India’s Muslims adopt Hindu Names

August 22, 2007 at 11:40 pm Leave a comment

BY SHAIKH AZIZUR RAHMAN

Aug 22, CALCUTTA, INDIA (WA POST) (WED) — Members of India’s large Muslim minority are often adopting Hindu names and dress styles in an attempt to avoid widespread prejudice that keeps them from housing and jobs. Shaikh Salim, a Muslim who runs a food stall in the central office district of Calcutta, uses the common Hindu name Shankar Maity and calls his stall “Shankar’s Fast Food.”

Shaokat Ali, a Muslim student who came to the city to do his master’s degree in English, tutors Hindu students using the name Saikat Das and keeps a large picture of the popular Hindu goddess Kali hanging on a wall in his room. Jahanara Begum takes off a silver talisman embossed with ‘Allah’ in Arabic each morning, replacing it with a spot of vermilion powder on her forehead and red-and-white conch bangles of a married Hindu woman before heading to work in a fish market, where she is known as Parvati – the name of a Hindu goddess.

Analysts say there could be thousands of Muslims in Calcutta who, like these three, are quietly hiding their religious identities in order to fit in.

“In everyday life, Muslims in almost all spheres of life face a communal discrimination by powerful Hindus, and they are denied many of their basic rights and freedom in an unjustified way,” said Anjan Basu, a veteran social analyst and executive editor of Pratidin, a Bengali daily in Calcutta.

Six decades after Pakistan was carved off from British-ruled India, many Hindus believe that Pakistan was created for Muslims and that is where they belong, said Mr. Basu, who is a Hindu.

He added that communal discrimination has been “institutionalized,” with Muslims being denied employment in government and even many private sector offices, where 90 percent to 95 percent of the jobs are held by Hindus. Many Muslims who adopted Hindu identities say they do not feel embarrassed because of their actions.

“Fifteen years ago, when I came to Calcutta in search of a job, almost all street restaurants in the city refused to employ me because I was a Muslim,” said Mr. Salim. “Some said their Hindu customers could refuse to eat at their shops if a Muslim worked there.

“But soon I met a Muslim man who worked as a cook in a Hindu-owned restaurant under a Hindu identity. I followed his advice, picked up a Hindu identity, and soon an upper-class Hindu employed me to run a food stall.”

Nearly all of Mr. Salim’s customers are Hindus, and he fears his business would suffer disastrously if his customers found out he is a Muslim.

“I know that [many Hindus] hate Muslims simply because of their religion. So, I have done nothing wrong by lying about my religious identity,” he said.

Mr. Ali, the 24-year-old university student, is troubled by his decision to hide his faith but says he had little choice after 29 guesthouse owners refused to rent him a room because of his religion. He intends to drop the pretense as soon as his finances improve.

“It pains me that I cannot tell people that I am a Muslim,” he said. “I am restlessly waiting for the day when I shall be able to get out of this religious guise.”

Some analysts worry that the deep-seated discrimination against Muslims could ultimately drive them to violence.

“As Indian Muslims strongly feel they are being unjustifiably denied their share in developing India, their grievances could snowball into severe anger against the state and society, forcing many to resort to terrorism one day,” Mr. Basu said.

But for the time being, the realities of the workplace mean that many Muslims will continue to hide their identities.

In the state of West Bengal, where the Islamic community makes up 27 percent of the population, Muslim employment in the government sector was less than 3 percent, according to a recent federally mandated study by former Judge Rajendra Sachar.

A federal minister acknowledged last week that Muslims have been victims of “religious apartheid,” both in the government and in society at large.

Discrimination against Muslims “is in the polity and the populace of the country. Worse, many of them have been implicated in fake charges of terrorism,” said Kapil Sibal, the minister of science and technology, who is a Hindu.


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