It has become an extraordinary burden and challenge for any Indian to have a Muslim identity. This burden the Muslims have endured, many will argue, since India awoke to “life and freedom at the stroke of the midnight hour” of August 14-15, 1947. Yet it sat lightly on them as their belongingness to India was not debated day after day. Their woes would recede to the margin of their consciousness as cracks in Hindu-Muslim relations, caused by periodic communal stress, were repaired. An imperfect India would struggle to ensure its imperfections did not become the new normal.
This struggle has not only been abandoned under the BJP rule, but it has become a cherished political project to deepen and make permanent India’s imperfections. There are celebrations, in certain quarters, every time a poisonous wart pockmarks our social life. From lynching to tailoring the citizenship law, the list of reasons for detesting Muslims has grown for an ever-expanding segment of Hindus willing to become assailants.
The burden of the Muslim identity has felt particularly unbearable during the 21-day national lockdown ordered to check the spread of Coronavirus. With social transactions reduced substantially, and everyone face-to-face with death, it was presumed that the politics of hate would hit the pause button. We failed to reckon that the vocation of TV anchors and the avocation of Hindu radicals are to demonise Muslims. Both quickly latched on to the criminally irresponsible behaviour of the Tablighi Jamaat to read sinister meanings into their decision to continue with the three-day congregation marked in their annual calendar months earlier.
Fake videos turned the Coronavirus into a jihadi virus, which the Jamaat was accused of spreading to perpetrate bio-terrorism against the Hindus. The Jamaat soon became synonymous with the entire Muslim community. Bristling TV anchors and editors-on-take suggested that Muslims should vociferously condemn the Jamaat. Just why an entire community should feel guilty for the mistakes of few is beyond reason. The same opinion-makers never scream that the Hindus are demeaned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah’s studied refusal to speak up whenever a Muslim is lynched.
This hypocrisy has deepened India’s imperfections, which have, in the wake of the controversy over the Jamaat, manifested in attacks on Muslims, their social boycott, and the locally enforced prohibition on them to ply their trade. The young Muslim mind will perceive the retaliation against the imaginary bio-terrorism as a conspiracy to wean them away from the third path that they have so courageously and creatively carved out, particularly over the last six months, in Muslim politics.
Until very recently, Muslims were defined either as villains or victims. The Hindu Right considers Muslims as the Fifth Columnist, forever working to undermine India, either by converting Hindus to Islam or undertaking terror activities. At the other end are secular-liberal parties, which look upon Muslims as lacking agency, because of their backwardness, and who have to be hand-held for securing their constitutional rights.
The third path in Muslim politics was carved out by the Muslim youth who spearheaded the agitation against the new citizenship policies until it was wound up by the Coronavirus. Refusing to play either victim or villain, they sought to secure their constitutional rights and demand equality of treatment through a non-violent resistance movement against a discriminating state. They demonstrated tremendous fortitude in enduring, initially, the state’s repressive tactics, then its indifference, and then, ultimately, the riots scripted to drive them away from protest sites.
The harnessing of the COVID-19 scare to widen India’s social rift will enrage the Muslim youth, who might feel inclined to prove right those who demonise them. This is the pretext the Hindutva state constantly seeks to oppress them. Or they will likely slip into hopelessness and hand over the reins of their fate to the political parties eager to seek their votes but reluctant to speak for them, let alone fight their battles. This will infantilise Muslims all over again.
These are compelling reasons for Muslims to continue down the third path, although the Hindutva state will create impediments such as invoking repressive laws and refusing to take action against those in social media who target Muslims. They will also be hounded by the thought that their fight for equality cannot be won on their own. Muslims do indeed need the support of Hindus, but many among them now seem to believe that India’s inhuman imperfections are virtues, which secular-liberal leaders shy away from interrogating out of their fear of alienating India’s largest vote bank. The Muslim youth will have to think of creative ways to reach out to the Hindus outside the liberal-secular echo chamber of social media.
Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel offered the advice, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Locked indoors, I have written this article to protest against the extraordinary burden of being a Muslim in India.
(The writer is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)