Guest post by SAIDALAVI P.C.
“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
On the evening of 21 February, 2015 I and my friend walked through the narrow lines of Vasant Kunj, New Delhi looking for an accommodation for him. On both sides of narrow roads, three-storied buildings blocked sun rays reaching the ground. Here and there scrapheap assaulted our nostrils and a flock of bees and mosquitoes hovered around the area keeping watch. Our eyes waded through the gates of the buildings looking for a signboard announcing vacancies. We pushed a gate open and entered the building looking for the owner. A middle-aged man announced his presence pushing his belly in front of him. We asked, room koi khali hai, bhayya (Is there any room vacant, brother?) He scrutinised us for a moment. May be nonplussed by seeing no marks of our identity (we are clean shaven, well-dressed, normative secular self with supposedly a neutral identity in public) he was bit confused and his lips contorted a bit towards the left. Impassively, he nodded us to follow him since the room was on the second floor. My friend was visibly satisfied by the room, it was well-furnished, with a bathroom, kitchen and a balcony. He said he would take it. Listening to it, the owner’s face had taken a bit more serious expression, and at last he asked what our names are. It seemed our neutral identity was the bomb he wanted to diffuse. The moment we uttered our names, his facial expression changed into one who is caught by colic, he was startled and flushed, and his ears instantly became red. We were unable to make sense of what he was thinking. Then, he spoke hoarsely and told us to leave immediately. He said that if he had known earlier that we were Muslims, he wouldn’t have invited us to see the rooms. He never let rooms to Muslims. We tried to reason with him by asking why he is not renting it to Muslims.
He replied, ‘here, people are looking for peace, you know, we don’t feel okay with Muslims in the surroundings’. We felt slapped across the face and sudden numbness held our nerves tight. We could not muster up the courage to say anything further and we immediately got out. Our throats had become suddenly dry as if we had eaten a lot of salt. Overwhelmed by such a response, we couldn’t talk to each other for a moment even after reaching on the road. In the other buildings we announced our identity first to avoid such humiliation. We heard similar responses from all the buildings. We were struck by the ease with which landlords in the area aired comments like ‘we don’t rent to Muslims, they eat meat and impure the ambience’, ‘you look somewhere else; here it must be difficult to get a room’. We could not get a room in the whole area and my friend ultimately got a room in Okhla nearby Jamia Millia Islamia, popularly known in mainstream discourses as a mohalla of Pakistan.
Such experiences are part of Muslim lifeworlds especially in the metropolis such as New Delhi and Mumbai. The everydayness of such practices and humiliation has categorised such experiences as given and ordinary. But two recent instances compel us to reflect on such experiences in slightly different ways.
These two instances caught the imagination of our social media recently. While in one case, when an applicant was denied a job just for being a Muslim in Mumbai, in the second case, a visually-handicapped female assistant professor of Delhi University was denied rented accommodation for being a Muslim. Most of the people on the social media expressed wholesale contempt for such practices and even expressed their desire to see the perpetrators sued in the court. In both cases, the victims took to the social media and in the middle of such hullabaloos got some kind of a reprieve. In a mediatised society such as ours, we witnessed a spectacle where Muslims who were initially denied fundamental rights later seemed to have got some justice done. Hurray! Our liberal conscience was satisfied! At last, the justice is done.
What such a celebration of the fiasco forestalled is a serious discussion about and an awareness that such experiences are everyday affairs of the disadvantaged sections like the minorities, Dalits and those from the North East in metropolis in India. Such practices under public eye, as clear as a nose on somebody’s face, but we never fully make sense of them as an aberration. Even those upon whom such experiences are meted out have internalised the status quo by airing such statements like ‘those who own property may have the prerogative of deciding who should live in it’. This actually points to a deep-seated nature in every society where the oppressors and the oppressed become part of the same frame of mind to perpetrate unequal practices. Such individualistic arguments should be countered in a democratic polity if we truly believe in organising a community of equals. While crying out to respective governments to be cognisant of the situation and enact certain laws is surely one way of dealing with the situation, it may not, in itself, bring about any structural changes.
One of the tricky questions about the situation that we should take note of is the psychology behind such practices. While it will be easier to dismiss them by accounting them as deriving from modern forms of upper caste Hindu practices, we will be missing a new process of stereotyping castes and communities. While it has always been easier for the upper castes to keep the lower castes at arm’s length using caste ideologies, the methods by which to keep other communities has taken various forms of racism. The audacity and the body language with which the landlords speak to you in cases mentioned earlier will be signs enough to convey the presence of an unwelcome guest in a neighbourhood, and if you are still not convinced enough by the semiotics, you will be hollered at. The confidence itself is a remarkable specimen of the everyday nature of Hindutva politics today where the pride of the Hindu is proclaimed again and again neither by conducting large-scale communal pogroms nor by destructive mobilisations, but by instilling and codifying an image of masculine Hindu who knows how to conduct himself towards ‘others’. This stereotyping perpetuates today in multifarious forms such as ghettoization, denial of jobs and housing and most importantly through communal violence of Atali (in Haryana) kind in which large-scale destruction of properties are undertaken without killing many people. The need of the hour is to disentangle such micro forms of discourses and strategies and countering them through organised protests and struggles, rather than celebrating mediatised, individual incidents as superior forms of justice to satisfy our liberal conscience. One of the ways to confront such malicious campaigns and mobilisations could be to form action groups at local level the way Dalit movements organised militant struggles in recent times. We should also remember, as Paulo Freire has forcefully reminded us, true generosity lies in rooting out the evils at the base, not so much in liberal, middle-class celebrations of discrimination, victimhood and victory.
Saidalavi P.C. is PhD Candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU