Zeshan Khan is dressed formally, even though this meeting is at a coffee shop near his home.
He takes every interview seriously, as he has taken every exam and every admission test, always working towards a corporate career and, eventually, a dream of becoming a social entrepreneur.
“I’m not demoralised. I’m confused,” he says, referring to the email the 23-year-old final-year MBA student received in response to a recent job application.
‘Dear Zeshan… Thanks for your application. We regret to inform you that we hire only non-Muslim candidates,’ the BKC-based diamond export firm said in its response.
“The whole episode has led to a moment of realisation. Like someone jolted me back to reality. Strive as hard as you like, a young Muslim must but be prepared to face prejudice, or fight it,” Zeshan says.
As the anger mounted in the moments after he received the email, Khan posted a screenshot on Facebook. He is now pursuing an FIR against the firm, on charges of discrimination.
“For a young educated Muslim like me, who studied in a convent school where most of his friends were Hindus, had the same kinds of friendships in college, this incident has raised questions I never thought I would need to ask,” Khan says. “Even before my career has begun, I’m embroiled in a legal battle that has scared my mother and grandmother. Will I have to battle such prejudice all my life? Is this just the beginning?”
Across India, Muslims and non-Muslims have been asking similar questions, on Twitter, on Facebook, at home and around the water cooler.
In 2015, amid battles for gay rights and transgender identity, cheerful inter-faith marriages and live-in relationships, when so many barriers have been taken down, why do Muslims still face the kind of deep-rooted discrimination and prejudice that keeps them from getting jobs, starting businesses, admitting their toddlers to schools of their choice, finding homes?
“The battle for the idea of India — and its soul — raged throughout our freedom struggle. Followers of Gandhi and Ambedkar and the Left were convinced that a free India must be a country where it would not matter if you worship this god or that, or none,” says Harsh Mander, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies. “The republic was founded on the ideas of fraternity and equal citizenship. But then came Partition, and some political and social formations never reconciled with the idea of Muslims as equal citizens. This is the root of today’s social divisions, prejudice and fear.”
This attitude became crystallised in the Babri mosque demolition of 1992, followed by the riots and serial blasts of 1993.
The demonisation of Muslims following the New York attacks of September 2001, and the ensuing ‘global war on terror’, has further fuelled prejudice and discrimination against Muslims everywhere, Mander adds.
For an new generation of upwardly mobile, liberal, cosmopolitan Muslims, this confluence of factors forms yet another barrier to growth and participation in the new, progressive India.
“As middle-class Muslims find it increasingly difficult to secure housing, jobs and school admissions, they are attempting to find their own solutions — either by investing in all-Muslim apartment towers, setting up their own schools or encouraging entrepreneurship,” says Sameera Khan, a journalist, writer and researcher. But this shouldn’t take away from the larger and more heart-breaking concern, which is how these everyday discriminations are affecting Muslims, alienating them from a mainstream India that they very much want to be a part of.”
THE BACK STORY
In a community where, as recently as 2006, 25% of children aged 6 to 14 had either never been to school or had dropped out, as reported by the government-appointed Sachar Committee, the prejudice faced by a new generation of highly trained and educated Muslims feels, for many, like a forced step backwards.
Delhi-based lawyer-activist Shehzad Poonawala, 27, suggests two measures to stem this discrimination — an equal opportunity commission, as proposed by the Sachar Committee, which, he says, should also frame an equal-opportunity law to prevent profiling of citizens based on religion, caste or gender.
“It should be made illegal to ask whether a candidate is a Dalit or a minority or from Kashmir or the north-east,” Poonawala says.
Also, a fair housing law that would operate on similar lines, to prevent discrimination from pushing Muslims who seek to join the mainstream back into ghettos. In the past year, Poonawala has filed 17 petitions with bodies like the National Commission for Minorities, mainly against discrimination in housing and hate speeches against Muslims.
Back at Zeshan Khan’s housing society, Sagar Apartments on Father Peter Pereira Road, Kurla, a schoolboy from a neighbouring flat watches him talk into a camera for a TV reporter. Aftab, 14, says he know what has caused the commotion.
“This is because Zeshanbhai was denied a job because he is a Muslim,” he says.
On the day of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, everyone at work gathered around the TV. ‘Look what your people are doing’, a colleague said. I told him, I am as Indian as you, and my father and forefathers were born and raised here just as yours were. But this is how it is. When I objected to the beef ban on Twitter, I woke up to a barrage of abuse. One of them said: ‘Why don’t you go to your country and try eating pork there.
~ Shazmeen Kara, Mumbai-based brand and marketing consultant
HT Photo/Anshuman Poyrekar
Even coming from a middle-class, liberal Ismaili sect, I have faced discrimination. The father of my first crush in high school didn’t let her speak to me. Friends would ask why Muslim men treat their women so badly. When I came to Delhi nobody except other Muslims would rent me a house.
~ Shehzad Poonawala, Delhi-based lawyer and activist
HT Photo/Saumya Khandelwal
This is the dominant battle of our times: Harsh Mander
In addition to heading the Centre for Equity Studies (CES), Harsh Mander is author of the newly released Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India. One chapter of the book explores the discrimination faced by middle-class Muslims in India
Why, in 2015, does the Muslim community continue to face such discrimination?
Some political and social formations in the country never reconciled with the idea of a secular India for all, and this friction came to a head in the period of the Babri movement. The demonisation of Muslims in the ‘global war on terror’ has further fuelled prejudice and discrimination against Muslims everywhere.
What were some of the most deep-rooted prejudices you came across during the research for your book?
I speak in my book about the global legitimisation of prejudice against Muslims. The idea that they have a specifically violent history, are demographically irresponsible, breeding large families and marrying many wives, that Muslim men are sexual predators, and that they are unpatriotic. I take on each of these prejudices in my book. I have a chapter about how even educated, middle-class Muslims face discrimination in finding homes in mixed colonies and in finding work, as Zeshan did, often still encounter barely disguised bigotry in the workplace.
How can this mindset be altered?
I worry deeply about how such prejudice is mainstreamed and legitimised in middle-class India today. This is for me the dominant battle of our times, a battle of hearts and minds. We must have very different conversations with young people. And young Muslims must resist being pushed into defensive identity-based shells and ghettoes.
14.2% --> population share of Muslims in India, according to the 2011 Census
25% --> of Muslim children in the 6 to 14 age group had either never attended school or have dropped out, as of 2006. Muslims have the highest dropout rate in the country
59.1% --> literacy rate among Muslims in 2001; the national average at the time was 65.1%
7.8% --> is the Muslim representation in the Indian judiciary, according to the Sachar Committee report