The increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ (‘this is your duty as an American’, ‘you must commit these acts as a Muslim’, or ‘as a Chinese you should give priority to this national engagement’) is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups (to all of which he or she belongs)
― Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice
An educated, secular and liberal Indian Muslim is in a bind; they are torn between finding the right balance between loyalty to their faith and adherence to the new tests of patriotism being imposed by certain intolerant groups. The high voltage saffronisation wave that is demonising Muslims has broken the resistance of even strong neutral and secular groups who are now inclined to go with the official tide. The centuries old secular soul is slowly being ruptured. India has suddenly become deaf to its minorities, who are shuddering in silence at the growing intolerance of saffron hordes. Public spaces are now rife with the mockery and ridicule of Muslims.
India’s once cherished and internationally lauded values of secularism have been drowned in the sea of primitive majoritarian politics which are driven more by uncontrollable rage than by sensible reason. Democratic institutions and spaces, not just Hindutva foot soldiers, are being used to suppress religious freedom. We are quickly approaching a potential breakdown of what was once a flourishing multicultural society. Muslims are made to routinely confront a culture of fear which sees everything Muslim as pure evil.
I can feel the disdain emanating from officers when they look at my passport and find I have a Muslim name. Other friends — much richer and better known than most of us — will tell you how difficult it is to rent a house if you are a Muslim. A sense of despair runs through the entire Muslim community as they experience the most horrific phase since the Partition.
Continuing political popularity has emboldened the intolerant elements in the ruling party, who are now openly imposing their own moral benchmarks with regard to diet, dress, faith and patriotism, completely disregarding the cultural sentiments of others. This rhetoric is injecting anti-Muslim sentiment into a climate where Muslims already feel alienated and marginalised. The political and social environment has never been so hostile and ordinary Muslims are confronted with vileness from all and sundry in full view of the law.
A number of questions agitate the Muslim’s mind. If am a patriotic and secular Indian then
● Why do people stare at me when I wear my skull cap or Hijab?
● Why does my name force people to doubt my love for my nation?
● Why do I hear comments like “You will be supporting Pakistan during a match”?
● Why can I not find a good apartment to rent in a posh locality?
● Why do people call me staunch if I pray fives time in a day?
● Why am I called an orthodox Muslim if I follow my religion to the best of my ability?
● Why are the boys of my community under constant surveillance?
● Why am I not an Indian as much as you are?
Not only do the majority of Indian Muslims have to worry about worsening communal relations and police brutality, they must also face high unemployment and widespread poverty.
They live in urban ghettos or squalid villages and suffer from ignorance, ridicule and humiliation. The profound sense of pain caused by calculated and senseless derision of their religious practices only serves to alienate them from the national mainstream.
India must not forget that it has an entire generation of young Muslims who are born into a turbulent era, and whose mindset and identity is developed in an environment where they fear being suspected as ‘disloyal others’. Some are highly talented and are part of the vanguard in the nation’s new development revolution.
The negative profiling of Muslims can cause alienation among the community and can, potentially, open up space for divisiveness that could lead to long term fissures. Studies have shown that one of the factors underpinning radicalisation is a lack of belonging and sense of loss of identity.
An analysis of 198 countries by the Pew Research Centre finds India is the fourth-worst country in the world in terms of religious intolerance and violence. Only three countries — Syria, Nigeria and Iraq — are lower, with even Pakistan faring better, coming in at tenth worst.
Muslims have been forced to deeply consider their role in the present day political climate in India. It isn’t so much a battle of what it means to be a Muslim in India – it is a greater battle regarding how tolerant and open-minded India as a whole will be about minorities, about the Indian values of democracy and secularism, about recognising how truly the country wants to realise the Indian values of openness and freedom for all.
Millions of Muslims in places such as Uttar Pradesh chose not to participate in the population exchange of the Parition, taking their chances on the pluralist promises of independent India instead. Over the 70 years of the Indian republic’s existence, the right-wing organisations that see India’s Hindu-majority population as historical victims have opposed the country’s broad tendency towards social accommodation with vigorous, often-violent protest.
Of late, the Indian secular fabric is becoming increasingly fragile. Many on both sides don’t believe in tolerance or moderation and are determined to follow the saying ‘paying them in their own coin’ dogmatically. The official machinery, which had previously been quite subtle in it communal agenda, now bares its fangs brazenly.
Religion is often portrayed simply as a social or political construct. But, for millions of people, religion is a daily practice, and the very real framework of an understanding that connects human lives to a spiritual reality. For the laity, faith is the prism through which they view the world, and their religious communities are their central environments. For them it is a benign force, shorn of the political sentiments, which are manipulated into an ideological construct by ideological groups for their election algorithms.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of faith in the lives of people for whom it is a creed of peace and love. It is evident that most people would prefer to live in peace than in conflict. At their very core, all religions espouse peace, tolerance and compassion. Yet, often the only religious voices on the front pages are those speaking messages of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tensions. One of the best ways of breaking down barriers between faiths is building relationships and getting to know each other. It isn’t simply a platitude but is actually is a verse from the Q’uran where the Lord says, ‘He made us different so we can get to know each other.’
Taking that verse to heart, getting to know others and coming together on issues that are common to all of us can synergise a new spirit of harmony. We are all concerned with education and poverty, growing inflation, surging unemployment and taxes. These are places we can find common ground and work towards a better world and better future for us all.
People have much in common, irrespective of the faith they profess and 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 differences’.
There is ample scope for reconciliation, if only we are willing to avail of the myriad opportunities staring at us. Despite the many superficial differences, all our deeper and more permanent values are similar. The respect for knowledge, justice, truth, compassion towards the less privileged, commitment to a healthy family life, and the desire to improve our world and make it a better place for everyone are commonalities to people of all faiths. A more sober reflection can help us smoothen the ridges that keep straining our relationships.
The majority must realise that minorities face a severe emotional complex. An ordinary Muslim carries a lot of weight on his shoulders. They have a responsibility to their own community and their fellow Indians to not only convey the right impression of Islam but embody the principles of nationalism deemed correct by the majority. You must be an exemplary, upright and righteous individual because people look at you and judge other Muslims based on your conduct. I have to be on my guard all the time because I know people are looking and will often associate any of my actions as representative of my religion.
We become ambassadors of our faiths and communities simply by living our lives. So it is not just what you profess or preach that matter. It is ultimately your actions which define you and your thoughts. Your public perception is built over a period of time, shaped by the uniformity in your speech and behaviour.
A dichotomous behaviour is bound to erode credibility and loyalty to one’s faith can be misinterpreted as disloyalty to national values. But the cardinal values that underpin faith and patriotism are normally shared – ethical conduct and pluralist character.
It is worth quoting Dr S Radhakrishnan, the philosopher president of India, who wrote in ‘The Hindu View of Life’: “What counts is not creed but conduct. By their fruits ye shall know them and not by their beliefs. Religion is not correct belief but righteous living. The Hindu view that every method of spiritual growth, every path to the Truth is worthy of reverence has much to commend itself.”
There will always a certain level of bias initially when people meet you. I think the main challenge is having those conversations and getting people to a level where they stop seeing you just as a Muslim, but a fellow Indian and person of faith. However, it is true that in recent times the highly volatile and hostile environment has made the situation very complicated. After all, things are easier said than done.
Being Muslim and being Indian are compatible. One need not compromise faith to prove your patriotism; real patriotism is demonstrated through embodying and living the timeless values of Indian civilisation — fairness, justice, tolerance and pluralism.
What is the path ahead? By spreading the truth and having difficult conversations. In my life I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t know any Muslims but I’ll remember you when I see the news.’ I hope that people realise Muslim Indians are very patriotic and love India and that we see it as our home.
I have spent my life in public sector service because I believe in the values of this country. I hope people know that there are many Muslim Indians that feel this way. They have to be trusted and given the opportunity to do so. And they will redeem this trust, as they have throughout the ages.
In these trying times Muslims must look to the words of of Maulana Azad who was the president of Indian National Congress during the negotiation of independence and was a key ally of Gandhi and Nehru.
“I am a Musalman and am proud of that fact. Islam’s splendid traditions of 1,300 years are my inheritance. I am unwilling to lose even the smallest part of this inheritance. The teaching and history of Islam, its arts and letters and civilisation, are my wealth and my fortune. It is my duty to protect them.
“As a Musalman I have a special interest in Islamic religion and culture, and I cannot tolerate any interference with them. But in addition to these sentiments, I have others also which the realities and conditions of my life have forced upon me. The spirit of Islam does not come in the way of these sentiments; it guides and helps me forward.
“I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to this noble edifice, and without me this splendid structure of India is incomplete. I am an essential element, which has gone to build India. I can never surrender this claim.
“It was India’s historic destiny that many human races and cultures and religions should flow to her, finding a home in her hospitable soil, and that many a caravan should find rest here. Even before the dawn of history, these caravans trekked into India and wave after wave of newcomers followed. This vast and fertile land gave welcome to all, and took them to her bosom. One of the last of these caravans, following the footsteps of its predecessors, was that of the followers of Islam.
“They came here and settled here for good.”
India has been a flag bearer of pluralism and has always been a beacon of tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. Muslims have, time and again, responded to the challenges of the nation. Our history attests to their role in building this great nation. Alienating one fifth of this population will not help the country and will be against the spirit of its centuries’ old ethos.