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Tales from Secular India: Unity in Diversity Remains Impregnable Fort
Friday May 20, 2016 11:11 PM, Syed Ali Mujtaba,

[Image for representation purpose only]

There lives an old man called Ishaq Baba, in the village Barai, in Sheikhpura district of Bihar. He is about 80 years old but still leads a very active life. It’s more than 30 year’s o so he uses to ply, ‘Tonga’ or horse cart from Shiekhpura to Chewara and back and forth. As a result he is a popular face travelling on that part of the world. Several generations has seen this ‘tongawala’ in this format of life and had been ferried by him at some time or other.

Ishaq Baba is a devout Muslim and never misses the daily prayers even while at work. It uses to be a common sight that at the call of the praying time, he will park his Tonga under a tree and spread his turban on the road and bowing down facing the west to pray while his passengers waiting for him to finish his prayer.

Ishaq baba is also known for his peculiar gait. He is 6 feet tall and has athletic looks. Except for his black glasses he remains in all white looks. He sports a white beard, wears white ‘lungi,’ a white shirt and covers his head with a white turban.

The young man though is uneducated but has seen several decades of time and all the seasons of life. He is now leading a retired life as his sons have grown up to fend him and he need not work anymore.

This time on my trip to Shiekhpura, my native place I caught up with Ishaq baba and engaged him in lively conversation to gather his thoughts of the passing time.

I began asking him to comment on the communal situation or more precisely about the Hindu – Muslim relationship around him. He was candid that, the situation on the ground is really disturbing but then its long years of cohabitation that is disallowing the social fabric to rupture.

Ishaq Baba narrated a true story to make his point. ‘Once I was travelling from capital Patna to Shiekhpura and had taken a bus that dropped me at Biharsharif, as it was going somewhere else. I had to catch another bus to reach my destination and I was walking on the road chanting Allah Hoo, Allah Hoo, towards the next bus stand.’

‘As I was in myself, unmindful of the world when I heard the sound of some females yelling ‘molvi saab’, ‘moli saab’, that broke my thoughts. I turned back to find a bunch of village females with children trying to catch my attention.’

‘I stopped and asked them, what the matter is, one lady told me that they are from Shiekhpura and know him very well enjoying his ‘Tonga,’ ride several times. They all were in tears and needed my help as they had caught a wrong bus and were offloaded on the way. They wanted to return home but did not know way to catch the bus or train,’ Ishaq baba said.

‘Without asking any further question, I told the ladies to follow him and need not worry and feel safe. We walked a mile to reach the bus stand and I asked the females to sit under the shed as he will go to look for the bus that may take them ‘home,’ the young man continued his narration.

‘Even before I could do so, one crowded bus arrived on the boarding place, with its conductor shouting ‘Sheikhpura’, ‘Sheikhpura.’ I approached the conductor asking him whether he can provide seats to the women and children accompanying him.’

‘As I was talking to the conductor the women with me too got near to the conductor. The conductor tried to trick the women, saying get inside the bus and they may find the seat along the way. I told the ladies not to board this bus in this hot weather and they may be in great discomfort since it will be very claustrophobic inside.’

‘Even before the females could make any judgment, the conductor, tried to convince them with the ‘slur,’ against me that deeply hurt me inside. The conductor said; ‘mothers, will you believe me or the words of this Muslim.’

‘His words left me in rage and even before I could gather strength to retort back to that manly beast, to my surprise, I was stunned to find that one of the female, got more infuriated than me, and in her rage, gave a tight slap on the face of the conductor.’

'Abusing the conductor with choicest abuse, the lady said, ‘you don’t know who he is? He is like my father and we are her children who have grown up seeing him. How dare you can speak ill of him.’

‘When the conductor tried to get manly with her, the lady dared to touch her, and shouted to book him on rape charges with several witnesses around.'

‘As the crowd started assembling and the brawl looked to get uglier, the conductor preferred hasty retreat from the scene signaling the driver to move there. My eyes got moist and tears rolled on my cheeks, the women who were equally overwhelmed consoled me seeing my plight,’ Ishaq baba said.

‘After wiping out my emotional outburst and I again asked the females to go and sit under the bus shed. I then walked to the parking area, where the buses were parked and located a bus that was to leave for Shiekhpura. I boarded that bus and spread my turban to hold the seats for the females, and sat on other seat to accommodate the rest.’

‘When the bus reached boarding area I yelled at my acquaintances to get inside and have their seats. The ladies sat on the seat were on I had my turban spread and the children sat next to me and some even on my lap as we hit the road to get home.’

‘When the bus reached Shiekhpura, all the females had their own wings as they knew now how to go and where to go. My acquaintances did so but not before encircling me and touching my feet. It was emotional moment for me,’ Ishaq baba concluded his tale.

I promised Ishaq Baba, that I will put this story for a larger audience, because such stories do not find space in media these days. The lesson I could draw that there are such stories happening reminding the secular nature of India and the concept of Unity in Diversity remains an impregnable fort.

[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He hails from Bihar and recently had visited his native place Shiekhpura. He can be contacted at]

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