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Why shoot the messenger?

by Shabana Azmi

Things very rarely catch me by surprise any more. Yet I am taken completely unawares by the viciousness of the attack against me for a remark I made in a recent television interview that I was denied a house in Mumbai because I am a Muslim.

I am being called ungrateful, wretched and even a liar. But these are the same people who applauded me and called me a hero when I took on Imam Bukhari.

A few years ago, Imam Bukhari had given a fatwa to Indian Muslims to go to Afghanistan and wage jehad. In an outraged response, I had said on a TV programme that I would request the Prime Minister (at that time Atal Bihari Vajpayee) to air-drop Imam Bukhari into Khandahar so he could be the first to wage his jehad — this would solve his problem and ours too.

So infuriated was the Imam that he called me unprintable names as well as a kafir and a blot on the Muslim community.

It remains for me a matter of the highest honour that both Houses of Parliament issued a statement condemning the Imam’s utterance.

I was moved to tears and my heart burst with pride. It gave me the much required ammunition and strengthened my resolve to never keep quiet in the face of outbursts by fundamentalist elements.

Each time I take on the Muslim fundamentalist, I am applauded and hailed as a moderate liberal Muslim. But I am more than just that. I am a moderate liberal Indian and am very proud of being so.

India has one of the finest Constitutions in the world.

The Constitution provides for all her citizens, irrespective of class, caste or gender to demand their rights within its framework without fear and with authority.

In the same interview that has become the subject of such mud-slinging, I have also stated that the Indian Muslim feels safer in India than elsewhere because he has a stake and a space in the country’s democracy. An ordinary Muslim can aspire to become the President of India, a Shah Rukh Khan or an Irfan Pathan. That the time has come for Muslims to stop looking at themselves only as victims and do some soul-searching on the need for reform within the community. Why then does only one remark get pulled out of the interview and become the subject of such acrimony?

Would it not be fair to assume that implicit in this hue and cry is the desire to shut up the liberal voice and demand of Muslims who are successful, to be good Uncle Toms? Have I ever been asked to apologise to men when I’ve talked about discrimination against women? Have I been asked to apologise to the rich because I’ve talked about the need to alleviate poverty?

Of course discrimination exists in some sections of our society — against all kinds of minorities; religious (look at what routinely happens with the Dalits), against women (for God’s sake we are killing our girl child even before she is born), against homosexuals (Section 377 of the penal code treats them like criminals).

What is the point in denying it? We need to bring these issues in the open and draw courage from the fact that there are also very robust resistance groups in all sections of our society that are opposing this tooth and nail so there is absolutely no cause for despair.

India is a country of contradictions. It is equally true that a Dalit can aspire to be a Mayawati (perhaps the most formidable politician today), a woman can aspire to be the Prime Minister or President, and that the Hindi film industry is being virtually ruled by the Khans.

Alas, it is also true that I was denied a flat in cosmopolitan Mumbai because Javed and I are Muslims - it was not because we are film people - a very famous film star lives in the same society. It was not because we are non-vegetarians - the family we were to buy it from were themselves non-vegetarians. It was, we were told, by a shame-faced broker because we were Muslim! It happened not once but twice. It didn’t come as a big surprise either because we knew of several people who had had similar experiences.

This is why I find it so curious that so many people are reacting now as if this is some earth-shattering revelation. A TV channel, not so long ago, had carried an entire sting operation where a young couple posing as house-hunters were clearly told that they could not be given a house in the locality of their choice because they were Muslim. I personally know of at least a dozen such cases.

Wake up guys. Get a reality check. Why shoot the messenger? Don’t try to throttle the voice of the moderate liberal and brand her or him a communalist when she or he brings to light the fact that there are some genuine grievances that must be addressed. It can prove to be very dangerous.

If the liberal moderate voice is silenced through canard, through innuendo, through intimidation, then the space will be left wide open only for the extremist and the hardliners. And they need to be defeated, whoever they may be.

The fight today is not between the Hindu and the Muslim; the fight is between the moderate and the extremist. We need to have Hindu and Muslim moderates on the same side against the extremist Hindu and Muslim on the other.


This piece appeared in the Hindustan Times, and is republished here with Ms Azmi’s permission.


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