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A hobby, a passion, a necessity, a social symbol, a fun thing; travel has different meanings for different persons. But when it comes to travel for work, feelings are mixed. You obviously are getting a break from your routine, monotonous work, and you may also get to explore a new place, but it is not always as glamorous as it looks. Moreover, when you are visiting rural areas of India with a survey tool in your hand you have no clue in your mind of how the place is going to be and how the people are going to receive you. Our past experience tells us that with every new village we visited, we not only collected a new survey response (which is why we were visiting those villages in the first place), we also brought back with us a different story, a different memory or, sometimes, a peculiar incident stayed with us.

In this article, I present one such incident which compelled me to think of how we have forgotten our role as human beings and where do we stand as secular citizens of this democratic country.

TRAVELLING IS NOT ALWAYS FUN!

It was the month of November and our allotted survey village was Behar, which is approximately16 kilometers from Raigarh, in a very unique state of India. Waking up very early in the morning with our backpacks on our backs, we left the hotel to visit the village. After a 1½ hour journey from Giripur. by car, followed by 40 minutes of travel by ferry and another 1½ hour more, we managed to reach our destination (as I said earlier, travelling for work is not always glamorous).

So, after a long journey, even though we felt half dead, our duty was calling. The task was divided beforehand and, as always, it was a mission with pen as our sword and, time as a scarce resource. My mission was to conduct a survey in an Urdu School, which I was warned might not be easy. One of my colleagues had already failed in her attempt to get response from this school and I was about to find out why.

I entered the school and saw students, standing in queues, getting ready for the morning assembly. You may think that my mind was deluded with the warning. But when I say that—as I entered the school, I could see all the staff members of the school looking at me with despise and anger. OK! Awkward! May Day! May Day! But I had to complete the given operation. I decided to take that leap of courage and face them.

Very rudely, they asked me the purpose of my visit, and where I came from. I replied politely, praying that they don’t throw me out of the premise and that I get to complete my planned task. My reply did not seem to please them and then one of them asked my name to which I graciously replied. Suddenly, to my surprise, their sour expressions changed and everybody was smiling. They started welcoming me. I was perplexed and thought that may be they are mistaking me for some other person with the same name. Then one of them said “Pehle batana chahiye tha, aap to hum mein se hain” (You should’ve mentioned earlier, you are one of us, i.e., from our Muslim community).

AND NOW WE ARE TALKING

They offered me some water to drink and then they started asking questions, again—about me, the survey, the permission letter (which they scanned with hawk eyes), my Identification card (which was not only scanned but also photographed through a phone camera of one of the staff members till one wise man among them stopped him by saying “ye theek nahi hai, aap photo nai le sakte, ye galat cheez mein bhi use ho sakta hai aur ye humaare mein se bhi hain” (this is not right. You can’t click a picture, this can be used for some wrong purpose and after all she is amongst us)). To my relief, the interrogation was over, my Identity card was returned and I was given permission to start my work.

Every survey we undertake requires us to build a relationship of trust with the participants, which is a challenge in itself. We have to earn their confidence, make them understand the nature of our survey and the confidentiality associated with it; and most importantly, make them believe that we are not lying. It becomes more difficult in such cases where the first reaction is so hostile. Anyways, with the power of my name, I had finally earned some confidence and I was lead to one of the separate buildings of the school. When I say “some confidence”, I literally mean it, because although they were overfriendly, they were not easily giving me the information I needed (I still consider it as one of the most difficult field works I have been to). The class teacher tested my patience and to every question I asked, either there was no straight answer or there was no answer at all. His answers usually were with examples (with me as an example character in almost all), and although he put across his points quite well, they were not in any way even closely related to the questions I had asked. The clock was ticking and I had to finish my household surveys too. So, somehow I managed to finish the survey in school and moved towards the listed houses.

Household survey means going from one house to another, (up and down, round and round) covering all the houses on the list. It seems that I had already broken the ice in school, so house-surveys were easier with people, warmly welcoming me with tea and sweets. Except that the tea and sweet offerings were accompanied by unusual questions like “Humare mein se kitne log kaam karte hain aapke yahan?”(At first I didn’t understand this question. On clarification, I understood that he meant how many Muslims were in my survey group).

I finished the survey. My identity did help me to cross the barrier that my colleague was not able to cross but this whole incident hit me with the sad truth of today’s world. I had read it in newspapers and seen debates on TV on how people are segregated in the name of religion, community, caste and colour. But it was not until this incident that it actually struck me and I realised what grave condition we are living in. I am a Muslim from Kashmir but due to my father’s job, I was never bought up in Kashmir. Rather I have grown up in places and among friends of different religious beliefs and never have we friends once discussed religion or let it come between us. Religion teaches us morality but we misread its teachings and choose to mould the meanings of its teachings to our comfort. It is disheartening to see that our education system has not been able to instil the humanity in people that can overcome the barriers of religion.

Well! Our survey was done, we left the village, and on our way back to hotel my mind was calmed by cool serene water and natural beauty of the place. This work trip, however, left a sour taste of ugly truth in my mouth.

Note: Names of places have been changed
Written By: Insha Mohammad, CECED, Ambedkar University Delhi. She can be reached at insha@aud.ac.in

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely of the author. This is not necessarily CECED’s point of view but only reported by CECED.