Partitioning “Us” and “Them”: The politics of othering
By Sabiha Farhat
My home is where Gurgaon ends and Delhi begins. It is on the border of two states. So I have to constantly ‘fight’ for amenities with state authorities on both sides. Both Gurgaon and Delhi municipalities neglect us! Gurgaon water doesn’t reach us, the green belt on the border is encroached upon by the land mafia, the entry road to Gurgaon is encroached upon by autowallahs, garbage dumps are not cleared as there is confusion on whose garbage it is! Living on the border has made an activist out of me. It has also made me acutely aware of how Partitions act upon one’s physicality and psychology.
Borders and partitions define each other. To me their essence is negative, at least in the human world. I wonder if there are places where one would willingly embrace partitions – of mind or space. Why do we keep the partitions alive if they are painful? Why don’t we bury the past and move on? Why do they become a wound that refuses to heal? What would it take to heal these wounds so that no scars are left, so that we can move on free and unhindered?
We are shaped by our narratives of our existence, defined by circumstances, impressions, reactions, and reflections to happenings around ourselves. It is simply a state of being, that acts upon us unless we actively engage with ourselves.
The first unrest that came into our lives was when my father was suspended from his government job during the Emergency period. He was suspended for refusing to go through ‘nasbandi’ or forced sterilisation. He was willing to give an affidavit that he would abide by the State’s rule on the number of children, but the State had just one rule. Either sterilization or suspension. No job meant no salary on which depended our survival. What my father went through in those days was revealed to us only a few years ago. We went through a shortage of kerosene oil, ‘dalda-ghee’, sugar, milk, aata, pulses, soap…everything! We were packed off to my grandfather’s house for a few days. One day, my eldest khala and my cousins also joined us. My khala had been unable to buy ghee* near her home. It wasn’t available in regular markets at the regular price. My grandfather managed to get some of it for her with great difficulty by taking some obligations. As they were leaving for home, the custody of ghee was given to my 15-year-old cousin just so my khala could wave down a cycle rickshaw. In that moment all hell broke loose. My cousin dropped the container of ghee on the road! The ghee spilled out. My khala went into a shock. My cousin froze as he realized the enormity of his mistake. My khala reacted by spanking him hard on the face. And then all of us picked up the ghee from the road, a dirty, smelly road, from which we were never allowed to pick up anything, from that same road we picked up the ghee and put it back in the container. My khala literally cried over the spilling of that ghee. It was brought home, sieved through cloth and used for cooking. The state of Emergency taught us the word ‘black market’; it was a Partition between the State and it’s own People.
In 2015, on Jai Prakash Narayan’s birthday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to felicitate BJP-RSS members who went to jail during Emergency. Why was he interested in felicitating politicians, who had already capitalized on their ‘Emergency struggles’ to gain political power? Why is the memory of such a partition important to Modi? The motive is simple: this deflects from his own ‘authoritarian’ reality and maintains the sham of democracy! It works as propaganda amongst the ‘masses’ that he is with the ‘defenders of democracy’, even though his actions are completely opposite.
Today, 40 years after Emergency, the state’s writ is once again the final word. Beef ban. Demonitisation. Love Jihad. Ghar Wapsi. All campaigns that have led to socio-economic partitions. Modi’s speeches as well as his silences on these issues testify his tacit approval of these separations in India. In fact, he and his party has worked hard to create partitions by using economic, social, religious, cultural, regional, historical, and even linguistic identities of Indians. There is a gorge between those who agree with his ideology and those who disagree. But the government has shown grave intolerance to dissent, the most integral force of democracy. The Modi sarkar has redefined dissent as ‘anti-national’ and ‘sedition’.
A few slogans in JNU were enough for the government to push its forces against a handful of students. Only a tyrannical government would press charges of sedition on students, who raised slogans of azadi from state repression and casteist practices. The government arrested students, suspended classes, banned gatherings within university and installed its own stooges as administrative heads. Only an insecure government would do this. Why was the government scared of students’ dissent? Because the students were refusing to abide by its definition of ‘nationalism’ and therefore could have generated a ‘different’ idea of it. The government was trying to crush ‘thinking’. Thinking leads to ‘criticism’. Only an authoritarian government will crush criticism. Indian universities have been the prime targets of the Modi sarkar. Freedom of expression has been ‘contained’. JNU. Allahabad University. Hyderabad University. Jadhavpur University. TISS. FTII. Delhi University. All these institutions of higher education are under assault from government. Freedom of expression is non negotiable in a democracy but by targeting dissenters, this government has revealed its authoritan face.
Hence Modi’s felicitation of ‘defenders of democracy’ rings hollow, ironic, banal. To my eyes, it is only the politicians who have reaped a politically rich harvest from their ‘struggles’ of Emergency. We, the people, on the other hand, were the losers then and are the losers today. We are where we were – freedom of expression was under threat then, it is so today; the right to practice one’s religion was under threat then, it is so today; dissent was crushed then, it is crushed today; universities were the battleground then, so they are today. The state of ‘Emergency’ is back in India. We are under an undeclared Authoritarian rule. History is being manipulated, books are being re-written, fake news is shown as reality, rational thinkers are eliminated, so much so that those who are being manipulated believe that they are acting of their own free will.
At sixteen, I was witness to ‘use of people against people’ to establish unchecked political authority. We lived in West Punjabi Bagh. It was a laidback afternoon when cries of ‘Jai Bhavani’ resonated through the lanes of our DDA neighbourhood. We rushed out to see groups of people on ‘tempos’ going past us. The cries sounded threatening. Even as I write this, I can feel my heart racing just like it did that day. Within a couple of hours, all of us were forced inside, all doors and windows were shut. We sneaked on to the terrace and saw our colony Gurudwara going up in flames! And then we saw flames rising out of the ‘big’ Gurudwara of Punjabi Bagh too. It was at least four kilometres away and yet the fire could be seen from our rooftop. Smoke rose up in all directions like black clouds. The crowd chanted ‘Jai Bhavani’ while taking rounds of our colony, its volume growing loud and rowdy by the minute. We were put to bed early that day. My association with Gurudwara was that of Langar days. An aunty from the neighbourhood would take me to make aata ka pedas while she made rotis. It used to be a community feast in which all of us children were given ‘duties’.
When I went down the next day, Daddy and Singh uncle were having their morning tea, windows tightly shut, curtains drawn and the front door locked from inside. Singh uncle had slept the night in our house and he stayed with us for next two days. But he had three sons, all older than me, and his wife who were staying in their own flat. They had managed to send their daughter away. The fear and worry on his face was visible even to me. The morning newspaper that day carried images of a mob chasing a Sikh man, torched houses, burning tyres. Nobody knew what was happening, Uncle was desperate to get news of his family, relatives and friends but there was no way. Only a few houses had telephones and nobody could venture out. It was 1984. Abetted by politicians and a complicit state machinery, nearly 4,000 Sikhs were hacked, burnt, stabbed to death in Delhi alone, women and children included. This was the first time I realised that Hindus and Sikhs were of different religious identities. I knew Muslims and Christians were ‘separate’ identities but 1984 proved that ‘Sikhs’ were ‘different’ from Hindus too.
My mother later said that she was privately heckled by a few ladies in the neighbourhood for standing by Singh uncle’s family in those days. Some of my friends had said, “Sikhs asked for it. ” These are the same friends, who now tell me, “Muslims provoke. ” I have a feeling they want to say, “Muslims deserve it. ” I think they will not hesitate to say, “Dalits deserve it. ” And so I have lost many a friend. Their narrative always begins with Aurangzeb and his atrocities on Sikhs. Very conveniently they present unverified information from centuries ago but forget their own violent acts going back to just 30 years!
A few days ago, during one of my visits to the SDM’s office in Kapashera (Delhi border), I met an old Sikh man who had come with his granddaughter to collect a compensation cheque of five lakh rupees for his losses in 1984. Can any amount compensate for what he must have gone through during the genocide of 1984? Have we learned our lessons? Or are we prisoners of our State’s manipulative formulas to keep us partitioned within?
Communalism and casteism have come to be the mainstay of Indian politics. Aggression of the majority is normal. Suppression of minorities by brute force is normal. Only the targets of hate have changed. Identified as outsiders, Muslims are the ‘other’ in ‘our’ land. This partition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is bleeding India once again. The ‘hate narrative’ draws on the old tactics of ‘demonisation’ of Muslims. They are scary, they are outsiders, they are the enemy within.
This hideous politics is what has brought the BJP-RSS to power. And now to sustain this power, they need to whip up passions before every state election, with their ‘hate-for-the- other’ ideology. A terrorist attack in Kashmir leaves a Muslim in UP vulnerable to public abuse, insult, humiliation, and physical beating.
All this polarization and compartmentalization cannot take India forward. The world is shrinking, we will have to free ourselves of these partitions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Unless we walk together as one people we are not going anywhere. I wonder if my small ‘fights’ with local municipal authorities for better roads, clean water, green belt, and garbage collection hold any meaning in an India where my name is my identity. And I have a ‘Muslim’ name, a name nobody wants in today’s India.
*Ghee those days came in a semi-solid / semi liquid form unlike today’s refined oils.
Photo-credit: Bhaswati Ghosh
Sabiha Farhat is a Delhi- based documentary filmmaker and writer. Over the past twenty years, she has also worked on non-fiction television programming in India.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.