Posts Tagged ‘India’

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.”

Sharifa Cheeba. Image via CBC

Sharifa Cheeba. Image via CBC

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.

Farooq Jafri. Image via CBC.

Farooq Jafri. Image via CBC.

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.


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Ahmadzai. Image via Toronto Star

Ahmadzai. Image via Toronto Star

It seems that when writing about Muslims in media, authors often not only show an ignorance of Muslims and Islam, but also of the countries they travel too. Recently the Toronto Star reported on the case of Sabra Ahmadzai, a young Afghani woman whose Indian husband, an Indian soldier stationed in Afghanistan, has left her and returned to India, to his first wife. A first wife she knew nothing about. She now has followed him to India to get a divorce but is facing obstacles.

The Star reports:

Two years ago, Ahmadzai married an Indian army doctor who was assigned to a Kabul military hospital. Twenty days after the marriage, he returned to India, vowing to come back for her. But after leaving, he informed Ahmadzai he had a wife and children back home and was never going to return.

She decided to go to India and file a criminal complaint against him.

In India she has created quite the stir with her story being featured on TV and in newspapers and supporters blocking traffic for hours.

The story of a woman following a man to another country to get justice is impressive in itself regardless of their nationalities or religions. Although we do not know the situation of her husband, Maj. Chandrashekhar Pant, it seems in this case, a man in a position of power took advantage of a young woman he knew he could walk away from. Whether clueless or sexist, or both, he underestimated the agency and courage of this young woman, as well as the attention and outrage this incident would create in his own country. And this is why I was so disappointed in the manner The Toronto Star reported the story.

South Asia Bureau correspondent Rick Westhead seems to not understand the region of the world on which he is responsible to report. In describing India he says:

This is a very conservative country, slow to change. Dowry, female bondage and forced prostitution are common in some parts of India, especially rural areas.

Can someone say generalizations? He states that such practices are common without any evidence and we, as readers, are expected to take his word for it. Slow to change? Ask any ex-pat Indian about their visits to India and one of the first things they will tell you is how amazed they are at how much the country has changed. Dowry is a complex issue. Although the concept of dowry can be quite problematic, when the pressures to provide more than a family can afford lead to financial troubles, there are many times when it can work. Along with dowry he mentions female bondage, though he does not define the concept. What does he mean by female bondage? If he means slavery of any sort then he need not go all the way to India to find it. Canada and the US have their own female slaves, being illegally trafficked into the country from around the world and working in the Canadian and American sex industries. Its not so uncommon here either. As for forced prostitution, my understanding is that the majority of prostitution is forced. There may be some, very few, women who truly chose to be prostitutes (this is very rare), but for the most part, wherever in the world one goes, women will not chose prostitution. Economics and societal conditions force women into prostitution, including here in Canada.

He continues:

But a growing middle class is rethinking traditional attitudes.

He seems a little late. Cultures are always changing. This statement makes it seems as if Indian culture was static until now. Not to mention implying that female bondage and forced prostitution are traditional Indian attitudes! Being South Asian myself I missed that part of my traditional culture. I’ve always been told that our traditions teach us to respect women, not place them in bondage or force them into prostitution. No culture has female bondage and prostitution as part of their traditions.

Indian culture is painted as problematic in this piece. No doubt there are elements in Indian culture that may be problematic, but what culture doesn’t have that? The generalizations about India and the assumptions about the cultural traditions are disturbing and paint an inaccurate and insulting picture of the country. And unnecessarily so. Ahmadzai herself appears to be a determined woman upon whose experiences Westhead should have focused.

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