Haji Mastan, the aging underworld Mumbai don, looked at my fingernails that were at the time rather long, neatly filed and painted with toffee-coloured varnish. He asked me, his gaze still fixed on my talons, "Mussalman?"
Since my nails professed no religion, I assumed the query was directed at me. I nodded. What followed was a short lecture on Islamic nails. 9/11 was years away and America had not discovered the Muslim version of Dirty Harry. If that were so, then I would have been accused of sitting with a terrorist (though he called himself a social worker), just as Dawood Ibrahim has been branded one by the United States.
You may wonder why I am bringing up his name now. The 1993 bomb blasts’ judgement is out. Nowhere has Dawood been held responsible for it; he was not even a mastermind.
To come to the verdict, Judge P. D. Kode said: "A criminal has no religion, criminality is the only religion. It was a heinous terrorist act to kill totally innocent Mumbaikars who had no role to play in the Babri Masjid demolition and who had not hurt the accused in the riots that followed. They have unnecessarily brought disgrace to the Muslim community which has, among other communities, played a pioneer role in nation building."
This is like saying Paris Hilton has brought disgrace upon Chihuahuas. I don’t feel disgraced at all and can we stop being pressurised into becoming pioneers? Why can we not just be zardozi embroiderers, butchers, smugglers, doctors, SIM card owners? Okay, skip the last two. As for nation-building, that is the job of those who are our elected representatives. Everytime there is one of those ‘Muslim moments’, we are asked to list out reform movements in Islam. When was the last Hindu reform movement? The Brahmo Samaj? We have to listen to nice examples, like how Azim Premji makes computers and Shahrukh Khan makes faces before the camera. These people do us proud, we are told to say. Have you heard a Hindu say he is proud of Narayana Murthy who, incidentally, has nothing to do with Hindu terrorism?
However, it is wrong to state that criminals have no religion. How many have claimed to be atheists?
Criminals do what they do by taking the cover of religion. And governments play to that. Remember how a ceasefire was declared during the month of Ramzan? Did the state imagine that militants in Kashmir would have no energy left to hold a gun only because they were not swallowing saliva?
If religion gets debased by criminals then why are holy books popular reading material in prisons? Why are priests called in before the person is to hang? And if the judge is saying that the blasts killed those who had no part to play in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, then is one to venture the dangerous theory that had the victims been those responsible for the demolition it would have been kosher?
Dawood Ibrahim was at that time busy giving interviews from Dubai about patriotism. "How do you think one feels about the country of his birth, where his family and mother still live?"
Why are criminals expected to mouth clichés? Realising that he had to take a stand he spoke lovingly about the Muslim League, as though he were a modern-day Jinnah. He was seeking a certain purity for his deeds.
Seen in a broader perspective even the devil is pure, untainted as he is by any virtue. A single-mindedness may limit a person but it also keeps him away from other diversions. The Dawood who courted the rich and famous is no more. At that time his agenda was large enough to encompass a lot of others and even have some of their fame rub off on him.
Today, he is a hunted and haunted man, hiding in a mansion with walls that have ears. His very power has made him powerless. He cannot even call himself a don, so he calls himself a businessman. He is not the first big criminal and certainly not the last. He lacks the suave intelligence of a Charles Sobhraj, the rustic charisma of a Haji Mastan or the obvious religiosity of a Varadarjan. Yet, in the Indian psyche he has surpassed them all because we have created this behemoth and never paused to think what he might have been.
A small-time actor who would one day turn producer? A pani-puri stall owner who would expand his business and open a flashy resto-bar? A mechanic who would ultimately own a garage?
The tragedy of Dawood is that he is inexorably bound to a ‘motherland’ by ties of delusion. As he had stated, "Not only was I born in India but also innumerable people in that country know that I am their ‘Bhai’."
Had we left him to do his job he would not have become a hero. He lacks the commitment of a militant and let us accept one thing: Terrorism is a form of dissent; people do get killed, but if you like reading up trivia then it shows that the number is way fewer than those killed by donkeys. These are the only people who oppose fully, unlike civil society that continues to enjoy the handouts dished out by the System.
You can hang as many people as you wish, but all of us have a noose around our necks. We suffocate on the stereotypes we form.
FARZANA VERSEY is a Mumbai-based writer-columnist. This piece first appeared in The Asian Age, India. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org