The story of a family in the heart of a torn India
This story forced itself out of me. I never quite went to search for it, it always lived in me. I let it grow a bit and someday it came alive. It wrote me much before I wrote it. It’s the story of my family, of their travel, a story that survived in each being it touched. It’s the story of my parents, who found themselves closed off in an unbreakable silence when faced with people’s violence.
I was born in Brussels, in 1996. My parents were here for approximately two years before that. They left India, the country of their childhood, to build a better life in Europe. For themselves, but mostly for their children. I asked myself a lot what pushed them to leave. It must be painful to leave your country without any hope of return. I’d never like to leave Belgium like that.
Maybe we have to be put aside by our country before we exile ourselves from it.
My parents and my sister, during a visit to Shimla, 1990
Jama Masjid, as seen from the rooftop of my mother's home, Delhi, 2019
I had always known that my parents had lived through "the riots" but they only spoke of it evasively. Their silence was the only trace of their suffering. Those wounds reopened when the BJP, a nationalist party, won the 2014 elections. My parents predicted quite justly the violence that followed. In all that chaos, two words stayed with me : Babri Masjid. It took me a lot of years to make the link between the experience of my parents and the infamous mosque of Babri, torn down by nationalist protesters in 1992.
Indian security forces surveilling Babri Masjid, blocking the access of the site disputed by Muslims
and Hindus, Ayodhya, 1990
Babri Mosque, the place of birth of God Ram ?
Hindu renaissance movements had made Lord Ram one of their principal deities, wanting to unify very diverse beliefs in that way. According to a legend, Ram was not only a god but had existed and had been born in the city of Ayodhya, on a site known as the Ram Janmabhoomi. But at that very spot, a mosque, the Babri Masjid, had been
erected, probably on the orders of Babur. Hindus then claimed the right to destroy the mosque to rebuild a temple over it. The conflict wasn’t recent and had poisoned Hindu-Muslim relations since the 19th century.
Deliège Robert, Le nationalisme hindou, France, Studyrama, 2017.
My parents grew up in the walled city of Delhi. Despite living with ten minutes' walking distance from each other, something essential divided them: my mother is Hindu, and my father is Muslim. In Delhi, neighborhoods don’t mix up. And neither do their inhabitants.
Delhi is always noisy. Even on the phone with my family,
I can hear the rickshaws in the street and the cacophony of the city. But when the riots come, everything becomes quiet. The activity of the city falls to a stop, the streets are empty and the air is heavy with danger. Neighborhoods close their doors and suddenly the gap between communities becomes impenetrable. But when you no longer fit into zones, into rigid cases, then you put yourself in danger. You give up the protection of being in numbers: with your neighbors, your family, your community. In the small streets of the walled city, rumors travel quick. And when those same streets become the scene of conflict, it is the weakest that are the most at risk. When you know all of that, it is understandable why there are so few inter-caste and inter-religious marriages. My parents married each other despite that. And when the riots came, they were on their own.
"The protesters used to walk with tridents. They were collecting bricks to build the temple in Ayodhya. They used to march and scream, “We swear on Lord Ram, we will build the temple at the very same spot! Long live Lord Ram!” There were fifty people who stopped in front of our house, right in front of our window, tridents in hand, and the whole neighborhood is Hindu. We were the only Muslims. They knew that outside. And it’s because they knew that, that they were drumming outside our house."
My father, diving back into one of his only memories of the 1992 riots.
Protesters climb on the mosque to destroy it, Ayodhya, 1992.
In 1992, my parents lived together in South Delhi with their first daughter, my sister. It is same year that nationalists tore down the Babri Masjid, and violence lit up the whole country. It was the beginning of an irreparable fracture in Indian society. It was the beginning of “the riots”.
And once the riots start, once the people’s anger boils up, nothing can stop them. You can only stay inside and wait. The wait. I can only imagine my parent’s nervousness as they waited for the situation to get back to normal. Their powerlessness faced with something much bigger than their little family, something they hadn’t ever chosen. The windows are closed and the lights are off. In the corner of the room, a small television whispers the news. The anxiety-inducing images just make it worse—they will end up switching it off. The days are agonizingly long and slow. In the nights, protesters walk the streets and chant: Jai shri Ram, Jai shri Ram. In the darkness of their small home, my parents tried to disappear. To find refuge in silence. A silence so deep that even as the years pass, it doesn’t want to break. It then becomes impossible to offer testimony, to tell your pain, to free yourself from the weight of this experience.
मंदिर वहीँ बनायेंगे."
A Hindu militant, holding an effigy of Ram in one hand, and the saffron flag in the other, 2018.
An easy battle?
The Babri Mosque case probably didn't have such importance in itself, but it had become an essential symbol of unity for Hindus. We have to add that, on their side, Muslims had also transformed this case as an identity symbol even though the mosque wasn't being used for a long time. It was, in a way, an easy battle for the Hindus and we can think that they might have chosen it for that very reason.
Deliège Robert, Le nationalisme hindou, France, Studyrama, 2017.
The years my parents spent in the walled city, before Babri’s fall, legitimised their fears. During the 1984 riots, militants broke into the Sikh neighbours of my mother, weapons in hand. They knew her neighbours as well as she knew their attackers. They all knew each other. But in that very moment, those relationships held no importance. My father also lost his friend during the riots. He almost never speaks of it. They couldn’t make it back home before the curfew was set and one of them never crossed the door to the neighborhood. The wounded sometimes waited for long hours on the streets, agonizing, before medical help came.
These differences between castes, religions, ethnicity are rooted very deeply in Indian society. They are taught since a very young age. People stay so secluded within their own community that they develop an unreasonable fear of the other. That’s where the tragedy is: this phobia about the foreigner takes children, families, people who might not be so different from ourselves and makes them into enemies. However, the one brandishing the weapon might also see his house in flames. What drives these residents of a same country apart? The question becomes even more striking when you see Indians standing in solidarity with Pakistanis or Bangladeshis when they come to white countries.
Alterity is always relative.
My father and my sister, in their home in Saket, Delhi, 1992
Forgetting, that's where I went to dig. Forgetting means being doomed to repeat. Forgetting means carrying something with you while never understanding it. So I reconstructed, I looked for understanding, for meaning. Those memories now explain why I feel so uneasy when I see fascism take root in Belgium. A few years ago, the same fire forced my parents to come here. And back in India, Babri's story is far from over.
My parents survived the 1992 riots. Mumbai took the hardest hit that year. But it doesn't matter. That year, cruelty wrought itself into too many hearts and made its place there. Now that India is falling back into violence, it is time to remember and to rebuild. When I see the world, I am scared of humankind and of its tendency to make the same mistakes over and over again. In a world that's tearing itself apart, it was essential for me to reconnect with this story and to tell it to the world. Because it's the story of the India I'm from. But also because this story is so much broader - hate takes on many faces, but their venom is the same. It's a piece of history, like many others. And I can only hope that understanding it might nourish a fairer world.
"We are no longer in India. Otherwise,
we would have seen how we would have survived in the long term. We would have seen would have happened to our children who would always be the result of an inter-religious marriage. We would have seen how society would have treated us. This is only a part of the story, the others would have started much later.
We will never know how that would have gone down."
My mother, while talking about her marriage as a personal battle and her decision to leave.
Bangle shops near my father's home in Ballimaran, Delhi, 2019
This webpage, "Babri", is a shortened adaptation of a self-edited book of the same name. The book goes through the story of my parents, while drawing parallels to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India though the ages. To do so, it uses multiple narrations : my story, my parents' testimonies, historical documents, pictures of India during riots, of Delhi during my last visit... All together, it aims to start a reflection about the current progression of India towards right-wing ideology. For more information about the project, contact Arshia Azmat.