“The pathology of Islamophobia is growing throughout the West but it is taking its most lethal form in India,” said Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned scholar, author and activist. He also said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime has sharply escalated crimes in the Kashmir region, “The crimes in Kashmir have a long history,” and without mincing his words, added that “the state is now a brutally occupied territory and its military control in some ways is similar to occupied Palestine.”
Islamophobia has its traces in the history of the subcontinent. From resentment towards the Islamic conquests to divisive policies adopted by the British colonial government. However, a major factor in rising Islamophobia in India is the proliferation of Hindu-nationalist parties. The oldest and most prominent among them is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which has burrowed its way into every institution in the country, be it courts, universities, administrative offices, media outlets, security forces, intelligence agencies, etc.
Scholars and critics have called this largest paramilitary and allegedly militant organisation a shadow government in India.
It is about a century-old Hindu nationalist volunteer organization with its literature deeply cultivated in a very anti-muslim ideology that advocates lynchings and rapes with the narrative suggestive of Muslims and Islam as a threat to the nation with a nearly 80% Hindu majority.
Islamophobia in India works to enable violence and intimidate Muslims as a threat to the nation from several different perspectives — Indian Muslims looked down on as suspected citizens; Kashmiri Muslims associated with terrorism, Rohingyas refugees labelled as “invasive pets” and the neighbouring state of Pakistan as an existential enemy.
This anti-Muslim sentiment has always been there. But it’s the Modi led BJP government rising to central power which has worked like a chemical experiment that suddenly illuminated so many hidden things like complicity or silence of the majority on violence against Muslims. Even well-meaning ‘seculars’ disregard this extremity by asking Muslims to ignore the hate campaigns and focus on “real issues”.
In this refreshed interface of India, Muslims do not derive their rights and access to justice with equality, but from compliance with Hindutva majoritarian norms. Those who attempt to challenge it are labelled “anti-national”, “Pakistani” or “Western agents”. Depending upon the vulnerability of the dissenters, they can be killed, raped, physically attacked, maligned, harassed, trolled, bullied, their properties demolished or divested of any institutional or other power they may have.
There are multiple occasions of mass gatherings or “Maha panchayats” with hate speeches, anti-muslim ideologues, open calls to boycott and mass murders/rapes of Muslims. As a result, the past few years have been witnessing open lynchings, physical attacks, digital abuse, online auctioning of Muslim women, punitive demolitions of Muslim properties, communally abusive songs with provocative sloganeering as the rallying cry of saffron-clad and armed Hindutva mob in front of mosques and what not.
Apparently, RSS draws its inspiration from Nazi Germany as several prominent early RSS ideologues were admirers of Nazism and how Hitler had convinced the masses to treat the Jewish minority as a threat to the nation; similarly, they left no stones unturned in raising structures to advocate the idea of anti-muslim nationalism in India.
The complicitous nature of the majority and the state has left more than 200 million Muslim populations with a 24×7 physical threat along with a deep mental health trauma about their belonging. It is viciously normalising that the state apparatus such as the police and judiciary act to support the anti-Muslim violence through delays in hearing cases and sometimes, with problematic judgements.
Similarly, an extremist BJP politician, who addressed Hindus with suggestions to exhume the graves of Muslim women and rape them, becomes the Chief Minister of India’s electoral bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh. After 2014, perpetrators of well-evidenced gory in the Gujarat genocide who had been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms have been released on bail (Babu Bajrangi in 2019).
When the capital city of Delhi was rocked with targeted violence against Muslim neighbourhoods in February 2020, particularly those that have voted out BJP in state elections, it was BJP leaders who used slogans like “Desh ke gaddaro ko, goli maaro saale ko”, leaving 53 dead with majority Muslims and many were displaced.
Several video evidence circulated on social media for months, revealing different shades of police brutality against Muslim protesters. One such horrific visual showed men of the Delhi police in uniform prodding injured Muslim protesters who lie half-dead on the ground; and made to sing the national anthem with taunting remarks of the word “Azaadi”. Similarly, there’ve been multiple instances of police brutality across Delhi and Uttar Pradesh in December 2019 on protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Police forces inside the libraries and hostels of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University to using stun grenades, brutal lathi-charge, opened fires and verbally abused students with religious connotations and paraded them with their hands raised.
In Uttar Pradesh, the government responded ferociously to protesters through different means, 23 deaths were reported and most of them had died of gunshots. In spite of all the documented evidence, another paradigm of crushing dissent has been arbitrary arrests of Muslim students, activists, journalists, lawyers, etc. languishing in jails under terrorism charges.
It’s not just that dissenters are being labelled as anti-national and subjected to intimidation, vilification, character assassination, etc.
But regular Muslims are often asked to “go to Pakistan.” This existential othering of Muslims has presented itself as a surefire way of gaining electoral victory based on Anti-Pakistan hyper-nationalism, as was the case in the 2019 general elections where the Pulwama attack and exchange of hostilities with Pakistan catalysed BJP’s success. Moreover, every action of Muslims is interpreted within the Islamophobic context — in 2020, Muslims were accused of carrying out Corona Jihad to deliberately spread the virus in India with doctored videos circulating on social media, WhatsApp including mainstream media channels, to intensify and justify Islamophobic hate.
Even the new year started with a perverse attack with photographs of more than 100 Muslim women appearing on an app called Bulli Bai. Prominent journalists, actresses and activists were among those who were targeted again in an apparent attempt to sexualise, humiliate and force into silence politically active and socially visible Muslim women. It was only after significant backlash for days that the app was taken down by GitHub and several arrests were made in relation to the incident.
PM Modi in his public addresses has drawn parallels between centuries-old Muslim figures from Indian history and current-day “terrorism and religious extremism,” insinuating that India’s Muslims should be held accountable and punished for the imagined crimes committed by their ‘ancestors.’
The brazenly Islamophobic mainstream media in India, along with anti-Muslim legislation adopted or proposed in many states, aided and abetted India’s elected and unelected authorities’ anti-Muslim propaganda. The journalists and activists have time and again pointed out that no political figure of any mainstream faction has ever spoken out against the bigotry that has so blatantly taken over the country. Muslims are frequently referred to as oppressed, marginalised, or even minority, but the term “Muslim” is absent from the public discourse.
With each passing day, hostility towards the Muslim population is intensifying, wherein far-right Hindu nationalists reinforce it to the Muslims that they are no longer considered equal citizens in their own country. Religious rituals (azaan, namaz), dressing (Hijab ban) and dietary practices (Halal ban) are being targeted, economic boycotts are threatening Muslim livelihoods, open calls for the mass murder/rape of Muslims have indeed been made in the sight of the police. Every aspect of Muslim life is vilified, criminalised and portrayed as part of a collective conspiracy. In March 2020, Zee News popular anchor Sudhir Chaudhary went on air to list the alleged multiple ‘jihads’ Muslims were conducting against Hindus: ‘love-jihad,’ ‘population jihad,’ ‘land jihad,’ ‘economic jihad,’ ‘history jihad,’ and ‘media jihad.’ Sudarshan TV also accused Muslims of waging a ‘UPSC jihad’ to join the public services.
The constant thought of being no longer safe to be a Muslim in BJP’s India is one hell of a trauma consuming the everyday lives of more than 200 million Muslims. As most of the anti-Muslim crimes go unchecked, nothing is really achieved even if such incidents are reported, lynching and terrorising Muslims in the name of beef-eating, denigrating followers of love jihad are often overlooked.
Cases of reactions to provocative actions such as the recent examples of communally abusive songs played on loudspeakers in front of mosques by saffron-clad armed mobs for the Ram Navami celebration have led to violence, arsons and punitive demolitions of Muslim properties in the first ten days of Ramadan, these simultaneous violent actions in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, Chhattisgarh, Delhi NCR, Uttrakhand, etc. have shooked the entire Muslim community and the proportion of arrests/detentions are also implicitly biassed.
Islamophobia is a mild term to define the constant physical and psychological abuse, both individual and collective, that Muslims are enduring at the hands of the state’s administrative, judicial and police apparatus, over the last eight years and before. Moreover, perpetrators of hate crimes against Muslims are often protected with impunity, and in some cases even garlanded in ceremonies.
Non-state actors are also certain that if they attack Muslims with violence, they will be protected. The media, regardless of the language in which it operates, encourages and endorses this violence. India’s corporate leaders have covertly supported anti-Muslim politics by substantially funding BJP elections. The radical regime has not shied away from utilising its film industry to spread anti-Muslim sentiment by fabricating stories about Muslims attacking Hindus.
The most recent example is the Bollywood film Kashmir Files, directed by Vivek Agnihotri and promoted by PM Modi himself. The film claims that thousands of Hindus were slaughtered by Muslims in Kashmir valley during the early 1990s in a bigger attempt to stir up odium against Muslims, followed by anti-muslim sloganeerings in different cinema halls across the country. It is ironic that Indian security forces have massacred over 100,000 Kashmiri Muslims in the region but according to official sources, only 219 Kashmiri pandits lost their lives.
In this dismal state, what is encouraging is the refusal of the Muslims to take it lying low. What started as the anti-CAA protests, which were to assert the claim of Muslims over India as equal partners, has grown into multifaceted activism. A new crop of young Muslims, journalists, students, activists, lawyers, artists and researchers are working tirelessly to bring it to the notice of the world, constantly challenging the executive, legislature, and the judiciary that they still have a constitution to follow. Even in the face of insult and humiliation, wearing it like war paint, Muslims especially the youth are determined to resist. Hopefully, they would give some of their courage to the “secular” lobby to find its ethical spine and to Hindus to discover the essence of humanity in this portrait of a nation on fire.
According to the V Dem Institute’s report, India has descended into an electoral autocracy. Indian leaders love to talk up Mahatma Gandhi when they travel abroad for it boosts its moral authority on the world stage to be called “the mother of all democracies” wherein 80% of the population is Hindu with just 14% Muslim, and the BJP/RSS has achieved the astonishing feat of creating a deep sense of Hindu victimhood, stoking the othering of Muslims via disinformation, hate speech, rubbing salt on centuries-old religious wounds, manipulating a servile media, silencing progressive voices, and empowering Hindu supremacist vigilante groups. “Hindu khatre mein hain” (Hindus are in danger) is a right-wing narrative that resonates deeply today. Consequently, many Hindus have now been persuaded to believe that Muslims are India’s biggest problem.
As it logins decimating credentials of dehumanising narrative against Muslims, bigotry is now a badge of honour and reality no longer important. Referring to the Jews in Nazi Germany, they were called “rats” and Tutsis in Rwanda were called “cockroaches,” so BJP members now refer to Indian Muslims as “termites” eating away at India’s resources, denying Hindus what is due to them in their own land.
If we look over atrocities in the past and how the international community’s silence paved the way for genocides, the point to be noted is how many powerful and “democratic” nations, who behave as the defenders of global human rights are refraining from condemning the persecution of Indian Muslims. Perhaps, India being an important strategic ally against China or a major trade market could be one of the core reasons but if the democratic nations remain silent and let India continue on the path of anti-muslim nationalism, the country can soon descend into a civil war-like situation. And an India at civil war can neither be a tradeful resource nor can it ally to contain China’s ‘influence.’ All countries in the region and beyond would suffer if a civil war tears apart the world’s second most populated country.
However, this grim scenario is not inevitable. It’s an unequal battle though, as Arundhati Roy calls it, a battle of those who know how to think against those who know how to hate, a battle between lovers and haters, wherein the love is on the street and vulnerable, the hate is on the street too, but it is armed to the teeth, and protected by all machinery of the state.
Nayla Khwaja is a freelance journalist and Conversation Auxiliar, MEFP, Spain. The title of the article, Portrait of a nation on fire is taken from an Instagram page with the admin’s consent.