Prejudice and the Middle-Class Muslim

Photo: Tehelka Archives
Photo: Tehelka Archives

In the prevailing climate of anti-Muslim “social common sense” in the middle class and the State, life is hard not just for working-class Muslims but also for Muslims who are otherwise protected by being embedded in the  middle classes.

In Aman Biradari, where I work, we have tried hard to create pluralist work spaces in which everyone feels welcome. I am proud that many of our staff are Muslim, not by any conscious reservation, but by striving for an environment where they feel as safe and welcomed as any other person. There is also a great mixing of classes, as many staff members are working-class people who have had fewer chances at formal education, who work with full equality with more conventionally educated middle-class social workers and lawyers.

I like to observe how the consciousness of the differences of faith has dissolved in our pluralist work spaces, and people are evaluated and friendships and alliances made based on qualities of character rather than identity or class. Festivals are also effortlessly shared. The only time I find my Muslim colleagues suddenly reminded of their ‘separate’ identity is when news filters in of terror attacks, especially within India. I find, all at once, that their bodies are taut, their eyes downcast, their voices subdued and their faces pensive. A few months after the bomb explosion in Sarojini Nagar Market in Delhi in October 2005, I was told that a young man who serves tea in the office asked the Muslim staff, “Is there a Muslim festival these days?”

They said no, and asked him why he thought there was one. “Oh, because you all are blasting bombs, I thought this was your way of celebrating a festival.” No one complained, but I felt saddened that we were still unable to shield my colleagues from the bigotry of the wider world even in
our offices.

But I probably should not have been surprised. How could they be protected from the growing intolerance and bigotry of urban middle-class spaces? In fact, all of them without exception confide about problems they face in renting houses outside Muslim ghettoes like Jamia and Chandni Chowk. The pattern is familiar. The house owner, on the verge of sealing the deal, asks for their names and then never gets back. (If things are bad for Muslim families, they are worse for single Muslim women. The worst off are Kashmiris.) While some house-owners blithely state that they will not rent their spaces out to “meat-eaters”, others are still more direct; they state, frankly, that Muslims may have “terror links” and are unsuitable as tenants.

Ather Farouqi, reporting on the ghettoisation of Muslims, states that no multinational bank ­provides the inhabitants of Muslim colonies with credit cards; multinational pizza and burger outlets based in upmarket areas close to “Muslim ghettoes” refuse to deliver in these areas. Even housing loans are not extended by most nationalised banks in ‘Muslim’ areas like Jamia Nagar in Delhi and New Delhi.

Academics Sukhadeo Thorat and Paul Attewell report the findings of an interesting study to determine whether the likelihood of receiving a positive response from an employer differed according to whether the application was made by someone with a high-caste, a Muslim or a Dalit name. Even though the applications were otherwise identical, the Dalit name was approximately one-third less likely to get called for an interview, and the Muslim name was two-thirds less likely.

Looking Away Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India harsh mander Speaking Tree 464 pp; Rs 495

Both in mixed employment and housing spaces, to the extent that they exist, there tends to be a bias against Muslim persons who are religious or wear cultural markers like beards or head-scarves. They are seen as “fundamentalist” whereas a temple-going Hindu man with his forehead conspicuously strewn with ash, rice-grain and vermilion is merely god-fearing. But even those who are more cosmopolitan in dress and demonstrate no perceptible religious fervour are still frequently stereotyped, on the presumption that they carry regressive ‘Muslim’ positions on issues. On television, if the “Muslim viewpoint” on an issue is solicited — as though there is any such homogenised Muslim position on any issue — then a maulvi is summoned, and he will never disappoint the reporter by airing the most anti-women and regressive views possible.

Concurrently, a ‘Hindu’ position on issues is rarely presumed. Pluralist views are sought and presented from a diversity of ‘Hindu’ opinions. If a Hindu godman is interviewed, there is no doubt that he does not speak for the rest of us. A middle-class Muslim still has to carry the burdens of the misogynist maulvi, whatever her personal positions on the matters at hand may be.

People sometimes object to employing Muslim domestic help as well. In the cosmopolitan colony in Delhi in which I live, I still find that Muslim part-time domestic help initially adopt non-Muslim names. Only after they are comfortable with you, do they share their Muslim identities. Barin Ghosh, who ran a domestic help agency in Kolkata until recently, affirmed that many recruitment agencies help Muslims find jobs by introducing them as Hindu. “While seeking domestic helps, as much as 80 percent of the Hindu clients informed us that they would not employ any Muslims,” Ghosh said. When responding to taxi bookings, agencies sometimes ask, “Driver Muslim hai. Chalega? (The driver is Muslim. Will that work for you?)”

Incidentally, I have found Muslim street children also deploying the same defence mechanism. They give religiously neutral names, like Munna or Raju. It is only when they know you well that they disclose their real names. They report that the police are likely to deal much more harshly and violently with them if they state a Muslim name.

But the most disappointing finding for me is the experience of middle-class Muslim children in elite schools. Many Muslim friends report commonplace stories of their small children returning from school in tears, because they were called “Osama” or a terrorist, or advised to “return” to Pakistan. A friend told me that her daughter’s teacher, after Narendra Modi’s massive election rally in Delhi in 2014, spoke glowingly in her class about the possibility of Modi becoming India’s prime minister. My friend’s daughter, because of her Muslim surname, thought it discreet to maintain silence. But the teacher picked her out and pointedly asked for her opinion. She was still noncommittal, but the teacher said that “of course” she would be against Modi because she was Muslim. My feisty friend, her mother, did not take things lying down, and complained to the school management, ensuring that the teacher was held accountable. But how many parents can ensure this?

In 2012, of 92 schools in Delhi (mostly elite private schools) which provided some sort of information on their websites, as many as 20 (or their branches) admitted no Muslim child, while 17 ­admitted only one Muslim child each. Although Muslims comprise about 15 percent of Delhi’s population, less than 0.5 percent of those admitted were Muslim children.

Us and them Muslims have a tough time looking for accommodation outside Muslim-dominated villages or urban ghettoes
Us and them Muslims have a tough time looking for accommodation outside Muslim-dominated villages or urban ghettoes

The unwritten embargo on all but a tiny fraction of Muslim children in elite schools is an open secret which, sadly, evokes little outrage. My daughter, who completed her schooling in an elite Delhi school, had at least some Muslim classmates. Her cousin in the same school a decade later had none. While data on the numbers of applications of Muslim children is hard to access, the Muslim middle class is not small — and all of them would want their children to study in these elite cosmopolitan schools. It would be safe to assume that a middle-class Muslim child is much less likely to find admission than non-Muslim children. (Children from Christian, Sikh, Parsi, Jew or other minority groups seem to face no problems in getting admission.)

I assumed that one perennial danger faced by working-class Muslim men from which middle-class Muslims are protected would be from arbitrary arrests based on allegations that they are terrorists. But even this is not always the case. This was illustrated dramatically to me some years ago. A young man worked in an IT company in Gurgaon and, one day, wrote a very short post, rudely dismissive of Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, on some social-networking site. The next thing he knew, he was arrested on terror charges and flown to Ahmedabad. His family was distraught. A friend of his family knew me and was aware that I and my colleagues were working for legal justice among the survivors of the 2002 carnage in Gujarat. She asked if we could assist them in any way. The family was terrified, and they knew no one in Gujarat. I assured her that we would treat them like our own family. We picked them up at the airport and they stayed with us for a day while we tried to help them find a lawyer. Then they suddenly disappeared, abruptly cutting us off completely. I think they had been warned that being associated with us would be dangerous in Modi’s Gujarat, because I was seen to be one of his public critics. I don’t blame them at all for letting us go after that. Negotiations were undertaken, the details of which I do not know or care to know. I think the young man apologised. A small news report appeared that the chief minister had pardoned him for his misdemeanour and he was finally released, greatly sobered after being pulled back from the brink.


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