Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub on being an Indian Muslim during the COVID-19 pandemic: 'The communal virus has infected India’s entire body'
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub has received acclaim as a character actor in a range of roles, most recently playing the Dalit leader Nishad in Article 15 last year.
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub drew mass attention when he starred as the loyal Murari in the Hindi film Raanjhanaa in 2013. He has received acclaim as a character actor in a range of roles, most recently playing the Dalit leader Nishad in Article 15 last year. Ayyub has also been an outspoken critic of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), police action against Jamia Millia Islamia students and other establishment moves.
In this interview, he reflects on life as an Indian Muslim at a time when "even a pandemic can be communalised" and why he still has hope. Excerpts:
What does it feel to be a Muslim in India in 2020?
I am privileged in this context. I was not born into financial privilege but I got the best of education, and after I went to college everything was smooth. Now I’m also financially secure. Those who face problems are mainly the under-privileged irrespective of religious community, and in India the last person in the line is the Dalit woman.
That said, I have never in my life been as aware about my Muslim identity as I have been since December 2019.
Dalits have always been in a terrible state and have always been targeted, but the new thing they are doing, the specific witch-hunting of Muslims, helps you understand that while it is true I am privileged, it is not a big deal – they will lodge an FIR against me too, they can arrest me any time too. I have been made to realise in 2020 that my name and Muslim identity put me at risk. If my name comes from Arabic, my life and dignity are in danger.
Bollywood was at one time seen as being free of the Hindu-Muslim tensions pervading India. Was this a facade? Because in the past 6 years in Bollywood too people have come forward to support a particular kind of politics.
This is a complex matter. Most of these people are just businesspersons.
Among those who are speaking up vocally, first let us set aside the rubbish people who have done no worthwhile work and so are irrelevant. Then there are those like Anupam Kher who probably have political ambitions.
It is a peculiar characteristic of the right wing that they celebrate mediocrity and reward it. And because of the feudal mentality in our DNA, people actually like to have a person before whom they can bend – they find it reassuring, they enjoy it. And this person is throwing crumbs their way, distributing Padma Shris and other things to all sorts of people such that the credibility of these awards has been destroyed. These people are the biggest hypocrites – they will change their tune in 6 months if this party goes out of power, they are only opportunists and they are the most dangerous.
Are you saying the earlier impression that Bollywood is secular was correct, that there was actually acceptance and tolerance in this industry?
There was secularism earlier too and now too the industry has not become particularly communal. Let us talk about the so-called three Khans who are constantly referenced. Their films are not doing as well as they used to, and this time would have naturally come anyway since they are all 54-55 – it was bound to happen that they would start doing character roles, Aamir has already adapted, gradually Shah Rukh sir will do so too, Salman too will change his way of cinema.
Now when they don’t need these three any more, when they have actors with non-Muslim names and the government is such that if you speak ill of Muslims they will favour you, then why would they not?
These are business people, so to say of them that they were earlier secular and now have become communal is false. They are neither secular nor communal. They will do what benefits them. If this government were to change and a revolution comes in India where we start making Dalit icons, these people will start worshipping Dalits.
What do you think of the Indian media’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic?
From the sections of the media who are propagating Islamophobia through the coronavirus, I think this was expected. But the way people have reacted is disheartening. You understand they have managed to infect India’s entire body with the communal virus. Islamophobia has reached every cell of our bodies.
The government, the media, the entire right-wing propaganda machinery, their IT Cell, media houses, they have placed some of their own people in courts too, even the police in some places, though fortunately there have been instances where the police, primarily from UP, called out fake news by Zee News, ANI, Sudarshan News.
Friends have been telling me that now even in small villages where earlier they never bothered with such things, such talk has begun at a basic level about Muslims. At the time of the last elections, people were like, “Okay our lot has not improved, but at least this government has shown these Muslims their place so we are happy for that.” Think about it: if even a pandemic can be communalised, it shows that we have been corrupted as a nation from the inside.
You said “Islamophobia has reached every cell of our bodies." Is there a cure?
It might sound pessimistic to say this but I don’t see an immediate improvement happening, because it has spread so much. These people’s goal with Islamophobia was polarisation, and that has happened.
If the situation changes and from tomorrow we start trying to restore our nation’s secular fabric, it will take us till 2050 to return to what India was in 2013. The only way to achieve even that would be through education so that an entire generation is influenced. We have to start changing a new generation, start with them as little children. That way, when my children’s children get to 17 or 18, to that age when all children should start questioning their parents and calling their thoughts orthodox, then the remnants of their parents’ orthodoxy that still lingers in them gets back to the level that we were at in 2012-13. At least then we will return to that point where it was not considered a good thing to say to a person’s face that because of your religion we will not give you work, food etc.
So what is your state of mind right now?
I have been disheartened for a while, but there is still hope inside me. We will keep fighting.
Why have you not given up hope?
Because one gets to see incidents here and there, where people are helping each other without thinking of religion or caste. When one hears of such incidents or some statement somewhere, it gives you hope that we are not in complete darkness, that there are lights shining here and there. If you combine all these lights, they will form a large flame and we will be able to fight.
Are you afraid?
If I were afraid, I would not be doing a lot of things I am doing. Occasionally I used to feel fear and had to control it. But for the past few months I have felt no fear.
Because we are on the last leg. Earlier there was still some pretence – things would be condemned, even if four days after the fact. There would be a half-hearted statement, “No, we should all live in harmony.” There was a mask, a facade. Now the facade is gone. For the past few months, especially the way the CAA-NRC protests were treated, the kind of name calling we saw, the way it was communalised, the witch hunting and arrests of people, the illegal things that were done, the way it was all justified, judges being transferred – with everything, a clear statement was made that this is how they intend to do things. If even after this one is afraid, then all you can do is be completely silent, go to work, come back home, eat, sleep and kill your dreams. But if you want to be alive, you have to speak.
What has been the change in people’s attitude to Muslims since your childhood?
There is an interesting story about Rahi Masoom Raza Saab. When he wrote the screenplay and dialogues of BR Chopra’s Mahabharat, he and Chopra got a lot of hate mail when people learnt that the writer is Muslim. “Why did you get a Muslim to write it?” ... “Are all Hindu writers dead?” etc. He started getting mails of praise too in large numbers. Someone asked Raza about a massive pile of letters lying near him. Raza said it was mail praising him. So the person inquired about a small pile nearby. Raza said: that is hate mail from people saying a Muslim cannot write the screenplay, letters with abuse and hatred. So he was asked why he preserved those letters. He replied: I want to keep reminding myself that that pile is much smaller than this one.
In my view the big change now is that the sizes of the piles have been interchanged. It is not that you don’t get support – you do, and that support has given me confidence – but the numbers of hate-filled hordes have increased. That is how I would explain it: the piles have changed.
This situation makes it difficult for the liberal Muslim to speak up about reform within Islam. Anyone critiquing Islam, even saying something as simple as “masjid mat jaao” during the lockdown, and any feminist commenting is automatically assumed to be Islamophobic. This too is a problem, is it not, when a community is so beleaguered and so persecuted that members of that community are unable to speak to their own people about the need for reform among them? Are you facing this as a Muslim liberal?
Exactly. For instance, when the lockdown started I had tweeted asking people to do their namaaz at home, and some people got upset with me. It definitely becomes difficult.
Do you hold back because of that?
I think you need to do it intelligently. Now if I were to come out at this point and tell Muslims outright, “ban this”, “ban that”, I would be thrown out. Then I cannot effect any reform. You have to do it one step at a time. The community is being targeted unrelentingly so they are already disturbed, vulnerable. They are like a wounded animal – if you pounce on it, it will attack because it is on its guard. You have to be strategic when you speak.
I made that mistake too in the beginning, I went in all guns blazing. We have to set aside our high-browness to connect with the people. They are ready that someone should come and speak to us, guide us, because they are definitely feeling lost. I am not saying we are in a position to guide because we are educated, the community does have good leaders, but we can at least let it be known that we are there and can guide you towards reform. We have to be inclusive in our approach though, instead of being exclusive, abusing them and fighting with them. Reform has become difficult because of this polarisation, but I think it is possible.
Much of the reason for Islamophobia has been segregation. Most non-Muslim Indians grow up never having had a Muslim neighbour. The majority community blames Muslims for not wanting assimilation in the larger population, but we also know most non-Muslims don’t rent their homes to Muslims. Where does the truth lie?
I think it is both. Let me give you the example of Okhla in Delhi. You know of course that Hindus don’t like to give their homes to Muslims on rent. We are all fighting against this attitude of the majority to the minority. If I were to speak of the minority’s attitude to the majority, it is a chicken and egg situation and I don’t know which came first so I would prefer to focus on the present.
Okhla is a settlement of immigrants. Since the late 1980s, there has been a lot of migration from Afghanistan and the Middle East. Okhla Vihar had a lot of Bangladeshi immigrants. Refugees tend to want to stay with their own people, the code language was what I consider entertaining. Just like the code for “this society doesn’t want to sell houses to Muslims” is “non-veg is not allowed”, in the same way, there is code on the other side: “the house should be near a masjid, it should be within walking distance from a masjid”. They will not say “live only in a Muslim ghetto with one’s own people”. What does this mean? (He laughs) If every person targets only houses within walking distance of a masjid, then it means mostly Muslims stay nearby.
This desire to stay with your own people can be explained by fear and so wanting to be together. This is why ghettos have emerged, but because of this, for instance I spoke to some people from back then and they said, “There was really nothing but one used to feel scared to go to Muslim localities” – I have heard this even from Leftist friends. They say at that time the atmosphere was like this, that there was a lot of hooliganism, so people stayed away from those areas, so they continued to be ghettoes. My point is, what can I do about what happened in the 1990s? The truth is, maximum Hindus do not want to stay with Muslims and maximum Muslims don’t want to stay with Hindus or any other community. Ghettoisation has happened from both sides just as polarisation has happened from both sides.
Maulana Azad said in his book India Wins Freedom that Partition caused great harm to Muslims who stayed on in India, making them objects of resentment. When seen in that context, does Hindu-Muslim animosity in India seem unsolvable?
If it is considered unsolvable then all hope is lost.
Communal amity could definitely be brought back because in most places it was already there. It can happen, though not with the present political parties. And it will be difficult unless we get rid of the madness of religious frenzy. Before the Rath Yatra (in 1990) I don’t think we had seen such an aggressive act of religious revivalism post-Partition that drove people into a frenzy. On the other side the same thing was achieved with the Shah Bano case.
It is possible to restore Hindu-Muslim amity when we end this madness and these displays of strength. In recent years every religious festival has become bigger, Ganpati, Chhat Puja, Shab-e-baraat, Chaand Raat – we are having problems because of this desire to make aggressive displays of strength and from that you can see why a game like PubG becomes a hit in India, from that you can understand how people’s mentality is being shaped.
A marker of the arrival of the right wing is that mediocrity in the arts starts being celebrated. The art you were serving people from around 2000, 2003, was a preparation to make the India of 2020. You were serving people aggression in cinema and that aggression was used by these political parties who have now done what they have done to the country.
India’s bestselling writer is not worthy of being called a writer and it is shameful for the country that he is.
The same applies to India’s most popular news anchor.
These examples explain where the country is headed. Do you think Uri was a hit because it was a good film? I have not seen it, but people said that craftwise it is good – I am sure it was, but that is not why it was a hit. Uri was a hit because it sells jingoism. The trailer had a terrible dialogue about 72 virgins by Vicky Kaushal’s character, a line that was anti-Islam, not anti-terrorism. And that line from the film, “yeh naya Hindustan hai, yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi aur marega bhi” (this new India will not just barge into your house, it will kill you too) was sold in this age of PubG when people are in a frame of mind that they will land somewhere, kill people and have a chicken dinner at night. This links back to our earlier discussion on opportunism.
Artists need to start speaking through their art. The position that some artists take, “our art and politics are separate”, is rubbish. You have to learn from Chetan Bhagat that this is the era of 20-20, people want to buy a book and read it within a couple of hours – you need to find ways of catering to that audience.
We have to get off our high horse. I am not asking you to compromise on your art, but you need to try to reach a larger audience and make your art more accessible. Anubhav Sinha managed to crack that with Article 15 and Mulk. In a language that is accessible to the masses he managed to make films on crucial issues with solid content yet entertain the masses. The problem is, there is too much of a distance between high art and the masses now, and we have increased that distance in the last couple of decades. We must get out of our echo chambers, stop aiming only for the appreciation of like-minded people. And we must keep repeating our point again and again and again. If we do that, I think it is completely achievable that we can once again create a harmonious society. It is possible.
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