Why'd a Hindu support Muslims?
For most of his adult life, Robin Verma has been asked to explicitly spell out his identity [a Hindu and Kurmi] which was a puzzle even for cops who had detained him for participating in anti-CAA protests
Robin Verma is just the kind of name that is bound to stoke suspicion in India, where the society reduces every individual to a sum of his or her caste and religious identities, to second-guess his or her choices. For most of his adult life, Robin Verma, the 34-year-old social activist and assistant professor at Shia PG College Lucknow has been asked to explicitly spell out his identity.
"Robin?" That familiar question was posed to him by one of the five plainclothes policemen at the Hazratganj police station, where they had taken him and Omar Rashid, the Lucknow correspondent of The Hindu newspaper, after picking them up at a restaurant on the evening of December 20. The police wanted to investigate their role in the previous day's protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act at Parivartan Chowk. Verma had left the protest venue when masked men pelted stones, a vehicle was set on fire, and a person died of bullet injuries. The masked men's identity remains a mystery.
In a society where the first name establishes a person's individuality, which the surname effaces by marking out his or her caste, Robin's religious identity was a puzzle to the policemen, who had possibly presumed that the anti-CAA protests could only draw Muslims.
"Verma," he said when the policemen asked his surname.
The interrogator growled, in disbelief, "Hindu!"
But the surname, Verma, does not quite have the same exclusivity as, say, Mishra. Several castes, including the Pasis, a Dalit subcaste, affix Verma to their names. Ever since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister, the Dalits have been raging against the state and seeking to forge an alliance with the Muslims. A Dalit's participation in a protest tagged Muslim was comprehensible to the interrogators.
A rapid round of multiple-choice questions began — Verma who? Pasi Verma, Sonar Verma, Lodh Verma, Kurmi Verma…? Robin Verma said he was a Kurmi, an Other Backward Caste. They slapped him once, twice, thrice… Why was a Kurmi teaching in a Muslim college? They said he had been brainwashed there. Their evidence: Why else would a Hindu and Kurmi support Muslims, or have so many of their contacts on his mobile phone?
Their questions had a political frame — an overwhelming segment of Kurmis, in recent years, is said to have become avid supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party. It was, therefore, inconceivable for them that a Kurmi, with the strange-sounding name Robin, would deviate from the dominant political behaviour of his caste. Had not Modi assured the Hindus that they did not have to worry about the CAA?
Verma's treachery deserved punishment. Screw the due process.
They took Verma and Rashid to the Sultanganj police station, where they were separated. Rashid was released from here later. Verma was taken to a room, where they thrashed him and threatened that they would turn his wife and two-year-old daughter into prostitutes. The BJP's slogan of Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao does not seem to have reached the ears of Uttar Pradesh policemen.
From Sultanganj, Verma was taken back to the Hazratganj police station, where the beating became continued and became methodical, with lathis, wooden planks, accompanied with filthy abuses. Verma's body throbbed unbearably, reminding him of the price that must be paid for freedom in a democracy, until he slipped into the zone of darkness, where the cruelty of others is endured by the numbness of the body and mind.
On December 22, a battered Verma, with his face swollen, a mnemonic for dissent by unknown Indians, was transferred to the Lucknow Central Jail. That question, inseparable from him just like his shadow, was asked by other prisoners: Robin? A Hindu and Kurmi, he replied. Why did he then get entangled with the protest of Muslims? He was too broken to explain to them that the National Register of Citizens would mostly affect the poor, who are unlikely to possess documents to establish their citizenship.
Verma was released on bail on January 14.
Perhaps time to ask: Why was he named Robin? His mother, a retired upper primary school teacher — his father was a constable in the Provincial Armed Constabulary — named him after Stephen P Robbins, whom she had studied in her BA economics course, as she named her youngest son David after David Ricardo, the political economist. Verma's own intellectual awakening came when he did his MBA from APJ Abdul Kalam Technical University, Noida. He learnt about crony capitalism, predatory pricing, and the exploitation of labour. He went on to read Gandhi, Ambedkar and Marx.
Two years ago, he named his daughter Eleanor, after Karl Marx's youngest child. Will empathy survive Hindutva by the time Eleanor becomes an adult? The story of the Vermas shows that the BJP's battle to control the universities is for giving a Hindutva shape to India's future. The humiliation of Verma is a warning to unsung, argumentative Indians to refrain from engaging in acts of empathy beyond the confines of their class, caste and religion.
The writer is a senior journalist
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