Identity crisis in a riot

Soumya Mukherjee | Updated on March 13, 2020

A bloody game: Even a football match is not spared the scarring influence of sectarian divide.   -  the hindu archives

Buried memories of being asked to prove one’s religious background come alive with the recent spate of sectarian violence in Delhi

“Are you Hindu or Muslim,” a photojournalist covering the recent riots in north-east Delhi was asked by a mob. “They threatened to take off my pants to confirm my religion,” he later wrote in a hair-raising report. It reminded me of the time — more than four decades ago — when goons threatened to strip me to check my religious identity, a dark memory that I had long buried.

I was a teenager then, and mad about football. Those were the days when there were three soccer-crazy rival groups in West Bengal: Those who supported Mohun Bagan (MB), those who swore by the East Bengal (EB) club, and those backing Mohammedan Sporting Club (MSC). The fact that a Muslim captained EB during that time, and a Hindu Brahmin led the MSC team, made little difference to the avowed supporters: They backed their teams irrespective of who headed it.

I was a diehard MB fan. That year — back in mid-’70s — we were counting on an MSC victory in its match with East Bengal, as that would have put our club firmly in the lead in the League.

I had managed to get a ticket from an EB supporter friend, and was watching the match seated in the EB gallery — a lone MB fan in a sea of EB buffs. A high barricade separated the fans of the two clubs but, as the match heated up, the two sides started throwing missiles — bottles, stones and chappals — at each other. And then, towards the end, EB scored.

There was loud jubilation on my side of the barrier, which I could not wholeheartedly join. Someone noticed my crestfallen face. “Are you a supporter of the other team,” he yelled. Suddenly, the Hindu crowd turned on me, and my protest that I was a Hindu Brahmin had few takers. I was never an advocate of religion or caste, so I did not wear the so-called sacred thread that many Brahmins donned to mark their identity. Someone suggested that I be stripped to see if I had been circumcised, like most Muslims are at birth. That, the EB fan said, would be a sure indicator of my religion, and therefore club loyalty.

That was when I knew sheer terror. Years after this happened, I still remember the panic that gripped me. One, because the crowd was blind; and, two, because I had been circumcised as a child for medical reasons. Confessing that I was an MB supporter wouldn’t have helped either, for the fans hated the premier club even more than they disliked MSC. Then someone took pity on me — I was, after all, a school kid and about to cry. They let me off with a few shoves, and I left ducking a shower of missiles.

My ordeal didn’t end there. Outside, jubilant EB supporters had hurled derogatory remarks laced with communal slurs at the MSC supporters, and they had retaliated with violence, leading to a riot-like situation. Suddenly I, along with a few harmless EB supporters travelling in a mini-bus, found our vehicle surrounded by a violent group of men. Stones were thrown at the bus, and window panes came crashing down. Some in the mob were talking about setting the bus on fire. My co-passengers panicked, and a friend whispered that if anyone asked, he would claim to be a Muslim. I am ashamed to say that I was secretly relieved that I had been circumcised. But we didn’t have to face any such ordeal because the police had arrived by then. We escaped, shaken but unhurt.

Years later, when Punjab was in the grip of militancy, I was once again caught in a similar situation. My wife, who is a Sikh, and I were travelling by bus from Delhi to Himachal Pradesh for a trekking expedition. We passed Lalru, a small town in Punjab where terrorists had, some years earlier, stopped a bus, lined up Hindu passengers and gunned them down. Only one bearded Hindu, who had pretended to be a Muslim, had escaped. The name of the place brought back memories — still painfully alive — of the 1987 massacre. We, the passengers, were discussing it when suddenly a turbaned man on the road hailed the bus. It stopped, and he got in. This was the modus operandi that the terrorists had followed.

We were petrified. The other passengers urged my wife to come to their aid if there was a threat to their lives. My wife was equally frightened, for she had cut her hair, which the Sikh religion prohibits. We held our breath — and exhaled only when we discovered that the passenger, an innocuous villager known to the driver, was merely seeking a free ride.

The fear is behind me as I write this. But these incidents scar us, and remind us how humanity is literally skin-deep, merely the breadth of a thread or a strand of hair. Terror has no religion.

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi

Published on March 12, 2020

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