India Is Not Modi, We Once Said. I Wish I Still Believed It.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s complicity in the violence against India’s Muslims is the easy part of this story. The hard part is what has happened to our community.By Zahir Janmohamed
Every Indian Muslim knows about the pause: the moment when another Indian, usually a Hindu, hears your name, waits a few seconds, and then, with a furrowed brow or a step back, acts surprised and confused that you, too, are Indian. The implication is one of suspicion, as though we are Indians with an asterisk—or worse, as though we are not Indians at all.
I have encountered this reaction at literary parties in New Delhi, where guests greet each other with air kisses, as well as during my office hours in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when more than one Hindu American student has expressed surprise that I—a Pakistani, they incorrectly assumed—cared so much about India.
The experience is exhausting, but it is not new. My father went through it growing up in Tanzania, as did his father in India. But today, presumptions about Indian identity appear to have narrowed still further, and the man responsible, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is receiving a red-carpet welcome in Washington, D.C., with a state dinner and a speech to a joint session of Congress.
India was once more accepting, more tolerant. That’s what we Indian Muslims say, especially when Hindus are around. What other choice do we have?
And to some degree, it’s true. Ages ago, in 2005, I worked on the campaign to block Modi from entering the United States. What strikes me about that campaign now is, well, how easy it was.
A decade ago, I could barely persuade a dozen members of the House of Representatives—Democrat or Republican—to sign a letter expressing concern for political prisoners in Bahrain. But, at least in 2005, it wasn’t really that difficult to criticize Modi, because India, State Department officials told me, is not Modi. It has never been Modi, and it can never be Modi.
I loved that line. I used it all the time. And I believed it. But today, whether we like it or not, India is Modi, and the United States is partly to blame, because Modi knows that regardless of what he does, he will receive a warm embrace here.
Two years ago, my wife and I welcomed our first child, a son we named Mirza. After Mirza and I eat Indian food—especially butter-coated parathas stuffed with potatoes—he often goes around and declares, “I am from India!”
It is a beautiful, adorable thing. I hope Mirza continues to say that. But I worry that before long, he, too, will be told he is not Indian.
Zahir Janmohamed is a visiting assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College.