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The Invisible Muslim: dissent, media and the crisis of secularism in India

By Roshni Sengupta

Secularism in India is an annoyingly multifarious monster – conceptually and affectively divergent from dominant social norms than in any other part of the world. It might be an overtly generic statement to make but I will outline why in the next few paragraphs.

With the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution of India enacted in 1976, the Preamble to the Constitution asserted that India is a secular nation. What secularism would mean to a deeply religious and overtly ritualistic society was however left undefined. Since the movement to attain freedom from British colonialism was in large measure an exercise that involved an invocation of secular concepts such as basic rights and self-rule and was bolstered by the involvement of men and women from a diverse range of religious and caste groups, the overarching yet loosely defined notion of secularism stood for ‘equal treatment of all religions by the state’. The notion of equal treatment before law, however, completely sidelined the problem that could arise out of a lack of erudition on the relationship between religion and the state in a religious society. Hence, conceptually and in practice, secularism has attained an esoteric epistemology particularly since the rising tide of the right wing in India led to a counter narrative of ‘pseudo-secularism’ predicated on the appeasement of minority religious groups in India, primarily the Muslims.

Subsequently, the redefinition of secularism as well as the question of fealty and loyalty to the ‘nation’ has often left Muslims outside the margins of the mainstream. This marginalization has led to the invisibility of the Muslim from the national narrative. The systematic crushing of dissent and the emergence of a conformist media in India remain the primary methods through which this marginalization is carried out. Methods of exclusion and marginalization also include spatial and economic deprivation, branding and bracketing of the community as terrorists or supporters and sympathizers of terrorists in the new-fangled national security regime, the discourse of which is largely imported from Western (read American) narratives of security and surveillance and the abject conformism of the mainstream media to the dominant discourse of majoritarianism perpetuated by the Hindu nationalist government currently in power.

Concepts of secularism at work in India

In his appraisal of the response of the three main religions of the South Asian region in general and India in particular, to secularism, D E Smith (1988)[1] categorizes Islam as being both theologically and practically intolerant and therefore inimical to the cause of a secular state, while both Hinduism and Buddhism are characterized by extremely tolerant philosophies, though Buddhism is categorized as missionary, but tolerant (Smith, 1998).[2] Akeel Bilgrami (1998) concurs that the contemporary critique of Nehru begins by laying down a fundamental distinction in the very idea of religion, a distinction between religions as faiths and as ways of life (pluralistic, and non-monolithic folk traditions of Hinduism and Islam), on the one hand, and as constructed ideologies (the Brahmanical RSS and Muslim League versions) on the other. Nandy (1985, 1990) criticises modernity itself by positing that it is the polity in its modern framework of nationhood and its statecraft, which is the source of such ideological constructions, distorting those more innocent aspects of religion that amount to “ways of life” rather than systems of thought geared to political advancement[3]. In his counter-critique of Nandy’s criticism of Nehruvian secularism and Hindu nationalism, Bilgrami refers to the claim of the anti-modernists that since secularism was an alien imposition upon a people who have never wished to separate religion from politics in their everyday lives, the people have no choice, but to turn to the only religious politics allowed by modernity’s stranglehold, Hindu nationalism (Bilgrami, 1998).[4]

The rise and consolidation of Hindu nationalism has led commentators and scholars to designate the post-Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi politics in India as a “crisis of secularism” (Tambiah, 1998).[5] The critique of secularism and secular politics as practiced in the first decade of the post-Nehruvian period manifested in the writings of anti-secularist thinkers such as T N Madan, who specifies “secularization” as “the process by which sectors of the society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” Madan’s submission includes the trenchant plea that secularism as a shared credo of life in most of South Asia is not only impossible, but even as a basis of state action it is nothing short of impracticable simply because a great majority of the people of South Asia are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious faith and the stance of religious neutrality or equidistance is impossible to maintain since religious minorities do not share the majority’s view of what this entails for the state. Mirroring the opinion, Ashis Nandy recognizes that many Indians “have now come to sense that it is modernity (read secularism), which rules the world and even in the subcontinent, religion-as-faith is being pushed to the corner. Much of the fanaticism and violence associated with religion comes today from the sense of defeat of the believers, from their free-floating anger and self-hatred while facing a world, which is increasingly secular and desacralized” (Nandy, 1990).[6]

De-mainstreaming the Muslim

In a secular polity which ambiguously delimits secularism to include equal treatment of all religious groups by the state and before law, while curiously omitting mention of the separation of religion and state which then leaves room for the dominant political narrative to occupy that space, the socio-economic, political, and cultural position of minority communities becomes problematic. Before discussing the post-Partition articulation of what has come to be known as the “Muslim question”, it would be worthwhile to briefly mention two events that eventually led to Muslim mobilization towards a separate homeland for the Muslims of South Asia. Around the beginning of the 19th century, Sanskrit began to be employed by the majority Hindus as the language of ritual and high classical literature, while Persian was deemed the language of administration given that the ruling class was dominated by the Mughals or Muslims of Turko-Mongol extraction who had ruled India for over three centuries. In the second half of the 19th century, as Hindi composed in the Devnagari script came to be associated with the Hindus, Urdu – a language that grew out of the garrisons and bazaars of Delhi – became expressly identified with the Muslims. An anti-Urdu campaign was led by the Hindu elites for the deployment of Hindi as the medium of instruction in schools in the regions of the north which was expectedly countered by Muslim elites who campaigned for the primacy of Urdu. The Hindi-Urdu controversy – as it came to be known – therefore became an early precursor to later antagonisms leading to the alienation of Muslims. It was also perhaps one of the first instances of the intermingling of religious and linguistic identities which resulted in the growth of communal consciousness centred on language. Historians have traced the beginnings of separatism to the Hindi-Urdu controversy.

Also emerging in the latter half of the 19th century were the first vestiges of a majoritarian movement for the protection of cows – considered sacred by a large majority of Hindus. The anti-cow slaughter propaganda began in the 1890s led by the Arya Samaj, directed not towards the British but the Muslims. The campaign remains the cause of the first communal riot between Hindus and Muslims in the north Indian town of Mhow. With roots in Punjab and the formation of cow-protection groups or gorakshini sabhas, the campaign spread rapidly across other parts of north India and was to a large extent successful in uniting the Hindus across caste and regions. Once again, the campaign led to the solidifying of religious and communal identities around the motif of the holy cow and the further alienation of the Muslims from the mainstream. Similar to the Hindi-Urdu controversy, it brought religious symbolism in the public sphere ensuing in fierce competition between the Hindu and Muslim elites.

After independence (and Partition), quite predictably the national “mainstream” was occupied by the Hindu majority even as the Indian state led by Jawaharlal Nehru – an avowed socialist and secularist – struggled with the definition and articulation of the practice of secularism in a country which had been recently torn apart by unprecedented religious violence. In a rather automatic fashion then, the Muslim minority that either chose to remain in Hindu-majority India or were left behind was relegated to the margins of the national mainstream. Proof of loyalty to India became a badge of honour for the Muslims, which they were forced to quite literally wear on their sleeves at all times. The Muslims were driven to make a choice and then prove their loyalty to that choice. The majority-minority binary hence became predicated on demographics as well as cultural and ethnic identities. The general perception of fear and paranoia among the majority Hindus in the immediate aftermath of the Partition elicited two kinds of responses – one entirely disregarded the stand taken by Nehru and to a major extent also Gandhi that all those Muslims who wished to stay in India were welcome to stay; the other cast the Muslim community as a homogenous whole as regional, linguistic, caste, and occupational markers lost their significance. This “homogenous whole” was suspected of being “closet Pakistanis”.

Spatial reclamation of Hindu sites

Much of the history of modern India has been grounded on a paradigmatic shift from the ambiguous yet ambitious goals of secularism laid down by the early leadership towards an unabashed embracing of religious and group identities and their pronunciation in the public and political spheres. Armed with a list of Hindu sites as having been wrongly wrested away by the marauding Muslims both during the early invasions as well as the consolidation of Muslim rule, first in Delhi in the form of the Sulatanate (slave kings) and followed by the mighty Turko-Mongols or the Mughals, the RSS and its affiliates, including the BJP, silently began a campaign of site reclamation which picked up steam in the 1990s. Although the Hindu nationalist affiliates had a number of such sites on their radar, the Ramjanmabhoomi – arguably the birthplace of Lord Rama in the holy city of Ayodhya – became the symbol of the campaign which increasingly gathered support especially across North India. Playing a crucial role during this period was the telecast of the Hindu epic Ramayan (1988-89) on the national television channel, Doordarshan. Empty streets on Sunday mornings and sky-rocketing ratings for Doordarshan ensured the creation of a captive “viewing public”. This viewing public not surprisingly translated into a wave of “ready-made” support for the rath yatra undertaken by the BJP leader, L K Advani, from the temple city of Somnath to Ayodhya. Whilst the rath yatra envisioned a solution to the problem of metaphysical Muslim occupation, the TV serial provided Advani and his entourage with a steady stream of yatris, kar sewaks as well as supportive bystanders in almost every city and town the yatra traversed. Arvind Rajagopal has also noted a steep rise in support for the yatra and the final reclamation of the sacred site among Hindu women at least along the route of the yatra.

As millions of Indians watched the demolition of the Babri Masjid or the Babri Mosque built on the alleged site of the birth of Rama on television on 6 December 1992, the captive “viewing public” rejoiced at what had transpired under the full watch of the state machinery. The sewaks or the vandals who brought down the ancient mosque – also members of the “viewing public” – were goaded along the entire process of the demolition by the entire leadership of the BJP. Needless to say, the yatra and the final demolition elicited a wave of communal violence in most cities and towns in North and Western India, with violence occurring in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Ahmedabad, Baroda as well as Hyderabad. K N Panikker estimates that close to 166 cases of communal clashes occurred during this period in which 564 people lost their lives. The horrific communal violence that engulfed the city of Mumbai in 1992-93 was a consequence of what transpired in Ayodhya although the immediate trigger was the serial blasts which killed 257 people.

The methodically engineered invisibility of the Muslim remains implicit in this entire discussion about the reclamation of Hindu religious sites championed by the Ram Temple agitation. Even as the Hindu nationalist groups engaged with collectives and organizations of Muslims primarily in the court of law, the common Muslim mostly remained a mute spectator to and a victim of the violence. Through the creation of the captive Hindu “viewing public”, the national media had – rather explicitly – marginalized the Muslim TV-viewing audiences. The national media – secular, under the ambiguously defined secularism practiced in India – appeared to have thrown all caution to the wind in a bid to capture television rating points and advertising revenue. Even though the decision to telecast a Hindu epic on national TV was taken at the highest levels of the government – at that time a Congress government – the greatest advantage gleaned from it was by the BJP. In the aftermath of the demolition of the mosque, the party increased its vote share, emerging as the principal opposition to the Congress.

By demolishing the mosque at Ayodhya, not only did the Hindu nationalists obliterate a physical symbol of Muslim domination, it precipitated marginalization to an unprecedented degree. The myriad instances of communal violence that have taken place in the post-Babri period have furthered the invisibility of the Muslim from the national mainstream. I would like to cite the specific case of Gujarat. In 2002, a state-sponsored pogrom against Muslims took place in the north-western state of Gujarat – the death toll going up to close to 3000 people in the urban and rural parts of the state, although the government maintains a figure of 800 deaths. I visited Gujarat for fieldwork in 2005 – three years after one of the worst bouts of communal violence had ravaged the state. Having lived in the city of Ahmedabad for a couple of years before 2002, I knew the city well. Ahmedabad is divided into the old and new parts primarily by the Sabarmati River – the new Ahmedabad is now a sprawling city with suburban agglomerations coming up around it. The 2002 riots led to a rearrangement of populations in the city – the Muslims from the old city – victimized by the violence and fearing later reprisals either left for foreign shores or moved away to an area known as Sarkhej. A rickshaw driver said to me, “We managed to drive all the mullahs away from the walled city. Now Sarkhej is the new mini-Pakistan.” What was known as mini-Pakistan earlier – the walled city or the centre of the city – was now dislocated and settled on the margins of the city. The Muslim was hence made to disappear from the centre and move to the periphery. Another rickshaw driver – a Muslim and driving me to Sarkhej – said, “Madam, I am taking you because I am a Muslim, no Hindu rickshaw driver would have gone there.”

While Gujarat was a political and ideological masterstroke in the hegemonic ambitions of the Hindu right, other instances of the “silencing” of the Muslim voice could be discerned from contemporary history. One such incident is the Hashimpura massacre of 1987. About 19 armed men belonging to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) rounded up and shot dead 42 young Muslim men from the Hashimpura locality in Ghaziabad as a general curfew was imposed in the area following communal violence in the neighbouring town of Meerut. The men – shot in cold blood on the outskirts of the city – were dumped in an irrigation canal. According to Vibhuti Narain Rai – the erstwhile DGP of the district – the men were mercilessly murdered in order to “teach a lesson to the Muslims”. Sixteen PAC men were found guilty of the massacre in 2000, three having died in the intervening period. The sixteen were acquitted by a sessions court in Delhi in 2015 due to insufficient evidence. Justice therefore eluded the victims and their families, liquidating almost an entire generation.

The invisible Muslim in the media

In 2007-08, I interviewed a cross section of Muslim professional journalists and producers for a chapter I was writing for a book titled Television in India: satellites, politics and cultural change, edited by the media scholar Nalin Mehta. While some of the responses were on expected lines, some were quite disturbing. One respondent – a successful producer at that time with a leading TV news channel – was unable to rent an apartment in cosmopolitan neighbourhoods in Delhi and Noida (a suburb of Delhi). On being unsuccessful after several attempts at trying to persuade the landlords and the middlemen, he finally chose to live in Jamia Nagar – a “Muslim area” in the south of Delhi. Later on, further research brought to light the fact that not only journalists but prominent academicians (example, Rakshanda Jalil), TV personalities like actors – even Bollywood stars (example, Emraan Hashmi) – find it difficult to acquire or rent property in most plush, cosmopolitan parts of cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. A leading real estate developer in Mumbai said quite nonchalantly on camera during an interview on a TV news programme, “We do not sell apartments to miya bhais in this society. We can never do that. Because if we do, the rest of the apartment will remain empty.”

Another respondent, a female news anchor and a prominent face on Indian TV news was threatened in the studio by a mob of BJP workers as she apparently asked “uncomfortable” questions to the guest of the day – a local BJP politician. The anchor had to be whisked away by channel staff to safety. “From then on, I try and refuse any interaction with BJP members or politicians on screen (and off),” she said. Interestingly, she also lived on Mohammad Ali Road in Mumbai – again a “Muslim area”. Since the book came out, I have been in touch with some of my respondents through social media which has emerged as the new ideological battleground for the Hindu nationalists. Through systematic trolling, use of derogatory language and open threats, the Hindutva social media machinery has managed to propel the dominant discourse in its preferred direction, which includes dispensing threats of death or rape with impunity leading to an abject fall in the standards of public engagement.

During my research for a paper I am co-authoring with my colleague, it was alarming and at the same time enlightening to find entire conversations – in the form of comments and counter-comments – being conducted on Facebook about a well-known female journalist and her “Muslim husbands”. The conversation could be categorized as anything from slander to hate speech. References to the Muslim remained almost shadowy with insinuations being made against a former chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir to the head of a leading banking institution in the state. While the female journalist’s “bad character” was foregrounded, constant finger-pointing at the Muslim men in question succeeded in “othering” the men, who remained outside the scope of discussion. The marginalization was therefore complete – without even having named the men – their religious status was reason enough for the Facebook warriors to launch a smear campaign against them.

One can find hundreds of such engineered conversations on the social media universe, led ably by the troll army which has been described by commentators and observers as a “cottage industry of abuse”. Not surprisingly then, the Muslim remains at the receiving end of this online vitriol. Ramchandra Guha describes these hate mailers and cyber warriors as a unique species deeply suspicious of anyone who is not a Hindu – especially the Muslims (and to some extent the Christians as well). From fictitious yet defamatory associations with Pakistan-based terror outfits to scant regard for any voice of opposition, the troll army creates a chimera of online hate against the Muslim. These online hate campaigns very often invoke history – particularly historical events involving Muslim invaders or rulers – to initiate discussions which often culminate in statements declaring impending revenge for the historical wrongs committed by Muslims against the Hindus. What can be observed and is quite clear from the qualitative research we have been conducting – and it’s really work in progress – is the absence of Muslim voices of defence in this scenario. In fact, any and all oppositional voices are drowned out in the cacophony of hate. Muslim voices are particularly singled out for abuse and insult therefore pushing those voices further and further away from the social media mainstream.

The teaching of history in schools emerges as a popular trope on social media with a number of posts deriding the absence of what could be termed ‘Hindu history’ in textbooks. One example is drawn from a post (10 May, 2017/05:50), which accompanies a picture of a page from a seventh grade history textbook which appears to have material on Islam and Christianity – as the caption reads, “Tomorrow if your children don’t know nothing about Hinduism but everything about the Abrahamic religions you know where we went wrong” (4,800 likes, 2,450 shares, 362 comments). A glance at the comments following this post reveals a rather anticipated focus on the ‘history of the invaders’ being preferred to the ‘history of glorious Bharat’ in secular schools. Some comments urged Hindus to withdraw their children from unscrupulous secular schools that indulge in ‘Muslim and Christian propaganda’, others questioned the need to learn about the teachings of a ‘medieval Bedouin’ like Mohammad. Yet others ranged from those that gloated over the timelessness of Sanatan Dharma and the futility of reading the history of ‘foreigners’.

A leading right-wing news page on Facebook – which garners thousands of likes and followers – named Post Card, quotes Ron Banerjee, the head of a known Canadian Hindu advocacy group. in an interview as stating, “Islam was introduced into the Asian sub-continent with the objective of occupying and exterminating the Hindus.” A closer reading of the interview reveals that Mr. Banerjee is referring to the 1971 war between India and Pakistan which led to the creation of the Muslim-majority Bangladesh in the Indian subcontinent. The interview is replete with several spurious facts and anecdotes that do not have references in history. The interview – quite predictably – is one of the most read pieces on the page with more than 2.5 million likes and about 10,000 followers. Yet again, while the discussion continues to be about Islam and Muslims, the absence of Muslim voices in social media platforms is noteworthy.

Marginalization of dissent

Closely intertwined with the notion of Muslim invisibility is the marginalization of dissent in an increasingly authoritarian state. Beginning from institutions of higher education, the silencing of voices has spread across government departments and other state institutions. The practice of secularism in India – for the most part – relied on the strong oppositional voices that would maintain checks and balances on the government and call them out in public if they are seen to violate the principles enshrined in the constitution. The most telling role was played by the media – the proprietor of The Indian Express, Mr Ramnath Goenka, deciding to bring out blank editorial columns of the newspaper after the Indira Gandhi government suspended electricity supplies to India’s Fleet Street during the Emergency years. The English language press was accused of being “pseudo-secularist” in their coverage of the Gujarat carnage in 2002 by the BJP and Mr. Modi for their balanced view as against the blatantly conformist and incendiary role played by the Gujarati language press. Subsequent commissions of inquiry – both government and independent – as well as independent research found the vernacular press to be kneeling to the wishes of the majoritarian government in the state. While the English press, particularly newspapers like The Indian Express and The Hindu highlighted the squalid conditions in camps set up for the internally displaced Muslims – victims of the marauding mobs – the Gujarati press branded these camps as breeding grounds for “terrorists”. Similarly, in the aftermath of the communal conflagration in Muzaffarnagar in Western Uttar Pradesh in 2013, the English language news magazine Outlook reported on gangrape being employed as methods to “silence” and marginalize the Muslim in the region. BJP members of parliament were reported to have given the call for “teaching the Muslims a lesson”.

The media – a window to the rest of India for a majority of Indians – has a crucial role in the maintenance of a steady stream of objective news. A conformist news media serves the purpose of the ruling dispensation but fails in its fundamental duty as the fourth estate. Slain journalist Gauri Lankesh once wrote “a conformist media is no media at all.” It not only fails in its principal role, it also lets down a whole section of citizens who depend on the media to make their voices heard. These invisible citizens view the media as their sole spokesman – a role the corporatized and commercialized media seems to be wary of playing especially under the present dispensation. The death of dissent of the media therefore seems on the ascendance, while the invisibility of the marginalized communities – especially that of the Muslim – is enhanced by the failure of the media to adequately reflect their social, economic, and political reality.


A few months ago, the Uttar Pradesh government brought out its annual tourism brochure and TV campaign. Guess what was missing from both the brochure and the TV commercial? Yes, the Taj Mahal. Whether it is a short-sighted bid to push to the background any possibilities of associating the state with “Muslim symbols” or a long-term plan of spatial reclamation remains to be seen, but the very removal of the Taj Mahal – arguably the highest revenue earner for the Uttar Pradesh tourism industry – indicates a policy shift in favour of marginalization and invisibility. Will the Taj Mahal become invisible from our memories of India? The answer perhaps lies in the effort – rather project – undertaken by the BJP government to rewrite history textbooks. My experience with textbooks in Gujarat tells me that an entire period of Indian history is being made invisible from the teaching of history in schools, buildings are being renamed with impunity (Tejo Mahalaya for Taj Mahal) and spurious facts are being given credence. These projects – the tourism project in Uttar Pradesh and the rewriting of history project more generally – in a rather unencumbered way dissociates a huge population of Indians from the country of their birth. The “invisibility of the Muslim” – brought to fruition over the years by the Hindu right – has precipitated the crisis of secularism in India.    

[1] Smith, D E. 1998. “India as a Secular State”. In Secularism and Its Critics, edited by Rajeev Bhargav, pp. 177. New Delhi: Oxford University Press. [Excerpted from D E Smith. 1963. India as a Secular State. Princeton: Princeton University Press.]

[2] Smith, D E. 1998. Ibid, p. 187.

[3] Nandy, Ashis. 1985. “An Anti-Secularist Manifesto”. Seminar 314; 1990. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance”. In Mirrors of Violence: Communities, Riots and Survivors in South Asia, edited by Veena Das. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

[4] Bilgrami, Akeel. 1998. Op. cit, p. 384.

[5] Tambiah, Stanley J. 1998. “The Crisis of Secularism in India”. In Secularism and Its Critics, edited by Rajeev Bhargav, pp. 418. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

[6] Nandy, Ashis. 1990. “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance”. Op. cit, pp. 80-90.

Roshni Sengupta, PhD, is a political scientist and commentator. She is currently research fellow with the International Institute for Asian Studies, The Netherlands. You may look up her blog, Another World is Possible. She tweets at @RoshniSengupta7.


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