Field Notes: "Are You Muslim?" 


It was a cloudy afternoon when I visited Dhoolpet basti (slum) in Hyderabad for a story about a twice-elected MLA in Telangana, who was vital for BJP's election push into the southern state. He has faced no consequences for the scores of criminal cases registered against him and for making anti-Muslim hate speeches in the TRS-run state. 

I wanted to start my research by understanding  T Raja Singh's roots in Dhoolpet, a rundown and crime-ridden locality of mostly Hindus living in the Muslim-dominated Old City, where the BJP leader was born and rose to power. I wanted to speak with the people who had seen the 45-year-old evolve as a politician and ask them how he had improved things in his two terms. 

My arrival coincided with the entire neighbourhood coming out for the bonalu procession (a celebration of the Hindu goddess Mahakali). As I passed people walking in narrow lanes with open drains and young men riding motorcycles while holding saffron flags, I saw people looking at me. Then, when I stopped to speak with 35-year-old Gokul, who had been making Ganesh idols in Dhoolpet his whole life, I felt he did not want to talk to me. 

Gokul's first question to me: "Are you Muslim?" When I asked him what made him think I was Muslim, Gokul said, "You are not wearing a bindi." 

Suddenly, I realised why people were staring at me; they thought I was Muslim. 

As I showed my rudraksha to Gokul, I felt profoundly uncomfortable and momentarily stunned to be on the receiving end of the anti-Muslim bigotry growing unchecked, now affecting my journalism.

"This is what it has come to," I thought. 

As I spoke with Gokul, Shyamala, the 30-year-old pan shop owner next door, said the area had been fraught with communal tensions for decades, and Singh was there to protect Hindus. 

"Fights over religion here are too common. It has been happening for decades now. There's nothing new," said Shyamala. "Raja Singh is a leader who Modi chose to lead our fight for Hindutva." 

As I spoke with journalists, politicians and analysts about Singh, I  felt there was resigned apathy about the criminal record and bigotry of the elected official.

One journalist asked, "What's there to write about Raja Singh? He is a free man because he is an MLA."

You can read Vidheesha Kuntamalla's full story here. 

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