Her terrified scream echoed shrilly in the closed space of the car. They were everywhere, the mass of white-clad bodies. They had surrounded the car from all sides. Most of the faces had long beards and black marks on their foreheads. She had spent many nights imagining the horns that grew on that spot. They had finally found her too.
She felt panic grip her heart, squeezing it tight. Her skin broke into goosebumps. Her short hair was sticky with sweat. She ducked under the backseat of the car, and uttered the words that were choking her throat. ‘The Muslims are coming…They will kill us!’
Arshia Shah and Harris Alvi turned around in surprise to look at their five-year-old daughter, Azania. They couldn’t hold back their laughter.
Azania had just started school in a posh South Delhi locality. She knew she was an Indian, but not that she was a Muslim. She knew of Allah. But not that only Muslims believed in Allah. What is a good age to tell a child that she belongs to a particular religion? When does a child begin to associate the sound of a name with a particular religion? These were not questions Arshia and Harris had asked of themselves.
The couple had set out on an extended weekend break to Aligarh with their little girl for the annual visit to the grandparents. Their route took in many small towns that dotted western Uttar Pradesh. It was noon, and the Friday jamaat, prayer congregation, was dispersing from a masjid in one such small town. Th e road was crowded with cars and worshippers who were heading back home. Clad in pearly white kurta-pyjama and skullcaps, they walked and talked happily, with the words of the khutbah, the Friday sermon, still on their minds. Little did they know that inside a hatchback on that road a terrified five-year-old was cowering under the back seat as she screamed again to emphasize the urgency, ‘The Muslims are coming!’
Azania’s parents’ first reaction had been amusement at the irony of a Muslim child cowering in fear of Muslims. They comforted her and told her there was nothing to fear. They urged her to look out of the window and see for herself that none of the men on the road were carrying weapons or seemed angry or had even noticed her. Azania calmed down. Her parents giggled. But underneath the laughter lurked some serious questions. A silence permeated the car for the rest of the trip.
Arshia had no idea from where Azania had picked up the word Muslim and the stereotypes associated with it. Could it be at her playgroup or nursery school? The little girl had clearly internalized that Muslims were violent. How do you tell a fi ve-year-old that she is what she fears?
A buoyant group outside on the road. A bewildered child inside the car. And a set of parents unable to figure out where to start talking about the elephant in the room: Islam.
Not quite knowing how to deal with this, Arshia didn’t talk to Azania during that trip. She wanted to find the right moment for both herself and her daughter. But she didn’t have to wait. Azania found out the truth about herself soon after.
My neighbour Arifa, a forty-five-year-old art curator, is the mother of two boys, who studied in the Lotus Valley International School on the Noida–Greater Noida expressway. A major terrorist attack had occurred the night before. Saad, her ten-year-old younger son, was then in class 5. In his classroom, the newspaper was lying on the teacher’s desk as the students waited for their English class to start. The teacher walked in, picked up the newspaper and read aloud the headlines about the attack to the class. ‘What is happening in the world!’ she exclaimed with a sigh as she sat down. Suddenly, one of the students called out Saad’s name loudly. ‘Saaad, yeh kya kar diya tumne? [What did you do, Saaad?]’
There was silence in the class. The words stuck in Saad’s throat. He felt all eyes on him, waiting for him to say something. He was hot and angry. But he couldn’t find the words to retaliate. The question settled uncomfortably in the classroom, filling the air with tension. Th rough the incident, the teacher did not bother to look up. ‘I kept waiting for my teacher to react and scold the classmate, but she didn’t react. She kept sitting there in front of us without saying a word. After a while she stood up and began the class. I was silent, I didn’t respond and kept sitting there. I didn’t really know what to do.’
Arifa says the unmistakable changes came in after the national election campaigns in 2014. ‘People just became very in-your-face with their feelings about Muslims. And this I noticed was being reflected in their children at school. Bullying had always existed, but it was different before, largely comprising childish rebukes and stupid, dumb things being said to each other in schools. This has changed now. When a Muslim student is bullied it is on pronounced religious lines. Now he is called Baghdadi, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or simply a terrorist. Everyone’s speech is borrowed from the language used in the news [channels].’
While such slurs have been used since the 1990s, the tone and intensity have changed, especially over the last five years. Earlier the remarks were innocuous and infrequent. Now they occur more often and are marked by hostility rather than humour. Not that humour justifies the taunts. It shows how deeply entrenched the association of a Muslim to terror is. The context is different now and possibly feeds on the changes – global terrorism in the name of Islam has increased dramatically over the last fifteen years with ISIL (or ISIS) alone responsible for 95 per cent of deaths from claimed terrorist attacks.
At the same time, the past decade has seen a rise in Hindu right-wing sentiment within India and a slew of distorted narratives that portray Muslims as invaders, anti-national and a threat to national security. These took centre stage in the run-up to the polarizing national elections of 2014. From my conversations with many others across the country, it seems this consciousness has now been handed down to the children of our country.
Excerpted with the permission of Juggernaut from the book “Mothering A Muslim” by Nazia Erum.
You can buy the book here