What It Means To Be An Indian Atheist With A ‘Muslim’ Name
As the nation is debating who is ‘anti-national’ and who is not, the focus is mainly on three people- Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Though Kanhaiya Kumar is out on bail and has impressed millions with his speech, Umar and Anirban are still in jail. Both of them went underground after Kanhaiya’s arrest on 11th February and resurfaced at JNU campus on 22nd February. Umar gave a speech there, where he talked about how he had been falsely linked with Islamic terrorist organizations, how people in power claimed without evidence that he had visited Pakistan (he doesn’t even have a passport), how his father’s past link with SIMI was brought into light- all because of his ‘Muslim’ name. He told the gathering about him being reduced to his Muslim identity, of which, being an atheist, he had been unaware of before the unfolding of recent events. Listening to his speech, I thought of writing my own account of carrying a ‘Muslim’ surname in India without having faith. This is a note of a personal journey but since, personal is political, this is a political note too.
I was born in a lower middle class family of West Bengal. My father comes from a Muslim family and my mother comes from a middle caste Hindu family (She belongs to the caste ‘aguri’ which is a hybridization of Rajput Khsatriyas and lower caste population of Bengal. Before the operation burga of Left Front Govt. these aguri caste used to be the local landlords with lots of agricultural property). They met each other in college, fell in love and got married. Both of them were active members of Communist Party of India (Marxist). They were both agnostic in their religious view. It was my father who first taught me that there is no God. However my mother used to go to some temples occasionally (mostly before my school exams) but my father never said anything. But with time, my mother also lost faith and stopped her temple visits. In my home, no religion festivals were observed ever (except BhaifNota, what north Indians call Bhaidyuj). But I used to take part in every festival. During Durga Puja, when my little town used to turn into a carnival, I went pandal hopping with my parents and later with friends. During Eid, my mother used to cook special dishes and some Muslim friends of mine or my parents would come over with a tiffin carrier full of Mutton and paratha. During Christmas, my father would take me to some churches and on return home, we would buy some fruit cakes. But I was never taught how to offer a namaz or a puja, nor I was circumcised. I was brought up to be a man without religion. Like most of the Bengali bhodrolok communists, my parents were also caste blind and upto a certain time I was completely unaware of caste and the privileges it gives me (It is only after coming to Mumbai that I became caste conscious). I was growing up to be a religion-less, ‘casteless’ man.
But religion did not leave me alone for long. I remember the first time I was asked about my religion. I was at a play school then and some friends there asked my religion. I could not answer. When I told my parents, they took me to one of their comrades who was at that time the district secretary of CPI(M). The dhoti punjabi clad comrade took me in his lap and said in a firm voice “Next time if anyone asks your religion, tell them that you are a human being.” Since then whenever I was asked about my religion, I repeated these words, not realizing that it can never satisfy others. As I grew up I continued to face these questions on my religious identity, although in all official documents my religion was recorded as humanity. During childhood, these questions were just innocent ones asked by my friends after getting to know my parents name and both my parents and I hoped that nobody will ask me these questions if I can successfully get up through the ladder of economic and cultural class.
But we were wrong. I was good in studies and got chance to do M.Sc in Physics from one of the premier institutes of the nation. After completing M.Sc, I started to do PhD from the same institute. Meanwhile, I got attracted to Marxism and was introduced to the world literature and cinema. I became an atheist by choice. But the question of religious identity never left me. What was earlier an innocent remark, is now used to question my politics. So, when some friends of mine organized a rally protesting the genocide in Gaza by the Zionist state of Israel and I sent a mail to the internal community of my institute, someone replied saying that I am doing this because I am a Muslim and I could not convince him that it’s not very wise to guess someone’s religion from a surname.
When I had been talking against capital punishment before Yakub Memon’s hanging, some people declared that I was doing so because of my Muslim identity and again I failed to convince them that I am not one. My friends with a ‘Hindu’ surname who opposed capital punishment also faced abuses from the people who supported it but I am sure that their arguments of opposition to capital punishment were never reduced to their identity. When I talk against growing Islamophobia, there is somebody at some corner accusing me of being blind to my own religion and this time I have given up convincing them knowing that it is of no use. When I protest and talk against Rohith Vemula’s suicide (wrong term, it is an institutional murder and that is why we are protesting), there would be some liberal ‘casteless’ (I am not one anymore as I understand that I have had all the privileges of an upper caste Bengali bhodrolok) person accusing me of ‘politicizing’ the issue (you can’t politicize an already political murder, how cute!) because I am a Muslim and Rohith talked against Yakub’s hanging. I am sure none of my progressive friends had to face this ridiculous stream of arguments from Manuwadis. Though I faced this question of identity in politics most, it never constrained itself in political sphere only. When I started dating my girlfriend (now my wife), somebody warned her that I am a Muslim as an advice (fortunately, it didn’t matter to her)! When I applied for my passport for the first time and was routinely summoned at the CID office in Mumbai, the concerned officer asked me, looking at my form, “Are you a Bangladeshi or a Pakistani?”
But I didn’t face this only from the majority community of this nation. Once a Muslim guy from my institute sent a friend request on Facebook. After I accepted his request, he told me over message that he liked to connect with the Muslim students of the institute and asked me why he hadn’t seen me in the gatherings of Muslim students of the institute. It made him disappointed when I replied that I do not consider myself as a Muslim.
After all these, I realized that I can never get rid of my Muslim identity, whether I practice Islam or not. It doesn’t matter that I am an atheist and a socialist who is inclined towards Marxism. I know that I would have to bear this identity all my life. Amartya Sen, in his book “Identity and Violence”, argues that throughout our life, each of us carries different identities simultaneously. But then, there are some identities which are not our own, but have been forced upon us. My ‘Muslim’ identity is a forced identity. And if you carry some marginalized identity, whether owned by you or forced upon you, you will continue to be reduced to that identity only. We reduce the LGBT community to their sexual identity, women to their gender identity, Muslims to their religious identity, dalits to their caste identity. Whether I want it or not, the world will try to reduce me to my ‘Muslim’ identity only.
It’s only the leftist people across party line and a few friends, who never reduced my politics or my individuality to a particular identity and it’s them only with whom I can engage in debates without the fear of being reduced to that identity. Sometimes my father tells me that it would be better, had they not given me any surname, people would not have identified me as a Muslim so easily (because my parents wanted me to be someone sans religious identity). But I do not see it in that way. Since, ‘Muslim’ is a marginalized identity in India, other people identifying myself as a Muslim helps me to identify myself with other marginalized sections.
I can feel what Rohith Vemula wanted to convey when he wrote “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility.” Without slightly knowing you, people will reduce you to a particular identity, especially if it is a marginalized identity and if you embrace that identity and stand up against marginalization, the same people will accuse you of “doing politics”. I can relate myself with a dalit, a muslim, a woman, a LGBT person, a Kashmiri in India and a pandit in Kashmir, a black in USA, a Kurd in Turkey, a blasphemous in Saudi, an Arab in Israel. It’s through this prism of imposed ‘Muslim’ identity of mine, that I can relate with all the marginalized people of our planet and I thank my parents for letting me bear this marginalized identity and yet teaching me to go beyond this identity.