One morning, like every morning, I boarded my school-bus at 7:30 and reached my high-school at 8:30. That morning, unlike every other morning, my bus-mates, my teachers, and I didn’t exit the bus, instead, we sat in the bus for thirty or so minutes. Our teachers leaned out of the windows and conversed in hush tones with the school’s security guard.
Without any announcements, the bus started its return journey. We didn’t understand the reason, but we were happy. After all, instead of a full day at school, we would spend a day at home. All the way back, we clapped and chatted loudly. All the way back, our teachers tried their best to quiet us.
At home, my mother told me the reason. That morning someone (a Sikh bodyguard) had shot Indira Gandhi—the Prime Minister of India. That moment changed everything. That was the beginning of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi. That moment changed a lot of Hindu and Sikh relationships. That moment changed Delhi and my neighborhood that boasted a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurdwara within walking distance of each other. That moment I matured to the malice of religious persecution. I was in sixth grade.
Following days, Sikhs and Hindus of our neighborhood fought each other with swords and axes and cricket-bats and stones and with any-and-everything they could use as a weapon. Hindus sought out innocent Sikh families to take revenge. All Sikhs were punished for the action of one. My father’s Sikh friend and his family moved in with us, as their neighborhood was unsafe for them. There was a curfew in our neighborhood. Nobody went to school or office or markets. For weeks, everyone sat holed up in their homes for things to become better or worst.
Gradually, the riots simmered down and India had a new Prime Minister. From the outside, Delhi behaved normally–markets opened, my father went to work, and I was back to the drudgery of high-school. But the scars were visible to everyone. Delhi didn’t have burnt down buildings and bullet holes in monuments. Delhi had the altered faces of Sikhs.
The Sikhs around me, to disguise their identity, shaved their beards, cut their hair, and stopped wearing turbans. They went against their religious beliefs so Hindus couldn’t identify and target them. I pray to God that I never have to face that.
Over the years, there were more religious conflicts in India, especially between Hindus and Muslims. In India, I find that I am a Hindu first, a human being second, and a woman third. In India, everyone judges everyone else based on their religion. Usually, you can figure out a person’s religion just by their last name. Most Indians prefer to stick with people of their own religion.
Since my childhood, my grandfather warned me not “make friends” with Sikhs and Muslims. I had many Sikh and Muslim friends over the years. I studied with them, partied with them, and traveled with them. But I never informed my family about them. During my studies at TAMU, my smoking buddy was a third year engineering student who was from Pakistan. I never thought of him as a Muslim and he never thought of me as a Hindu. We were just two people who liked to smoke the same brand of cigarettes.
When I immigrated to America, in my naiveté, I believed that the world outside of India is free of religious conflicts. Year after year, day after day, I head and watched the religious tit-for-tat which was escalating. It seemed that if a person disagrees with other person’s religious teaching, then the person takes whatever tool was available and hurts innocent people of other religion.
As I watch the breaking news about today’s van attack in London, my chest is filled with pain, ready to bust open. I feel as though I am ten years old and my friend’s father is fighting with my other friend’s father, simply because they follow a different religion. I feel that the world is exactly like my tiny neighborhood in New Delhi, India. I see that even though we are all connected and have access to immediate breaking news, we are stuck in the religious box.
I feel that I am loosing hope. I think the entire world is on a war path with each other. I have always held hope that not everyone is an extremist. That we are decent people. That 99% of us would NOT punish people of other religions because of the act of certain extremist. That eventually one day, everyone in the world, because of the damn social media, would see that in spite of different religions, we all are same. All of us, no matter which religion or country, watch too much TV, want to be good mothers, fathers, daughters, wives, husbands . . . , want to hit a jackpot lottery, want to be more than what we are. . .
I just wish that one morning when I switch on the news, I hear only good news like Amazon sending gifts to all its customers.