Disguise and betrayal: A Muslim other in India about others

Renowned Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani is known for his love poetry. In many of his much-celebrated poems, he places the blame of his beloved not loving him on himself. He blames the inefficacy of his language for not pleasing her; he blames his carelessness for not taking proper care of her and so on.

Muslims in the present world is in a Qabbanian state but without either a beloved or a reason and on the contrary, the onus of blame is imposed by others. Similarly, one of the most prevalent notions of Islamophobia globally is that a Muslim anywhere is blameworthy and accountable for the alleged actions of Muslims elsewhere. The case of Muslims in India is not different. Even to such a ridiculous extent that when they narrate their stories of suffering and victimhood, they are asked to acknowledge that they are the oppressor somewhere else. In other words, they are being told “what you sow is what you reap”.

This logic doesn’t only dictate what a Muslim in India should speak, but also it often takes a necropolitical turn and decides whether they should live or die. Ironically it’s the same logic that guides both the ruling tyrants and the dissenting libertarians. 

What happened recently in Tripura testifies to the pervasiveness and legitimacy of this logic among a vast majority of Indians. News on violence against minorities in Bangladesh was given ample coverage by Indian media, and the Muslims in India were made to condemn and apologize. No Muslim leader in India justified the actions of some Bangladeshi Muslims as an alleviation of the pain their counterparts in India bear. What happened to Hindus in Bangladesh was used by the Hindutva brigades as a ground to facilitate a planned rampage in Tripura.

The liberal outpour of anger was tended to find the parallelism between the two entirely different incidents. While the communal clashes in Bangladesh were erupted in spontaneity out of some sensitive rumours, the pattern of attacks in Tripura shows they were well organized and supported by the state. Bangladesh PM took control of the situation, initiated penal measures against those who caused the communal tension including the members of the majority Muslim community which she is a part of, and stood with the victims.

The reaction of the majority was also commendable. The civil society including the minorities took their anger to the streets with demonstrations and protests without facing any consequences proving the collective conscience to be against the unfortunate chapter of fringe barbarity. 

Here, the Hindu State sanctions a Muslim genocide and the majority follows. Unlike what happened in Bangladesh, lawyers, activists and journalists who attempted to amplify the voice of Tripura Muslims were threatened with draconian charges like UAPA. The responses of a large portion of Indians applauding the Hindutva terror unleashed on Tripura Muslims flooded the social media platforms soon after the news of the attacks came to light. No one held the Hindu consciousness accountable for it.

The liberal dissenters took the moment to condemn the violence but didn’t hesitate to engage in their usual act (art) of balancing. Bangladesh and India became two sides of the same coin, and the culprit was as always pronounced to be the religion or the religious fundamentalism; the universal template for a lazy political analysis.

It is unwise to downplay the repercussions of these naive generalisations that deliberately conceal the distinctive hazard of Hindutva; the elephant in the room. These deductions are incapable of acknowledging the oppressor’s ideology and praxis to their core. On the contrary, such exercises validate Hindutva logic which culminates in ferocious actions aimed at the extermination of Muslims and the subjugation of other depressed groups.

In this pattern, the cycle of action and condemnation thrives and leads the lives of the oppressed to deterioration. Given the condition, how is a substantial fight against the oppressor even possible?. Like Paulo Freire argues, the revolutionary praxis which includes both reflection and action is directed at a radical structural change. In order to achieve the goal, the counteraction must oppose and dismantle the foundation of the dominant persecutor, for they are by nature antithetical to each other. 

“The hateful embrace”

Recently, Munavvar Faruqi, a Muslim comedian publicly declared the end of his career disappointed by an incessant series of hate campaigns against him. A prominent Indian communist leader and a feminist icon expressed her solidarity with Munavvar through a post on social media. At the end of the post, a sentence was written in brackets out of nothing: “In Muslim majority countries, the same is done by those professing Islam”. Earlier, phrases like “Hindu Taliban” and “Hindu Pakistan” were popularized by eloquent secular politicians. These expressions are rooted in the will to epitomize Islam and Muslimness as metaphors of hate and evil.

On the other hand, they perform the latent function of normalizing Hindutva brutality by ripping it off its individual nature. In the west, the orientalist scholars claim that democracy and free speech are intrinsic to European/Christian civilization, whereas inequality and repression are often attributed to Islamic civilization. Following the footsteps of colonial masters, the liberal-secular intelligentsia of the Indian subcontinent eulogizes the Hindu culture (interchangeably replaced with the word Indian culture) for its innate openness to pluralism and coexistence while Islam is characterized as rigid and barbaric.

In both cases, Islam and Muslims are universally evil. The only time when the word “good” is attached to any Muslim entity is when it becomes palatable to the taste buds of these so-called vanguards by adapting to the Indianness/Hinduness or Europeanness and when it is in juxtaposition with the “real-evil Islam” of their imagination.

Omar Khalidi in his work “Muslims in Indian Economy” mentions many incidents of independent India in which Muslimness was looked at with disgust after supposedly having been embraced by the “great idea of India”. After partition, Sardar Patel as Home Minister removed Muslim officials who had opted to stay in India.

Contrary to Patel’s order and out of his control, a few Muslim officials remained under Maulana Azad’s refuge in his Ministry of Education. Reacting to this, Patel named the ministry a “Miniature Pakistan”. Several other colleagues used to openly say, “If you want to see Pakistan, you don’t need a passport or a visa. Just go to the Ministry of Education in the North Block.”

In Madras, a central tax officer Iqbal Masud was disapproved by his Brahmin boss to remain in India holding the position and there were thousands of similar cases across India. Later in 1975 when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, under the cover of beautifying Delhi Jama Masjid area, thousands of Muslims were forcefully evicted by deploying armed thugs. By November, the entire market area around Jama Masjid was cleared using bulldozers. After the incident, then Vice-Chairman of Delhi Development Authority Jagmohan was reported to have said that he would not allow another Pakistan in Delhi.

He was later appointed as the governor in Kashmir and became a Member of Parliament twice for BJP. Both of the aforementioned episodes were before the rise of electoral Hindutva to power. Ranging from 1947 to 1975 and from the bureaucracy to the poor merchants and workers, what we find common in the expressions addressing Muslims is the strong disapproval of Muslims taking shape of a collectivity with dignity. To the date, either when we are embraced or when we are rejected, this disapproval and degradation remain constant.

“Secular-Illiberal Orthodoxy”

Sometimes, we are accused of not welcoming secular criticism. It is important to examine what the “secular” represents here. Is it mere scepticism led by a certain sensibility or a militant imposition grounded in the pursuit of authority and dominance? History has several times witnessed the aggression of secular orthodoxy and intolerance. The triumph of Algerians in their struggle against France had been an inspiration to Arabs and Muslims who were fighting for independence from Europe. Independent Algeria, was ruled by the secular nationalist party, the National Liberation Front (FLN) who established a socialist government in 1962. They limited Islam to the private sphere like all other secular governments in the region.

By the 1970s, the masses were disillusioned by secular ideologies and began to turn towards religious groups. The situation worsened as the nation sank into a deep crisis due to the corrupt policies of the regime. Meanwhile, Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) an Islamic party, gained momentum and challenged the hegemony of the secular nationalists. In June 1990, the FIS gained an upper hand in the local elections, especially in the urban areas. It was quite predictable that the FIS would win the legislative elections of 1992 and rise to power. To prevent that from happening, the military staged a coup, suppressed FIS, and threw its leaders into prison. The Western press declared that Algeria had been saved from the “Islamic menace”. Employing a mysterious logic, it was concluded that the undemocratic action had finally made Algeria safe for democracy!

Similarly, the anti-CAA movement was a moment of rejuvenation for the dispossessed Muslims in India. It was an event of unprecedented nature which challenged the pre-existent norms and ways of dissent and resistance. Unknown leaders with a new political language were born as an outcome of the movement. Memories of decades’ long suppression and estrangement climaxed to an unplanned collective action at a moment when the ongoing genocidal project was pronounced legal through an amendment by the Sangh regime. The foot soldiers of the state machinery alongside the Hindutva brigades used ruthless measures to suppress Muslims in reaction to the uprisings.

They survived painful episodes of brutality in different parts of the country and a heinous pogrom in the national capital. But even before the state accelerated its suppression mechanism, there were the secular apostles ready to discipline and regulate the untamed protesters. Muslims standing on and for their own terms was something indigestible to the majority. Religious chants and symbols occupying the protest sites were allegedly harming the secular fabric too! (How could an external element be a part of the Indian secular fabric?) A new vocabulary of rereading and unlearning the historical burdens imposed on Muslims was also emerging. But rather than embracing the organic moment, the secular-liberal orthodoxy in the name of solidarity staged a coup at protest sites and bombarded them with harsh reprovals. Gradually, the new elements asserting Muslim political agency left the space.

Moreover, Muslim protestors who raised “la ilaaha illallah” [no God but Allah] slogans were accused of extremism. It says the Muslim identity possesses inherent danger. This irony picturizes how often Indianness translates into Hinduness. This is why I chose to call these self-fashioned saviours “enablers”. They can appear to be on the page of dissent without losing the passage to power and privilege. Being their ally or clinging on to their narratives doesn’t shower similar privileges or opportunities upon the downtrodden. The ruling oppressor exercises unchallengeable power and impunity.

While the enabler even takes up the leadership of the disillusioned Muslims without having faced similar plights, they refuse to give up any of the immunities they own. Both the oppressor and the enabler masquerading as saviours belong to the same systemic roots and endorse the same power structure. The entitlements this structure provides prevent the advantaged dissenter from opposing the systemic evil or calling for a structural change. Hence, they both feed each other. 

“Myth of a Fringe” and the “Unquestionable Hindu”

After the controversial verdict in the Babri Masjid case, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat was asked about the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura. He said “The Sangh will not get involved in any movement. We work towards character building. In the past, the circumstances were different, resulting in the Sangh getting involved in the Ayodhya movement. We will once again work for character building.” While the peace-loving elite intelligentsia of the country welcomed this statement, nobody talked about the undertone it bore. By saying that the circumstances are now different, Bhagwat affirms that neither Sangh nor Hindutva is a fringe in India. While in past, it required more effort, now the RSS dictates are easily accepted by the majority of Hindus. This undertone is evident in a later incident.

The Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad (ABAP), an apex body of 14 akharas or organisations of saints and seers, passed a resolution to “liberate Kashi and Mathura” by removing the two mosques. When ABAP sought the support of the RSS and its affiliate, the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the response from a top functionary was “It will not be our initiative. If the Samaaj (society) thinks, we will see”. These words are symbolic of the current Hindu reality. RSS finds no hindrance in talking on behalf of the entire “Hindu Samaaj” since they have carefully crafted the collective Hindu mind. On the other hand, the Hindu community is reluctant to refute this statement. This silence sanctions the militant Hindu mobs crying loud to exterminate Muslims from this land. 

From Babri to Mathura and Kashi, the Muslims in India witnessed a large number of pogroms and lynchings that took the lives of thousands and shattered the lives of many more. Hundreds of Muslims languish in prisons without any reason. Despite all these heart-wrenching incidents occurring under the watch of Hindu collectivity, no popular disagreement is generated. This is why we must talk about the radicalization of Hindus. The collective conscience of the Hindus couples with the regime and its activities.

They enjoy the privileges it gives them without owning up to the atrocities that are being committed in their name. Why there is no onus on Hindus to own, disown or at least acknowledge? How is it justified when they get away from these questions? Is Hindutva just a fringe? Why does no one suggest deradicalization or correction? Can’t Muslims ask these questions?

Tail End: Sharjeel Imam and the Imam of Gurgaon

Being a Muslim in India is opening the doors to death. It offers you death at different levels. To be precise, either you are a dead person or you are a living dead. While the first type of death ends your life forever, the latter forces you to die continuously throughout your life. Living a free life is a dream one cannot afford in that state of being. Each day you see death around you and feel threatened by it.

You are reminded of the potential death that revolves around you. But even the most depressing stories cannot trigger the sense of being alive inside you, since you are not allowed to question the active agent of death; rather you are only allowed to mourn for the passive recipient of death. Sharjeel Imam’s emergence was a moment that falsified this state. He faced both the oppressor and the enabler and dared to cross the dead ends in the Muslim political discourse in India. While the words “the partition” and “Jinnah” were the keywords to mute any vocal Muslim, he posed counter questions and refused to be hushed by anyone. Apart from inventing a language, he upheld dignity and self-sufficiency as the major catalyst of any political action.

Similarly, the Imam in Gurgaon who led the Friday prayer despite the Hindutva goons attempting to stop him triggered such a moment. The mob gathered there might have brought the past images of armed men opening fire at protesters in Jamia and Shaheen Bagh to his eyes. He remained silent, gathered the fellow Muslims and led the prayers undeterred by the threats. The courage he exhibited was powerful enough to crush the arrogance and audacity of those thugs. It was an action that transcended all the materialist paradigms. It reminded me of the opening lines of the poem “The Martyr” by the Palestinian poet Abd al-Rahim Mahmoud: 

“I shall carry my soul on the palm of my hand

And toss it into the pits of death:

Either a life that pleases a friend,

Or a death that enrages the enemy.

The noble man’s soul has two goals

To die honourably or to achieve its dreams

Mohammed Nihad PV is pursuing Masters in Sociology at the University of Hyderabad.