The privileges of being Hindu in new India

"The symbols of my heritage have become unconscious enforcers of my privilege."
Published February 26, 2020

In her dreams, my friend tells me, she is bald and wears a blue dress, apparently the uniform of a detention centre for aliens caught in the great citizenship sweep that India wants to conduct on its people. These dreams follow a half year of trauma: my friend, a journalist, is a Kashmiri, and after leaving India to study last year, she could not speak to her parents during the crippling telecom blackout India had imposed on the Valley.

Hussain Haidry, a writer and poet whose poems energise the street whenever he appears at protests against India’s new citizenship law, says he stays awake longer than ever. “I’m sleeping less and less,” he says. His brain is forever ticking, and he spends a chunk of the night on Twitter and Facebook, his 24/7 link to ever-growing protests – 606 at last count.

These are uncertain, stressful and sleepless times in India, especially if you are Muslim, doubly so if you are Muslim and Kashmiri. I sympathise with the protests, I feel guilty about what India has wrought in Kashmir. I oppose the strident anti-Muslim tone of my government. I oppose its systematic attempts to push them to the margins. I am appalled and saddened by what has become of my country. I fear for what lies ahead.

But I am not Muslim.

So, I sleep well at night. I do not have dreams of detention camps, and my fears are more abstract than real.

Disturbing realisation

For the first time in my life, I have come to realise that the lived experiences and consciousness of Muslim friends and acquaintances, who I do not regard – and never regarded – as being different from me in any fundamental way, are diverging. This realisation disturbs me.

Muslims in India have long experienced the diverse markers of separateness: violence, discrimination and snide remarks. My friends, who are mostly middle- and upper-class Muslims, usually experienced no more than the latter, privileged as they were – like me – to traverse the high road to the Indian dream. My life and theirs was not substantially different, I did not dwell substantially on any differences and nor did they (unless they happened to be Kashmiri).

The shared comfort that many Muslims had with their fellow citizens, their country and its founding ideals is now in doubt and under severe test. My friends look at me, and I look at them, and we realise we do not look at each other in the same manner as we once did.

A protestor in Mumbai. Credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP
A protestor in Mumbai. Credit: Punit Paranjpe/AFP

The hard, unceasing rain of vitriol against Muslims has made me more aware than ever of the entrenched privilege that sets me apart from Muslims, especially in the new India. I may have sympathised, tried to understand, show solidarity, but their experience is not – and never was – my experience.

I may be liberal and secular, reason enough for abuse and attack from my co-religionists, especially those who profess allegiance to Hindutva, the militant and angry strain of Hinduism that infects large swathes of this country. I may be called a libtard or sickularist, but no one has, yet, called me a traitor, a son of Babur or Aurangzeb, an invader, a Pakistani. My gods are unlikely to be derided, and I am unlikely to be lynched.

Born to privilege

The name I was born with is itself a privilege in this country, even if I did not realise it all these years. My name ensured I never faced discrimination – subtle or otherwise – in matters of education, employment, housing or social status. I will never know Sanskrit – that marker of Hindu culture – as Dr Firoze Khan, the professor who was not allowed to start his job at the Benares Hindu University, did. If I somehow get the same job, my skills may be doubted but never because of my name or religion.

I am doubly privileged because I am not of low-caste Hindu birth. My lineage is descended from the legions of Shivaji Maharaj himself, and when I was younger, I confess to a stirring when I heard the battle cry, Har Har Mahadev, used still by the army battalions drawn from my community, the Marathas. Many Marathas may struggle economically today, but no one dares stifle that battle cry or pull down the standard that accompanied it, the bhagwa dhwaj.

Our old battle standard has been adopted by the forces of Hindutva. It flutters atop homes, on streets, on motorcycles, a signaler of superiority and a warning that whoever flies it has a greater claim to being Indian. The bhagwa dhwaj has come to symbolise the ugly majoritarianism that defines my religion and makes my life easier. So, too, has another memory of my youth and the symbol of my heritage been weaponised. The gentle, smiling monkey god who carried a mountain on his shoulders in his quest to find healing and who delighted us as children, has become angry Hanuman.

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party wave party flags and hold placards in support of the government's Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens during a rally in Chennai on January 7. Credit: AFP
Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party wave party flags and hold placards in support of the government's Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens during a rally in Chennai on January 7. Credit: AFP

Always Indian

The symbols of my heritage have become unconscious enforcers of my privilege. They ensure that however distant I may appear from them, they are never very far away. I can claim them at any time I choose to, as have millions of Hindus who have turned from accommodation to confrontation. Whether I like it or not, these Hindus are my co-religionists.

They can claim me as being of their own – even if I forever resist it – something they will never do with those who are Muslim (or even Christian). They will always regard me as an Indian citizen, whether I have the papers to prove it or not. They will not make me prove over and over my allegiance – and then refuse to accept it, whether I fly the flag, recite the Constitution, sing the anthem or die for my country. They will never traumatise me enough that despair will pervade my dreams or keep me awake at night.

I am, you see, Hindu.

Header image: A protest against the new citizenship law on the outskirts of Mumbai on January 26. | Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

This article first appeared on the and has been reproduced with permission.