By Arif Khan
Muslims form the largest religious minority community in India. According to the 2011 Census, they comprise 14.4 per cent of India’s total population. Today an ordinary Muslim in India is at a crossroads: he/she is torn trying to find a suitable balance between committing to her faith and trying to make sense of the negative rhetoric and stereotypes the society conjures about her and her religion.
This isn’t so much a battle about what it means to be a Muslim in India. It’s more a battle about the idea of India: first, how tolerant and open-minded India is about its minorities; second, how its values of democracy and secularism function. And last but not the least, how true India wants to be to values of openness and freedom for all.
Hinduism is, and remains to be, one of the oldest religions of the world. Its polytheistic nature means that Hindus worship a wide range of Gods – often within the same family – thereby allowing greater tolerance for differing views. This tolerance has been the hallmark of Hinduism for generations.
Lack of knowledge of Islam exists both among Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, misunderstanding Islam, fear it. They believe it threatens their most basic values and culture. Their lack of understanding, abstract assumption, and stereotypes replace fact and reality. In this situation of misunderstanding, the voices of peace and tolerance are drowned. The secular fabric is increasingly becoming fragile as hate leaders from both sides keep spewing fire, thereby highlighting the majority-minority divide.
Religion is said to be the primary mover of peace and love. For billions of people, it is a daily practice, and the very real framework for an understanding that links human beings to a spiritual reality. Their belief is the prism through which they view the world. A religious community provides the primary habitus for an understanding of their environment.
It is hard to overemphasize the importance of religion in the lives of many people. It is apparent that most people across the world would prefer to live in peace rather in conflict or in any other kind of social tension. Yet, often the only religious voices on the front page are those speaking messages of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tensions. In India, we have witnessed several cases of violence in the name of religion, e.g. using ‘cow’ as a religious symbol. Most vigilante groups use ‘cow’ as a fig leaf for violence against minorities, mainly Muslims, transforming even formerly genteel cities into cauldrons of tension.
There is much in common among people of different faiths, both in terms of ideas and in terms of the social. It is this which needs to be explored. We need to be able to see the other and say: ‘we understand you are different, but we also understand the difference’.
Muslims today are deeply apprehensive about the way vested interests are playing politics to target the community. The need of the hour is to understand this politics and reasons behind these events. Such events depress them psychologically and belittle their aspirations for a secure future. Many Muslims in India occupy various important positions in the state and the society, depending on their class, caste, and gender. However, very often they are used by others for a particular political end.
There is a growing sense of marginalisation among Muslims across India, which is hard to deny. This sense of marginalisation has been steadily increasing since the rise to prominence of Hindu right-wing ideologies and organisations during the 1980s, when the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi issue was used to sharpen religious divides across India. The marginalisation of Muslims in India is, indeed, well documented. In the mid-2000s, the Indian government commissioned two studies – the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 and the Misra Commission Report of 2007. These highlighted a higher prevalence of discrimination towards Muslims and socio-economic deprivation among them as compared to other religious groups. Little concrete action, however, has been taken to address these issues at the policy level. If anything, the situation has only worsened.
At present the exclusion of Muslims from political scene is escorted by an increasing political visibility of Dalits. This novel base for Hindu unification is achieved at the exclusion of Muslims, combined with the formal subsumption of Dalits. The register of exclusion shifts in the process, from untouchability to invisibility.
Media extension enables more synchronized and extensive forms of exclusion than were previously thinkable; political undercurrents have both anticipated this development and furthered it. The isolation felt by religious minorities – including Muslims and Christians – has continued to increase, particularly after the victory of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. After BJP’s massive win in the Lok Sabha, the right wing affiliated groups have become visible within the short span of a year. We have seen many incidents of communal tensions across India.
In the meantime, Hindu nationalists have been rewriting school textbooks in some states and holding training camps for teenage boys and girls in an apparent attempt to rcruit children into their cause. In fact, the BJP’s transformation of its ‘Hindu nationalist’ ideology into Hindu populism has endorsed the party to further some of its old ambitions in a new and somewhat uncontested way.
The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and its partner organisations in the Hindu right have started an intensive campaign against the religious minorities, especially Muslims. The main features of this campaign include the so-called ‘love-jihad’ – Muslim men allegedly converting Hindu women to Islam by trapping them in love affairs – and ‘ghar- wapsi’ (homecoming) initiatives, which convert Muslims and Christians ‘back’ to Hinduism. Moves towards Hinduisation have also been taking place across India. Most recently the cow vigilante terror by the so called ‘Gau-Rakshaks’ has led to mob lynching of many Muslims all over India. Violent mobs are taking over civic spaces in India. Public lynching, a barbaric form of political expression, seems to have become the new norm in India since the last couple of years. All of these are campaigns for increasing intolerance and enhancing a stable yet steady process of de-secularisation, which do not bode well for religious minorities in India.
While attacks against religious minorities, and indeed writers and intellectuals have happened in India before, some groups within this new trend of resurgent ‘Hindu nationalism’ are more brazen and potentially dangerous than anything we have seen before. In what seems to be yet another brazen hate crime, a Muslim family of ten people on board a train was attacked by a mob near Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh. As the argument turned communal, they had reportedly called the Muslim family “anti-nationals” and “beef eaters”, “Pakistani traitors” before throwing their skull caps on the floor, grabbing their beards, and taunting them with abuses.
There can’t be a more dangerous irony when the railways, considered the nation’s lifeline, become life-threatening for passengers. If passengers travelling together turn into violent mobs, the meaning of a journey is destroyed. If religious differences become a norm for hate crimes, the culture of democracy is destroyed.
The lynching and the anti-Muslim rhetoric for now have led to not just a feeling of siege but have also exposed hidden prejudice among friends and families. This is certainly true of my friends and family. Some uncles and cousins now find it acceptable to forward hate-filled posts against other religious communities on WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social networking sites. In such a scenario, the role of technology becomes important. In this age of ‘Digitalization’, belief turns into fact in no time. Bigotry is now socially acceptable. It also impacts the socio-cultural, political as well as economic environment in the country.
Apart from external attack, part of the problem comes from the socio-cultural and religious rigidity of Muslims. Religious sectarianism is the most important problem. It goes further as most of the Muslim-administered institutions (schools, Madrassas, waqfs, and other non-government organisations) are run by people, who belong to different schools of thought. They are run by various sectarian, restrictive interest-based local and political groups with vested interests.
Looking at the scale of problems it is wise to frame a comprehensive strategy by conjoining the efforts of government with those of the civil society. The government needs to play a larger facilitating role. There is an urgent need to understand the complexities of these divisive anomalies and form a national-level strategy to combat them.
Arif Khan is a research Scholar at the Department of History and Culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, NewDelhi. His area of interest is conflict studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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