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Country of strangers

Fake information, a lack of meeting places and the spread of technology are isolating and driving Indians further away from each other than ever, Samar Halarnkar writes.

india Updated: Dec 20, 2012 08:31 IST
Samar Halarnkar

On a recent December night, I found myself on a rooftop in Goa, listening to a prominent local citizen railing against a supposed Muslim takeover.

“Do you know their population in Goa has gone up from 1.2% at Liberation (from the Portuguese, 1961) to 12% now?” the seemingly mild-mannered, silver-haired gentleman asked, a distinctly harsh, hard edge to his otherwise soft voice.

Since this was a family wedding, and the gentleman was a guest of honour, it wasn’t a good idea to start an argument. But I did say that I recalled a figure of less than 8%. As it emerged, the actual percentage of Muslims is 5.25%, according to the 1991 census (2011 figures are not yet available). As for the Liberation-era figure, Goa was occupied territory and unavailable for the 1961 census. In 1971, Goa's Muslim population was 3.3%.

These seemingly inconsequential data indicate how easily prejudice is buttressed with fake information. The Goan gentleman changed tack whenever the facts became inconvenient, and, as the night wore on, his vehemence grew.

His point, he said, was that Muslims were spreading across Goa, migrating into the state by “design”, making their women wear “black burqas”, refusing — as elsewhere in India, he added — to educate children. I tried to point out that in most Muslim communities I saw a great, rising fervour for education, explaining at some length my conversations with poor families struggling to discard conservatism and educate daughters. The use of the hijab, I acknowledged, was clearly rising, perhaps a consequence of growing religiosity and, equally, a precondition to allowing women out.

“Well, all their education is in madrasas,” he said, adopting a new tack. Again, I said, that was not true. I asked if he actually knew any Muslims. “Of course,” he said, “My driver is Muslim, we even had a Muslim maid.”

The good citizen of Goa — whom I shall leave unnamed — rides a widespread, growing tide of prejudice that is all too common in India. But it is a prejudice that is not as much carried aloft by waves of hate as much as it is borne from an ocean of ignorance. My interlocutor happened to be Hindu, but he could be of any religion, class, caste or linguistic group.

I was particularly reminded of India’s faultlines when poet and translator EV Ramakrishnan said, at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival this week, that India was becoming a “country of strangers”. Ramakrishnan, who translates poetry from Malayalam, Hindi and Gujarati into English, was referring to the literary isolation of Indians from each other. He told me how the University of Istanbul in Turkey, a largely monolingual country, employed 60 people in a department of translation interpretations, probably more than all of India.

Whatever else it might do, the great spread of mobile phones and the internet does not help in getting Indians to know each other. Indeed, prejudice and half-baked, manipulated “fact” spreads only faster. As the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole (whose wife is Indian) says, “We are unreconstructed but our technology is renewing itself.”

Consider the hatred many young Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits (Hindus) have for one another. Meeting grounds for a once close-knit people are scarce, especially after a generation of Pandits grew up outside Kashmir following a migration in the 1990s, driven by selective killings and threats. Instead, each side has developed a strong, emotional narrative of victimhood and life without the other. Neerja Mattoo, writer and retired professor, narrates her recent encounter with a young Muslim boy in Srinagar’s streets. “The boy stared at my saree and bindi and asked his mother, ‘How come that woman is speaking Kashmiri?’” says Mattoo, who never left Kashmir.

In India’s heaving cities, where life is more rushed and stressful than ever, people retreat into their flats and increasingly segregated enclaves, divided by religion and class. They may share public and work places but they usually remain strangers. In my Muslim-majority neighbourhood in Bangalore, many young Muslims grow up without ever knowing a Hindu. In Hindu-dominated areas, the opposite is true. It is no different in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai.

This segregation extends across physical spaces and religions. The media flourish but they localise their programming faster than ever, further isolating people across regions. As I write this, the headlines in Goa discuss the contentious cessation of mining (Herald); in Hyderabad, the Telangana issue (Deccan Chronicle); in Lucknow (Dainik Jagran), government officials strike work protesting job reservations.

When misunderstanding and trauma morphs into hate, it takes extraordinary effort to reach out, but it is always rewarding. Young Kashmiri Muslims today do not like to acknowledge that killings and threats drove the Pandits out, while young Hindus, who almost never talk of widespread excesses by security forces, accuse Muslims of “ethnic cleansing”. Two years ago, I witnessed routine online sparring between Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus, mostly professionals who lived in Delhi. After a while, saner minds started to speak of historical nuances, shared values and histories. Their curiosity about one another led them to organise quiet, offline meetings, where some hatred clearly dissipated, even if their narratives remained. A reporter who tried to attend was shooed away. I do not know if they still meet, but it is enough that some became friends.

Writer Amish Tripathi (author of The Immortals of Meluha) points out that it always appears that “someone else is evil, we are paragons of virtue”. The good citizen of Goa I spoke about is not an evil man. A major reason why he does not know Goan Muslims is — apart from the fact they are so few — that many are the underclass, living in slums. They will, forever, be strangers to him.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.