In 1984, when I was yet a rookie and did not understand the political significance of such things, I still noticed the almost overnight disappearance of turbaned Sikh drivers from the streets of Bombay, soon after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
I had begun my career reporting on disasters, carnages, riots, etc, and returning alone late nights I, somehow, always looked out for a turban for a safe taxi ride home. But after 1984, almost no turban was in sight inside a black-and-yellow cab in the city.
Some years later I spotted one and hailed the cabbie down. When I got into a conversation with the man, he told me he was one of just a handful of turbaned taxi drivers still plying his cab on the streets of Bombay. Most of his co-religionists had shaved off their hair and beards after Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, he said. Although Bombay did not see any riots then, they were afraid of what Bal Thackeray might do. The Sena supremo adored Mrs Gandhi and he had described the news of her killing as akin to “a thousand ants biting into my brains simultaneously’’. Thackeray had already unleashed violence on Sikh traders and businessmen in retaliation to the Khalistani violence in Punjab and they were taking no chances.
However, chopping off their hair militated against their beliefs and most such taxi drivers had then chosen to immigrate to the US or Canada, I was told. That was confirmed to me a few years ago when, in Seattle, I had hailed a Sikh cab driver and he told me he would never return to India, “for it is the worst possible place for anyone who was not like the others’’. In the US, he was free to wear his turban and no one really targeted them, except for some misunderstandings about Sikhs in the wake of the 9/11 bombings in New York, he said.
The disappearance of Sikh taxi drivers from the city led to a demographic shift in the system — hordes of North Indian taxi drivers moved in and virtually took over the city, edging out even local Maharashtrian cab drivers who had co-existed with the Sikh ones for decades.
Three decades later a young engineer wearing a skull cap was murdered by some fringe saffron groups. I am told that Muslims in Pune, where the techie was so brutally beaten to death, have overnight shaved off their beards, got into trousers rather than Pathani suits, discarded their skull caps and are trying desperately to become as unremarkable as possible.
But if we are unforgiving of those who have driven the minorities to this insecurity, what does one say about some NCP workers in Pune, again, this weekend who targeted a waiter in a restaurant for wearing saffron? I am no sympathiser of saffron bigots in this country but I have to say saffron is among my favourite colours too and I wear it often with no apologies at all to anyone. But wearing shades of saffron never persuaded me towards the bigotry associated with this original colour of Adi Shankaracharya and the Sikh gurus (the Nishan Sahib can be blue as well as saffron or yellow) who adopted the colour as their own long before saffron bigotry was born in India.
However, now when the NCP targets people for wearing saffron, they show themselves up as no better than Shiv Sainiks and Bajrang Dalis--but I would condemn them rather more strongly, for the saffron bigots, at least, know not what they do. However, the NCP, an offshoot of the Congress, has stressed on democratic choice, freedom of expression and fundamental rights and its leader, Sharad Pawar, has always been inclusive and never known to be sectarian.
Now, though, the NCP, with its demands for reservations for Marathas et al, is shrinking its own space and, with its penchant for violence, is proving itself to be no better than the Shiv Sena or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, both perpetrate hate as the only means of political survival.
When was it ever a crime in India to wear your heart on your sleeve or be different?