, figuratively and literally. India also has the second largest Muslim population in the world, with the largest being Indonesia. Yet, Muslims are still a relatively small minority in the country. That is why I was quite interested in seeing how the documentary presented the Muslims of the country, if they did at all. With news in recent years of rising anti-Muslim sentiment and actions, it made sense when the documentary did indeed address the issue of communal violence and tensions.
The relations between Hindus and Muslims are eluded to many times throughout the series. In the first episode, entitled Might and Myth, we hear the very popular and whimsical politician Lalu Prasad Yadav, mentioning to reporters that as the current month is a holy month in which worship takes place both Hindus and Muslims will be participating. A sign of the beauty of India he says. Being South Asian myself and having been exposed to Indian media, I’ve heard this mantra of love and brotherhood often. I have always felt that it hinted at a struggle within India itself and among the various religious communities. A struggle to keep the fragile relationship between Hindus and Muslims peaceful and respectful. This message seems not only a statement about the realities of peace between Muslims and Hindus in many parts of India, as I know many do live in peace and harmony and as demonstrated in the documentary with Hindus and Muslims partaking in the predominantly Hindu garba dancing, but also a hopeful self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts in those areas that are not so peaceful. A sort of “if we say it enough times it will become true.”
In the first part we are introduced to Sharifa Cheeba, a Gujrati Muslim woman, who has experienced the ugliness of Hindu-Muslim violence and hate. A woman who grew up with Hindu neighbours who were like family now expresses her anguish about not being able to live in that same environment. Sharifa tells of how during the Gujrat riots of 2002 her Hindu neighbours, with whom they were previously close, told her and her family to get out of the neighbourhood and robbed their home. They were told that Muslims did not belong in the neighbourhood. In her recounting of what happened Sharifa’s pain and sadness if clear. Her longing for the days of peace can be heard in her voice. And in this sad story Sharifa brings up an important and disturbing point – the impact on the children. The children, she says, have been left feeling as if India is not for them, as if being Muslim is a sin. She also notes that India is her home and her birth place. This despite Gujrat having the largest Muslim ghetto in India. However, Sharifa’s story demonstrates a sad and devastating reality of India – that of being a marginalized minority. Not only does her experience show the fear and vulnerability that many minorities, specifically Muslims, live in, but also the constant negotiation of identity. Despite being in India for centuries many Muslims are often forced to question their Indian-ness. Their loyalty to the country is questioned and their authenticity is doubted. This leaves, as Sharifa notes, confusion in the minds of Muslims growing up in India. Are they really Indians? And if not, then what else are they? They know no other home. To be made to feel like an alien in one’s own home can lead to feelings of vulnerability, loneliness, and loss. Something one has known as familiar has now become foreign.
To add insult to injury, and adding to my own sense of growing unease, we are next introduced to the Hindu nationalist group, the RSS, gathering in a field for what seems to be a rally and militaristic training. All are dressed in one uniform listening to the hate filled speeches of their leaders. The volunteers of the RSS, as well as onlookers, listen while Muslims are called demons and monsters who are an evil threat to Hindus. Referred to, by the narrator, as one of “the most powerful forces in India today” the men desire India to go from a secular country as it is, to a strictly Hindu one. No Muslims allowed. Such is their power that even on Eid in Ahmedabad, Gujrat’s major city, the mosques require police protection.
One particular member, Babu Bajrangi, a participant in the Gujrat riots, was caught on video in 2007, talking about his part in the riots, and it is chilling. As a Muslim I felt goosebumps as I listened to his boasting about killing Muslims.
We didn’t spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire. We set them on fire and killed them…I can’t tell you what a good time it was.
They shouldn’t be allowed to breed. I say that even today. Nothing to be done with them but cut them down.
As the backdrop for his words, India Reborn presents images of burn victims, children and adults, lying in hospital beds, the victims of Bajrangi and his kind’s “good time.” It’s enough to make one sick. But the horror is that this Hindu nationalist group holds political power in Gujrat, a state with many Muslims, and the fear is always there, as the narrator tells us, of renewed violence and killing. With the RSS’s call to arms against the Muslim enemy, such fears seem valid.
But of course, as India is a diverse country, there will be the good with the bad. And in the episode entitled Manufacturing Dreams we meet, in the small, predominantly Muslim town of Malegaon located close to Mumbai, Farooq Jafri, a poor and struggling writer and actor with hopes of making it big in Bollywood. With the help of his friend Sheikh Nasir they film social issue films for the entertainment as well as education of local people. Although the focus is on his films and dreams, the tensions between Hindus and Muslims are brought up here too. Except here we see different consequences. After a bomb ripped through a local mosque 3 years ago killing many mosque goers, there was no retaliation nor further violence. As Sheikh Nasir puts it, Hindus and Muslims joined together to denounce the violence. He sees this as an example of the love between Hindus and Muslims. And like a true filmmaker Nasir expresses his desire to make a film about the unity of Hindus and Muslims by using the local looms, owned by Muslims who sell their goods to Hindus, as a metaphor, therefore demonstrating their interdependence.
This interdependence hangs in stark contrast to the Hindu nationalist party in Gujrat, thus demonstrating the diversity of a country like India. On the one hand people live in constant fear of their safety, and in another they have aspirations to show the world how well Hindus and Muslims get along. Both appear to be realities in today’s India and depict an aspect of the paradox. From the documentary it was clear that along with many other struggles, the Hindu-Muslim tension is an ever present one. Appearing as a theme in two episodes one gets a sense that it is on the minds of many Muslims in India. Despite the examples of peace and harmony, the fact that Muslims are a marginalized minority appeared obvious in the documentary. Such findings match previous ones. The Council on Foreign Relations states:
The Muslim literacy rate ranks well below the national average and Muslim poverty rates are only slightly higher than low-caste Hindus, according to a November 2006 government report (PDF). Muslims—mostly Sunnis—make up 13.4 percent of India’s population, yet hold fewer than 5 percent of government posts and make up only 4 percent of the undergraduate student body in India’s elite universities. The report also found that Muslims fall behind other groups in terms of access to credit, despite the fact that Muslims are self-employed at a far higher rate than other groups.
And BBC reported:
Indian Muslims are also largely illiterate and poor.
At just under 60%, the community’s literacy rate if lower than the national average of 65%. Only half of Muslim women can read and write. As many as a quarter of Muslim children in the age-group 6-14 have either never attended school or dropped out.
They are also poor – 31% of Muslims are below the country’s poverty line, just a notch above the lowest castes and tribes who remain the poorest of the poor.
And indeed that Muslims were poor and disadvantaged also became apparent. Whether this was an oversight of the filmmakers or a reflection of reality, this absence was not lost on me.
The tensions between Hindus and Muslims were documented in the film. Of course, the history behind the tensions was not provided but the fact that the tensions remain, and in some cases are worsening, is worrisome in and of itself regardless of history. One may accuse the documentary of exaggerating the issues, but considering other sources can corroborate the information I was glad to see this reality. In a country that is trying to reinvent itself it seems that it is not including certain segments of its population in this makeover. Such neglect can only further marginalize. And although some may see this as airing India’s dirty laundry in public, the reality is that no country has a good record regarding marginalized populations, but India, in all its re-branding needs to pay attention to this segment of the population they are trying to sell to the world.