Saturday, December 19, 2009

Voting for INC: Exercising Enforced Choice

That is what the latest experience of voting was, for me. Local urban body elections - electing the Mayor and Corporators. I went intending to vote for an independent candidate - about whom I found through an aunt. I knew it won't make any difference. In fact, with the numbers involved in the smallest electoral units, it makes no sense to me why we call ours a democracy.

The moment I arrived outside the door of the polling room I saw this huge line of people from my neighbourhood. I had hoped to avoid them because seeing them reminds me of who I am for them - an identity which means nothing to me except that it is ironically the one thing about me which people can identify, classify and understand. That my father is a Muslim man and so by the laws of patriarchy and silence, so become I.

It is not just that BJP, among others, thrives on communalization of people, places and political practices, it is also that people around me have never bothered to hide their dislike and even contempt for Muslims. Makes life interesting if you happen to be half a one. I am part Hindu, part Muslim. It is an identity which I learnt about as I grew up. As a child, it was only about funny incidents when we'd try frantically to hide symbols of one religion from the grandmother on the other side...! Socially it did not mean much to us. Plus, though both my brother and I are compassionate and sincere people (so I like to think) and to some extent spiritual, neither has ever been religious at all. So suddenly when we found people making faces and staring at us oddly after asking for our last name, we didn't know how to take it. Or how to make the discovery less painful for them!

My hairdresser hates muslims and made no secret of it till she realised my dad is a muslim, a boutique owner in my locality routinely offers her own less than kind observations regarding muslim women, some of the students I tutored during graduation, and their parents did the same...It is not that I am interested in flaunting the fact of being of a mixed or Muslim parentage. That is not of much consequence to me except that I am proud of the fact that it makes me a sensitive and less judgmental person. It has also given me greater leeway in determining the kind of person I am, my values, aspirations, my friends and boyfriends ;) What I severey dislike is the need sometimes, to hide facts about myself, and trust me I have to do it oftener than you'd imagine. And that is where this entire vote-for-congress crap comes in.

I, like most north Indians, have often heard heated comments on how the INC is addicted to pacifying the minority, taking soft decisions on hard realities. It cannot be anybody's case that the Congress has not played the communal card - be it 'pacification' of minorities, paltry promises of secularism and equality or soft-Hindutva. There are hardly any tricks of the political trade the INC has not played. It is definitely not my view that the INC is the best possible candidate for ruling any part of India. Worst of all, it has blatantly pursued a neoliberal agenda; and as a student of Education and Gender Studies, I spend most of my time unpacking in great detail all the harm that agenda has done.

So, for the first time in my life, that day I voted out of an instinct for self-preservation. Not as the person I am, but the person people are hellbent on making me. I voted as a Muslim citizen, instead of as a woman voter in a country with a hideous history of subordination of women; or as an activist demanding effective, meaningful democracy, participation and equality; or simply as a young person not sure of whether for the majority of Indians India as a nation-state is on the right track. The one aspect of my being, a merely factual aspect of my being in fact, hitherto inconsequential in the big scheme of things for me, took over to the extent that it became the guiding factor when I had to make a choice as a voter in a supposedly secular democracy. And I do not know whether I can forgive myself for that moment of fear.

For it was fear rather than any sincere faith in any party's protestations of secularism, or the haath extended to the aam aadmi. I just hoped that INC would not unnecessarily go against its image and deliberately target a muslim youth. Unless of course it becomes necessary at some point for it to do something to rid itself of the stigma of pacifying the muslim voter, and it decides to make an example of a Muslim youth. Something the BJP, the RSS and the self-righteous footsoldiers of right-wing Hindu nationalist forces take pride in doing. The increasing number of bhajan sandhyas, pravachanas, the inevitable babas and the equally inevitable comments in trains, buses, public offices, and queues everywhere...succeed in 'en-musliming' a perfectly irreverent, atheistic young person; so that after a point, that person really begins to wonder if it is indeed as ridiculous an idea that Madhya Pradesh can ever become Gujarat, as she once thought. Unfortunately, for an already polluted and difficult-to-breathe-in Indore, all these have predictably sparked off a who's-the-most-religious-of-us contest among all communities - reducing the city, on most days, to a mess of littered, cordoned-off roads, singing corporators, portable diases, and some times I feel, portable make-believe divinity too.

I am worried in writing about this at all. This, after all, is the perfect argument, perfect logically for those who'd like to claim that bad experience and stigma have embittered me, attributing to me anger and vindictiveness I cannot imagine or opt for. But I wanted to write about this to see if it would make me feel less guilty about my choices as a voter, and also because I want you to know that it is not easy to be nice, caring, upright or unafraid when it is possible for social and political groups to target someone because of their caste, religion, colour or gender.

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