What it means to be a person with disability and Muslim in times of 'hyper-nationalism'

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    Guwahati, Oct 6: Blessed be the broken road--half-tarred, half-slushy (especially during monsoon)--that leads to Shishu Sarothi, an NGO for persons with disabilities in the bustling city of Guwahati, Assam.

    Despite the weariness from the walk, what you see at the end of your journey is enough to make you feel 'fortunate'. One couldn't help but feel the stark difference-- the place has a strange calmness, an addictive silence that seems almost surreal to be existing amid the chaotic city that Guwahati has become.

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    The weariness recedes further as you see a bunch of mostly young and motivated people going about their day's work inside the office of Shishu Sarothi, which also accommodates a school for children with special needs.

    Leading the "motivated" bunch of people is their "boss", Arman Ali, the director of Shishu Sarothi.

    Ali these days is busy giving interviews to television channels and newspapers, but not because of his "much-recognised" work for the disabled.

    The 36-year-old has been in news after he posted about his brush with movie hall patriots. On the fateful day, Ali had gone with his nieces and a nephew to a newly opened multiplex after a "delicious buffet lunch" as part of their Durga Puja celebrations.

    But the celebrations didn't last long as two men heckled him for not standing up while the national anthem was being played inside the hall (as mandated by the Supreme Court before every film show across the country).

    While everyone stood up, including his nieces and nephew, Ali remained seated, but upright on his wheelchair. Born with cerebral palsy, Ali doesn't remember when was the last time he stood up on his legs.

    But two "gentlemen", as Ali likes to describe them, perhaps couldn't take the "insult" to the national anthem and shouted at him from behind, calling him a "Pakistani".

    Recalling the incident one more time, he says: "As soon as the national anthem ended, two voices in unison, quite audible to everyone inside the theatre which on that day didn't have too many people, said 'saame ek Pakistani baitha hain (there is a Pakistani inside the theatre'."

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    Ali, who is a recipient of the National Award in public recognition for outstanding performance as most efficient disabled employee (1998) from the then Indian PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, tells OneIndia that his first reaction was to give them a piece of his mind.

    He, however, decided not to create a scene. He says he consoled himself saying that he was not the first person to become a victim of hyper-nationalists in a 'New' India, where cow vigilantes lynch people in the name of rescuing the animal and "preserving" the Hindu culture.

    "They use the word Pakistani to insult anyone who they think are not like them. As if being a Pakistani is a crime," Ali says, adding that the "hyper-nationalists also ask all liberals to 'go to Pakistan'".

    It's because, he says, all those who wear their patriotism on their sleeve think that all the "bad and evil things happen in Pakistan" and "India is a bed of roses".

    "There is nothing wrong in being a Pakistani. They are as good, as talented and as loving like we Indians. But look at the context in what it was said. The two men thought I was not doing my 'national' duty by not standing up during the national anthem," he shakes his head in disbelief.

    When asked, why did not he tell his "abusers" the reason behind not standing up, Ali says, "Like a woman would never say I am a woman and do not target me for being that, I too don't like to say I am a disabled person."

    "I was not sure if the audience at the theatre would understand my situation and support me. I also decided to stay silent at that time as I was with children," says the outspoken activist who has also been honoured with the Super Idol Award from CNN IBN 7 in 2011.

    However, after coming out of the theatre he decided to speak up. "I needed to tell the world what is happening. It reflects badly on our society and country. The entire issue highlights two problems--one is lack of awareness about issues regarding the disabled people and, second, the rise of this distorted form of nationalism in the country."

    "My disability is not my identity. I pay my taxes, I don't need a quota and I believe in equal opportunities for all," he added.

    He, however, is positive about the future. "I am getting a lot of support for raising the issue. Disabled rights activists from across the country are with me."

    The overwhelming support aside, he is a tad disappointed with the silence maintained by the political class.

    "They are mostly silent. Only former chief minister of Assam Tarun Gogoi told reporters that it was shameful incident and condemned it in strong words."

    When asked if anyone from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has spoken to him about the incident, Ali said there's complete silence on part of the state government even though the incident has been hotly debated in local TV channels.

    Apparently, as Ali through his Facebook post and TV interviews was trying to garner support for the disabled people, his "Muslim identity" didn't go unnoticed.

    "Yes, many journalists asked me if the incident has anything to do with my Muslim identity. I want to tell everybody that being a Muslim but I have never faced problems, except one or two minor incidents in the past.

    We live in a secular country, but in recent times things have changed, especially the rise in number of mob lynching cases where most often the targets are Muslims. I do feel scared at times thinking about this mob mentality and lynchings."

    Wrapping up the interview, Ali once again stresses: "I don't need to prove my patriotism to anyone. I am a proud citizen of India and I believe I have done my share of duty for my country through my work. I will continue to do so."

    OneIndia News

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