Radha Khan has started dropping her last name at meetings or over the phone when she orders takeaway. It is not, as she says in a recent Facebook post, as if everyone reacts negatively — some are admiring — but she feels the pressure of having an inter-religious name.
“I feel increasingly the climate is such that I am made aware of the ‘difference' and oddity of my name in the most fleeting of encounters — in airports while checking in, while paying with my credit card, registering in hotels, etc,” Khan writes. She worries what her teenage daughters will have to face. As early as the third grade, in her exclusive and supposedly progressive school, the older daughter was told to “go to Pakistan”.
Taunts like this are familiar to Indian Muslims. Khan is a Hindu. Her parents are Hindu. The name comes from her grandfather, a police officer from Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, in pre-Independence India. He was a Muslim who married her grandmother, a lawyer and Kashmiri Pandit. Opposition to the marriage was smoothened over by no less than Mahatma Gandhi.
Khan celebrates her inter-religious heritage. But it says a lot about the general atmosphere in India today that she, one of 1,000 million Hindus, additionally protected by class and position, feels insecure because of her last name. “Today I am genuinely nervous,” Khan tells me when I ask her about the post. Friends with similar names are similarly edgy.
India is becoming increasingly suspicious and intolerant of those who do not conform to the strident view of things, spurred by the sly and not-so-sly pronouncements of politicians this election season. The slogans and statements, particularly by the BJP against minorities, should never be dismissed as election rhetoric because they reflect the feelings in their hearts and infuse a greater dose of poison in our hearts.
Narendra Modi warns — in West Bengal and Assam —that “those who observe Durgashtami, they can stay,” the rest will have to “pack their bags” once he comes to power. The reference is to illegal Bangladeshi migrants, but Modi does not care to explain how he would ever distinguish between Bangladeshi and Indian-Bengali Muslims. Both speak Bengali and many on both sides have ration cards.
Within days of the first pronouncement, in Assam, Bodo militias shoot dead 31 Muslims, a massacre the national media barely register. The army is deployed and while it is conceivable — as a Bodo nationalist has suggested — that the carnage is a result of inter-Bodo rivalry, it is equally conceivable that the insurgents were encouraged by heightened rhetoric, feeding into the resentment Bodos feel about being swamped. The tide of illegal immigrants is a reality, but it is easy in this atmosphere, as many on the Hindu Right do now, to celebrate this mass murder.
And, so, Amit Shah, Modi's lieutenant and the man responsible for the BJP's electoral efforts in the critical state of Uttar Pradesh, rakes up an old, hateful phrase. The town of Azamgarh, he declares, is a “base for terrorists”. You know whom he's referring to. By this logic, can we say that Muzaffarnagar is a base for murderers and rapists? Is Ahmedabad? Yet Shah, when questioned on his inflammatory pronouncements, insists development is his party's main plank.
Communal rhetoric has always been either a precursor to proximate menace or eventual violence. Earlier this week, young Hindus beat three Kashmiri Muslim engineering students in Noida and forced them to shout anti-Pakistan slogans, the latest in a series of such attacks.
We know how Congress goons roamed Delhi, inciting violence after Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984; as the VHP cadre did in 2002 after parading the bodies of Hindus burnt at a train at Godhra, Gujarat. Targeted killings and that air of menace also forced Kashmiri Pandits out of Kashmir. When rhetoric does not beget violence, it just as easily creates an enabling atmosphere for the kind of low-grade menace that Khan and many minorities feel. The threat of violence in this case is implicit, keeping people, as majoritarians say, in their place.
Enduring hatred is common. Indeed, in some ways, humanity appears doomed to an unending cycle of hate and effect. In the United States, nearly half a century has passed after civil rights legislation. Yet, over the last two weeks, an upsurge of latent hatred is evident — in a Nevada rancher battling the federal government declaring ‘Negros' were better off under slavery; in the outpouring of racial abuse against a black Canadian hockey player after a US team lost an ice-hockey game in a predominantly white sport; in the continuing expression of revulsion by many white citizens against US President Barack Obama. “Racial attitudes haven't changed that much,” an African-American friend tells me. “They've just gone under the surface because our hate-speech laws are so strong and public tolerance so low.” Indeed, three days after a basketball team owner, in private comments, asks his girlfriend (who is half black) not to take photos of herself with black players, he is thrown out of the league for life.
India's hate-speech laws are weak, the people who spout hate are, too often, responsible for implementing those laws, and public tolerance of hate and vengeance is high and rising.
Khan, the woman proud of her Hindu-Muslim name, explains how when her daughters were born (pre-9/11 and Gujarat), she gave them her last name as well, although “my sister thought I was crazy and said as much to me”. Khan says: “Today, I wonder, did I do right by my daughters?”
Her daughters, who insist their full name, Srivastava-Khan, be used in school, provide one answer, after the school asked if the family, for reasons of brevity, would drop either Srivastava or Khan. Earlier this week, Khan asked her elder daughter, 18, if she wanted to change or drop one of her last names. The teenager was clear: She did not. Srivastava will remain. So will Khan.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal