I don’t hold Aamir Khan’s brief. But I knew from where he was coming when he went public with his wife’s anxieties. It’s tragic really, that his relative truth has had him at the receiving end of an outrage so oblivious of the minorities’ fears of an assertive majority.
I couldn’t help but empathise with the actor — having myself known how a numerical minority feels in an uncertain or hostile environ! My story goes back to December 1992 when news trickled to Pakistan, where I was posted, of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was a case of the majority in the country of my birth provoking the majority in the country of my residence.
In a minority of one that I was in my own house, the other three occupants being my cook, his wife and son, it was my first encounter with the tyranny of numbers. Had I been in India, I’d be the menacing majority.
But there I was – an easily traceable count in a minuscule minority of Indians...err Hindus in Islamabad. A lonely cop posted at my gate couldn’t keep out the uncertainty, the overwhelming fear that transcended physical threat.
My real brush with minority(ism) came when Maqbool, my cook, complained of being taunted by a neighbour for being in the service of one whose faith “martyred” the Mosque at Ayodhya. What did the neighbour say? “Jin logon ne hamari masjid shaheed ki, tum unki rotiyan sektey ho,” confided Maqbool, at my prodding. “I told him my saab is different. He rushes out to fetch medicine for my son in Islamabad’s harsh winters all by himself on foot…”
Maqbool was being truthful. I’d often do that when his little son Saqib was unwell. It was reassuring to know what he thought of me. But I was worried; deeply violated in the mind! Did I think of deserting my post? No. But close relatives tried persuading me to return.
That’s the kind of violence – as opposed to physical harm – our minorities face when the majority’s distrust is on the rise, be it France or Mumbai’s 26/11. The plight of the Sikhs was no different during the Khalistan movement marked by Operation Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the riots that followed. A proud community was sought to be isolated until good sense dawned.
So let’s get the perspective right. The Khans were conversing as parents, not as celebrities, when Aamir’s wife Kiran proposed shifting base out of India for the sake of their child. The ‘intolerance’ that gnaws at identities —resting on faith, ideological allegiance or the nature of their work — is unquantifiable. Ruling dispensations go abysmally wrong while citing declines in communal violence as a measure of social accord.
Violence has many manifestations — the worst being the psychological trauma children face in schools, youth in colleges and playgrounds, women in neighbourhoods, men at workplaces and the elderly in a setting as innocuous as a morning stroll. I say that because I’ve had families reaching out with stories of teachers doing nothing about their children being mocked as ‘terrorists’ and ‘Pakistanis’ by mates at school.
I’ve also seen an elderly Muslim buttonholed by a bunch of otherwise friendly fellow morning walkers for a lecture on the virtues of vegetarianism. But the day they chose was odd — it being Bakr Eid.
The trend isn’t new but has grown lately from what I hear. When Batla House happened under the UPA regime, a friend from an illustrious Muslim family was so alarmed that he harboured doubts about the future of his son who learnt flying abroad and was looking for a pilot’s job. His fears proved to be unfounded. But he did express them to me the way Kiran did to her husband.
The causes of such diffidence have to be institutionally addressed not dismissed out of hand — with the care and the sensitivity they require. No country can be at peace with a crop of citizens scarred and alienated in their impressionable years.
At a time when integration is the key to fighting terror, we cannot have people unsure of their place in the society to which they belong. A dialogue between communities is the answer – not the kind of verbal abuse Aamir faced upon laying bare his angst!