Are you Muslim?
It has become near impossible for me to know how best to answer that question. The response must be carefully negotiated in a part of India where whether you are Hindu or Muslim determines if you are welcomed or suspected.
The process begins as I check in to a hotel. There are forms to fill including the ever important Form C – the one that goes to the local Central Intelligence Department (CID) office. A single man, with an Arabic/Muslim name, can expect a visit from a local CID representative by around 6:00pm that same evening.
And I do.
Mr. Tewari is short, frail, unshaven and definitely exhausted when he gently knocks on the door of my room. Apologetic for having disturbed me, he makes to step inside without even introducing himself. I am a little larger than him and refuse to move. Its not personal. I am being cautious and paranoid because I am staying at a rather run-down hotel, and unsure about the intentions of strangers who knock and assume they will be let in!
CID Sir! He states with a look that suggests that he is surprised that I am surprised!
I step aside and let him in. Two cups of tea are called for.
Mr. Tewari’s eyes are darting across the room, examining my luggage and cameras.
Are you a journalist?
I am, I answer, but I am here on a personal visit and working on a personal project. No journalism, or press related matters.
The elections – you are here to cover the elections?
I hand him my passport and Press ID.
You are Muslim?
Yes, I come from a Muslim family and am in fact a Kashmiri. His eyebrows rise, and his mouth parts to reveal the first smile of the meeting. My family, my grandfather, was from Kashmir, from Srinagar in fact.
So you are going to Srinagar.
No. I lie. I am afraid that the combination of factors is growing against me and I imagine him making a note to his superior: single, male, press reporter, with family in Kashmir, planning to go to Srinagar, the heart of the Pakistan-backed, Islamic insurgency, claims is here to work on something ‘personal’.
I fear that the next visit from the CID would be one to escort me back to the train station!
How long will you be staying in Jammu?
He is making notes on a worn out sheet of paper – looks like something he pulled out from a printer cassette on his way out. It is filled with smudges, torn at the edges and corners, and folded so frequently that it is starting to come apart. the 2B pencil sings its quiet song across the paper as I speak. Details about sites to visit, places to document and days when to go are noted. Expositions about the demands of the photographer and how I am not sure what I will find where and other such personal commentary is ignored.
Which dargahs do you want to see?
Will you be visiting temples?
Who do you know in the city? Their names and numbers please.
When will they come to meet you?
Where will you go?
When? For How Long?
Mr. Tewari is very focused; he needs to file a report and has no patience for small talk. My answers are ambivalent largely because I myself am not sure how the week or the next 2 weeks will evolve. My attempt to explain that photography is an exploration and relies on chance and luck seem not to register.
You need to stay in touch with me.
I will be here waiting for you every day. What time will you return from your work?
We exchange telephone numbers and I promise to call him when I make my way back to my room.
For the next 2 weeks I meet Mr. Tewari each evening at the appointed hour. He would sit in my room, with the very same sheet of white, smudged, torn paper that he had with him at our first meeting, and make careful, detailed notes about my every act of the day; The time I got up, what I ate for breakfast, the time I left the hotel, the roads I walked on, the rickshaws I took including the telephone number (if I had it) of the driver, the places I visits, how long I was there, whether I had lunch, the people I spoke to, the time I spent at each location, whether I met friends of family, where I had tea and for how long etc. etc.
This entire process, the banality and specificity of it all, angered my friend Mukesh. A local Press photographer, a careless if not indifferent Hindu, who was my eyes and ears in the city. He would repeatedly threaten to call his contacts at the CID and demand that they stop this nonsense!
But when each evening I would relay to him my most recent interview with Mr. Tewari – the deadpan taking of notes, the monotone set of questions, the worn out sheet of paper and the quick departure following the completion of his inquiries, and he would just break into laughter and just forget about his threats.
Mr. Tewari’s politeness and general professionalism was what kept this from becoming an annoyance. He never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do, but just asked that I let him know about it.
Soon we started doing things to incite his suspicions – Late evening drives for cups of tea at the bus stand, late evening calls via the hotel switchboard (we suspected that the desk clerks were keeping an eye on me as well), or just being late for our appointments. Mr. Tewari was consistently patient, tolerant and unwavering. He had a job to do, and he did it well.
You know that they are doing this only because you are a Muslim! Mukesh comment one late evening as we pull away from the hotel for yet another round of late night chai at the bus stand.
You know what i mean! He responds exasperated but laughing!
Are you Muslim?
I am asked that by desk clerks at hotels, attendants at dargahs, security guards at the gates of temples, rickshaw and taxi drivers, tea stall owners, hotel waiters, room service peons, individual members of the Central Intelligence Division (CID) assigned to keep an eye on me,Â passengers on buses, local journalists and random people I may meet on the streets.
A near 20 year insurgency, popularly labeled as an ‘Islamic’ militancy, in the valley of Kashmir has exacerbated the sectarian sensibilities of the community here. Bomb attacks at temples in Jammu have not helped matters any.
Who asks this question and what I answer determines whether I will be welcomed or shunned.
But deciding what to answer requires a skills of observation and sensitivity I never quite mastered. I would search the face and attire of the questioner to determine whether I was speaking to a Hindu or a Muslim, an educated or an uneducated man, someone merely curious or a fundamentalist probing his suspicions.
I failed this test at the gates of a temple and was summarily ordered to leave or have my cameras smashed. I failed this test at a tea stall near the vegetable market where I found a dead silence fall across the room when I responded to the question with a Yes. I failed this test at the check-in counter at a Jammu hotel and found that the hotel suddenly had no rooms available for me – the CID does not like it he said with a gesture of the body suggesting that I should just leave.
But hesitate I do for I can’t seem to find any meaning in that question. I admit to an exaggerated bout of over-intellectualism, but asking me whether I am ‘Muslim’ is no different than asking me whether I am a ‘Liberal’ or ‘Practicing’ or even ‘Educated’ – the first thing you want to do is demand a clearer definition of the term. And when it comes to the word ‘Muslim’ you want to question the large number of spurious but serious connotation now associated with that word in India; violent, terrorist, angry, extremist, Pakistan-loving, foreign and even not-from-India.
The daily news programs, particularly those on private TV news stations of seriously questionable quality and intent, propagate a steady stream of fearful and demonic images of ‘Islamic’ militants and ‘Muslim’.
One morning I woke to a NewsFlash! warning of a recent infiltration by Taliban militants into the valley of Kashmir. Scrambling to call my friends in the Press and hoping to join them as they rushed out to cover this breaking news, I was met with laughter and ridicule on the other end of the phone line; the news reports are concocted and simply old army videos being re-run. No infiltration. No NewsFlash. Just demonizing and fear as standard, advertising rupee supported fare for the local masses!
I am not that Muslim, I want to answer, the one that is a figment of your imagination, the one that serves as a convenient excuse for all sort of governmental, security and criminal negligence, indifference and corruption. Not here in India. Not there in Pakistan. Not anywhere. I am not that Muslim.
I am in Jammu to document Sufi shrines in what is popularly known as ‘The City of Temples’. There is even a rusted, bent sign at the entrance of the Jammu Tawi train station that welcomes you to ‘The City of Temples’ in case you would not realize this fact from the temple-carved skyline of the city itself. A Hindu city – a counter point to the ‘Islamization’ of the city of Srinagar.
The sectarian tensions lie very close to the surface here. There is a palpable air of suspicion and fear. I often feel that the normality I see around is razor thin and held together by .
There is a small Muslim population here – a population kept under close and intense watch by a large number of policemen who surround the neighborhoods. They watch the residents, any one going in and out, and in particular, foreign looking men with cameras around their necks.
They will kill you!
That was the policeman’s last warning to me as he forced me away from the city’s main mosque where I was trying to make a few pictures. Nothing unusual had happened so far. I had been working around the mosque for at least a couple of hours before he approached me. Perhaps someone had complained, or perhaps the policemen just got nervous after watching me for a while.
These people are not like others. You have to be careful. Now leave.
Later that day I am shooting near a teample when a group of pandits stop me.
Can’t you read the sign?
They point towards a painted warning on the walls of the temple:
ANYONE CAUGHT TAKING PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE TEMPLE WILL HAVE THEIR FILM AND CAMERA CONFISCATED: THE POLICE.
But there is no police around and I linger and eventually strike up a conversation with them. They are the caretakers of the temple, and proprietors at a small souvenir stand/shop selling supplies for pujas at the temple. We drink some tea together and one of them turns out to be a migrant from Srinagar, having fled to Jammu in the early 1990s along with the many other Kashmiri Pandits forced and encouraged to leave the city.
Are you a Muslim?
I fear the worst and am ready to leave shortly. Yes.
Maybe you want to take some pictures of the temple to show to your family?
Be discreet. He warns.
Oh goodness, no! The pilgrims and their families! We don’t want them here doing the same!
I make my pictures.