Unmasking the Persecution of Muslims in India

Photo: TRT World

By Saniya Ahmad

Indian society can be best described as a society characterized by moral inversion, irresistibly drawn to divisive rhetoric and communal hectoring. Photographs of blood-thirsty marauders roaming the streets, of mutilated bodies and charred homes that emerged from Delhi earlier this year, were a brazen display of the humiliating status of Indian Muslims as second-class citizens. What happened in Delhi was just another chapter in the anti-Muslim violence that has convulsed India ever since it became independent.

Narendra Modi came to power appealing to the basest human instincts of his voters. Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Modi did not disrupt harmony between Hindus and Muslims because that harmony existed only superficially. He exacerbated a deeply entrenched anti-Muslim sentiment, creating a favorable climate for his bigoted politics to thrive. To believe, therefore, that ostracization of Muslims is a post-2014 phenomenon is self-delusional and impairs our ability to comprehend India’s history of sustained and systemic bias against Muslims.

Persecution of Muslims cannot merely be attributed to violence, massacres and pogroms because brutalization frequently adopts a bloodless form, meandering through the course of inexplicable prejudices and false perceptions, a kind of hatred that is hardly visible, yet devastatingly palpable.

While the right-wing Hindutva hardliners are ideologically motivated to annihilate those who believe in Islam, we cannot lay the blame for bigotry only at their door. It is people in the so-called progressive camp who have invariably seen any assertion of faith on the part of Muslims as inimical to the country’s secular fabric. These liberals, whose practices are often disloyal to their creed, consider Muslims as progressive so long as they strip themselves off of any outward symbols of Muslimness. They accuse us of refusing to assimilate without realizing that the conditions upon which that assimilation rests, has pushed Muslims to the peripheries of society, rendering us even more vulnerable to the extremists baying for our blood.

The glorified concept of ‘secularism’ has very conveniently blinded us to the gross under-representation of Muslims in politics. Parties that for years have deployed secularism only as an opportunistic policy to climb the electoral ladder while pandering to the majoritarian sentiment, have been an ineffable obstruction in the way of political empowerment for the Muslim community. The secularists cannot conceive of a role for us other than as intellectually inferior, ignorant, uncivilized victims who must be reformed and ministered rather than emancipated. Muslims who foreground their identity in political terms are chastised for resorting to communalism and identity politics.

‘Ghettoisation’ is a term often used to blame Muslims for their socio-economic backwardness, the connotations of which have never been fully understood or perhaps, deliberately ignored. For Muslims, the need to ghettoize does not arise from an unreasonable desire for isolation but from a constant yearning to feel safe from the stigmatization, attacks, and targeted violence that they have had to endure. The phenomenon of ghettoization, a product of marginalization, shuts off economic opportunities and avenues to the Muslim community, driving it into a deadly combination of penury and illiteracy.

A Muslim citizen’s patriotism has always been relentlessly tested, doubted, and debated upon in India. This discourse, however, has surfaced with more open stridency ever since Mr. Modi took the reins of office. The CAA and the talks of a nationwide NRC are only a legal acknowledgment of the RSS’ perception of Muslims as treacherous, parasitical foreigners who must submit, unquestioningly, to the will of the majority.

This social devaluation, political exclusion, economic enfeeblement, and continuous vilification of our community, is what I refer to as the bloodless face of persecution of Muslims in India. It is a subtle and pervading form of violence that does not require the spilling of blood but manufactures a climate where bloodletting is not only justified but celebrated. Animosity towards Muslims is intrinsic to our society which smoulders and breaks out at intervals in the form of pogroms, lynchings, and massacres.

The 1980 Moradabad police firing bears a striking resemblance to the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919. It was a harrowing case of police brutality where unarmed, defenceless men who had gathered at the Moradabad Eidgah to offer the Eid prayer were indiscriminately shot by police personnel. The Congress party, aided by the media, succeeded in painting the incident as a Hindu-Muslim conflict, and the grave iniquity committed against 300 lives was forgiven, forgotten, and ignored.

The slaughter of thousands of Muslims in the Assamese village of Nellie in 1983 was a blisteringly shocking bloodbath in the history of Independent India. The horrors that unfolded in Nellie were a consequence of the xenophobic sentiments underlying the anti-foreigners movement in Assam. Images of raw human flesh strewn like litter on the blood-smeared streets when contrasted with the immunity which the perpetrators continue to enjoy, offer a grim insight into how justice remains an elusive dream for most Indian Muslims.

One of the biggest and most gruesome cases of custodial killings in India is the Hashimpura Massacre of 1987. On the fateful night of 22nd May 1987, policemen rounded up around 50 Muslim men from Hashimpura, packed them into a truck, took them to a canal and shot 42 of them at point-blank range. This needless, cold-blooded murder of innocent men was a harsh reminder of how cheap and worthless a Muslim life is. Though the policemen involved were finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018, people in the state machinery who shielded them for 31 long years remain free and the loathing for Muslims which actuated this heinous crime, continues to prevail.

It is the people of Kashmir who symbolize an audacious, unsettling Muslim defiance that successive Indian regimes have always despised and feared. Story of the mass rapes that occurred in the twin villages of Kunan and Poshpora in 1991 is just one among a litany of horrific tales that encapsulate the hideousness of life in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Though the bodily harm caused to the survivors may have healed, it is their souls that were irreparably crushed and continue to bleed. The chants of ‘azaadi’ reverberating through the lanes of the Valley are infused with a grief so profound that they become unfathomable to a vast majority of Indians.

The following words of Malcolm X, when applied in the context of Kashmir, are a befitting reply to those who label Kashmiris as traitors, extremists, and anti-nationals:

“What I want to know is how the White man, with the blood of Black people dripping off his fingers, can have the audacity to be asking Black people why they hate him?”

The rise of Hindu nationalism brought with itself a fresh spurt of anti-Muslim violence resulting in the 1992 Babri Masjid riots, the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 and the ghastly pogrom we saw just three months ago in Delhi.

Hindu nationalists use the cow as an emotive symbol to nurture the anti-Muslim venom residing in our society. Video footage of Muslims being brutally lynched on false accusations of cow slaughter, are a chilling revelation of the hollowness of India’s democratic principles. Dozens of bemused spectators who revel and cheer as a man is mercilessly beaten are emblematic of this country’s crippled morality. The State’s policy of incentivizing those who indulge in crimes against Muslims feeds the murderous instincts of violent mobs. Though the last few years have seen a rise in such hate crimes, we can trace cow-related violence towards Muslims in India, back to 1880.

We must keep these events, which illuminate the bloody face of persecution of Muslims in India, vividly alive in our conscience. We seem to have collectively forgotten the targeted killings of Muslims which predate the BJP’s rise to power, thereby, absolving the secular parties of all blame. To think of the BJP as our sole enemy in an otherwise harmonious environment is to entangle ourselves in a web of ignorance and lethal gullibility.

As I try to make sense of my maimed existence, somewhere, silently, out of the trenches of lost memories, Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry descends upon me:

Zulm phir zulm hai, badhta hai toh mit jata hai
Khoon phir khoon hai, tapkega toh jam jayega
Saazeshein laakh udaati raheen zulmat ke naqaab
Le ke har boond nikalti hai hatheli pe chiraagh

Tyranny is but tyranny; when it grows, it vanquishes
Blood, however, is blood, if it spills, it will congeal
Let conspiracies shroud the truth with darkness
Each drop of blood will march out, holding aloft a lamp 

Cutting across the barriers erected by liberals and nationalists alike, Muslims must claim the social, political, and economic power that they are entitled to, but are invariably denied. Until that happens, the life of a Muslim in this country would continue to be a forsaken prison with no escape, a plea for dignity heard by none, a demand for self-expression left unmet, and the constant fear of an untimely death.

Saniya Ahmad studies Political Science at the University of Delhi. She frequently writes about politics and human rights. Her interest revolves around political philosophy and critical engagement with literature and current affairs.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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