#TalkToAMuslim: How a trending Twitter campaign presented a counter-narrative in divisive times
#TalkToAMuslim, to those who started the movement, was a way to drive home the urgency (and necessity) of bridging the drastically widening gap between Muslims and those from other religions
“Yes, Congress is a Muslim party” read the headline in the 12 July edition of the Urdu daily The Inquilab, attributing the quote to party president Rahul Gandhi. What Gandhi had actually said, as per an Alt News report, was: “If BJP says that Congress is a party of Muslims, it is fine. Congress is a party of Muslims, because Muslims are weak and Congress always stands with the weak.”
Attacked by the BJP over the (wrongly quoted) “Muslim party” remark, Gandhi responded with a tweet:
“I stand with the last person in the line. The exploited, marginalised and the persecuted. Their religion, caste or beliefs matter little to me. I seek out those in pain and embrace them. I erase hatred and fear. I love all living beings. I am the Congress.”
Even as Gandhi was putting out his rejoinder, a group of intellectuals took to Twitter to invite people to #TalkToAMuslim. #TalkToAMuslim was a response to what this group — comprising actors Swara Bhasker and Mohd Zeeshan Ayub; Delhi-based writer Zainab Sikander; Tarushikha Sarvesh, assistant professor, Centre for Women's Studies, Aligarh Muslim University; and Ansab Amir Khan, an engineering student at Aligarh Muslim University among others — perceives as years of hate mongering, fuelled by fake news and divisive politicians.
The initiative, according to Zainab Sikander, is an intervention "in the highly problematic public discourse" to ensure the voice of common Muslim citizens was heard.
"We began to think about the statement we wanted to put out there to counter this hateful, hysterical and untruthful vitriol that was circulating on TV channels. A young Muslim boy — an AMU student — came up with #TalkToAMuslim. The hashtag had been used before on Twitter internationally, but we felt it was apt for the Indian context at a time when people were cancelling Ola cabs because they were assigned Muslim drivers, or telling Airtel customer care that they do not want to speak to Muslim executives," said Sikander. She maintains that the campaign transcends political trappings and has a larger social implication.
The first tweet was pushed out by Ayub and retweeted by Swara Bhasker on 17 July, following which, it snowballed into one of the top trends on Twitter for days. It gained traction through retweets by Muslim influencers like actress Gauhar Khan who held up placards that read, "We are humans too". The initiative was also criticised by prominent figures — like journalist Barkha Dutt and actor Anupam Kher — as being problematic.
Ansab Amir Khan, however, defends the intentions of the campaign. “Many of our wellwishers claim we are not propagating a vision of a secular and free nation, for both majorities and minorities (through #TalkToAMuslim). However, the other-isation, the villain-isation, and the ghettoisation of the minorities had been so rampant that purposely asking for an innately natural act as a sort of last resort seemed the best way to make people realise how low the current regime has made our nation fall — as a democracy, and as a society," Khan said.
#TalkToAMuslim, to these campaigners, was a way to drive home the urgency (and necessity) of bridging the drastically widening gap between Muslims and those from other religions. "The fact remains that an eight-year-old Bakharwal Muslim girl in Kathua was gangraped in a sick and sinister premeditated plan to install fear in the Muslim community,” said actress Swara Bhasker. “This is not conjecture, this is the confession statement of the Kathua accused. If we, the privileged, choose to blind ourselves to the hate crimes that are occurring with worrying consistency in India, we too are complicit in these crimes. I think the Alwar-Rakbar Khan lynching proves that our campaign was pointing towards an accurate state of what we have become as a society — that the otherisation of Muslims exists — we simply called it out."
The communication gap that #TalkToAMuslim is attempting to address goes deep. Tarushikha Sarvesh illustrated the point by saying, “You realise it (the gap) exists on the ground when your domestic help, who belongs to the PAASI community, expresses her apprehension about sharing space with Muslims and feels good that their settlements are not close to her basti. You know it exists on the ground when people want their domestic help to change their names before hiring them. The perception that Muslims ‘produce more children’ and are violent by nature is commonplace. The everyday-ness and disturbing normalcy of this reality is realised when you talk to people with an intention of actually listening to them."
For actor Zeeshan Ayub, #TalkToAMuslim is all about “more people putting across a counter narrative that harps on inclusivity, plurality and diversity of Indian culture in times where hate has become the new normal".
#TalkToAMuslim, for this group of campaigners, is a remedy to the divisive politics that seems to have become the order of the day. While not absolving the Congress of its own share of responsibility for the state the minorities find themselves in today, Ansab states that it is ironic that the BJP, which came to power by selling an agenda of 'development' and 'good governance', is playing the communal card ahead of the 2019 elections. "After they've failed the economy after GST and demonetisation, and the rampant lawlessness of lynchings and mob culture, the only resort left is to isolate religions and spew hatred among them, so as to ensure voting along communal lines. Already, talk of Ram Mandir and a Hindu Rashtra is picking up more momentum than discussions about the country's economy or welfare."
The views expressed by each person interviewed for this article represent their own, and not necessarily those of the entire group.
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