The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

No Muslims, please!


By Nazmul Hussain

‘We are all different from each other, at least in one respect,’ said my friend during the course of a debate in the Coffee House at central Kolkata. While this might be true, I couldn’t but help wondering how human beings are also similar in at least one respect.  Who articulated this better than Amartya Sen, one of our preeminent thinkers? In Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, he pontificates on a person’s diverse identities in the modern world. The real success of this book lies in its ability to compel the reader to think beyond the boundary of the so called socially inviolable identities. Sen’s book allows me to think about our multiple identities where similarities are more prominent than dissimilarities within human races. But then why are we eager to magnify just a single identity or a couple of identities? Finding answers to such questions might not be an easy one, as we refuse to move away from the certainties of our fixed identities.

I learnt many lessons at Aligarh Muslim University, where I obtained my Ph.D. It compelled me to think beyond the caste, language, and religious divisions in our society. In my multiple identities as an Indian and, then, as a fish-and-rice eating Bengali, and a Muslim, I would like to view myself primarily as a human being.

Here I will narrate an incident that occurred recently and made me think of the identity question again.

After getting a new assignment in Kolkata, my primary concern was to resettle in a new house. Considering my financial potential, I would have preferred to settle down in a place where I could have easy access to the civic amenities and other infrastructural facilities. I am aware of the fact that Muslims in Kolkata, like in other Indian cities, live mostly in Muslim dominated ghettos. However, I was not very eager to settle down in these localities: first, because of lack of civic amenities; second, because of their distance from my workplace. The Muslim ghettos are overcrowded in most of the cities. Besides their regular inhabitants, the seasonal or long time migrated laborers, students, and job seekers look for accommodation in these areas. Zakir Nagar in South Delhi and Topsia in Kolkata are two classic examples in this regard. The condition of hygiene and communication in these localities is abysmal. Civic services are irregular and inadequate. Given an option, not many would like to settle down in these localities. Certainly, I would not like to, especially in a city known for its cultural heritage and tolerance. I would not like to be boxed into a particular identity in a place known as the ‘City of Joy.’

Some sociologists believe that large-scale mobility, both upward and downward, breaks down class structures, rendering a culture more uniform. I too believed that my individual mobility would align myself to a more uniform Bengali cultural identity. Once I settled down in the city, I discussed about renting a house with one of my colleagues and he helped me in locating a property broker. After our first meeting, on a busy Sunday morning, the broker took me to a rentable vacant house near Patuli Police Station. The house belonged to a couple whose only son lived outside Kolkata and the apartment was vacant for a long time. It looked good. As the location was near my institute and was within my budget, I was eager to seal the deal.  I agreed to the terms and conditions like two months’ rents as security deposit and one month rent in advance. My would-be landlord asked me to hand over my identity and address proof and some token advance the next day. Accordingly, I submitted all the papers and a cash amount. After completing the formalities, I left the place in a rickshaw dreaming of a new beginning in a city I love so much. While I was leaving, the broker requested me to call him at night for some paper related issues. When I called the broker at night, he apologized and said, ‘Sir, please don’t mind, the owner will not rent out his house to a Muslim. I will try for you another one.’ I was shocked and utterly confused, unable to match the couple’s outer appearance and their parochial thinking in the ‘City of Joy’. Nevertheless, I hoped to locate another house.

After the incidence, I took a break for a while and, after about two weeks, decided to contact another broker in Garia area. Now, I was a bit cautious and disclosed my identity to the broker well in advance. I asked the broker to reveal my identity to the apartment owner, when he wanted me to visit the apartment. The very next day the broker said, ‘Everything went fine in the morning until I revealed your identity. As soon as they found you were a Muslim, the house owner’s wife rushed inside the house, and called her husband in. The husband came back after ten minutes. He apologized and said that his wife had given words to someone else for the apartment and he didn’t know about it. The truth is that they will not rent their house to a Muslim. I am sorry but I will try my best to arrange a house for you.’  I was happy that the broker was honest and he felt my pain. I thought that I found a man who was eager to change this unfair practice.

Next day, the broker called me and took me to a nearby two-room apartment on ground floor. While going with the broker, I asked him if he informed the owner about my identity. He assured me that this time the owner did not have a problem in renting out the house to a Muslim. In the house, the other two floors were occupied by the owner. Things went smooth and the deal was finalized. While leaving, I told the owner: ‘Please tell it right now if you have any problem with Muslims.’ The house-owner’s wife asked her husband to call up the secretary of their association. While he spoke on the phone, I guessed from his facial expression that the society mightn’t want to rent the house to a Muslim.  I took a right turn and started leaving the house. Ending the call, the owner shouted, ‘Sorry. But if you have any Bengali friend who requires a rented house, give him my address.’

The statement shook me and forced me to think that the discrimination is not only based on religious background but also on culture and language, too.  I felt a tremor but, taking control of myself, asked the couple gently: ‘Do you think I am not Bengali?  If you don’t want to rent out your house to a Muslim, it’s okay. But, for god’s sake, don’t take away my beloved Bengali identity from me. I am both a Bengali and a Muslim. I have no problem with my multiple identities. I have no problem with your identity.’ I was not interested in discussing this further and started walking toward the bus stop. The broker didn’t try to console me this time but his face narrated it all. I shook hand and told him, ‘Thank you. Hope to see you, again.’

***

While returning from my office, I kept on thinking about my bizarre experience of house hunting in Kolkata. As I thought of possible reasons for the denial of a house, I remembered a Saadat Hasan Manto short story – ‘Ramkhelawan’ – set against the backdrop of Partition (1947), which could be one of the reasons for the gradual communalization of Kolkata. Ramkhelawan, a hardworking washerman, was indebted to a Muslim family for many reasons. Once he fell grievously ill after drinking alcohol, the wife of the Muslim couple took him to a doctor by taxi. He survived. As the partition approached, the wife left for Pakistan. The man went to collect his clothes from Ramkhelawan, as he, too, was planning to leave for Pakistan following the outbreak of violence. As he approached Ramkhelawan’s house, he could locate him among a group of people dancing with long, heavy wooden sticks in their hands. Suddenly one of them asked him whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim. The man replied that he was a Muslim. ‘Kill him, kill him’, came the response. As one of the washer-men raised his stick to hit him, suddenly Ramkhelawan stopped in his track and blurted out, ‘Sahib! He is not a Muslim; he is my Sahib, begum sahiba’s sahib…’ The man survived and safely left for Pakistan.

***

No man is indebted to me in this city. Only a few know me in this vast city. Am I safe like Sahib? Do I belong to this city? Can I live peacefully in the ‘City of Joy’? Or I will have to leave the city like Sahib? Can I fulfill my wish to stay in a better locality? When will someone call out, ‘He is Muslim but he is also my Bengali brother’?

Only time will tell.

_________________________________

An appeal: On behalf of Cafe Dissensus, we would like to appeal to the Chief Minister of West Bengal,  other officials, and the concerned citizens that we must make a concerted effort to stop this discriminating practice against Muslims. Nazmul Hussain’s case is not a one-off incident but a recurrent practice in Kolkata, a city known for its tolerance, cultural heritage, and secular credentials. One of the editors of Cafe Dissensus had to face a similar situation in Kolkata, while trying to rent an apartment a couple of years back.

__________________________________

[Dr. Nazmul Hussain is a Research Associate (Empirical) at the Center for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (India). He also worked as a Research Associate at the Association SNAP, Kolkata. He obtained his Ph. D. from Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.  His research focus includes survey research, human groups inequality, and the minorities. He has published 1 book and over 25 research articles in refereed journals. Email: nazmul10@gmail.com]

Photo credit: Here

After we published Dr. Nazmul Hussain’s story, it was picked up by Outlook Magazine and TwoCircles.net.

[Cafe Dissensus Blog is the blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine. Since it takes a lot of time and patience to persuade an author to write a piece and, also, it takes considerable time to edit a piece, we expect that those wanting to reproduce a piece from our blog would honor publishing ethics and acknowledge (with hyperlink) that the piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus.]

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8 Responses to “No Muslims, please!”

  1. Kranthi Kiran Akula

    As you all know, eating beef is a taboo in Hindu culture, and most hindus believe that most muslims eat beef. As they cannot raise such questions as to ” Do you eat beef”, they simply deny renting the house to them. Most of the vegetarians (Brahmins etc) don’t rent their house to meat eaters……even if they are hindus. They don’t bother about the money they lose and they keep the appartment/portion vacant till they find vegetarians. The same is true for the muslim house owners, who will not rent a house to people who eat pork. All these things are because people believe more in religion than in god. The ones who don’t believe in god will not have such stupid beliefs. But, even if there is one member of the family who is particular about such things in the owners house, it becomes difficult to convince them.

    My taauji has rented his house to two muslim families, That’s because he is open minded. He is a devout Hindu, but is a very liberal person.

    Religion makes us to accept people who fit in to that particular philosophy. That way, religion dictates and encourages discrimination

    Reply
  2. Tapas Ray

    Even before reading this, I was aware that the majority of people in the so-called progressive state of West Bengal is deeply communal under the skin. I am ashamed of this as a Bengali, and angry. I would really like to know why the so-called progressive movement, which has been active for almost a century now (since the 1920s) and the dominant segment of which actually ruled the state for 33 years until recently, has been unable to make a difference in this area.

    Reply
  3. Parth Mukherjee

    the touching article and the subsequent comments preceding this one of mine generate a few crucial questions in front of us all…how many or what percentage of our fellow citizens can really cherish or even tolerate the much- glorified diversity in india ? that leads to another question ,even a more serious one: is india a nation still in the making or in the breaking (at least emotionally) ? who is responsible for this ? a pernicious division on the basis of religion ? if so, why not also question the hindu-glorifying, hindi hegemony which has successfully generated thousands of alienated souls in far-flung north-east or down south. had bengal been sensitive to these various kinds unjust marginalisations,india would have seen a different kind of socio-political formation.

    Reply
  4. farha

    i feel very bad about the experince which was faced the writer of No Muslim Please! it was an individual who faces a discrimination in terms religion.i really didnt understand our constitution in which one of the right is RIGHT TO EQUALITY according to which all people are equal whether he or she is hindu,muslim,sikh etc.bt in reality it is zero.person didnt know in terms of his or her qualification bt they can be identify by their religion same case is happen with Mr Nazmul bt not a single person bt majority of people face the little bit a same problem.

    Reply
    • Nazmul Hussain

      Ms Farha
      First of all thanks for reading is still grateful, but not as personal. It gives the effect that Anton described above. In India “RIGHT TO EQUALITY” is the fallacy of equality. Constitutional assurances have been effectively used to strike down laws that go against the tenets of equality and non-discrimination. Yet when it comes to dealing with real social structural disadvantage, even these pillars of the rule of law seem to falter. This may be sound rude but still up to some extend true. My story it not the single one in fact each individual has a story to tell but each with their own perception, their own description of the past about the society. A variety of factors affect our personal experience, our memories. Perception is individual and therefore illusory. Each person will see something different; remember an event or a person through an entirely different lens. Sometimes these perceptions will be similar to others’ but never identical.

      Reply
  5. mosarraphossainkhan

    Mr. Akula: You are absolutely right. Religion, which is supposed to be the source of our moral principles, turns out to be the strongest source of discriminatory behavior. However, it must be remembered that Bengali Hindus, including Bengali brahmins, are known meat eaters. Food, barring beef in some cases, might not be the possible reason for discrimination in Calcutta. I have had Hindu friends who ate beef with relish.

    Mr. Ray: I absolutely agree with you. Bengali communalism is of a subtle kind. It’s always covert and coded in a language of liberalism. Being a Bengali Muslim, I have experienced it myself. Our subsequent regimes since independence and the so-called liberals have never done anything substantial to address this issue.

    Parth: Good to see you here. You are right, the margins hardly get noticed. More so in an environment, where Indianness/Bengaliness is coded as Hinduness. In fact, one could come up with a piece on Bengali Hindu’s perception of the marginal community in Bengal and how the margin defines/reinforces/strengthens the Bengali Hindu identity. One has to just watch the Bengali TV serial (it’s still going on) where a tribal girl from Purulia marries a genteel bhadrolok boy in Calcutta!

    Reply
  6. Kamran Ahsan

    Mr. Nazmul, Your case is not unique, Okhla is one the biggest Muslim ghettos in New Delhi, and is black listed by the all many government authorities. I would say it is like an educated slum. You must compromise the situation. Only one thing is remarkable in these ghettos is that during the time of state sponsored carnage, these ghettos are relatively safe, even Police dare not to enter.

    Reply
  7. shakir bahassan

    i think it is a stereotype of non-Muslims brothers ,because i have different experience from you basically i am from Kerala ,now pursuing MA in gandhinagar Gujarat. here my five muslim friends staying in a private room which it is belonged to a Brahman family ,so i request you ,don’t generalize the people it may harass some ones .

    Reply

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