The year was 1990. My sister and myself had gone to watch an eminently forgettable film starring Sonu Walia and Akbar Khan ( remember them?). While the name of the film and most of its plot has been erased from my memory, what stays intact is a very curious sequence in the story- the hero had met with an accident and the heroine was seeking divine intervention. So we have a sequence like this… She goes to a temple and prays “Bhagwan,, etc etc”, then to a dargah and finally to a church . Now here is the interesting bit- while the temple and the dargah prayers were in bollywood Hindi her prayer in the church was in English – “Oh god.. please blah blah!”. We found that very funny. We wondered if prayers inside a church would be heard only if they were said in English!!!!!
But tell me folks, isn’t this a popular stereotype? For example, most Indian films show a Christian bride wearing a gown!! However, in reality very few of them actually do! I have attended Malayali, Tamil, Telugu and Manglorean Christian weddings and I am yet to see a bride in that white gown! And about the use of the English language inside a church – I can only say that it is ridiculous! Christianity as a religion has worship sessions in almost all Indian languages.
Coming to portrayal of Muslims in Hindi movies- there are actually two typical types that used to be popular until the 1990s. One was your “Abdul chacha” sort of person ( portrayed almost always by A. K. Hangal!) and there was the “Nawab Sahab” !!! So hilarious! Why these extremes? But now I think there is a new Muslim stereotype that is emerging –the “Bhai” or the underworld don ( poor guy he was originally a Christian with names like “ Robert “ or “Michael” in the 1970s and 80s but post 1990 he has converted to Islam).
Muslim women shown in films unfortunately were again of the “Sahib jaan “ or “Umrao Jaan” type or the Burqa clad girl who ties a Rakhi to the hero! But these are again pre 1990. I am yet to come across a story with a different portrayal of a Muslim woman.
There are also some personal experiences around stereotyping that I would like to share. I am a Hindu married to a Christian. Both myself and my husband maintain a secular household where both religions are given equal importance and festivals of both religions as also cultural ones like Onam and Pongal celebrated. Our daughter does not have a religious identity. But people see her forehead without a “Pottu”/ “Bindi” and automatically assume that she is a Christian! She gets very furious when that happens because not wearing a “Pottu”/ “Bindi” for her is a personal choice. She does not wear it because she does not like herself with one. Now I have seen this happen in the reverse too. There used to be a college friend of mine by name Maria. Maria was a catholic from Mangalore and used to wear colourful bindis . She had very long hair tied in a plait reaching till her waist and was very fair. Both of us used to almost always be together. Our roll numbers were also consecutive ( Meera and Maria). But most professors used to think I was the Maria- guess why? I was the darker one, with shorter hair and often without a pottu/bindi!!! While the “pottu/bindi” thing might be the reverse of what my daughter experiences I think the dark skin and the short hair again were stereotypes associated with a Christian girl!
Sometimes I wonder if it is unfair to blame the media completely for creating these stereotypes. After all what we see on screen is a reflection of what our general understanding about something is all about. This lack of understanding is due to our own closed mindedness and lack of exposure to any culture outside our own. We fail to realize that while Islam and Christianity may be religions that are not of Indian origin, those who practice them are very much part of this country and its culture. Therefore how can we expect anything different ? Christians in India are not British or Portuguese- they are as Indian as the so called majority and their culture is therefore not western though their religion might be! Yes, there were once upon a time a community called the “Anglo Indian” who tried to maintain a distinct western identity during the British and the early independence period. But to club all Christians into that group is an injustice not only to them but tthe Anglo Indians too!
India is a country with differing cultures. So putting people of the same religion into one box and labeling them is very unfair. You cannot compare a Moplah Muslim from the Malabar with a Muslim from Lucknow! We do realize that Malaylis and people from UP are distinct from each other but how is that we are unable to extend this understanding to include within it people of different religious groups. We would like to limit this differentiation to people from the majority religious group. We probably think that Muslims as a group are all the same irrespective of their local roots. The local context influences the religious identity to a large extent. Otherwise how can we explain a name like “Allah Picchai” –a variation of “Allah Baksh”? ( it is true, I have met a person by that name in Nagore in Tamilnadu)
While there are so many misconceptions about the minority religious groups like Christians and Muslims, I am surprised why no one mentions the positive realities vis-à-vis these groups. If we look at the sex ratio in the 2011 census we find that in the Christian communities there are 1009 women for 1000 men and among Muslims it is 936 women for 1000 men. Compare this to the sex ratio among Hindus which is only 931- lower than the two important minority groups! ( Demography tells us that in any society nature made it such that women would be equal or more than men in number. Anything otherwise tending towards lower numbers of women are due to man made interventions. ) And interestingly both these communities maintain high sex ratio among children in the 0-6 years category which in simple terms means that they do not practice female infanticide or foeticide! In terms of literacy Christian women are second highest at 76.2% ( the highest female literacy is among Jains at 90%) Muslim women are the lowest at 50.1% but it is only marginally different from their Hindu counterparts which is at 53.2%. And interestingly the male literacy among Muslims is also low –only 67.6% unlike in Hindus which is 76.2% leaving nearly a 23% gap between male and female literacy rates. Therefore if we are talking about discrimination against women, Hindus are probably equal to Muslims in that if not worse !
So why do we continue to believe in myths and misconceptions about certain communities instead of looking at facts? Why don’t we mingle with our fellow citizens from other religious groups and learn for ourselves what or who they are? It is not a sin to read the Bible or Koran or books about them? We don’t have to practice the religion but why not learn what they are all about? Do we think it is an act of betrayal towards our own religion?
An finally and most importantly, we need to realize that it is unfair to club every individual under a label! Every person, even within the same culture and religion is a distinct human being with his/her own likes and dislikes as also habits.
I would like to end this post with a beautiful line from an old Hindi film song “Tu Hindu banega ya Musalman banega, Insaan ki aulad hai Insaan banega” ( roughly translated it means – Will you be a Hindu or a Muslim? You are the child of a human being and so you will grow up to be a Human being)
( Muslims constitute 13.4% of the Indian population and Christians 2.3% . The word minority has been used in that context. I sincerely apologize to any reader whose sentiments I may have hurt inadvertently by using this word )