Curfew

Posted on August 17, 2011 by

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by Raheema Begum

This is an incident that goes down in my book as one of those intense upheavals of thought, because for all those times when you imagine a deeper sense of well-being, what had I been thinking?

So I went to Mysore [1] to an uncle’s for a stress relieving relaxing few days, even as I was aware that there was a communal conflict going on in the city. It’s a haven and resort to me, and a place where I would like to settle in some way. My peace persisted for two days until, all of a sudden, on the third it was decided that the entire family would drive back to Bangalore because the conflict had escalated and my uncle’s wife, my maami wanted to protect her two sons from police brutality.

My resolve to stay put came in the way, because I wasn’t ready to be hustled off from the town. Nothing could be so serious as to bid us to leave the house, why should we take to the road? What had really happened? And besides, if the situation was really intense, which I didn’t at the time think was likely in Mysore, was it a good idea to then take to the road in the next half an hour? I managed to convince the family to stay. There was no need to panic. Our TV was not in working order due to reasons that swung between religious morality and the children’s exams, so I had no idea that ours was an area that was under the police radar because a protest organised by a collective of Muslim political groups had been through here. This protest had been organised because the police had arrested several young men from the Muslim community (See the footnotes for more information about the conflict). Neither was I aware that a young man from the neighbourhood had been arrested and sent to a jail in Gulbarga.

The entire family sat huddled up in the evening, the kids to their homework, my uncle to his Quran, maami at the kitchen, and her mother and the kids in a room with me. The air was thick with our containedness. No one said anything to me as I sat watching a popular Pakistani comedy drama series on my aunt’s brother’s laptop. And then my uncle let loose his frustration on his younger son as the guffaws got loud and crashed against the tension in the air. Didn’t he have any homework? His older one was reading Quran. This kid was used to parental brutality. In this part of the netherworld, the parents often take their wild streaks to a merry ride with their children. I was going to pass out or choke out of claustrophobia. Maami who was uneasy about this whole decision to stay home was uneasy. Could we not have at least gone over to her brother’s? The anger then settled on me. I needed air.

I said I would step out, to my see my little niece at her grandparents’, not far from here—a five-minute walk. My uncle was astounded but gathering from my courage and that I had accomplished this much in convincing them, let me go, either because he knew it wasn’t wise to stop me, knowing that I was curious about these incidents, or because he simply thought that it was best to let me go. At any rate I gather now that my family was curious about me, with modern education and the experience of living away that I brought with me each time. At my co-sister’s house, all was not well. Her dad held an unfazed indifferent stare. I asked if I could use the internet. I was led in. My co-sister’s mother gave me her version. Yes, they were taking young boys away from the moholla, her sister had brought her children here to protect them, and the procession had passed. Her daughter was better. “This is a somewhat sensitive area, you shouldn’t have ventured out. They’ve imposed section 177.”

Internet was slow. Everyone was really baffled that I had stepped out. Didn’t they try to stop you? “This is a small town. It would do you better to step out of this home,” my mind said, even as my niece made scary faces at me, a grim reflection of her grandparents’ feelings.
So I walked out, and my curious, fed up and irritated stance became one of bravery. I slipped into the role. Not that I didn’t have insights into this fervent antagonistic quest for meaning. I wanted some answers as well.

Up the road were a clinic and a chemist’s store, and some people who were buying medicines from it. Things seemed to be all fine. I bought a few sweets. The chemist didn’t act like it was anything at odds with the atmosphere. I hung around near the clinic and the store for a while breathing in the cool air. The doctor inside was a little unnerved but seemed to be involved in his work. There were few patients. I could have lingered but I started to walk up the sloping road towards the main road in the area, deciding to brave it to the cyber center. I walked for a while behind a group of three who were going back from the doctor’s. Some people were still out of their houses, speaking to their neighbors walking on, trying to imagine that everything was normal, trying to make it seem so. Further up the road, though, there was hardly any company, and then, close to the main road, there was no one.

This road bears an old sign-post with all the historical insignia of Muslim power in this region, a picture of Tippu Sultan with pictures of some noted politicians. Opposite the sign is an auto stand with the flagpole, bearing a green flag. You walk down and there are shops and houses alongside each other. Most shops here are cellular phone service oriented, then there is a bakery further up ahead, by the bus stop where there is also a new cyber center where I just broke some rules on surfing discretion. Everything was shut.

I walked up this road, and my steps were broken by some people who were out and seemed to have a problem with me being out as well. Where was I going? “I needed to use the cyber center,” I said. “There is a curfew now, go back home,” I was told. And soon, as I walked back down, I was the only person on that road. I liked the bracing feeling, although I was desperate to get around and find out what was happening.

I decided to take some pictures with my cousin’s digital camera. Feeling bolder still, I shot a video. I could see two police-men up ahead on the road. I walked past them slowly, getting a shot of them. It was confrontational although I didn’t intend it to be. I was stopped. I explained, “I wanted to see what was happening. I am not a local resident.” I cannot recall this part very well, except for the fact that I was scared and trying to hold my ground, afraid enough to delete the video right in front of his eyes. He seized my camera. I remember being yelled at and forced to react with respect.

The only ID I had was a learner’s driving license a few years old. Within minutes, another police officer, higher up the ranks arrived on his motorbike. By this time I was more than troubled; had this been a place where I was working without a family to explain to it would have been fine even to get arrested and spend a night in jail, but all this was too much to explain to my uncle and his family. I had gotten myself into a mess, and I was more afraid of how the family would react and all the meanings that would be derived from it, the ways in which it could be bloated in everyone’s imagination, and how it would be cast and recast. More than anything, I was embarrassed. I could explain to the police, and expect to be understood by the world at large, but God save me from my own hyperbolic family. There really was no escape. The officers were astounded at my temerity, and wanted to press to me the seriousness of what I had done. I hung around a little away from the officers, a little disappointed at the way that things had turned out and also trying to think of how I could get myself out of this. I suppose it showed in my behaviour.

Conversation with the new set of officers left me feeling like I was some sort of intellectual misfit. They were very aggressive; exhibiting the demeanour that law enforcers are habituated to. I explained that I had ventured out because I wanted to get a sense of what was happening. One of them said that perhaps I should have considered not becoming the cause of conflict instead. Clearly, this comment stems from the idea that a woman is a cause for violence and conflict, potentially dangerous, apolitical, and steaming and lathering in the vapours of anarchy.

I should pause here and speak of the sexual situation. I was a woman out alone wearing a garment that could very well be a marker for getting targeted; the police were on the look-out for Muslim offenders. A couple of young boys from the locality were already arrested and sent away from the town. I was alone, on the street, and an easy target.

The first officer’s interaction was violent and aggressive and sexually demeaning. I was still reeling from it when he placed a call to a senior officer, an inspector who came to the situation immediately. This inspector was informed of what had happened, while I stood away at a distance. During this time I was standing away and trying to assess the situation. I was obviously the subject of their consideration, and objectified as is the general given treatment. It still is and was demeaning how I was looked at or thought of, as a mere object at first and then as seemingly educated, and therefore misled. In the meanwhile I was trying to gather my wits about what I was going to say; I had been sick and this was a daunting task, to face up to police interrogation at a time of severe conflict and an almost military cordoning and control. It took all my strength to face up to the officers and my Kannada skills came to good use.

I was left feeling a little like it was a mistake to have ventured out, but there was nothing else I could have done. The circumstances were extenuating, and I have read about and been in situations of conflict before. I have all the work and writing and analysis of communal politics brewing to a waste in my head. I could not have just sat there and watched as my uncle and his family hysterically invoke the powers above while being entirely unaware of the situation on the ground. I wasn’t going to let my reason be martyred at the hands of ignorance. I cannot either buy into or stand by and watch as either a null idea of prosecution or an archaic idea of violent justice and retribution takes over people’s senses of agency, whoever they may be.

Within minutes, a woman police constable was called and I was taken to the station for an interrogation. The whole process here involved another confrontational set of questions and answers. I was tired, and also a little sick. The same inspector took down all my details and I was asked for the number of a relative so someone more “responsible” in the officer’s book could take me home.

I went home with my maami, and on the way back, my maami’s bike was stopped and we were forewarned by the police officer who had begun the whole interrogation. “Keep her in, or else, you know what could have happened, what happens, what will always be happening…”

The incident had scared my family more than me as I’d imagined. I argued things out. My aunt was scared stiff. I argued out my stand with my uncle, although I knew it was no use. They were more astounded at my power. I was reminded of purdah and what women can do and cannot. I was tired and feeling very molested. I was granted a night’s rest and deported at the wee hours of morning. And this was really killing.

I had found that somehow the constable had managed to retain a pen drive of mine and I wanted it back. From the way that things had gone on, I could have retrieved it and it being a valuable piece of equipment I intended to do so. But I was not allowed to go, and this led to a fight, which had me in hysterics. I had no intention of leaving without the USB disk, and I still intend on getting it back. My uncle asked me to leave the house after a very pathetic verbal assault during which I realised how alone I was, how they as well as I had realised that ultimately, you have to take care of yourself, and at this point all dogmas become useless. But I wasn’t spared of them, and I needed to be escorted to Bangalore lest I decide to slip away, being the unstable soul I am.

On the way back, my maami’s version of this came through; it was a narrative of persecution until Judgement Day.

“But do you not want to give your kids a stable and peaceful upbringing?”

“Yes, but what can a mother do if it isn’t in their destiny?”

I was assured that she would try and get my pen drive back, and there it hangs, a single USB chord, my sophisticated interchange; in custody, suspended until retrieved, much unlike my idea of dignity.


[1] “Mysore has been a peaceful town but under the BJP rule whole of Karnataka is turning communally sensitive. Mysore also came under the wave of communal violence on 3rd July in which 3 persons were killed. Communal flare up took place on the question of desecration of a religious school. Police fired in the air and lobbed teargass shells to disperse the mob. Prohibitory orders were enforced in four police station areas. In Udaigiri scores of houses were set on fire in Kyathanamaranahalli. However the incidents soon spread over to other areas like Udaigiri, Gayatripuram II stage and Rajivnagar. The rioters snatched the pistol of an inspector many houses were looted and set afire, police said. The tension continued next day also and a BJP leader who was seated in a car with a Muslim friend was stabbed though, stabbing was connected with a financial dispute.”

—South Asia Citizen’s Web, “Communal Riots in India in 2009 by Asghar Ali Enjineer
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