A fortnight ago, nine members of a housing cooperative society were arrested in the Mumbai suburb of Vasai for trying to dissuade a person from selling his flat to a Muslim family, by refusing to provide an NOC.
This kind of ganging up, to keep people from the minority community out, has been going on for a long time in various cities. The most infamous instance in recent times was when a right-wing organisation successfully picketed and openly harassed a Muslim family to vacate a bungalow in a predominantly Hindu locality in Bhavnagar, Gujarat in 2014. But while nothing better can be expected from such organisations, what explains the tendency of educated, urbanised, middle-class people to carry their prejudices to this level?
In the Vasai incident, it is intriguing that two Muslim households were already staying in the society for several years. So, what prompted 11 members to object to another Muslim family from taking up residence there, if not sheer prejudice and majoritarian chauvinism?
They were surely aware that, legally speaking, they were in the wrong. The laws governing cooperative housing societies clearly state that the society has no power to prevent a member from selling his flat to whosoever he wishes to, and certainly not on such arbitrary grounds. Moreover, they had also flouted IPC Section 295 (A) in hurting religious sentiments by refusing the NOC on the basis of the buyer’s religion.
Therefore, such open impunity stemmed from the belief that the buyer or seller would be cowed down by the stand taken by the society members, especially because the buyer belonged to the minority community. Secondly, the members also probably believed that the authorities would simply not take any strong action to enforce the law because they were predominantly from the majority community.
However, unexpectedly for them, the police did act promptly by arresting nine of the 11 members who had objected when a complaint was filed by the buyer. As a result, the 11 members had not only to immediately withdraw their objection and provide the NOC, but also had to apologise for hurting the buyer’s religious feelings.
Sadly, the fact is, this kind of discrimination and prejudice is deeply ingrained and widespread in society and mostly below the radar. Minority tenants and house-buyers are routinely kept out in direct and indirect ways.
There is a sort of undeclared consensus practised with an unashamed sense of legitimacy, as if it needs to be done to safeguard the sanctity of our living and cultural spaces on one hand and the physical security of our localities on the other.
Take, for instance, the news item which immediately followed the Mumbai incident. In Bharuch and Mandvi in Gujarat, Muslims were reportedly banned from participating in ‘garba’ and ‘dandiya’ events, ostensibly to avoid law and order problems and prevent eve-teasing. If this viewpoint was restricted only to fringe elements, it would be outrageous enough, but it is appalling that even the most mild-mannered of us seem to believe that such measures are perfectly reasonable and necessary.
How are we ever going to outgrow such strong prejudice as a people if education seems to have made no difference whatsoever? What exactly is behind this mindset? What is it that makes us Hindus so insecure despite being an 80% majority in our country, that we have this uncontrolled hostility towards minorities, especially Muslims?
Why do we feel so threatened, that we don’t want to have them as our neighbours, breathe the same air as they do and keep them out of sight and our existence? Why do we, subliminally at least, see them as undesirables?
There was a time when we wouldn’t admit it, but now many people seem to express it openly, as if it were some badge of honour. Indeed, the Shiv Sena objecting to renowned actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui acting in the Ramlila in his home town in Uttar Pradesh only because he is a Muslim, too, is a manifestation of the same disturbing narrow-mindedness and prejudice.
There are many reasons for this, expertly nurtured and propagated by right-wing organisations – right from purported oppression of Hindus during the Mughal rule to partition to secularism and so-called minority appeasement by the Congress to religious fanaticism to Kashmiri militancy and Pakistani terrorism.
In addition, there is a cultivated anger against Muslim personal privileges like polygamy and beef-eating to general disgust about their apparent backwardness, dressing and lack of hygiene.
In other words, we simply look down upon them as human beings – unfit to share our immediate surroundings. And, that is precisely where the danger lies. We, as a society, are precariously close to crossing the threshold of believing that our largest minority community is unworthy of normal humanitarian consideration. No wonder, even the BJP leader and Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi echoed similar sentiments when he said that sometimes Muslims feel like second-class citizens.
Hasn’t the time come for ordinary citizens to consciously arrest the levels of casual prejudice we harbour against minorities and reverse the trend if we seek to be a progressive, modern nation? We can’t aspire to be a great people if we behave like reactionary dwarfs, who create majority enclaves for themselves and prefer minorities to stay in their own ghettos.
What bigger gesture of trust can there be than a Muslim family wanting to stay amidst a predominantly majority community housing society? What can foster friendship and amity better than minorities wanting to join in dandiya? Is that to be welcomed or rebuffed?
Perhaps, the key lies in perceiving these not as attempts by minorities to invade or infiltrate our living and cultural spaces, but as efforts to integrate and assimilate. Can we tweak our mindset?
(The writer is a Pune-based author and filmmaker)