By Karthik Inzamam Prasad
It happened seven years ago in Surat, Gujarat. My sixth grade hockey team was staying back for practice, and we were taking a break, cooling off beneath the shade. Suddenly, one of my friends went a bit to the side and spat. This odd behaviour from my well-mannered teammate aroused my curiosity, and I questioned him about it. He explained that it was the month of Ramadan, and he wasn’t supposed to swallow anything. I took it as a quirk of his religion and let it go, remembering the several fasts the Hindu aunties in my colony went on every other day.
Looking back, it was probably the first time I consciously realize the difference in people due to their religion. A year later, I chanced upon a magazine which covered the Godhra riots. I was appalled by what I read , the rapes and the cold-blooded murder of innocent people. I began to view the behaviour of my Muslim friends in Surat in a different light. There always were in their own group during school hours, and while no one shunned them, no one seemed to interact much with them either. It was only during hockey practice that I saw them laugh, joke and taunt freely with the rest of the team. This awareness made me realize the prejudice towards the Muslim community , and from then on, I became conscious of it.
That such prejudice still existed in our so-called ‘secular’ India seemed incomprehensible to me at that time. Over the years, I came to realise that it wasn’t out in the open, at least not in urban educated society. No, this prejudice lay under the skin, and was generally not shown in public. It came out among close friends and family, their views discussed and justified without anyone judging them.
Given the odd nature of my name, I’ve experienced this prejudice firsthand. Of course, most people are cautious enough not to question my religion directly, but in a roundabout manner. Were my parents cricket fans, that I was named after a former captain of the Pakistani cricket team? Different questions, in the same casual manner, all veiling the real question lying behind it – was I a Muslim? No, I would reply. Both my parents were Hindus. I remember a certain incident which occurred during my coaching classes in the 11th grade. Our classes were held after school hours, with two of my classmates and I staying back. Our physics teacher had a habit of making small talk during our breaks. He was in his thirties, with greasy long locks of hair and an annoying habit of chewing and spitting ‘Paan’. On that particular day, he began talking about his views on religion, Islam in particular. Muslims, he proclaimed, were the root of all our troubles. Rape, corruption, et cetera was all their fault. They should have gone to Pakistan, and those who remained should have been thrown out . One of my classmates asked whether he watched the movies of Muslim actors in Bollywood, in an attempt to get him to shut up. No, my teacher revealed. He never watched a Shah Rukh Khan movie, he said, because he believed that Khan helped fund Muslim terrorists in Pakistan and India. We sat there quietly, the three of us, listening to this educated man, with a degree from an IIT rant about his paranoid ideas. It was with a hint of glee and malice in his voice that my classmate brought up the fact that my middle name was ‘Inzamam’ (People generally used the easier and shorter ‘Karthik’). I quite enjoyed watching his face pale with apprehension. It made me wonder, that if an educated man in a position to influence children’s thoughts and ideas behaved like this, what about the rest of uneducated India?
Given the threat to the free world with the formation of the Islamic state, I have debated a question with my friends. Is this prejudice justified? No, was my conclusion. What about the terrorists attacks, a friend questioned. Every religion has its fanatics, and through certain circumstances (like the Russian invasion of Afghanistan leading to the formation of Al Qaeda), it just happens that Muslim fanatics are more prominent and inflict more damage than the rest. Isn’t the Holocaust and the ‘ethnically cleansing’ later in the Balkans a reminder that the problem lies in human nature, and religion is merely used as an excuse? To say that ‘Muslims’ in general were responsible for terrorist attacks would be a ridiculous thing to say. If, in a hypothetical situation, a study claimed that most rapists in India were Hindus, would that cause you to shun those that practised Hinduism or feel ashamed for practising that religion?
It is a sad fact that this prejudice is passed onto the young by their elders. While returning home in the school bus in Surat, a young boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, asked me if I was a Hindu and if I ate non-veg. On saying that I was a Hindu, and that I was a vegetarian, he happily sat next to me, and chattered away, while my 11-year-old self wondered whether I should mention that I still ate desserts made with eggs. That a child so young should be affected by a prejudice he has no idea about, and the fact that he would probably grow up to spread it to his own children without actually knowing why, seems to me a horrible tragedy and a mark of shame on our society. Even a few members of my extended family often speak quietly about the ‘M’ word while talking, away from the children.
Four years ago, we were told in school that if any of us wanted to change our names, we should do it then, because our class X report cards bearing our names would be important and would have to be shown for any college or job interview we went for. I remember an aunt of mine calling up and advising me to remove the ‘Inzamam’ from my name .I like my name, I replied. It’s unique. All that is fine, she said, but what if you want to go abroad for your studies or a job?
Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t change my name. In some ways, it stands what I believe in. A secular society, free of prejudice in any form. Over the years, I have lost touch with my team-mates back in Surat. But whenever I hear about any communal clashes, I remember them and their families and their easy acceptance of me. I remember the vegetarian food that was cooked specially for me when I was invited to their house for Eid, and the smile with my friend’s mother served it to me. I remember, and I hope, like many others, for the day that such prejudice ceases and we see each other for what we truly are – just human beings.