India's Muslims forced to hide their religion to survive in a world of hatred by Hindus

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 August, 2007, 12:00am

In the main commercial district of Calcutta, he runs a street food stall called Rajib's Paratha, where he is known as Rajib Mallick.

Since he uses the popular Hindu name of Rajib, no one suspects that the man is in fact Rajab Mollah, a Muslim who has taken on a fictitious Hindu identity to blend in with the mostly Hindu office staff and businessmen in the neighbourhood.

Sohrab Hossain, a Muslim who came to the city to do a master's degree in English and lives in a Hindu-dominated area, is known as Sourav Das by his students.

To keep up his Hindu facade, he has an idol of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, on his table.

Every morning as she prepares to go to work as a fishmonger, Hasina Khatoon replaces her silver armband on which 'Allah' is embossed in Arabic with red and white conch bangles and puts vermillion powder on her forehead - symbols of a married Hindu woman.

She does this to maintain her Hindu appearance in a fish market where her customers call her Sabitri Mandal, a common Hindu name.

Rajab Mollah and Sohrab Hossain say they use Hindu identities in a society where, as Muslims, they would face injustice and discrimination.

Analysts say Muslims of all socio-economic backgrounds are hiding their religious identity.

Anjan Basu, a social analyst and executive editor of Pratidin, a Bengali daily, said many Hindus looked on Muslims as similar to Untouchables, the lowest tier of Hindu society.

'In everyday life, Muslims in almost all spheres face a communal discrimination by powerful Hindus,' Mr Basu said.

'They are denied many of their basic rights and freedoms in unjustified ways.'

Mr Basu, who is Hindu, said this communal discrimination had been institutionalised, with Muslims being denied employment in the government and many private sector offices, where about 90 per cent of the jobs were held by Hindus.

Most Muslims who have adopted Hindu identities believe they are doing nothing wrong.

'Ten years ago, when my house and land in the village was eaten up by a river and I came to Calcutta in search of jobs, almost all street shops and restaurants in the city refused to employ me because I was a Muslim,' Mr Mollah said.

'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 under a Hindu identity to supply water to restaurants in the central city.

'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 Mollah's customers are Hindus and he fears his business would suffer if his customers found out he is a Muslim.

'I don't think I have done anything wrong because I know how they hate Muslims simply because of their religion,' added Mr Mollah, who has employed two Muslim boys who have also been introduced as Hindus.

Mr Hossain, meanwhile, says when his finances improve, he will shed his Hindu identity.

He said 29 out of 30 guest house owners refused to take him in because of his religion. His situation has grown desperate, he said.

'And in a condition stipulated by my house owner, I am not allowed to bring in any Muslim-looking visitor to my house and I am instructed to display Hindu religious pictures or idols in my room.

'It pains me that I cannot tell people that I am a Muslim.

'Sometimes I think I am doing something morally wrong by faking this identity and probably insulting my own religion.

'I am restlessly waiting for the day when I shall be able to get out of this religious guise.'

A federal commission recently found that Muslims live in worse conditions in India than previously thought.

'They live in socioeconomic conditions worse than many so-called backward tribal people,' said commission chief Rajendra Sachar, a former judge.

In the state of West Bengal, where the Islamic community makes up 27 per cent of the population, Muslim employment in the government sector was below 3 per cent, the Sachar Commission reported.

'As Muslims strongly feel they are being unjustifiably denied their share in developing India, grievances could snowball into severe anger, forcing many to resort to terrorist activities,' Mr Basu said.

Oppressed minority

Muslims make up 13.4 per cent of India's population

Number of Muslims living in India: 138m