The recent arrest of two young girls in Maharashtra - Shaheen Dhada and Rinu Srinivasan - for posting and liking a Facebook comment questioning the shutdown in Mumbai for Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray's funeral reminded me of an incident that happened a few years after Independence and
It was 1952 and I was playing in a neighbourhood park when some children coerced me into telling them my name. I use the word 'coerce' deliberately here because I could feel it and I also knew what would happen if I told them my name. So I tried to avoid saying "Syeda". But when they persisted, I mumbled my name, hoping that they would hear it as "Sarita" and let me go. But they heard it right. And then the verdict: "We won't play with her, she is a Muslim." This happened to me more than once, and every time, I would go back home ashamed and scared.
The experience went on to become a public issue after a story I wrote - 'You have to learn to make friends' - was published in Shankar's Weekly and received international acclaim. It was beautifully illustrated by an Argentinian artist who was moved to tears after reading it. Later, Rajkamal Publications turned it into a lovely little book and published it in three languages.
I dedicated the book to Jawaharlal Nehru and K Shankar Pillai, the famous cartoonist and editor of Shankar's Weekly. Zakir Hussain, who later went on to become President of India, wrote the foreword for the book and the story was reproduced in the Unesco Courier. Khushwant Singh quoted from it in many of his writings and still reminds me that it is my best piece of writing. The prime minister gave me an award at a glittering ceremony that made front-page news.
In the forward, Husain wrote: "How I wish that this simple little story, which has beauty of childhood, can help people understand each other and that they may thus become imbued with true humanity which is above considerations of time or space". His words made a lasting impression on many readers.
I received many letters of support and encouragement from many people, Indians and foreigners, cutting across social and religious lines. These healing touches and my friends helped me slowly forget that sour experience and it never marred my growing years.
The first blow to that confidence was the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the second was the Gujarat carnage in 1992 and 2002. Thousands of innocents were killed and in both cases, the State was complicit in violation of the rights of citizens; although in many cases it has tried to rescue, rehabilitate and compensate the victims.
The third blow is the Shaheen Dhada case. Her story is all too well known for me to recount here in detail again. But while we discuss the issue, it is very important to look at the gender and communal dimensions of the action of the police. That Dhada is a Muslim had something to do with what happened to her; her arrest and the ransacking of her uncle's clinic.
This incident, I am afraid, will leave a lasting impact on both the girls. The Muslim girl, who has now been identified, lives in fear. Will she ever feel free to use social media? More importantly, will she ever live and breathe like any other citizen in this democracy?
However, let's not only blame the Shiv Sainiks for creating this trouble; the local police was equally responsible for it. The incident raises many questions about religion, gender, social media and the new information technology laws.
As a child in the 1950s, I got off lightly even after writing the story; the State rose in my support and I was able to grow up as a proud citizen of the world's largest democracy. Today, 62 years later, we must ask ourselves where we have reached since our journey began 67 years ago. In Faiz sahib's lines: Ye voh sahr tau nahin jiski arzoo le kar chale they yaar ke mil jaaye gi kahin na kahin (This is not the dawn we dreamt we would meet somewhere, somehow.)
When State institutions become subservient to politics, can we say that democracy has really taken root in this country?
Syeda Hameed is a writer and Member, Planning Commission
The views expressed by the author are personal
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