Guest Post by AJMAL KHAN A.T.
What is your name?
No, I smile.
This is a familiar exchange for me, not to mention my friends often calling out to me, hey, Kasab!
I noticed this started in Mumbai post 26/11, of course.
But there are other instances. Once, while I was traveling by train from Mumbai to Kerala, a man who was in his mid 50s with whom I was sharing a seat, asked while I was about to get down at the Calicut railway station, ‘boy what is your name?’ I replied – my name is Ajmal. A cute little boy, around 9 years old, who was traveling with him, responded with Ajmal Kasab?
I somehow managed to smile and say, no my dear. I got down at my station.
There are some others who call me terrorist for fun instead of calling my name. A colleague of mine, with whom I use to have political arguments use to tell me Ajmal, you should change your name. It’s a problematical name man, and you will suffer. I smile and ask him why should I do that? Will everything end if I change my name?
These kind of incidents happen to me often though I don’t really allow myself to feel anything deep about it. In fact, the kind of struggles that I have gone through in my life are greater compared to this. After I moved to Mumbai, many mistakenly believed that I am an upper caste Muslim seeing the Khan in my name, so I tell them only I have this tail of Khan in my family. It is Ajmal Khan A.T ( Areethala).
Recently, Prof. Romila Thapar was speaking at K C College in Mumbai on “Indian society and the secular”, a public lecture in memory of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer conducted by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.
I saw a huge police presence outside the college, and tight security. They had metal detectors checking all those passing through the door. A police officer stopped me and asked me to open my bag, in which I had copies of a student magazine called “Aaghaaz” that we publish. I had returned after a solidarity protest on University Grants Commission’s decision to discontinue the Non-NET fellowship from Mumbai University Kalina campus. I might have not looked as clean as the others, so the police officer asked only to me open my bag, many others passed by without being asked to do so. I showed him the books and magazines that I had. I was rushing to get a seat because it was crowded and my friend had reserved a seat for me. While he was checking my bag, I joked that I don’t have either a bomb or black ink, (black ink has become famous in Mumbai recently after the actions of the Shiv Sena before the book release of Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri).
The officer was clearly not amused, and asked me for more details. On hearing my name, he said “tum to khud bomb ho, tumhe bomb leke aane ki zaroorat nahi”( You don’t need to carry a Bomb, you are yourself a Bomb!)
Being in Mumbai for the last five years, seeing, encountering and engaging with Mumbai police is not new for me, but the feeling after listening to this I had never had, even when I was detained or arrested in the number of protests in Mumbai on various issues with Dalit, students and other democratic rights organizations in the city.
I smiled at the officer as I do to anyone who call me Kasab, and told him thank you.
The Police system is supposed to be the custodian of people, especially those who are vulnerable in society, but if they themselves are reinforcing the stereotypes in the society, the vulnerable will not have faith in the state and its machinery. Tomorrow, I might be called a terrorist by police, or might get picked up for just being someone from a particular community, as is happening across the country.
Ajmal Khan A.T is a researcher and activist with Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights (CPDR) Mumbai.