Sayema Rahman


I was born in Nigeria because my father was there for a teaching assignment. We came back to India when I was one and a half years old and I grew up in Delhi. I went to a Sikh school called Guru Harkrishan Public School where my sibling & I were the only Muslims. I learned to read, write and speak Gurmukhi which became my third language. I loved to sing and became the lead singer for the school prayers. I sang shabads and Kirtans and even participated in kirtan competitions in various Gurudwaras. Since we were the only Muslims in school, our way of speaking and diction was different from the rest, which the teachers enjoyed listening to. They used to mischievously create situations to get me to talk more!

However, there were also those teachers who used to target & mock me, asking if we worshipped Aurangzeb. I was too young to understand, so I asked my mother if it was true. She was very disturbed by that. One teacher even shamed me about Bakr-Eid, asking if we didn’t feel ashamed about killing innocent animals. That incident made me the object of contempt and I cried a lot. But it didn’t scar me because the love I received from the other students and most teachers far outweighed such incidents.

In 10 standard, I participated in an inter-school debate called “Should Sex Education be Important?” I spoke for the motion, which I felt was revolutionary. Despite competing against the best schools of Delhi, I won! I then realised I was passionate about speaking well- having a hold on language & my diction. After that, I started doing radio in school because I loved how AIR speakers used to talk. I even started reading newspapers at home like a newsreader! In 12th standard, I called AIR and expressed my interest in working with them. They told me that I needed to be a graduate, so I got into their teenager section called Yuva Vani. After I graduated from Miranda House & DSW, I cleared the AIR auditions to be a national news reader. I also became a radio jockey in the Western music section.

Becoming an RJ enabled me to get connected with people, which I loved. In 2003, I joined Radio Mirchi and had a show called ‘Purani Jeans’ Bollywood’s golden era show. It became the longest running show on radio, and was at the number one position in that time slot. I still do it for American listeners and some parts of India.

Whenever you decide to stand up for what’s right, to speak about justice and truth, against injustice and become people’s voice, you will have to pay a price. But it doesn’t matter after you have got to know who you are. I wasn’t so vocal about the country and the state of affairs a few years back because I was too young and also because the institutions were functional and all the pillars of democracy stood strong. When injustices happened, we had hope from these institutions.

Today, it is different. The media, the judiciary and other institutions are crumbling down. So you have to raise your voice as a public figure. Radio is not a one-way medium. I always say it is the first social media, because through this mic, I’m talking to millions of people and they interact with me. What is the country, if not the people? If I ask them to stand up against injustice and speak the truth, how can I not walk the talk? The state of affairs is such that any opinion or critique is not taken in the right spirit, But I would rather speak and face the backlash than be silent and face a slow death.

Things have really changed in the last few years. I did a series on radio where I narrated Manto’s stories. People on social media started targeting me saying ‘Go to Pakistan’ and nasty things like that. But Manto was as much an Indian as a Pakistani. I do everything to try and erase a false narrative. In my ‘Urdu ki Paathshala’ series, I did everything to explain the actual meaning of ‘kafir’ and ‘jihad’, which the world does not understand. People accused me of justifying something evil.

The CAA-NRC issue was directly related to my community and people started targeting me even more. It was when it hit me that we really have entered an intolerant time. When the Jamia violence happened, the students were reaching out to me and we had to do something! So me and some public figures asked people to gather at the police station where students were detained and put it out on social media to protest peacefully for their release. However, the IT cell picked the tweet up and tweaked it to accuse me of inciting people. But the right to peaceful protest is our Constitutional right! I saw how the social media mobs came after me specifically. Right wing publications started dong stories on me. They were not targeting me but my name, identity and religion. They called me an Islamist fundamentalist. They wrote blatant lies about me. It was a painful realisation of the situation in the country.

I have never been made to feel like just a ‘Muslim’ in India ever! Religion is my personal space. I don’t let anyone enter it. However, today, it seems, that’s all that’s left of me for some powerful sections of society. It’s happening today because perhaps we consistently failed to rise up for other harassed communities. We have failed consistently on that front. When it happens to a Dalit, we choose to ignore. When it happens to a Kashmiri, we choose to ignore. And now, I must speak up for everybody. It is a coincidence that right now the demonised community is the one I belong to but even if that were not the case, I would be as vocal. Because it is my idea of India that is under attack. Other people from my fraternity do not speak out. No one wants to get in the mess. But I speak because that is who I am. My conscience drives me. I am answerable to my principles and values. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that I studied social work and started working in radio. I derive a lot of my work from my education.

What is the point of believing in something if you will not do something about it? I just cannot stand injustice. If it happens to me, I can still take it. But if it happens to someone else, I can’t. So I speak up. Today, silence is an implicit consent to the atrocities happening around you. My conscience doesn’t allow me to be silent. What disappoints me is not people who don’t stand up against injustice but those who continue to justify the wrongs being meted out and ally with the perpetrators. I have had to give up on a lot of friends because of that. But they forget that this wildfire is not restricted to others- it will burn everything and everyone down. And if you don’t speak up for others, no one will speak up for you. Perhaps we still will but today, their silence speaks loudest and that will not be forgotten.

Humans of Democracy