Here is Zakia's essay.
(First prize: My colleague Kadar. Second prize: India Works).
I am so happy and content and proud to be an Indian. I love my freedom and individuality and my right to be what I am. And yet something has changed in the last two decades of my life of over forty years. It has affected me and it has in some way or the other changed everyone around me and everything in my world. Everyone around me and all circumstances concerning me are increasingly being governed by that one fact of my life, that I am born a muslim.
I have multiple identities and I hate the fact of this one identity being so dominant and over-riding all other identities. It has compelled me to think: who am I ? I am a student of life, a mother, a woman, a friend, a concerned citizen, a social being, a lover of Indian music, an admiring reader of Premchand and Ghalib and above all, an Indian like scores of others who love their country. And yet, I am not allowed to be myself. Everybody wants to see me and understand me and asses my worth and approach me and like me or reject me or at times hate me as a muslim. Why not let me just be!
India is my country. All Indians are my brothers and sisters. And so on goes the Pledge at the beginning of every textbook. My day at the school began with this pledge daily. Little did I understand the significance of this pledge then. And today it is all the more valuable for every Indian to reaffirm.
We have been seeing incidents of communal violence ever since independence. But these were largely aberrations and large sections of society were not affected by this poison. The hindus and the muslims continued to live together in harmony all over the country. The Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 changed the situation completely. The Bombay bomb blasts, the rathyatras by the BJP and the communal riots in different parts of the country started affecting the entire Indian society. What happened in Gujarat in 2002 was appalling not just for the muslims but brought shame to every Indian. The Bombay train blasts are the latest in the series to leave a deep chasm between the two communities.
When the country is plagued by events of a communal nature no Indian can stay unaffected. The core values of secularism and peace are challenged by the mindless violence. It affects the psyche of every Indian and it has affected mine certainly.
I want my fellow Indians to understand that just like them I am also an ordinary being struggling with my day-to-day life; trying to come to terms with realities of my mundane existence; struggling with my sorrows and my pains; seeking small happinesses; trying to find meaning in trivial things of life. That, like all of them, I too have to face all the issues of a middle class living. I too am struggling with a housing loan, I have concerns about my child's education, I have problems concerning my parents, I have professional responsibilities which keep me on my toes. How am I different from most upper middle class Indians living in any of our cities?
And yet I am different is the feeling I get daily. I value the plurality and diversity and the richness of the many peoples of India. I want my child to learn a bit of all the different religions, languages and dialects of our country. I want him to have a taste of all the hundreds of cuisines: from yakhni to macher bhat to rasam to dhokla. I want to participate in the customs and traditions of the marathis, bengalis, punjabis, gujaratis, kannadigas, andhras and all other Indians. In winter I want to wear the himachali topi sometimes and the kashmiri shawl as well. Do I have to be necessarily a hindu or a muslim or a christian or a sikh to do any of these or I can do all of these no matter who I am? No matter which part of India I belong to, no matter which religion I belong to, no matter which language I speak. Isn't it my right and my privilege as an Indian to be able to do all of these without any difficulties and complications. It is also my pleasure to be able to do all of these. This is what truly makes me an Indian. This is what makes me happy to be born into this unique country. This is what makes me so fortunate!
But sadly something has changed in the last few years which comes in my way. It prevents me from living out my Indianness in the fullest sense. I want to live in a housing colony which is a little India; where people like me from different parts of the country live. Where they all practice their different religious rituals, speak their different languages, practice their diverse food habits and yet are one people. It pains me that how can the picture be complete without me! I want my child to be able to study in a school along side other children who are from different religious backgrounds. I want him to get modern education – science, maths, history, geography. I want him to learn about the freedom struggle where all Indians – hindus, muslims, sikhs, christians, ordinary men and women struggled unitedly to throw out the British rulers. They were all united by the fact of being Indians. I want my child to know everything about the world's most vibrant democracy that is India. I want him to know how the freedom fighters laid their lives in order that future generations breathe free air. I want him to learn about the Constitution of India. I want him to imbibe the values of justice, equality, freedom, liberty, fraternity that form the core of our Constitution. I want him to learn that the values of truth, peace, justice, humanity, fairness and equality overweigh all differences of religion, caste, region, language, food, dress. I want him to be a true Indian. Because being Indian is being respectful to all religions, being respectful to all cultures, appreciating the value of all languages, enjoying the differences of food and dressing. I want my fellow Indians to allow him the opportunity to meet and interact with children from all the diverse backgrounds. But this looks increasingly difficult. If housing colonies refuse to allot me a house, if schools refuse to admit my child, if neighbours refuse to visit me on Eid how do I become a full being? How do I live out my Indianness fully? How do I connect with my fellow Indians? How do I fulfill my dreams as a proud citizen of the world's greatest democracy?
When I look around increasingly I find a chasm which appears so wide. And yet I have faith. I cannot forget the visuals and the stories of muslims in Bombay rushing the injured to the hospital after the bomb blasts. I cannot forget the stories of ordinary hindus saving the lives of muslims in villages of Gujarat. I cherish what is essentially mine as an Indian. The values of equality, religious freedom, cultural liberty, pluralism and justice which are at the core of our Constitution are also the values dear to Indians. The Constitution gives fundamental rights to every citizen irrespective of birth, religion, caste and gender - upholding equality and freedom for all. And I have faith that these values will triumph. The communal forces will fail ultimately and the essential human values will prevail. Upholding democratic values of religious freedom, cultural diversity, secularism is extremely important to save the soul of India.