Saga of an atheist with a ‘Muslim’ surname in India

As the nation is debating who is ‘anti-national’ and who is not, the focus is mainly on three persons- Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya. Though Kanhaiya Kumar is already out on bail and has impressed millions by his speech, Umar and Anirban are still in jail. Both of them went underground after Kanhaiya’s arrest on 11th February and re-surfaced 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 evidences 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 how his identity was reduced to simply being Muslim, 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 Kshatriyas and lower caste population of Bengal). Before the Operation Burga of the Left Front Govt. these ‘aguri’ caste used to be the local landlords with lots of agricultural property. They met each other at college, fell in love and 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 religious festivals were observed ever (except Bhai Phonta, what north Indians call Bhaidyuj). But I used to take part in every festival regardless.
During Durga Puja, when my little town used to take the form of 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 with a tiffin, full of Mutton and paratha. During Christmas, my father would take me to some churches and on returning home, we would buy some fruit cakes. But I was never taught how to offer a namaz or puja, nor was I 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 up to a certain time I was completely unaware of caste and the privileges it gave me (Only after coming to Mumbai, 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 Punjabi dhoti clad comrade took me onto his lap and said in a firm voice “Next time if anyone asks your religion, tell them that you are a human being.” So, ever since then whenever I was asked about my religion, I repeated those words, not realizing that it would never satisfy others. So, as I grew up I continued to face these questions on 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’ names and both my parents and myself hoped that nobody would ask me these questions if I could successfully go up the ladder of economic and cultural class.
But we were wrong. I was good at my studies and got chance to do an M.Sc in Physics from one of the premier institutes of the country. After completing my M.Sc, I started a PhD from the same institute. Meanwhile, I got attracted to Marxism and was introduced to world literature and cinema. I also became an atheist by choice. But the question of religious identity never left me. Earlier what was an innocent remark, now was used to question my politics. So, when some friends of mine organized a rally protesting the genocide at Gaza by the Zionist state of Israel and I sent a mail to the internal community of my institute, someone replied 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 their surname. When I was 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 were never reduced to their identity. When I talk against growing Islamophobia, there is somebody in some corner accusing me of being blind to my own religion; this time I have given up trying to convince them knowing that it is of no use. When I protest 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 mostly, it never constrained itself within the political sphere. When I started dating my girlfriend (now my wife), somebody warned her against it as I am a Muslim (fortunately, it didn’t matter to her!) When I applied for my passport for the first time, I 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 me a friend request on Facebook. After I accepted his request, he told me in a message that he liked to connect with the Muslim students of the institute and asked me why he hadn’t seen me in their gatherings. It disappointed him when I replied that I do not consider myself 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 lives, 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 one such forced identity. And if you carry some marginalized identity, whether owned by you or forced upon on you, you will continue to be reduced to that identity. We reduce the LGBT people 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.
It’s only the Leftist people across party lines and a few friends, who never reduced my politics or my individuality to a particular identity and it’s only with them whom I can engage in debates without the fear of being reduced to that identity. Sometimes my father tells me that it would have been better, had they not given me any surname. People would then not be able to identify 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 me as a Muslim helps me 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 even 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 identify myself with a dalit, a muslim, a woman, an LGBT person, a Kashmiri in India and a pandit in Kashmir, a black in the USA, a Kurd in Turkey, a blasphemer in Saudi, an Arab in Israel. Through this prism of imposed ‘Muslim’ identity, I can relate with all the marginalized people of our planet and I thank my parents for letting me bear this and yet teaching me to go beyond it.

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Ushak Rahaman Written by:

Ushak Rahaman is a PhD scholar at IIT Bombay. His area of research is theoretical particle Physics. Politically he considers himself as a student of Marxism. He is a perfect 'addabaj' and loves eating, drinking, cooking food, travelling, doing photography, reading poetry and literature, watching movies.

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