It has been a beautiful fight. It still is.

– Charles Bukowski

The invigilator stopped at my desk as I was scribbling speedily. It was my 6th standard Hindi exam, my favourite subject.

Ek Urdu-bhaashi ladki ki itni achchi Hindi dekhkar bohot achcha laga, beta (Glad to see someone whose mother tongue is Urdu writing such good Hindi),” he said, reading my name. I wasn’t sure whether to take it as a compliment or a reminder that Hindi is not “mine”. The hair on my neck rose with something that I couldn’t entirely understand.

That one comment suddenly made me feel miles away from the love that I was spilling out with my pen on the answer sheet.

And so it began.

Growing up, I went into a phase of denial about incidents like these. The very idea that I could be made to feel like an outsider in my own country was ridiculous to my India-loving mind. These things don’t exist. They must not exist. These things do not matter.

_______

“I have to apply, can you imagine, for leave on Eid-ul-Fitr from among my 10 paid leaves. It hurts like hell”, a young woman said. “You can celebrate silly days like red shirt day, black skirt day but not Eid?”

“The Head of the Department was very happy that I was part of her class. She wanted me to be an honors student till she asked my full name. Then she made a face, right in front of me, and turned her back,” said a college student, with stubborn chin and trembling lips.

“My case is ironic,” said another student. “I was harshly treated by a Muslim professor who wanted to prove to all that she was unbiased. This affected my grades.”

The message that these young people are getting is one of exclusion. They are forever standing outside the circle of warmth. They can watch celebrations and lights from a distance, but somehow can’t be part of it.

Outcast – in the name of caution. Forgotten – because of numbers. Sidelined – due to prejudice.

Every Muslim youth I know approaches the corporate world with the single-minded determination of proving their worth and a hidden wish to wipe clean all prejudices against them.

“It is a layered battle,” a young Muslim woman said. “As a woman, I first want to be seen as a genderless asset for the company. But you have to butt your head with male counterparts who work on the assumption that all women workers are somehow lesser than them, except if they are their bosses. And just as important is to prove being Muslim does not have anything to do with doing your job.”

“It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist like me,” another said, “Faith is a label that does not come off.”

_______

The political coup against a just, legal process in the Shah Bano verdict was the first cynical move to appease traditional Muslim voters. This only led to their seclusion from the rest of the population. The Kane and Abel of Hajj subsidies and temple taxes started digging a grave which, with time and mistrust and resentment of every political favor given to Muslims, only grew deeper.

Instead of providing better education that Muslims most needed, support was extended for religious issues. Where the law should have come to the aid of a helpless woman, statesmen cheered a clever political victory. “We merely reminded you of your religious law”, they exclaimed.

India’s “secular” polity that claims to be the savior of Muslims, in my opinion, has a rich understanding of what they are lacking to fulfill their dreams on education and employment. They use this understanding for customized cultivation of just the right mix of hunger, need and dashed opportunities so Muslims can be in made permanently dependent on patronage.

Take the example of minority-only schools, yet another idea that has the wonderful mask of special development but is terribly segregating. Instead of understanding why Muslims hesitate in enrolling their children or figuring out if there are communal biases in the education system, here is a plan that will exclude them further, rather than include.

This exclusion is the punch line for the next elections and not a concern. From Ayodhya to Gulbarg to Muzaffarnagar, the singular purpose appears to be making the minority feel they don’t belong in this country, and even their constitutional right to vote is challenged.

In the guise of current economic needs, the new wave of communal polity is making Muslim Indians afraid for their lives and for the fast fading illusion of the safety net that they think they have from secularism.

Their political choice is a party that exploits religious exclusion and one that takes pride in it.

While politicians play these clever games, young Muslims seeking education and employment are refused homes for rent and are abandoned or even hounded by the police. No wonder many end up in ghettos where they feel safe from lynch mobs and a prejudiced community that views them with constant suspicion. This dynamic is so finely sewn into the fabric of our society that we don’t even pay attention to it. Muslims dodge and work around these biases with humor and everyone else rationalizes them in the name of security. And who can blame them?

In political discussions, most people wait for Muslims to play the ‘victim’ card. If they do, they are sneered at. If they don’t, a backhanded compliment of being “liberal” is slapped on their foreheads.

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Loving this country gnaws at one’s heart because, sometimes in a roomful of people, one is the only person who really does love it with all its flaws and is still asked to prove it.

Loving this country is looking up to everyone else and hoping the proud ink dot on their index finger is not plotting the next communal riot. That this time, they will consider pulling us in the circle.

Loving this country is like loving a father who has made it clear you are not his favorite child, in the hope that one day he will turn to you and say, I am proud of you.

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First published in DNAIndia.com on Jan. 30, 2014: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-outsiders-in-our-own-country-1958299