2013, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

For Bihar’s Muslims, A Double Whammy of Silence

Darbhanga, (North Bihar): The tea arrived quickly, with slices of lime and freshly fried savouries. Beyond that, there was nothing on offer on the bare patio of Nafees Haider’s home in Bisunpur. “Kaahe ko mushkil mein daalte hain?” (Why do you want us in trouble?)

Reclined in a charpoy in a near corner, Haider’s wizened uncle, Khudabaksh, spoke into the silence, but only to buttress it. “Aap to sab samajhte honge, hum kuchh bhi bolenge ulta pad jaayega, dil ki baat dil mein hi rehne dein. Hamari soch sab par zahir hai. Chai peejiye.” (I am sure you understand everything; anything we say we turn on us, let our thoughts remain in our hearts, everybody knows what our thinking is. Have your tea.” They wouldn’t talk, the wouldn’t have a picture taken. “Kaahe ko?” Why?

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The formalities of hosting done, Haider courteously escorted us up the slope from his hamlet to the road winding one way to Darbhanga, another to Patna. “Jo hoga chunav mein to pata chal hi jaayega,” he offered as parting shot; what’s to happen will be clear in the elections.

A palpable disquiet has come to settle upon north Bihar’s Muslim pockets following the twin news flashes of Sunday — the arrival of Narendra Modi as political interventionist in Bihar, and the multiple explosions that ripped through his inaugural rally.

For Bihar’s scattered, though substantial, minorities, Sunday brought a double dose of bad news. Modi, they fear, could end up polarising communities by his very presence on the scene, and trigger tensions they’d rather do without. And the terror plotters at his public meeting will bring the needle of suspicion poking closer onto the whole community. The arrest of alleged Indian Mujahideen apparatchik and the subsequent chase on absconding actors of murder and mayhem has left the Muslims exposed to renewed apprehension — security raids, questioning arrests, mistrust and misgiving in societies they are intrinsically part of. Mohammed Mukeem, a retired government clerk, ambling off the prayer halls of the Jama Masjid at Narsipur, down the country road, was a little more assured of expressing his apprehensions than the Haiders of Bisunpur. “Hawa badi kharab ho gayi hai, lekin insaan kare to kya?” (The air has turned very troubling, but what is one to do?”

Once every while, Mukeem likes spending time around the tea-stalls at Narsipur chowk, always a good listening post on the drift of things. Lately, he said, his feeble voice no more than a trembled whisper, he hasn’t liked the kind of things he has heard. “There is a new temper that is cutting, people don’t want to listen to each other, they have begun to suspect even those that they have lived with all their lives, all sorts of blame is being swept in our direction. Not good, not good, not good for the future. I have lived here peaceably all my life, where am I to go?”

The kind of things that have left Mukeem disconsolate in the twilight of his days may be the kind of things Mukteshwar Jha, a retired schoolteacher and Mukeem’s contemporary in years, articulates. Mastersaheb, as Mukteshwar Jha is fondly called, is holding court under the mild October sun, the flowerbeds around him beginning to spring the fruit of his investments, the picket fence all around new and dainty. “There is a problem,” he says sagely, “And it is a prickly problem.” But before he proceeds, he finds it necessary to issue a disclaimer. “I am not a bhaajpayi (BJP follower) and I don’t like Narendra Modi because his language is crude. But I still think there is a problem. Muslim boys are doing wicked things all over the place, many of them are from around here. There is a problem. How are we to know what is happening where? There is genuine suspicion and detachment. That is a problem.”

Mastersaheb takes private tuitions a few days a week, and among his class are a few Muslim boys. “But I can see they have fallen silent these days, introverted, perhaps they don’t want to participate fully. That is a problem. The problem also is what is happening on the border with Pakistan, everyday they are killing our people and nothing in happening. In the public mind, all of this tends to come together. Why is the government no doing anything? Is it so weak it is not able to protect its own people? Is it so weak it cannot expose sleeper cells? That is a problem, look at how people’s mind works and you will have some understanding of the problem.” His courtiers nod. One of them says, “Haan sir, shak ka mahaul to ban gaya hai, aur kaise mitega?” (Agreed sir, there is an atmosphere of distrust, how is this going to end?” Mastersaheb throws his hands up in the air theatrically. “Koi ho so sauhard ki baat zor se kare, algaav ki nahin.” (There should be some one who speaks strongly of harmony, not of divisiveness.) Tea arrives from within his little thatched bungalow too, with samosas and jalebi. The difference is Mastersaheb has been offering boisterous conversation with it. The Muslims at the moment would rather not.


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