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Us and them


Twenty years ago this week, I was in a deep sleep typical of people below 30 years, until the persistent ring of the telephone woke me. At the other end was a friend, a Hindu.

His voice trembled as he said: "It is happening in Ayodhya. They are demolishing the Babri Masjid." At those words my late morning grogginess sloughed off, as did the chrysalis of innocence in which I lived, from which emerged another man who was to discover a world tucked beyond the then existing limits of political imagination. It was a world in which hatred was the language of politics and violence a legitimate, even righteous, expression of inexplicable indignation.

Wherever we were, and whatever our identity, the new imagination challenging credulity transformed each of us to the degree he or she was affected. Such was the cataclysmic nature of 6 December, 1992, forever etched in the annals as the day on which a medieval mosque in Ayodhya was demolished to undo the wrong of history. That 'that medieval structure', it was claimed, was built on the spot where had been born Lord Rama. To commemorate the date as the day on which the Babri Masjid was destroyed is to render banal its significance.

It was the day on which emerged in the Indian society a new faultline. The word 'they', as my friend had used, acquired another meaning. Who constituted 'they' and who 'we'? Religion was not always the factor determining membership to either of the two categories. You were 'they' or 'we' depending on your position on the Babri Masjid, whether you believed its destruction was a wedge driven into the very heart of India or, alternatively, an expression of Hindu resurgence, necessary as well as inevitable.

Across the fault 'us' and 'them' stood eyeball to eyeball, though not in Ayodhya where on the rubble of the Babri Masjid was erected a makeshift temple and the town ultimately placed under curfew but in conversations
conducted in our drawing rooms. 'Them' and 'us' wrote in the newspapers, openly making it known to which category they belonged.

The differences between the two groups were irreconcilable. It was thought pointless to engage members of the rival group in debate because it could have no closure. Soon suspicion seeped in; you avoided talking of the Babri Masjid, even politics, with those who you believed were on the other side. Such suspicion engendered possibilities of sundering friendships, for it was always a shock to discover a friend whom you had known for years belonging to 'them'.

I realised this in the months following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. An old college friend had come over home to spend an evening. Two days earlier, I had voted in the Delhi state assembly election, and the voter ink on my fingernail was still visible. My friend asked me whether I had voted the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which along with the parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had spearheaded the anti-Babri Masjid campaign? I skirted around his question. He persisted, I stonewalled him. Exasperated, the friend muttered, "As long as you didn't vote the BJP, it is fine with me."

How could I vote the BJP, I countered. He smiled, and I understood he had been trying to convey that he did not belong to 'them', that he did not wish to directly advertise his political affiliation lest I was to misconstrue it. He mentioned a few names from our shared past who had celebrated the demolition of the Babri Masjid. We wondered whether our college too had succumbed to the polarisation that the politics around the Babri Masjid had caused all around us.

It was heartening to note that religion was not the overarching canopy under which the 'us' banded together. Yet certain complexities could not be ignored. Every Muslim was deemed to belong to 'us'. It was impossible
for him or her to belong to 'them', not because they all revered mosques but largely because the existence or destruction of the Babri Masjid symbolised their future status in India. The converse was therefore equally true: the category of 'them' had to consist only of Hindus, obviously not all of them, for there were many who, like my two friends, were firmly in the camp of 'us'.

Yet the patently lopsided distribution of religious communities in 'us' and 'them' underlined the sociological truism that an individual's identity is thrust upon him or her. You are Muslim because others consider you to be, because to put it crudely, your name will be reason enough for you to be targeted. It is this fear which reinforced the tendency among Muslims to live in ghettos, where they are relatively insulated from experiencing the dehumanizing feeling of fear.

The imposition of identity is precisely the reason that despite the existence of two rival camps of non-religious 'us' and 'them' the Muslim community, on and after 6 December, became the 'other'. No doubt, the BJP sought to create the 'other' for papering over the innumerable divides in India's Hindu society, reflected in its hierarchical division of castes. Yet the party was unable to implement its agenda of making religion as the basis of nationhood.

The BJP failed to achieve its goal because it couldn't muster a simple majority in the Indian parliament on its own. But this wasn't because it lost the ideological tussle between 'us' and 'them. Rather, it was largely a result of subaltern castes preferring to support parties representing them than backing the BJP, which is the preserve of upper castes. Twenty years from 1992, 'us' and 'them' are, once again, divided sharply over the suitability of Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the Indian state of Gujarat becoming the prime minister of India. The battle rages on, so little has changed.

1. Tashi Lama
Thank you Ajaz Ashraf for writing this interesting article, which makes us to understand how the mentality of religious differences are created and occurs, and then how the people of little knowledge and understanding fuels a fire of hatred, starting with the words "us and they". You pondered out the points, which enhances our understanding with reason to safe guard our society and community living together with beliefs on different religions. 

Just living with blind faith and living with hatred on other faith is not a religion, it is indeed called re-legion! with all these nonsense of holy wars. But to be honest and frankly, it doesn't exist in Buddhism. May be this so called holy wars might have been misinterpreted by the radical groups of different faiths later on!    

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)