Ground zero: When Muslims were the saviors and Jews the saved

The most comforting thing about the shooting incident near Jamia Millia in Delhi last Thursday, is that the shooter, describing himself as Rambhakt Gopal, was caught. I know a former DG of UP, Vikram Singh, thinks the shooter should have been shot, but I disagree. I am glad he was apprehended and then the Delhi police, who were observing the show with the disinterest of an audience being forced to watch an art house movie, lovingly (and I use the adjective advisedly) and unhurriedly took him into custody.

Meanwhile, the Jamia Millia student, a Muslim, who was shot in the hand by this clown (because that is what he is), was taken to hospital.

A couple of days earlier, a man waving a gun at Shaheen Bagh was caught and handed over to the police. Two girls, asking insistent questions of some protesters, also at Shaheen Bagh, were shut down. No violence, however. Another girl claimed she escaped “with her life” and practically ran home to her hometown in UP, all because she had asked some “innocent” questions at an anti-CAA meeting. Also her bag and her mobile phone had been snatched from her so she had no proof that her story was true, except that it was. And she had also not made a police complaint for the same reason. She was afraid of the police!

And still the unity holds, Hindus, Muslims, Christians together with Sikhs and Parsis and (hopefully) Jains. What these protests have done is shoved that creeping bigotry we forgot to restrain all these years, especially against our Muslim brethren, back into its kennel where it belongs, leashed and starved of food.

This is also why I want to tell you about a very short film I saw last Monday, also known as Holocaust Day, when the Allies liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland 75 years ago. No, it wasn’t replete with horrid images and evidence of man’s cruelty to man. It was actually a story about a whole country, small and poor, that came to the aid of fleeing Jews in Central Europe at a time when every other country was torturing its own Jews. And this was a (largely) Muslim country.

Albania is its name and it has instant recognition among millions of Indians for its most famous export – Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun now declared a saint for the humanitarian work she undertook among the world’s poorest, especially in the slums of Calcutta.

How many of us knew that she came from a Muslim country? Or that the King himself instructed his Border Patrol to let in any Jew who came looking for shelter?

The name of the film is Besa – The Promise, which is what Besa means. It refers to their particular culture of shelter and hospitality towards strangers, which is what we Indians pride ourselves upon, right? Atithi Devo Bhava and all that, provided you aren’t Muslims?

Well, these Muslims put their faith and their belief into practice and actually invited the persecuted Jews to shelter in their country, and more than 2,000 did, living with them, being protected by them, sometimes being handed whole businesses to run. Nor were these rich communities.

The remarkable thing is Albania was the only country in Europe that had more Jews at the end of the war than they started out with, and not a single refugee was betrayed.

After the war, they left, to go to the US or Israel, anywhere but back to Germany. And of them, there were many Jews and Muslims who never forgot “their” families. There are many heart-tugging moments but among them is the story of the Albanian Muslim who went in search of his Jewish “family” after many years of their immigrating, to return to them the Hebrew books they had left behind. Thy were keeping a promise that had been made many years ago.

Closer home, I know for a fact that Muslims have been known to make up a minyan (the number required to conduct worship) in the Byculla synagogue. And when my friend Esther Abraham died almost 20 years ago, her casket was carried to its burial by both Jewish and Muslim sons.

At a time when this community has been literally demonised by people in power, the story of Besa is worth telling. And in the idea of Shaheen Bagh, it is easy to think that the future will be much more inclusive than the recent past. In our real past, let us not forget that we were all together.

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