To be Muslim in India today is to suffer from a crisis of belonging. But amid the alienation, an awakening has blossomed too.
2019 was the year when a major historical event unfolded in the US. Footage of the brutal killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer sent shockwaves across the country and the entire world.
"Black Lives Matter" became the rallying cry as people marched across continents with placards and banners. Mute spectatorship of such a travesty would have been nothing less than an approval of blatant racist violence.
In 2020, a similar video surfaced in India. Policemen were seen assaulting and severely injuring five young Muslim men who were forced to sing the national anthem. Except this time, instead of footage from a security camera, the video was shot by the policemen themselves. Four of the victims, who can be seen lying in pain with blood splattered all over them, survived the assault. Faizan, a 23-year-old among them, succumbed to his injuries.
In 2021 another similar video did the rounds on social media, during a forced eviction drive of Bengali Muslims in Assam from their lands. A man named Moinul Haque was shot dead at point-blank range, and as an additional performance of cruelty, a local photographer who was present on the scene leaped on Haque's half-dead body just minutes before he exhaled his last breath.
The tragedy of George Floyd, Faizan and Moinul Haque are all equally heart-wrenching. Except Haque or Faizan's death did not move Indian civil society; it was only followed by silence, and tremors of a traumatic memory for those of us who relate with their names.
These killings are only two of hundreds of incidents of anti-Muslim hostility that have been taking place in India since 2014. From being hounded on the street for visible religious markers, to getting lynched in broad daylight for the mere suspicion of carrying beef to being auctioned online as sellable objects, Indian Muslims are on the receiving end of perhaps the most humiliating treatment meted out to any minority community in the world right now.
In December 2021, a large gathering of Hindu right-wing religious leaders and fundamentalist activists gathered in Haridwar, Uttarakhand. In an eerie resemblance to the Nazi oath-taking ceremonies, the attendees took pledges to make India a “Hindu Rashtra” and free it of Muslims.
Over the course of the event, hate speeches and targeted calls for violence on Muslims were made with impunity, to the point that the President of Genocide Watch warned that something similar to the Rwandan genocide could happen in India if stern action isn’t taken by the Narendra Modi-led government.
A crisis of belonging
While everyday violence and hate speeches do their bit to keep Indian Muslims in a constant state of terror and paranoia, what often hurts more than these calls is the lack of resistance by civil society that follows and the indifference of our friends. The thing about indifference is that it violently shakes your sense of being. It makes you question your pain and even the memory of who you are.
Belonging to a place is precisely in this way different from being merely present in a place. To belong is to feel psychologically safe in a place. To belong, in other words, is to feel your pain resonate in the people around you. A crisis of belonging that we are suffering from today does not solely come from the acts of violence and discrimination directed towards us, it also comes from the banality with which our otherisation has been normalised.
The BJP’s nationalist politics has not just constantly aimed to attack the individual bodies of Muslims, but also the collective Indian memory of who and what a Muslim stands for. It is a psychological project that aims to transform the polity’s imagination first and foremost.
From renaming cities, destroying visible Muslim architecture to criminalising Muslim identity markers, it is quite apparent that these are attempts to remove anything remotely Muslim from the cultural ethos of India.
While the BJP have intensified it, the process of marginalisation of Muslims as a social group precedes them. The Sachar Committee report released in 2006 highlighted a range of challenges faced by the community and made a slew of recommendations to address the situation. In many of the developmental indicators, it placed Indian Muslims below Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in backwardness.
In the recorded post-colonial history of Indian Muslims however, the news of their socio-economic marginalisation has always occupied a small column hidden below the weather box.
What would change our conceptual templates, I wonder, if we reasses the emergent situation of intense anti-Muslim sentiment as the continuation of a history where Muslims as a community were always discriminated against, and only now the levels of cruelty have surpassed all possible imagination.
A new awakening
There have been two kinds of narratives built around Indian Muslims historically: either as sufferers of communal riots or perpetrators of them. Their characters are either confined to victimhood or fanaticism, the sole anchor of which has been their faith. It is a suitable narrative for those who cover up for the failures of their imaginations with convenient binaries.
Earlier generations of Muslims did not fight the pre-defined binaries imposed on them. Their protests were more apologetic than honest. We learned our place in the world through the definitions drawn for us by those who lived outside our reality.
Our own stories came second hand to us through heavily biased media, through books and research papers written by people who have only visited our ghettos like tourists. And now finally there are attempts to write us off from the collective memory of this nation.
Being an Indian Muslim today is two things at once: It is the experience of alienation, and also the experience of awakening. There's a certain presence in our subjective sense of being that has come along with this wave of rage. Frantz Fanon wrote: “When the black man plunges something extraordinary happens” - and perhaps, this is that moment for the Indian Muslim today.
A new generation of Indian Muslims is at the forefront. It is not a quiet generation; it is constantly speaking, writing, drawing and recording everything that is happening. It is not just challenging what has been spoken of them but also pushing the limits of the imagination of what an Indian Muslim can be.
Be it the anti-CAA rallies led by the courageous women of Shaheen Bagh or the more recent protests against the banning of Hijabi students from entering classrooms in Karnataka, Indian Muslims have faced severe repression under the ruling party.
Given that cries for anti-Muslim violence are becoming louder by the day, one would wonder if anything was accomplished at all. But can we really undermine the achievements of a generation that has punctured preexisting rigid binaries and reintroduced a new political language into the system?
Shaheen Bagh saw a revival of an intersectional ground where thousands of Muslims rallied alongside a Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar Azad. The streets of Delhi echoed with slogans of Jai Bhim and Inqilab Zindabad in unison. People across religion, caste and class came together all over India to reject a brutal, discriminatory law.
Shaheen Bagh wasn’t just something that we performed, it was something that we lived and registered in our collective memory. It was something that transformed us.
For the first time in history, Indian Muslims are writing their stories themselves. In our struggles, we are becoming the memory of a nation falling apart in its amnesia.
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