How to Be a Muslim in India
On the evening of September 28, in the village of Bishara in Dadri, UP, India, an urgent announcement rung out from the thresholds of the Shiv temple, commanding the attention of a crowd of attendees. There was troubling news to report: a Muslim had been seen carrying bags containing beef to their home. It did not take long for people to act. That night, a Hindu mob barged into the home of the Akhlaq family to punish them for their misdeeds. The family of poor wage laborers was brutally assaulted, leaving Mohammed Akhlaq, 50, dead, his son Danish in critical condition, and his wife Asgari Begum injured and bereft. One of the local authorities’ first responses to the crime was to send the meat for forensic investigation to determine whether or not it was actually beef (it was not).
Targeted violence against the Muslim minority in India is not a new phenomenon, and it has occurred on a much larger scale than this recent incident. However, in the wake of the continuing rise of the Hindu nationalist right, abetted by a sympathetic national government ruled by the BJP and the reassurance of a history of impunity for perpetrators, the Dadri killing has taken on extra significance. That this crime occurred on the pretext of a Muslim consuming the meat of (some) Hindus’ sacred cow, as the issue of beef bans in several states has become a prominent electoral and legislative issue, has also not gone unnoticed. What is also worth our attention about Dadri is the family’s public response to the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq, and what it says about Muslim strategies of coping with life as an endangered minority in India.
Sartaj, one of Akhlaq and Asgari Begum’s sons, recently told the Times of India:
Instead of understanding our pain, politicians are more concerned about their politics. . . My family is patriotic. This is the reason I joined the Air Force. Communal harmony is the essence of democracy. Our nation is known for communal harmony. I appeal to people to not disturb the peace. Even though I have not been deployed on the border, I have worked with dedication for the country. Even my younger brother, Danish, was preparing to join the forces. . . I am not concerned whom [the killers] are related to or what their religion is. I am concerned only with justice.
In this short statement lurks the legacy of decades of exclusion of Indian Muslims from the Indian national project. The Muslim, in the aftermath of yet another episode of communal violence that rends her life asunder, must celebrate communal harmony. The Muslim, after scrubbing away the blood of his relatives from the walls of his home, must block the doorway to outside views and prove his love of country by proclaiming his willingness to join the military, go to the border, and kill other (anti-national, of course) Muslims. Critically, the Muslim must not complain that her religion has something to do with the victimization of all Muslims. It is not just Sartaj who says these words; it is a litany recited by much of a community that has been trained to think of themselves as a problem to be solved.
The idea of assuming collective blame for ‘backwardness’ is not a new one in segments of the Muslim community. It can be argued that the trend goes back as far as the late 19thcentury in colonial India, when Muslim elites such as Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Altaf Hussain Hali dominated the intellectual dialogue on social reform in the Muslim community during the new era of the British Raj. Khan, Hali, and their contemporaries berated the ashraf (upper-class/caste gentry) Muslims for falling into complacency about their socio-economic status in the long heyday of Mughal rule. Instead of keeping up with the times and establishing themselves in the new civil, economic and bureaucratic world forming in the context of East India Company rule, the Muslims as a collective, in these reformer’s eyes, had allowed Hindus to overtake them in key arenas such as government employment and patronage. Without sweeping solutions and urgent action, they warned, the situation for Muslims would only get worse.
However, there is a key departure between today’s social realities and Khan’s 19th century thought: the question of who is to blame. There exists a pervasive narrative among and about Indian Muslims that they all have something to apologize for, whether it is their own underdevelopment, global terror, domestic criminality, cheering for Pakistan in cricket, etc. For those who see Indian Muslims as a national problem, the government is also at fault for ‘appeasing’ and ‘pampering’ Muslims at the expense of the Hindu majority. Yet there is ample evidence that Muslims are falling behind nearly all other social groupings in India on almost every development indicator — including educational attainment, access to public infrastructure, such as hospitals, and poverty reduction — as painstakingly documented by the government’s Sachar Committee Report of 2006. This kind of data suggests neglect and abandonment of vulnerable Muslims by the government, not pampering. Unfortunately, despite the facts, the mantra of self-blame continues to be preached to Muslims, by others and themselves.
Take for example Islamic Voice, an English-language monthly for the well-to-do Muslim. In Islamic Voice’s articles runs a consistent emphasis on Muslim fallibility and need to integrate. For instance, Voice argues that Muslims must “maintain friendly relations with the majority, refrain, as far as possible, from antagonizing it, and seek to open channels of communication with sections of the majority that might, for some reason, have turned hostile to it.” Elsewhere they exhort Muslims to come out of their ghettos and give back to the non-Muslim community instead of being “takers” not “givers.” In this narrative, it is a “ghettoized mentality,” rather than a ghettoized reality; a problem of self-segregation, rather than a problem of exclusion; and a culture of dependence rather than a culture of industry that is the cause of the Indian Muslim’s longstanding woes. This rhetoric is astounding in its refusal to acknowledge that there might be something external, like structural discrimination, active right-wing social movements and political parties, and governmental negligence, that keeps Indian Muslims down.
Let’s touch on the criticism that Muslims are ghettoizing themselves because of an insular mindset. While some ethnic or religious communities the world over prefer to live in urban enclaves of their own accord, it is also the case that many times over they have been pushed into enclaves at the margins by gentrification, racism, or violence. To claim that, in the Indian context, the existence of Muslim enclaves is solely due to an apparently narrow-minded desire to be among ‘one’s own people’ is extremely misleading. Often, ghettoization is a direct result of communal violence, as many Muslims relocate from mixed-community neighborhoods to majority-Muslim areas in search of safety, a phenomenon that has been ongoing since the Partition of 1947 and was in vivid display after the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogroms of 2002. Furthermore, if one analyzes the evidence supplied by Indian Muslims themselves and other outside researchers, the picture emerges that urban Muslim ghettos are notoriously lacking in “Water, sanitation, electricity, schools, public health facilities, banking facilities, anganwadis, ration shops, roads, and transport facilities.” Moreover, in cities like Mumbai certain rental properties and residential neighborhoods are effectively off-limits to Muslims because of regulations designating such developments as “vegetarian only” residences.
How can one escape the “ghettoized mentality” if there aren’t even paved roads out of the ghetto? How can one become a more productive member of civil society and transcend a culture of “taking” (i.e. demanding welfare and government assistance) with three years of education? How can one engage in civil dialogue with ‘hostile sections of the majority’ when it was that hostility that pushed you at the point of a knife to the margins of national existence, decade after decade, killing after killing?
In their study of post-pogrom Gujarat, Christopher Jaffrelot and Charlotte Thomas found that many affected Muslims, instead of mobilizing on the basis of identity politics to demand justice, were instead turning inwards, hoping that by putting a new emphasis on education and social improvement among themselves, they would be able to transcend their circumstances and achieve a more secure, stable place in society. Tragically, they found that a sizable number of their interviewees cited the Muslims’ educational backwardness as the reason they were attacked, again engaging in self-blame. Even more troublingly, in her research Rubina Jasani has found that in the post-pogrom years, Islamic reformist groups, particularly the Tabhlighi Jamaat, had been preaching that Muslims had suffered this massive tragedy, had been killed by the thousands, subjected to horrific sexual violence, and pushed to the ghettos not because they are an undesirable element that Hindutva seeks to eradicate, but because they had forgotten Allah and religion . Forget the ‘ghettoized mentality’; how does the Muslim escape the brutalized, defeated mentality?
Mohammed Akhlaq’s death was not the last hastened by the onslaught of intolerance. In the weeks since Akhlaq’s murder, Zahid Ahmed was killed by a mob in Kashmir for allegedly transporting slaughtered cows, and a young man named Noman was beaten to death by a mob in Himachal Pradesh on a similar pretext. As must be obvious from any glance at the headlines, Hindu nationalism is hardly an unprecedented or surprise phenomenon; this chauvinistic movement has been fomenting for decades, endangering not only Muslims, but also Christians and Dalits everywhere it spreads. What is different now is the political atmosphere of the country, where such hatred is– if not outright encouraged — tacitly approved of or met with enabling official silence.
So, where does the Indian Muslim go, what can she do? It is obvious that the broader community’s best hopes lie not with those who perpetuate self-blame and caution. Instead, perhaps the future rests with those Muslims, of low-caste background and otherwise, who recognize not only the threat of Hindutva fascism but also the role ashraf Muslims and the clerical establishment have played in subordinating lower-class/caste Muslims and ensnaring the community in a politics of acquiescence to the dominant political force of the day. Perhaps the future rests with those Muslim students in university campuses in cities like Hyderabad that have formed alliances with Dalit and OBC student organizations to protest overtly Brahminical legislation like beef bans, as well as the mistreatment of Dalit students in higher education institutions and nationwide casteist violence that continues to claim Dalits’ lives. One thing is clear — unless there is significant change, India will continue to peddle to the international community its status as the world’s largest democracy and a success story of multiculturalism, while its minorities continue to suffer the consequences.
Originally published at kajalmag.com on October 26, 2015.