This is not an angry letter, and if you insist it is, feel free to say that, for we seem to have a global consensus on free speech in a long time.
A friend remarked in good humor hours after the firing at the French satirical newspaper "Why yaar, you Muslims kill all the time?" It was a remark made in good humour, she suggested, just as my friends in Class 5 would ask me, presumably in similar fun ribbing spirit, before an Indo- Pak cricket match "So Pakistan today, na?"
For the longest time, I have evaded questions on Islam on official fora.
My faith is a personal matter and sacrosanct. Having said that, I consider myself a proud Muslim. I have taken the most bigoted comments on my work in my stride though most of my investigations seen through the prism of religion, judging by the comments posted on my pieces and the reactions I provoke in person from people who discuss my work.
My reportage on fake encounters has been dissected with clinical precision, generating fury and an interrogation of my credentials, while my investigations on tribals and Dalits, for which I have received prestigious awards, have largely gone unnoticed by my critics and friends alike.
As and when ignorant assumptions about my faith have been raised, I have, with the little knowledge of Islam imparted to me, mostly by my father, tried to clarify the misconceptions.
My father belonged to the progressive writers' movement. While his Communist friends would cherish their whisky and cigar at mushairas or get-togethers in the 70s, he would sneak into a room with dimmed lights, offer his namaaz and then return to the soiree to exchange his qalaam (couplet).
For him, his namaaz was a private and personal affair, just like his decision to kindly refuse the alcohol served at such mehfils.
While he would never touch alcohol, there was never an attempt to influence his friends and seniors alike with his beliefs - the group included Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri and Ahmed Faraz amongst other liberal writers.
His Islam and Koran began with the word "iqra" (read/recite). It was for this reason that the son of a zamindar chose to spend a good part of his career, till he retired, teaching at a government school in Mumbai, as opposed to reaping the profits of his family business. A majority of his students were non-Muslims.
We, a family of six, stayed in a one-room kitchen modest apartment in Mumbai, situated next to an RSS karyalaya, whose members chose to spend most afternoons with my abba, their 'Masterji', discussing worldly affairs.
Abba was popular as the Masterji who would get students admitted to his school, give free tuitions and make frequent visits to the shakha despite his ideological differences with the RSS. On Guru Poornima, his was the first wrist which had the red thread tied on it by the shakha head.
Diagonally opposite to our housing society was an Ayyappa mandir loved by my siblings and me for the jaggery prasadam. On occasions that we didn't make it there, the pujaari would send it home on a banana leaf. During the annual Ayyappa pooja, all the plants from our garden would be packed off to the mandir, and mom would help them connect their water pipes to our kitchen.
Such was the joy of being a part of a cosmopolitan country like India.
When I write this today, every word seethes with frustration. Because, my identity today appears to have value only as a terror apologist, a Muslim who stands up to bigotry. I have to frame a politically-correct response post every terror attack, some allegedly by members of the Muslim community, and others where the perpetrators were clearly misguided Islamic fanatics who stand in absolute contradiction to everything believers like me have ever stood for.
It baffles me when I am singled out for an apology. I wonder if my Tamil friends have ever been asked to apologise for the terror acts of the LTTE, for the suicide bombings by the Tamil Tigers, including the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
It baffles me when Brahmins in the country are not singled out when a family of Dalit women is raped and murdered in broad daylight in Khairlanji, and when the upper caste commits atrocities on Dalits across the country in the name of faith.
It baffles me that never is a Christian looked at with suspicion or anger over the attacks on abortion clinics, or the seemingly placid acceptance of a white who goes on a shooting spree of innocent students, or a Jew asked to apologize over the carnage of Palestinians. Is an American asked to apologize for innocent Afghans and Iraqis killed by the US Army in collateral damage?
Why do you sit in assumption over my morals and my essential humanity when you call me and ask me, "So what do you think about that attack?"
Yes, I do not quite enjoy when a hundred school kids in Peshawar are brutally slaughtered in the name of faith. And, if you think Islam teaches this brutality, you are as misguided as them, perhaps why you and these terrorists could be in agreement over Islam.
I feel compelled - sometimes pressured - to tweet stories of the religious identity of the officer who died saving the lives of journalists in France. Why?
Why am I forced to let everyone know that the employee of a kosher supermarket, who risked his life to save the lives of Jews from a desperate gunman, was a Muslim?
Why am I forced to post pictures of Muslims in France offering namaaz for the slain journalists?
Why am I forced to reiterate to my friends, "Hey, listen, the commanding officer in the final raid on the assailants was a Muslim"?
I am tired and embarrassed at having to reassert that my faith has nothing to do with the lunacy of some misguided rascals who claim to be protectors of my faith. They are as misguided as the Buddhist monks in Myanmar who are targeting Muslims in riots, the very idea being contradictory to the Buddhist faith.
Yes, I have stood against anti-Muslim bigotry and will continue to do so in the light of the events in present times and that does not translate into being a terrorist sympathizer. No, I am not a "moderate Muslim" because the term is insulting to my faith just as it would be to a Hindu or a Jew or a Sikh - any faith demands honesty and not a quantitaive assessment or degree of your belief in it.
As I write this today, I am also assured that bigotry and this mindless Islamophobia will not be allowed a free rein, and the front-runners who will defend my faith and its followers from this mindless hate will be non-Muslims.
It is heartening to see that for every Rupert Murdoch who gives voice to this pandemic bigotry, there are a hundred other journalists, activists, humanists across the globe who are fighting an unpopular battle each day to defend Muslims from this rampant prejudice.
As fellow journalist Owen Jones, from The Independent, who I greatly admire for his unrelenting journalistic crusade against bigotry, once wrote, "Those few of us with a public voice who defend Muslims from bigoted generalisations are currently fighting an unpopular battle. But it is the right thing to do, and history will absolve us."
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