Muslims Not Welcome in Mumbai

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

Emraan Hashmi’s reputation precedes him. Since he burst forth on India’s rather crowded silver firmament some years ago, the young actor has remained in the news. The star has raised many an eyebrow in and outside Bollywood by complaining of ‘discrimination’ in Mumbai because of his faith.

The actor has claimed that his attempts to buy an apartment in the upscale Pali Hill in the country’s financial and cultural capital have been frustrated by the housing society concerned “because I am a Muslim.” ‘I am not a terrorist,’ protested a visibly irate and agitated actor in a media interaction this week.  The housing society officials, however, deny the charge.

Emraan is not the first Muslim star to raise alarm over “religious bias” in Bombay or Mumbai. Some of the country’s biggest movie stars have complained of being denied the right to live where they want because of their beliefs. 

Veteran activist-actress Shabana Azmi and Saif Ali Khan, one of the four big Khans of Bollywood, had been hounded for months by the shrill, holier-than-thou television networks for suggesting they faced discrimination in the country’s most cosmopolitan city.           

Not surprisingly, Emraan’s accusations have sparked another predictable debate with the permanent television fixtures that pass for ‘experts’ and ordinary Indians, who take everything about Bollywood rather seriously, joining the conversation with a passion that comes rather naturally to us in the South Asia.  

Salman Khan, the original bad boy of the tinsel town known for his runs-in with law and his stormy, suicidal affairs, has slammed Emraan’s claim saying if religious discrimination had been at work in Mumbai, Emraan wouldn’t be the big star that he is today. 

Salman, who’s been rather enjoying his new avatar as a television host, has rather reasonably argued that if there had been any substance in Emraan’s claim, Muslim actors like Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan himself would not be what they are today, India’s biggest superstars. 

As for the ever effervescent Shah Rukh Khan, the reigning emperor of the world’s biggest movie industry, he plays safe. Even though, Shah Rukh emphasizes, one cannot deny the presence of discrimination in some places, what happened in Emraan’s case is a “one-off incident and should not be given too much importance. “We are a fast growing nation and we should not allow such little incidents to affect us.”

Both Salman and Shah Rukh are right, of course. On the other hand, it is not possible to ignore the issue raised by Emraan Hashmi, and before him, by Shabana Azmi and Saif Ali Khan either. After all, the three actors in question are the most liberal of their generations and can hardly be accused of cheering for Taleban or being typical examples of ‘conservative Muslims’. Reality, as always, lies somewhere in between.  

If our most popular stars have to face this, imagine the plight of ordinary people like you and me. This is something that India’s leaders, intellectuals, opinion makers and the media cannot afford to ignore. They have to confront this narrow, clannish mindset that divides and discriminates against fellow human beings on the basis of their creed, caste and color. This mindset goes against all that this great country claims to champion and stand for.   

Maybe Emraan is just being paranoid in seeing discrimination in the housing society’s refusal to sell him the apartment. But when a liberal artist like Shabana, whose illustrious family has been so closely associated with India’s freedom struggle and Progressive writers’ movement, complains of discrimination, you’ve got to sit up and take notice. 

Notwithstanding India’s phenomenal progress on all fronts and broadening of a billion horizons, this disease has grown at an alarming pace in recent years. And Mumbai is no exception. All thanks to the decades of divisive, hateful politics and propaganda onslaught by extremist groups and parties like RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal. The Ayodhya temple-mosque confrontation of the 1980’s and 1990’s brought the long dormant, primitive sentiments to boil poisoning Hindu-Muslim relations. 

Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, whose parochial campaign began by targeting the so-called outsiders in the 1960’s, went on to reinvent the Muslim-bashing as an art form. 

The self-styled tiger might have lately grown too old or too ill to roar. However, the people of Mumbai and Maharashtra, or for that matter the rest of India, can never forget Thackeray’s venom-spitting speeches or his equally uplifting editorials in Saamna.    

On the other hand, if Muslims are increasingly finding themselves unwelcome in their own cities and towns and in the land of their ancestors, some credit should go to our friends across the border in Pakistan. 

India’s often explosive and at best of times blow-hot, blow-cold relations with its Muslim neighbor and the numerous terror attacks across the country, ostensibly the handiwork of groups based across the Line of Control, have also immensely contributed to this sad state of affairs. 

Tune in to any news channel at any time of the day and you are most likely to be treated to another ‘special’ on ‘Sarhad Paar Se Aatank’ (terror from across the border).

Now I know we in India are facing a clear and present danger in global terror and we have indeed repeatedly suffered on this front, thanks to the outfits that have operated out of Pakistan for years with impunity. 

But does that mean we as a nation should ceaselessly moan about Pakistan, ISI and their ‘conspiracies’ to destroy India? If you were to believe the pundits on Aaj Tak, Zee News and of course our good ol’ Doordarshan, ISI appears to be running the affairs of our world. 

Now, I wouldn’t really lose sleep over this endless Pakistan-bashing in Indian media or its tired, old and much recycled conspiracy theories. 

The trouble is, this Pakistan-centric reportage and ‘expert analysis and commentary’ often degenerates into anti-Muslim ranting and insinuations and incriminations. As a result, even as Indian Muslims bend over backwards to ‘renounce’ Pakistan and repent the Original Sin of the Partition, their position becomes ever more precarious in the eyes of their countrymen.  

So even though I’ve never faced any discrimination either at work or as a lone Muslim at my university, I think I know what Emraan Hashmi is talking about or why people like him feel unwelcome at times.    

This happening in a city like Mumbai, home to Bollywood, is a true tragedy. For nothing epitomizes and celebrates India’s fabled tolerance, plural character and its breathtaking religious and cultural diversity as the film industry does. The Muslims, struggling and straggling in all walks of national life for at least two centuries, have excelled in every art and realm in Bollywood. 

From gifting some of the finest filmmakers to singers, writers and poets to the biggest box office stars, Muslims have immensely contributed to the industry that makes movies twice the number Hollywood produces each year. This is why it’s remarkable that Muslims should be denied home in a city that has been so special to them and remains a powerful symbol of India’s pluralism and generous spirit. 

So where do Muslims go from here? There are two ways of dealing with the problem. Either you cry yourselves hoarse and huff and puff over this continuing ‘discrimination’ and ‘injustice’. This is what we have done all these years and it comes rather easily to us. But it will get us nowhere. It hasn’t in the past six decades or so. 

The other option before India’s Muslims is to work harder to make themselves more welcome and acceptable to their host societies and neighbors – by their conduct, their behavior and their general approach to life. It is past time we broke out of our mental ghettoes, mixing more freely and determinedly with other communities. This is not an easy option. But this is the only way to make ourselves more at home in this great country – and elsewhere on the planet. It’s time to open our windows and let in some fresh air.

– Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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