Gayathri Sankar: Be Donald Trump

Islamophobes are an interesting breed of people the world over. They might not be that easy to spot (take a suspicious look at the people sitting beside you right now). And even when called out, tend to deny that they harbour some extremely bigoted views.
Here’s a checklist. If you say yes to more than two of the below, congratulations! You are a closeted Islamophobe. This quiz is only for Indian Islamophobes but I am sure it can be tweaked for other countries as well.

  1. Religious affiliations of those involved in incidents of violence are your immediate concern.
  2. Despite belonging to a majority community in India, you feel victimised and taken advantage of.
  3. You believe intolerance and aggression is synonymous with certain communities.
  4. In your opinion, Kashmiri Muslims are just needlessly troubling the Indian state and deserve to be airdropped into Pakistan.
  5. While you believe that Islam is intrinsically more oppressive you do make exceptions for your friends from that community.

Here’s the thing, my Muslim friends don’t want to be exempted from their community. You can’t be selective when making a generalisation. If you decide when insulting a community that you’re not counting anyone you know personally, and you’re not counting all the nice or pleasant members of the said community (“exceptions!”), then what will be left of the community but the ones worth insulting? If someone, say a person from Punjab, told me that they generally dislike people whose parents come from Kerala and Bengal yet they find me alright I would personally be offended and so would my parents.

The fact is, I can do the exact same thing. Since most bigots enjoy making generalisations based on limited information I can also say that my best friend, a Muslim, is one of the kindest and gentlest boys I know. As the owner of two very fluffy cats, a love for irritating pop music and an inexplicable fear of bunny rabbits, he is quite possibly the least dangerous person I will ever know.
And if you forward me a picture, of a Jihadi beheading a hostage, as your evidence for how regressive the entire religion is, I’ll forward you back a picture of Faraaz Hossain who refused the chance to escape death because he wanted to stand by his friends.
But that’s neither here nor there, because I know the absurdity behind stereotyping a community based on specific examples. So stop with the examples right now and go ahead and claim your badge – I am an Islamophobe. Come out of your closet of bigotry.

Often a long discourse on how religion is a breeding ground for terrorists is followed up with a dismissive shake of the head and the statement that it is all politics anyway. That is simply not acceptable anymore. No – please decide. Politics and religion are very different matters. If you tell me it’s politics, then you are blaming a corrupt government and dishonest leaders, you’re saying different countries played their roles in creating the situation we face today. If you tell me it’s religion, you are telling me that ordinary practicing Muslims are responsible for the persecution of their own community and others. Then you are insulting my friend’s identity. You cannot drag a religion, and then end the conversation by saying “it’s all politics”. If it was, you would not have brought religion into the matter. Say no to hypocrisy. It’s a beginning.

It’s not enough to be compassionate to only the people you interact with under the guise of being a tolerant person while also holding onto your prejudices. People exist outside the ones you talk to and the ones the media focuses on. It’s not enough to speak up only about anything that may affect you or your loved ones.
And yes, it’s awful when things happen in Paris or Brussels or Mumbai or Delhi because those are places you and your family live in, those are places you may go to on vacation. But to then deny the magnitude of lives being wrecked by people outside those who we know? To ignore the fact that it is after all more Muslims being killed by ISIS than any other community? And now to brand them all as inherently cruel is to foolishly consider ISIS as the mouthpiece of Islam. It is to ignore the fact that this is precisely why the community faces double-edged persecution: from terrorists who adapted and manipulated their religion to oppress them and a worldwide persecution from the rest of us.

So why pretend that we care for all lives equally when we assign more importance to some deaths over others? The most credible figures cited that two hundred thousand people have been killed since the uprising began in Syria between 2012 to 2015 (the figures increasing daily), not to mention those who have gone missing, political prisoners and hostages. And this is only Syria. There is Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan – the list goes on. But a hundred white lives being lost will garner more attention, let’s not pretend otherwise.

The former ISIS hostage Nicolas Henin clinically assessed the situation in Syria in 2013 and instead of focussing on the horrors he experienced while a hostage, he asserted that “We should at least have the decency to try to understand the disgust of Syrians, who after two hundred thousand people have been killed, see that the West have only been affected by the beheading of its hostages” (Jihad Academy, Nicolas Henin). He repeatedly says that we are playing into the hands of the Islamic State because there is no better breeding ground for extremism than entire populations in despair – the challenges posted by this crisis are new and require a comprehensive response that eschews discrimination and marginalization.

Let’s keep that in mind when talking about these places, about states like Jammu and Kashmir – a state devastated for years. A state whose people underwent horrors that the average citizen of India can’t even begin to comprehend. Please be careful about what you may say about the people living there. If you expect them to be placid, if you expect them not to react with anything less than outrage after what they have endured, then it’s like telling a victim of rape to love their rapist.

You mention cases and perceptions about Muslims and their crimes to illustrate your understanding of the community. Did you read about this incident? Sick, intolerant, regressive. Donald Trump insults Muslims and bans them from entering his country and you call him intolerant with a shake of your head. You laugh at a sexist joke forwarded on a Whatsapp group but when Trump degrades women you gasp in shock. What is he doing other than explaining the logic that lies behind your jokes, the reason you find them funny? There is a slight difference that accompanies his terrifying honesty– the world knows him as a xenophobic, racist and sexist. You refuse to accept this about yourself.

I attended a speech by a man who had lived through the Emergency in prison. He said that prior to the Emergency people tended to talk unthinkingly. Talk about how sometimes they wished that the country could be run by a ‘benevolent dictator’ instead of the ineffective government they were subjected to. Talk irritably of ‘social justice warriors’, a troublesome group of people who tended to make a fuss about nothing.

And then came the Emergency, and the horrors that accompanied it. And after it had passed there was a … hush.

The hush of people learning to value their freedom, of people giving more importance to justice. The hush of people being more careful with their words. Bigots being shoved deep into the closet.

And then, as every major event in world history does, this one passed too. Before World War II, there were perceptions and stereotypes about Jews, like the stereotypes against black people and Muslims today. And they culminated, perhaps first in the form of whispers and jokes and facts gathered from random sources. And then Hitler emerged and finally, someone said what most were thinking. Bigots stepped freely out of the closet and the world realised the cruelty it was capable of producing.

And when it was over there was shame. The shame of educated intelligent people who had fallen into the trap of making generalisations and unthinking statements. The shame of people who never fell into the trap but never stood up against those who did. And the people who continued to stick to their prejudices were exposed for what they were – bigots. And so in today’s world almost no one makes generalisations about Jews anymore.

But here we are again, new leaders emerging, new communities being dragged through the mud, new generalisations being made.

And the ones of us that are silent or the ones that crack jokes or pass careless statements, it’s what we’re calling on ourselves. It’s what we are allowing to happen.

As for the closeted bigots – it’s time to come out of your closet. I’m not asking you to change your beliefs – that can take years, sometimes forever. I’m just asking you to accept what you are.
“You’re right, I don’t like Islam.”
“I have prejudices against the black community.”
“I cracked a homophobic joke because I’m homophobic.”
Say it for me, so I know what I’m dealing with. Say it for yourself and be at peace with who you are. Say it so that you imbibe the one positive trait about Donald Trump – the man is openly an asshole. Don’t be an asshole that hides behind jokes and subtle slips of your tongue.
Assholes of the world: be Donald Trump.



Gayathri Sankar: On Capital Punishment

31 July 2015

In class today we discussed capital punishment, and I was beyond distressed when a large portion of students, including half of my closest friends, supported it.

My cousin Meera and I went on a walk with the dog (who appears to have no opinion on the matter), and I managed to gather my thoughts enough to write them down a while later. I also realised I had been too heated and involved in the matter to debate it properly, but am not anymore. So, here are the reasons why I do not approve of capital punishment.

First, I would like to establish some facts:

  • Capital punishment does not deter people from committing heinous crimes any more than prison does.
  • Capital punishment is more expensive than giving a criminal lifelong imprisonment.
  • Four percent of people facing capital punishment (specifically in the USA) have been wrongfully convicted.
  • Capital punishment is now being used not only on rapists and murderers, but also on people involved in cases of criminal conspiracies, which raises questions as to what precisely a ‘heinous crime’ is.

Once I explain this to a person, the usual argument presented is:

“Are you content to allow rapists and murderers who have violated somebody’s fundamental rights to live, because you don’t want to violate theirs?”

The question, framed in that manner, almost demands that I reply in the negative, but I shall go out on a limb and tell you my answer – yes, yes I am. But I do have my reasons.

  • Tit for tat is not the answer.

This argument, I have noticed, is met by immediate ridicule (and it does not help my case that I am a firm believer in most Gandhian principles, principles that are increasingly being viewed as simplistic).

‘An eye for an eye makes the world go blind’ is something children are told to prevent scraps in the playground—it is not a statement used to prevent inter-communal, political or religious fights, not if one wishes to be taken seriously. And yet, particularly when it comes to these issues, I’ve noticed that adults become increasingly like children. Because when it comes to these issues we tend to get personal and child-like. If you attempt to convince me that the Hindu-Muslim riots were carried out by mature, rationally thinking adults then this argument is as good as over. Which is why I will relentlessly spring my idea that “violence is not the answer” on you, however naïve I may be considered for it, because if you look at it from my point of view, it’s those who disagree with the concept who are truly naïve. Violence from what I’ve observed is inherently childish and it is not simplistic or idealistic to believe that it is not a solution.

Which is also why I do believe an argument essentially based on the concept of revenge is irrational, that killing a man who killed someone else—to prove that killing is wrong—is illogical.

  • Misplaced empathy

When the Nirbhaya case first came up the responses were passionate and heated, which was gratifying, but they were also occasionally very worrying: “The rapists should be castrated, they should have their fingers torn off, they should be tortured…” and so on.

At first I agreed, too overcome with despair for humanity to say otherwise. Then I reminded myself that if I wanted to stay sane in human society I’d have to accustom myself to incidents as terribly inhuman as this one. This is not to say I’d have to accept it; that making a change isn’t an option. In fact, I’d say, it’s precisely the opposite. The moment you react with something as barbaric as the sentences above, the moment you make acts like that acceptable, that’s when you take a step back from the civilised, from any kind of progress.

When I agreed with those things I felt like it was showing how truly affected I was by the case, almost a form of expressing empathy – this is such a terrible thing to happen, how could one not react in that manner? But that empathy, I realise now is the wrong kind, because it’s terribly misplaced. It’s the root of any overly radical movement, when you feel so strongly that you cross a line somewhere, between what is acceptable and what is not.

And when you cross that line then people, if anything, are more likely to take you less seriously, because your rationality is as far out the window as the person committing the crime.

It’s not easy keeping a calm head when you hear stories like that, but I promise it makes you no less sensitive if you do. It shows no less sadness or sympathy when you express yourself through measured, refined words as it does when you spew threats.

  • Thinking for one’s self

Something I noticed in the case of my friends is that each and every one of us appeared to mirror the judgment of our parents, myself included. While I like to believe that we’re all objective in our opinions, it seemed like too much of a coincidence.

And so I thought about the Yakub Memon case, the one that triggered all of this, as thoroughly as I could, from every vantage point that I could, to form what I hoped would be an unbiased opinion. I still hold the opinion I did in the beginning, for reasons not only related to the sanctity of capital punishment but many other factors included.

Our opinions are always coloured to a certain extent, by what we hear around us when we are growing up. I’d like to imagine we can shed those influences, not allow oneself to just accept them uncritically. Don’t be pulled by one argument and then another, don’t let the media tug you in different directions with contradicting stories.

Meera told me about her obsession with a man who possibly possessed more conviction in what he believed to be right than any other in the history of the world. “Hitler must have possessed absolutely unfaltering faith in what he supported,” she said, “if he was able to advocate the death of millions of people without any remorse. What does that tell you about the working of his mind?”

Hitler is just an example (possibly the greatest one) of how absolutely dangerous an inflexible opinion can be. And so I request everyone to occasionally question themselves. Research what you discuss, formulate opinions based solely on what you believe to be right, but don’t make those opinions absolutely inflexible either.

I’ll admit that my friends and I belong to one of the most privileged sections of society, attend one of the best schools in Delhi. In spite of our protected lives, completely unharmed by criminals, some of us still advocate the most violent of punishments to be inflicted on criminals. Can any of us understand the compulsions and behavioural impulses of most of these criminals? Don’t misunderstand me, it isn’t even a question of justifying their crimes, but it is a question of taking a poke at the relatively comfortable bubble most of us reside in.

Can one unlearn one’s own beliefs? Well, it’s time we at least gave it a try. The next time you start off something with “I believe…”, PAUSE. Think of what you believe in; why you believe in it. How you came to believe it. Ninety percent will end up holding on their beliefs even more strongly. Why? Because the ego is a competent warrior and it knows only to kill anything that threatens the stability of your consciousness. The ten percent who dare to poke a hole most probably will find themselves in an abysmal void. Let’s dare to create some voids within us, for we have long been a-voiding them.

Gayathri Sankar is fifteen years old and a student of Class XI of Mothers International School, New Delhi.

Gayathri Sankar: The Session

Years after they had met, Elaine and Neil Pinto recalled the events that had led up to them ever running into each other in the first place.

Perhaps their meeting had been inevitable–fixed by the position of the stars, or the alignment of the planets. Perhaps it had just been a coincidence. And most possibly it had been planned by the therapist who had mixed their appointments up two years ago.

Either way, they had both showed up for their sessions at 4:30 on a Saturday.

The therapist apologized profusely before asking them if they would mind having a joint session, instead of individual ones.

“Yes,” they both thought.

“Not at all,” they both said, plastering on fake smiles.

Once they were seated, the therapist turned to Elaine. “Will you tell us your reason for coming today?” She asked.

Elaine replied tentatively that she had a superpower. “I can turn invisible.”

There was a slight silence.

“But only when no one’s looking.”

The therapist scribbled something down in her notebook and looked up with a carefully unreadable expression. “Continue.” She said.

“Well, understandably, no one believes me. They think I’m crazy.”

“I believe you.” Neil piped up, slightly shyly. “I have a superpower too.”

“You too? What is it?” Elaine asked unbelievingly.

“I can see through my eyelids.” He laughed nervously. “Not only is it a completely useless superpower, but I can never get any sleep.”

“Could you show me?” Elaine asked.

“First you show me yours,” he replied excitedly.

“Indeed,” said the therapist enigmatically, to remind them of her presence.

“I can’t turn invisible though, not if you’re looking.” Elaine explained. “You’ll have to shut your eyes.”

Both the therapist and Neil complied, closing their eyes. And as soon as they were shut, Elaine looked down at the fading image of her body and let out a deep sigh. “What a ridiculous power. All my life, no one’s been able to see me in action, yet alone believe me.”

“I see you.” said Neil. His eyelids had turned translucent and his green eyes shone with visible awe behind them. “Or rather, I can’t see you. And you look, or should I say don’t look, amazing.”

After the session was over the therapist drew her curtain back to watch the developing friendship between the woman who wanted to be seen when she was invisible, and the man who never stopped looking. They were ambling down the footpath, deep in conversation. Perhaps they were both crazy, or perhaps everyone else was.

“Such rubbish.” She said. “No one can turn invisible, and it’s certainly impossible to see through one’s eyelids. I don’t buy into this super-power nonsense.”

So she packed her briefcase, unfurled her gossamer wings, and proceeded to fly home.

Gayathri Sankar is fifteen and studies in Class X of Mother’s International School, Delhi.