The bigot in my drawing room

In Hindustan Times: Atul Kochhar is the symbol of a far more widespread problem – the normalization of prejudice against Muslims.

I run into my college friend after a gap of some years. Post the usual small-talk, she wants to know my views on the tolerance/intolerance debate. I tell her I am worried about the erosion of this country’s social fabric in recent years.

Elaborate, she says.

Muslims, I tell her, at least the ones I speak to, are scared of living in this new India. They worry that they are being watched all the time. They worry that the mutton they cook at home could at any minute turn into beef and this would have deadly consequences for them. They worry about their children. They are just scared.

Good, she says. They should be scared.

A young entrepreneur I meet impresses me with his business vision. Then he wants to know why we aren’t a Hindu nation, why Muslims have so many kids and why ‘they’ live in segregated mohallas?

I’ve lost count of the number of such conversations over the years. They come not from amorphous lynch mobs in Jharkhand or Twitter eggheads chanting unimaginatively Go-to-Pakistan. They come from people I know, some of whom I call my friends, others are members of my extended family. They come at me as Whatsapp forwards from school groups and family groups. Beware of Muslim peeping toms filming women (Hindu women?) in toilets was this week’s Whatsapp forward.

When did bigotry become so easy, and when did that bigot enter my drawing room?

For me here’s the dilemma: Which way do you go? Cut ties or engage in dialogue? Alas, with each side cloaked in its absolute righteousness, talk often descends into a shouting match.

But, burdened by the belief that I must speak up for the India in which I grew up where we knew our classmates by their names, not religion, I tend to engage, although it’s hard to keep the shrill edge out of my voice.

It’s exhausting. And I can only admire the tenacity of women like Nazia Erum, author of Mothering a Muslim (please read it if you haven’t already) who has for two years now been part of a growing group that organizes interfaith iftars in the belief that if people get to know each other, the prejudice and stereotypes will dissolve. The first interfaith iftar, she says, was prompted by an April 2017 survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies that found that only 33% of Hindus said they had a close friend who was Muslim. “Maybe that’s why it is so easy to buy into the rumours,” says Erum.

“When I was researching my book I found that children as young as five are telling their friends that, yes, they are Muslim but, no, they don’t eat beef,” she says. It is heart-breaking.

This business of innuendo and suspicion casts a pall over the ‘best’ homes and schools. “When leaders propagate hate, prejudices get normalized,” says Erum.

NRI chef Atul Kochhar’s tweet claiming that Hindus have been terrorized by Islam for 2,000 years is not an isolated tweet but part of this larger pattern. That there was a backlash against him at all, is to do with the fact that his clients are based in countries out of India, including in Dubai. Within India, it’s all in a day’s work and people have said, and continue to say, far worse.

Those who seek to defend Kochhar’s tweets on the ground of freedom of express miss one vital point. Surely, if Kochhar has the freedom to express his personal views on a public platform, then organizations that associate with him have the right to sever their ties with him, particularly if those views go against their own core values. Ultimately, James Damore was given the boot by Google for going public with an opinion that was at direct variance with the company’s policies on diversity, including gender inclusion.

The 24-hour news outrage cycle over Chef Kochhar will run its course, leaving only a bitter after-taste.

Yet, hate rarely exists in a bubble. When bigotry piles up and rumour goes unchallenged, we make monsters out of our own citizens, divide the nation into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and weaken our core foundational beliefs. Left unchallenged, it makes hate an ordinary emotion, something that we may actually get used to. It robs minds of the capacity to think. Allowed to flourish, it leads to riots and genocide.

Ultimately, we weaken ourselves, but in the meanwhile I’m still wondering what to do about the bigot in my drawing room.

See the article in Hindustan Times

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