75 years ago, India’s long and arduous freedom struggle was rewarded with political independence. At the same time, as the final act of direct colonialism, the subcontinent was butchered on a religious basis into two nations. People were herded across the new unrecognisable borders. While a large number of people made their way into the unknown, many decided not to make the journey. For the Muslims of the newly born Indian republic, this period was that of unforgiving anxiety. They were torn between the idea of staying where their forefathers were buried and of going where their children had a better chance of growing up. None of the two options came without associated anxiety. A decision to leave came with the anxiety of not knowing what the new nation holds while a commitment to stay came with the anxiety of not knowing if the old nation will suddenly turn hostile.
With time, all these anxieties turned out to be genuine. The Muslims who left India to find a new home in Pakistan were slapped with the tag of Muhaajirs (migrants) as soon as they got there, let aside being welcomed. Many were even turned back as Jinnah’s Muslim haven soon ran out of space for the very people for whom it had been carved out. On the other hand, the Muslims who decided to stay in India were fated with a lifelong curse of having to repeatedly prove their Indianness. It is not fair to say that everyone made a conscious decision of staying or leaving at the time of partition.
For people who lived in areas that suffered the insufferable rioting that accompanied the partition, leaving was the only possible option even if they wanted to stay. And for others who had no means or relatives to support them in the new nation, staying was the only option even if they wanted to leave.
Many optimistic intellectuals and leaders of the time considered these problems and anxieties natural features of young nations. The nation-building process was supposed to put the fears of all minorities to rest with time. But 70 years on, in many ways, Indian Muslims continue to be vexed by the same anxieties they faced at the time of partition. There will be those who strongly counter this claim. But a simple cursory look at the fearful agitation of 50 thousand Haldwani residents who faced possible homelessness when the rest of the country celebrated New Year will take the sting out of that counter-argument. What is worse is that shocking developments like these that involve the possible unhousing of thousands fail to shock people in India anymore. So common has become the sight of houses being demolished and lives being destroyed that it doesn’t even appeal to our emotions of disgust anymore. Thousands of Muslims being uprooted is not a particularly surprising development in India in 2023.
Home demolitions mark the latest phase in the Indian right wing’s attack on the minority, which has only become bolder since 2014. The first five years of the Bharatiya Janta Party’s rule (2014-2019) saw an unprecedented increase in incidents of violence like lynchings, public beatings, and institutional torture against Muslims. These were, however, mostly carried out by private actors with only covert support from the authorities. But successive electoral successes, capped by a major victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections, emboldened the ruling dispensation in its anti-minority endeavours, which had, by now, overtly assumed an institutional character.
The second term of the BJP government in 2019 started with the parliament passing the Muslim Women Act of 2019 through an ordinance which criminalised the controversial instant triple talaq. This seemingly progressive step by the conservative ranks of Indian politics was soon followed by the ‘de-operationalisation’ of Article 370 of the Indian constitution that provided a special status to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. The eventful year ended with the government bringing in the infamous Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which for the first time, made religion a consideration in decisions regarding granting of citizenship. Thus, immediately following the electoral victory of 2019, the Bharatiya Janta Party made three major, national-level, controversial decisions which were visibly targeted at disempowering the large Muslim minority in India.
In a 2021 report compiled by the New York-based organisation Human Rights Watch, it was reported that the government’s bias against Muslims had infiltrated Independent institutions such as the police and judiciary. The report cited the Uttar Pradesh government’s passing and implementation of the Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance as an example of discriminatory laws and policies being brought in to curb inter-faith relationships and to socially marginalise and isolate minorities. Of the first 86 cases that were lodged using this new law, 79 were against Muslim men, accusing them of enticing women and forcing them to convert to Islam.
HRW also accused the government of a biased investigation into the 2020 Delhi violence case where most of those charge-sheeted and jailed were Muslim Students and civil society members even though there is video evidence of BJP leaders openly advocating and inciting violence against Muslim protestors. The report also found the ruling BJP responsible for encouraging vigilante groups that had killed close to fifty people between 2015-2021 on the pretext of cow protection.
Unsurprisingly, most of the people injured or killed by these unofficial cow protection units were found to be members of the minority community.
Demolition of properties belonging to members of the minority community also gained traction in Bharatiya Janta Party’s second stint as national government after 2019. Bulldozing of properties as a form of collective punishment has been most common in the BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Assam. In June 2022, three special United Nations Special Rapporteurs, in a letter to the Indian government, strongly condemned the policy of arbitrary demolition of citizen property. The rapporteurs noted that the authorities had overlooked legal procedures and tried to normalise extrajudicial punishment. On the face of it, it seems that through these unlawful demolitions, the government wants to exhibit its power, not just of destroying houses but homes and livelihoods as well. In most of these demolitions that the government carries out, prior notice is not given to the property owners. Media is invited to record and cheerlead the demolitions. Belongings are not allowed to be salvaged beforehand so the cameras have more rubble to dig through and more cracked photo-frames to exhibit the sharpened contrast between a home that was and the rubble that remains.
A precedent was set in 2019 when the BJP got re-elected – of both continuity and transition. The government continued to cater to its right-wing constituency by tightening the screw around the lives of non-core ( read non-Hindu) groups while transitioning into a higher and more aggressive gear in executing its majoritarian policies. This transition was especially scary for the Muslims as a pseudo-legal onslaught on their rights started.
The anti-minority rhetoric during the election campaign came to fruition with the election results which were then immediately followed by policy decisions that further pushed minorities, especially Muslims into precarious conditions. In the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha (parliamentary) elections, the rhetoric of the BJP continues to be directed against Muslims. An election victory in 2024 may embolden them further and lead to a still faster gear of anti-muslim policies and legislation.
Unlike in 2019, there seems to be some sort of consistent opposition that the government is facing this time, but so far, it does not appear to be strong enough to pose an electoral threat to the ruling regime. Additionally, none of the national political parties opposing the BJP want to be openly associated with the Muslim vote bank and are thus maintaining a strategic one-arm distance from the minority electorate while only hoping the lack of options will push the minority vote in their favour.
The second-largest Muslim population in the world right now seems to be devoid of any political representation. With the swords of NRC and CAA (which threaten to disenfranchise millions of Indian Muslims), unlawful house demolitions and threats to Muslim places of worship like the Shahi Eidgah of Mathura and Gyanvapi mosque of Varanasi, Indian Muslims are looking at 2024 with fear in their collective heart. They are probably more anxious now than they have ever been in the last seven decades.
Bilal Ahmad Tantray is a PhD Scholar based in New Delhi. His research interests include postcolonial theory and political violence.