Atmosphere vitiated with suspicion and mistrust: Shabana Azmi

In this interview from 1994, actor-activist Shabana Azmi tells Communalism Combat co-editor Teesta Setavad, how after the Babri Masjid demolition she was suddenly made conscious of her Muslim identity

What’s in a name?

For many people in India after December 6, 1992, as in November, 1984, the world was easy to comprehend. You were either a Hindu, a Sikh or a Muslim. Your name said it all and did anything else really matter? But there were many many more human beings around then, as they are today, who simply, would not be pigeon-holed into an ‘us’ or ‘them’ compartment.

Two years after thousands of deaths, and much more, followed the demolition, Combat spoke to four individuals whose life experiences and values can never be encapsulated in a name

Hope amidst fear           

Its two years since the sacrilege in Ayodhya and the countrywide conflagration which followed. Ten years after the anti-Sikh carnage in the capital of the Republic and elsewhere, traumatized survivors are still crying for justice. November, 1984 and December, 1992 must never be forgotten for both showed how shaky the foundation of India’s secular-democratic state is.

But nor must we fail to recognise hope amidst fear. In a civilization spiritually fertilised by the bhakti-sufi tradition, there never was and never will be a dearth of decent human beings.

This special year-end edition of Communalism Combat felicitates the true inheritors of our compassionate tradition even while it commemorates the victims of prejudice and hatred.

‘Do you know why this whole “Hindu”, “Muslim” business makes me so angry? My first cousins include Hindus, Sunnis, Shias….its the same blood that flows in all of us’.

Shabana Azmi


Film actress,  Social activist

How can the fire in your house Burn the neighbour’s house Without engulfing your own?  – Basavanna

For the first time in over forty years, I am today being looked at either with sympathy or aggression. I am being made self-conscious of my identity. Which identity, I ask. That of a woman, an actress, or a Muslim? Being Muslim is only one part of me. Why is this given paramount importance? Is it because of the name I bear?

There is a concerted effort to push identity – and I feel this palpably after December 6, 1992 – into the narrow confines of a religious belief. For everyone. For the first time in my life, today, I am being called a Muslim. I feel there are divides that are permanent today, divides that did not exist before.

It is only the sophisticated veneer of a “civilized” society that is not allowing the manifestations of these divides from bursting out in the open. In a sense, this is worse. Because it makes articulating these prejudices taboo.

At elite get-togethers for instance, I just don’t raise certain issues any more to prevent the party from being disrupted. We are told it is not even prudent to remind people about the violence. But what about the lives lost in our midst, the venomous outpourings of hatred – at our doorsteps – in December 1992 and January 1993, I ask?

The atmosphere is vitiated with suspicion and mistrust even among my closest friends. This is extremely painful. There is a small group of us, childhood friends, who have remained in close touch for over 35 years. But for over two years now, any conversation among us on what happened to the city we all call our home has been impossible. Since my views are sufficiently well known, all we do when we meet a couple of times a year is to sing songs like we used to as young girls. Sadly, that is the only common denominator left.

My family has never been ritualistic, or religious. But culturally, many things have been and are important to us. On the occasion of Raksha Bandhan every year, I particularly miss my brother. Last August, because he was out of town, I even courier ed a rakhee to him.

This is how we have always lived. But can you believe that we still have to prove ourselves even to close friends? After the holocaust in Bombay, Holi happened to be the first festival to come along. For the first time, I tangibly felt our (Hindu) friends silently sizing us up, waiting with a question in their minds: “Will the Azmi family celebrate Holi this time?” There was a visible release of tension when they saw us actually observe the festival as we always do.

Incidentally, it was only when I was six-years-old that I became aware of the fact, quite by accident, that “Muslim” was different from “Hindu”. We all from the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) family used to live in one-room chawl arrangements in Bombay. The children of the IPTA group were in and out of each other’s homes all the time.

Once, the mother of one Comrade Joshi, who lived in Meerut, came to visit. This poor old woman used to get hysterical each time she saw me in the morning. I would deliberately charge into the Joshi’s room-cum-kitchen and touch the cooking vessels. “Mera dharma bhrasht ho gaya, mera dharma bhrasht ho gaya” (my religion has been corrupted, my religion has been corrupted), she would scream in agitation.

I can only recall the glee and joy of an impetuous six-year-old (myself) in indulging in this prank every morning. Tab pehli baar mujhe mehsoos hua ki Mussalman ka matlab koi doosri ya alag cheez hoti hai. (For the first time then it dawned on my consciousness that being Muslim was something different, something separate).

But the young kids today? At a party in June 1993, the 15-year-old daughter of a Gujarati friend of mine said to me, “Do you know, Muslims are responsible for the state of the country?” when I asked her whether she knew what she was saying, she said this was what her friends also felt.

“The government is responsible for the Muslims sitting on our head”, she said. “That is what my parents have explained to me. A friend was saying to me the other day, that all Muslims were involved in the serial bomb blasts.”

Tell me, are we really paying enough attention to tackling the source of all this prejudice?


(The interviews were taken by Teesta Setalvad, co-editor of Communalism Combat)

NOV-DEC, 1994, Monthly Journal, Communalism Combat, Cover Story




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