Home Blog Mumbai Terror A tale of two marches: two worlds or one country?
A tale of two marches: two worlds or one country?

by Atiya Hussain

In the week after the attacks on Mumbai, I found myself attending two marches. The first and bigger affair was a bit disconcerting. A friend I met at the second march, which for lack of a better term I’ll call the Muslim March, said the first had made him feel it was some sort of party, as though India had won the cricket World Cup. I know what he meant.  Unlike the energetic, sometimes theatrical first march, the Muslim March was a sober, restrained affair.

Both marches were disturbing. In the mela of the first march, all I saw was emotion: anger, betrayal, shock, sorrow and above all, ‘we won’t let it happen again.’

The self-conscious Muslim March just made me feel sad. I am well aware that given India’s recent history – why just India, the world’s recent history has seen wars fought because ‘they hated us’ – it is something to be grateful for that, this time around, there doesn’t seem to be too much Muslim-bashing. As a Muslim, I have not been made to feel as somehow complicit in the immoral acts of extremists. Pakistan has been at the receiving end, and Indian Muslims have been quick to maintain a distance from the shootouts at the CST and Taj and Oberoi hotels.

A few days after the Muslim March was Bakhr-Eid, which was a muted affair around the city. Somehow, the word had got around and men going to say their Eid prayers knew to wear a black armband to show they were in mourning, or that they stood in solidarity against terrorists. I, too, had thought it was important to show that Muslims found the Mumbai events shocking, horrible, an event so revolting that people would go out of their way to show they stood against the attacks; I was less sure when a well-meaning friend of mine asked whether I too had worn an armband. I am very close to her, but I knew even if she didn’t, that she was asking were we good Indians or not.

Her question reminded me of the lengths that the community went to during the Muslim March to spell out that it is made up of mostly normal people who just want to get by. I realise that the very fact that the community is being allowed to communicate this message is in itself a major victory and something to be optimistic about.  But it was sad to watch everyone – from the mullahs to their young wards, who time and again were instructed by other marchers to stop running about, to pick up the plastic cups they had drunk water from etc. etc. – trying to prove that we were good citizens. Before I had completed the thought, I found myself picking up a plastic cup that someone else must have thrown on the road, concerned that people might think ill of us if we left a mess behind the walk.

I was interviewed by a local TV channel along with four Muslim men and the one guy who spoke Marathi spoke, very consciously, in Marathi. The onlookers, too, were glad to have a Marathi speaking Muslim.  Somewhere as I spoke to the camera, though, I wondered whether making the 'if you prick us do we not bleed' speech only confirms your belief that you are a minority and vulnerable to the perceptions and misperceptions of the majority. The problem is that I have always, and automatically, felt so much a part of this country that it is hard to have to underline my nationalism.

I'm sure you know that the Gulf Muslims, and in particular the Saudis, don't really consider Indian Muslims to be Muslims, largely because we have all assimilated so greatly to the various cultures of the sub-continent: the Bengali Muslim prefers Bengali over Persian-influenced Urdu, and how; Bihari Muslim customs have incorporated many Hindu traditions, including the ritual application of sindoor in the bride's parting as part of the marriage ceremony; in the southern parts of India, unlike the Urdu-speaking North, even language doesn't differentiate Muslims from Hindus.

Walking behind burkha-clad ladies, some celebrities, and maulanas and their madarsa students, I was very conscious of the fact that I was not Indian that afternoon, I was a Muslim Indian. Passers-by on Marine Drive and Churchgate stared very openly at us. I think they were gawking at the fact that this many Muslims could feel strongly enough about terrorism or their Indianness to walk. One guy wore such an odd expression that I was really tempted to walk up and introduce myself and ask him whether he wanted to shake hands with a real Muslim since he looked like he had never seen one before. For that reason alone, it is a very positive sign that so many people came out for a walk under the hot sun and that we were generally a disciplined bunch.

I was not alone in the feeling that we needed to reach out to the onlookers. As the march turned onto Marine Drive, people who were farther ahead in the march to tried to start slogans.

"Bharat Mata ki Jai" fell very flat. To me, that was trying too hard to prove one's loyalty. I didn't pick up the chant because, all said and done, I am very leery of the public consumption of nationalism: so often it leads citizens not to question government or national policies. After a few pathetic attempts, the slogan changed to something 'Zindabad' and that seemed to catch more people's fancy. It too soon died out, however, in sharp contrast to the cheers, the slogans and general party atmosphere of the spontaneous march that had taken place a few days earlier. Perhaps the realization that retaliatory or draconian measures in response to the terrorist attacks might, as in the past, hit the Muslim community hardest, ensured that the tone of the march on Sunday was very sober.

I was in New York on that infamous September 11th and, very soon thereafter, I found myself in a makeshift interrogation room surrounded by burly men in blue who were more frightened than I was when my cell phone went off. I was well aware that the laws on the books would easily accommodate me in a lockup for months. I got out of the United States as soon as I could. Where would I run to this time?  

All of these thoughts jostled within me when my friend told me how proud she was of the community for offering their Eid prayers with black armbands. When she asked me whether I had worn an armband, I think I just felt nervous anxiety. The tragedy of Islam, and not just in India, is that religious leaders have managed to virtually exclude women from the religion. So, no, I didn't wear an armband; I didn't need to because I am not aware of any mosque close to where I live that has space for women to say their prayers, whether for Eid or on any other day.

As I wondered about how to reply to her question, I was nervously trying to gauge how many people would labour through the explanation above. I wasn’t even sure about my friend. Instead, I told her what she wanted to hear: that my husband and brother-in-law both wore armbands. And I and my family were back among the good guys.

So much for the minor issue of the black armband. What would happen if I were to bring up a discussion of Kashmir and India’s policies there in the context of the attacks in Mumbai? Many years ago, when I was in college in the United States, I tried explaining my position – that whether we like it or not, India has been in the throes of civil war – to someone I had thought was a good friend of mine. Before I could finish my thoughts, this boy who was my age and, just like me, had grown up outside India, called me an anti-nationalist. And had done with me. I didn’t know any better at the time, and felt his position was so extreme that nobody else would share it; only to find that my brother, who got most of his high school education at one of India’s elite institutions, echoed this friend’s response.

And what about India’s increasing closeness to Israel, which continues to discriminate against people, not just because they are Muslim, but also – if you remember the scandal following the state’s rejection of blood donations by Ethiopian jews some years ago – if they don’t fit the image of the Ashkenazi settler. Will it be anti-national after attacks of such a violent nature to point out that for all the prowess of the Mossad and the hardness of the Israeli state, there is no end to the number of people willing to die trying to harm Israelis and their state?

In Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Riot’, a Muslim character angrily refuses to consider himself a minority, for fear of becoming one.  For the most part, I don’t consider myself a minority. I debate the merits of Calcutta vs Hyderabadi  biriyani, never having until this article thought that it is a particularly Muslim debate. I had always thought it was a respectable topic for any self-professed foodie. My curiosity about and love for Indian classical music is hardly limited to Ali Akbar Khan or even to North Indian classical music.

But walking from Churchgate to Marine Drive, I felt I was a walking, talking, slogan-raising ad for the ‘good’ Muslim, an elaborate make-believe that mainstream Indians needed somehow to see at that time. If our used water glasses would be frowned upon, how much worse would it be if those onlookers knew that I have yet to satisfactorily address my ambivalence about getting up for the national anthem before a film or even my very mixed feelings about the ways in which anti-terrorism measures have played themselves out in practice. And who would listen till the end, when I would explain that I was a proud Indian, proud of my grandfather’s decision to have remained in this country in 1947 and proud to have returned, after a whole life across different stretches of black water, to my homeland.

And who would listen to my lament that if my love for biriyani, or my love for Hindustani music or even my love for Kathak are seen as merely  the pursuits of a minority, whatever lingering remains of the Ganga-Jamuna culture, the beautiful outcome of such different communities having learnt over centuries to live with each other, will die in just a matter of time.


Atiya Hussain is a former Reuter's reporter who currently freelances. She lives in Mumbai.


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