I was born in a small place in the western part of Assam. Although a Muslim dominated area, there is an oasis where people of other religions resided. People of Manjhi caste (fisherman community) resided very near to our houses. They were very much a part of my upbringing. As a child, we would play with them, go to their houses and eat a meal. This was very normal for us during those days. We never knew the distinction between them and us.
It was only when I went to Delhi, I came to know of something called caste. There are lower caste, upper caste, OBC, SC, etc. It was a disgusting feeling to know the difference. Sometimes, it is better to not have an understanding of certain aspects of society.
I grew up in a Muslim family. My parents never asked me to compulsorily offer prayers. However, we would always love to read namaz when possible. Idd and Durga Puza were equally our festivals to celebrate. They both offered us to wear new clothes and go to the festival. Although I would not offer prayer in pizza, I would definitely go there and enjoy myself with friends.
Such was my upbringing, completely oblivious of my religious identity.
However, the time has changed. No more are those days when we were oblivious of our religious identity. The societal fabric has changed giving way to religious fanaticism. Every time, I am out on the road, I am reminded of my identity.
In north India, the situation might have been so for long. However, in my part of the country, we never gave much attention to religious identity. For us, religion was a private affair of an individual. It consists of a part of an individual’s personality and not in its entirety. A person is beyond his religious identity.
A hyper-nationalistic Hindutvavadi tendency has come to our place also. With the coming of power of the BJP party, this has been imported as a bonus with the rhetoric of ‘development.’ Now development has been mingled with the term Cultural Nationalism; that culture being Hindu culture. Funny it is, even UPSC has asked the question: “What are the challenges to our cultural practices in the name of secularism?” It is pretty sad that UPSC has started to ask a question like some television journalists who practice yellow journalism. Sir, secularism is never an enemy to Indian culture; rather, it is very much embedded in the Indian ethos of pluralism. India has always celebrated her pluralism and given shelter to the most persecuted communities of the world, including the jews and Parsis. Secularism is a part of this cultural practice. Even Swamy Vivekananda said that while the whole world talks of tolerance, Hinduism speaks of acceptance. Tolerance refers to enduring one knowing that he is wrong. However, acceptance means that while we have our own truth, others have their own truths. That means we respect other peoples’ truth without diluting our belief in our own truth. This is what Indian culture is.
Assam’s syncretic culture is representative of this ethos. However, this very foundational ethos is being disturbed. Time and again, Muslims are being targeted for cow slaughtering or selling beef. Recently, a Muslim man was forced to eat pork in Biswanath Chariali. A number of people were beaten while transporting their own cows.
A narrative has been created that Muslims in Assam are Bangladeshi infiltrators. The NRC exercise has polarised the situation more. While it was initiated in order to safeguard the interest of the indigenous community, its politicization has done more harm.
While on the one hand, the Government wants to ward off illegal infiltrators, on the other, it also wants to provide citizenship rights to the Hindu infiltrators who have come prior to December 31, 2014. This idea of citizenship based on religion is detrimental to the organic culture of Assam. This has already created a chasm among groups.
People have now become conscious of their religious identity. Karl Marx has rightly put that a class in itself becomes a class for itself as soon as it realizes that it is being exploited by the capitalists. The religion in itself has become a religion for itself. Every religious leader will now speak for his or her own religion. Bengali Hindus would push their own agenda; Muslims their own. We have come to an impasse that politics is all about religious politics. A mere part of one’s identity has become the entirety of one’s identity. This is detrimental to all as a society. If the leaders do not realize this, then we would lose many things. Let us cut the tentacles of this monstrous octopus before it reaches us. Once again, we want to be oblivious to our religious identity.