The BJP party hates Muslims
As a 20-year-old you experienced the so-called "Bombay Riots" of 1992/93. How did this unrest affect your literary work?
Rahman Abbas: Fires were seen everywhere at night. Rioters had targeted the Muslim quarters, houses were destroyed, people were killed. The police did nothing. For the first time in my young life, I felt something slip between me and my Hindu friends I grew up with. Hindus and Muslims saw themselves as opponents everywhere in Bombay. They started to hate each other. It only subsided many years later.
My first novel, "Nakhalistan Ki Talash", was about the identity crisis that followed. It was then that I realized what family I was born into. Before that, it didn't really matter whether you were Muslim, Hindu or whatever. In this novel, too, a Muslim boy senses for the first time why there is no security for him. The "Bombay Riots" and what is happening in India today are forcing an identity on a particular community. Even people like me, who are known to criticize even their own community and theological system, are simply considered to be Muslims. The Jews in Germany must have felt the same way back then.
For your first novel, you were even taken into police custody for a few days. How did that happen?
Abbas: Conservative Muslims in Maharashtra thought my novel was an obscene book. I was charged on the basis of a colonial law, and at the urging of my opponents, I also lost my Urdu teaching position at a college.
They claimed I was a bad influence on the youth. They saw the Islamic value system called into question, because in my novel there is a dream sequence in which my young protagonist remembers the most beautiful moments with his lover in the prison cell, shortly before his planned execution.
In another scene, I describe how he kisses his girlfriend passionately on a university campus. But kissing is still an act of profanity for many Muslim people as long as one is not married. And even then, you can't kiss your wife in public. The trial hung in the air for more than ten years. It wasn't until 2016 that I was acquitted.
In 2016, the state agency for the promotion of Urdu, the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), urged Urdu writers to self-censure. They led the protests against this directive. What happened?
Abbas: The NCPUL has been promoting Urdu writers and their books since the mid-1990s. Twenty years after its inception, she wrote a letter to the authors asking that her books should not be directed against government policies or the interests of the nation. They should also not write anything that could stir up conflicts between the religious communities. Should an author violate this, he would have to repay the financial support granted.
Not to write against your own country - I can accept that. But it is my basic right to criticize the government. It is even a writer's duty to oppose policies that are directed against the people.
Many writers came together as a result, including many older writers from North India, New Delhi and other parts of India. We have asked the government to withdraw this directive. After countless newspaper articles and parliamentary debates about our initiative, they finally complied with our request.
How do you classify the NCPUL's advance?
Abbas: That is totalitarianism. George Orwell described it, Kafka was also afraid of it: You do not know what your crime will be, and it will take you a decade to understand what your crime was. Authors can no longer think freely, let alone express themselves freely.
Urdu is a very liberal and secular language. Urdu poetry celebrates the existence of God and criticizes it at the same time. It is the only Indian language that celebrates wine, whiskey and love so openly.
Urdu is actually closely associated with a liberal attitude. If you only associate it with a certain religion, you will not do it justice. Because without Urdu, Hindi is incomplete and vice versa. Together they result in one language: the old Hindustani. But politics has not only divided Indian society along the lines of religion, but also along its linguistic boundaries.
In the past few years, several writers and intellectuals who made a name for themselves as critics of the Hindu nationalist Hindutva movement have been murdered. Is fear raging in your circles?
Abbas: The rather unknown writers are not targeted by them; those who have been murdered so far, such as M.M. Kalburgi, were among India's top writers. We know that the killers come from a Hindu nationalist background. And this government protects the accused, does not take legal action.
Other parts of the population, especially minorities, are even more affected: Leading politicians of the ruling party protect themselves from criminals who have committed crimes against minorities - Dalits, Christians or Muslims.
The current Prime Minister Narendra Modi is even partly responsible for the pogroms in Gujarat: When he ruled the state at the time, he let go of the people who had molested the Muslim minority there for days. These Hindutva fanatics are the brothers of the Taliban. You want to split this society. We writers want to protect this society, to defend its constitution, which defines our identity as Indians.
They regularly visit Haji Ali Dargah Shrine in Bombay. He also plays an important role in your last award-winning novel. What do you find fascinating about it?
Abbas: All sorts of people come together in many of these Sufi shrines. Not only from different Muslim communities, also Hindus, Sikhs and Dalits. These shrines are open, there is no rigid understanding of God. Humanity is seen as one. This tradition has always existed in India. The protagonist of my last novel "Rohzin" regularly meets his girlfriend in the Haji Ali Dargah Shrine. It is a place of peace and beauty. Bombay has this tradition too, and it's very strong.
The interview was conducted by Dominik Müller.
© Qantara.de 2019
Rahman Abbas, born in 1972, studied Urdu and English literature at the University of Mumbai. His first novel, Nakhalistan Ki Talash, caused great controversy in India and led to a criminal case for "obscenity" that was only ended in 2016 with an acquittal. Abbas won the "Sahitya Akademi Award" twice, in 2011 for his third novel "Khuda Ke Saaye Mein Ankh Micholi" and again in 2017 for "The City, the Sea, Love".
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