Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Unmasking institutionalized communalism against Muslims in India

SIO Kerala’s protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hate speeches against Muslims in election campaign in April 2024. Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

While overt communal violence grabs headlines, a more insidious threat lurks beneath the surface – institutionalized communalism. Recently, a disconcerting incident unfolded on the streets of Delhi, prompting renewed discourse on issues pertaining to religious freedom and the treatment of minority communities. Circulating online, a video captures a group of Muslim individuals engaged in Friday prayers (Juma Namaz) on the side of the street near the Makki Jama Masjid in Delhi’s Inderlok area, only to be subjected to interference by Sub-inspector Manoj Tomar, who was observed kicking those in prayer. The dissemination of this viral footage has elicited widespread indignation, resulting in the suspension of Manoj Tomar on March 8. As scrutiny intensifies surrounding Tomar’s actions, this episode serves as a catalyst for broader deliberations on the pervasive issue of institutionalized communalism against Muslims in India.

In recent years, India has grappled with a disturbing trend – the rise of institutionalized communalism targeting its Muslim population. Once celebrated for its cultural diversity and secular values, the nation now faces a critical examination of its treatment of religious minorities, particularly Muslims. This trend not only threatens the foundational principles of Indian democracy but also raises concerns about social cohesion and harmony.

At the heart of this issue lies the phenomenon of religion being politicized for electoral advantages. Political parties, whether overtly or covertly, exploit communal fault lines as a means to consolidate their respective vote banks. This strategy not only exacerbates societal cleavages but also cultivates an atmosphere wherein discrimination against Muslims becomes normalized. In the pursuit of political power, the foundational principles of secularism and inclusivity are often compromised in favor of sectarian interests. However, as aptly articulated by Pritam Singh in his research paper titled “Institutional Communalism in India” that even if electoral defeats are inflicted upon communal parties, institutional communalism can persist. Singh suggests that it can exist within various institutions, including: The Constitution, Judiciary, Civil services, Electoral and parliamentary institutions, Security forces, Prisons, Academia, Media, Corporate business. Thus, Institutionalized Communalism against the Muslims is referred to the entrenchment of discrimination and prejudice against the Muslims within the very institutions that are supposed to be neutral and serve the entire population fairly. This can manifest in various ways, including Laws and policies, Government institutions, Social and cultural institutions etc. 

The recent enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by the Government of India epitomizes a conspicuous manifestation of institutionalized communalism against Muslims in the country. The discriminatory provisions embedded within the CAA institutionalize religious bias, exacerbating societal schisms and eroding the fundamental tenets of secularism and egalitarianism upon which India’s democratic framework is predicated. The CAA signifies a systematic targeting and marginalization of Muslims by the state. Through its privileging of citizenship for non-Muslim migrants while excluding Muslims, the CAA formalizes religious discrimination, thereby communicating a message of diminished acceptance and worth of Muslims within India vis-à-vis adherents of other faiths. Such legislation reinforces divisive narratives and fosters an environment characterized by communal discord. 

Previously, significant segments of Muslim historical narratives have undergone omission from educational curricula, facilitated by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), alongside the renaming of several towns and roads bearing Muslim appellations by governmental authorities. These actions exemplify subtle yet pervasive instances of institutionalized communalism directed against Muslims in India. The institutionalized character of such measures underscores a broader pattern of discriminatory practices targeting Muslims within the fabric of Indian society. Through the implementation of policies and actions aimed at systematically expunging or marginalizing Muslim history and cultural heritage, institutional entities contribute to the perpetuation of an environment characterized by religious polarization and communal strife. This normalization of discriminatory practices serves to deepen communal schisms and undermines the foundational precepts of secularism and inclusivity enshrined within India’s constitutional framework. Aditya Mukherjee, a professor specializing in contemporary Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, remarked to the news channel NDTV that “Whenever we have witnessed erasure of a particular community from our history, it is usually followed by a genocide of the community.”

Multiple incidents underscore the proliferation of prejudice against Muslims within educational institutions, including schools and colleges. Despite their primary mandate of imparting education and fostering a sense of inclusivity among students regardless of their religious affiliations, teachers within these establishments have exhibited pronounced biases against Muslims and their religious symbols. One recent occurrence in Maharashtra’s Akola region highlights this trend, wherein a 15-year-old Muslim student succumbed to suicide shortly after allegedly enduring physical assault by a teacher at his school. The family of the deceased has accused school faculty of subjecting the student to mental torment due to his Muslim identity. According to the student’s father, the teacher’s disparaging remarks, such as threats of expulsion and derogatory statements about the student’s religious background, profoundly affected the child, exacerbating his distress. Similarly, in another incident that transpired in Uttar Pradesh, a teacher at a private school in Muzaffarnagar directed students in her classroom to sequentially strike a seven-year-old Muslim student, explicitly referencing his Muslim faith and employing derogatory language towards “Mohammedan children” due to his purported failure in reciting multiplication tables. These incidents collectively underscore the pervasiveness of discriminatory attitudes towards Muslims within educational settings, indicative of a broader societal trend that compromises the foundational principles of equity and impartiality in education.

In contemporary society, numerous incidents serve as poignant illustrations of the prevailing prejudice against Muslims, even within ostensibly private spheres. A notable instance is exemplified by Ziya Us Salam, the Associate Editor of The Hindu Newspaper, who disclosed a personal encounter during an interview with The Wire. Mr. Salam recounted an incident wherein he visited a shopping mall for routine grocery procurement. Amidst the customary flow of patrons, he discerned a notable discrepancy in treatment. While others were expeditiously processed, Mr. Salam found himself subjected to an exhaustive scrutiny of his shopping cart by the security personnel, resulting in a significant delay. When Mr. Salam queried, ‘Bhayya itni der kyun lag raha ho? Apne sabko toh jane diya’ (Brother, why is it taking so long? You’ve let everyone else go),’ he received the response, ‘Aadmi dekh kr kam kiya jata hai’ (Work is done by observing people). Mr. Salam perceived this treatment as discriminatory, attributing it to his Muslim identity, particularly evident due to his beard. This episode underscores the pervasiveness of bias against Muslims, even in ostensibly neutral private settings.

In recent years, the Indian media landscape has come under intense scrutiny, revealing its complicity in perpetuating institutionalized communalism against Muslims within the nation. Through the deliberate utilization of biased reporting, sensationalism, and misrepresentation, certain media entities have been directly implicated in the systematic marginalization and vilification of the Muslim community. Instead of adhering to the foundational principles of impartiality and journalistic integrity, these organizations have consistently demonstrated a propensity for aligning themselves with specific political agendas and ideological biases, thus actively propagating narratives that serve to demonize Muslims and reinforce entrenched negative stereotypes. A significant manifestation of this institutionalized bias is evident in the response of The News Broadcasting and Digital Standards Authority (NBDSA) to numerous instances of flagrant violations of broadcasting standards and guidelines relating to racial and religious harmony. The NBDSA’s intervention has led to the issuance of directives to several mainstream news channels, including News18 India, Times Now Navbharat, and Aaj Tak, urging them to retract specific programs aired within the past two years. Furthermore, punitive measures in the form of fines have been imposed on these broadcasters. For instance, News18 India faced a monetary penalty of Rs 75,000 for two instances of broadcasting Aman Chopra’s program, wherein polarizing statements were made, exacerbating the potential for communal discord. Similarly, Times Now Navbharat incurred a substantial fine of Rs 1 lakh for broadcasting a program on “love jihad” hosted by Himanshu Dixit, which peddled generalized narratives concerning violence against women from select communities. Furthermore, Aaj Tak received a stern warning in response to a program hosted by Sudhir Chaudhary addressing violence during Ram Navami, which was deemed to unfairly target the Muslim community. These punitive actions underscore the systematic perpetuation of institutionalized communalism within the Indian media, wherein narratives and representations consistently serve to undermine the rights and dignity of the Muslim populace, thereby exacerbating existing societal divisions and tensions.

Concluding, the widespread existence of institutionalized communalism targeting Muslims in India represents a serious challenge to the country’s social unity and its core principles of secularism and inclusivity. Discriminatory legislation, prejudiced conduct in educational settings, and biased portrayals in media outlets contribute to the marginalization of Muslims across different areas. This sustains an environment of apprehension and uncertainty, hampering societal cohesion and advancement. In essence, the incidents and patterns delineated underscore a harsh truth: institutionalized communalism against Muslims in India persists profoundly, eroding the foundations of secularism and equality within the nation.

Mohd Kashif is a Ph.D. scholar, department of history and culture, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

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