Kerala floods telling of how India’s minorities are being pushed to the wall

India still takes pride in being seen as the world’s largest secular democracy, but its secular fabric is bursting at the seams trying to balance the diktats of the state, society and religion. The minority communities in India have never had it good, but in the recent past they are being singled out without a […]


Indian Army personnel and Kerala state police work to build a temporary bridge over a rocky river following heavy flooding in Nelliyampathy in Palakkad district, in the Indian state of Kerala, on August 20, 2018. Floodwaters receded in Kerala on August 20, leaving Indian rescuers the grim task of retrieving bodies as the death toll from the worst monsoon rains in a century rose above 400. / AFP PHOTO / -

August 30, 2018

India still takes pride in being seen as the world’s largest secular democracy, but its secular fabric is bursting at the seams trying to balance the diktats of the state, society and religion.

The minority communities in India have never had it good, but in the recent past they are being singled out without a precedent. The most stark discrimination came to the fore following the devastating floods in the southern Indian state of Kerala with calls for religion-centric donations.

Kerala was hit by heavy monsoon rains earlier this month, causing floods in which more than 400 people died. It needs more than US$283 million to rebuild everything from houses to roads and bridges.

Christians and Muslims were targeted with random messages on the social media urging the majority Hindu community – that constitutes around 80 per cent of the country’s population – to donate for their own.

According to the 2011 census, India is home to around 172 million Muslims – roughly 14 per cent of the country’s population – and the third largest in world finishing right behind Indonesia and Pakistan. The other community that has been on the firing line – the Christians – make up for about 6 per cent of the population along with other minority communities such as Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains.

While India still takes pride in being seen as the world’s largest secular democracy, its secular fabric is bursting at the seams trying to balance the diktats of the state, society and religion.

Indian historian and political scientist Prof Ali Khan Mahmudabad, whose newest book on North Indian Muslims is out soon, tells Asia News Network how monochrome and uni-dimensional understandings of identity are colouring the manner in which people are perceiving each other.

“The result is a hardening wherein either people are becoming more dogmatic in their belief because of a sense of persecution and on the other hand some are also moving away from all-things-religious for fear of persecution,” says Ali.

According to Ali, the problem is pan-Asian. “In South Asia the Rohingyas face this plight and perhaps it is compounded for them because rather than being seen as an ethnic problem with its roots in the colonial past, they are conveniently reduced to their Muslim identity both by detractors and sympathisers.”

Edited excerpts from the interview:

In his book “Being Muslim” Saeed Naqvi writes about experiencing the pangs of being the “Other” and the systematic Othering of Muslims in India. Your comment.

Today, in India, I think you will find that Muslims from all socio-economic backgrounds and indeed from nearly all schools of thought face some kind of Othering. Globally speaking, the spectre of the Muslim ‘threat’ has become so widely disseminated that Muslims are constantly on the backfoot. Being constantly asked to condemn the action of every loony out there and to defend Islam because of the practices of a particular group of people who might actually not be anything like them is leading to a kind of trauma in people.

Imagine being held accountable for your immediate family members or your direct ancestors’ deeds let alone the actions of millions of living and dead Muslims. Every Muslim today is held responsible for the misdeeds of anyone who might have been Muslim for the past 1400 years. 

In a sense, because of political exigencies, Muslims are being forced to constantly ‘perform’ and privilege their religious identity and so the fact that they are also parents, neighbours, labourers, thinkers, athletes, chefs and an almost infinite number of other things, is ignored or discounted. The Muslim who is politically liberal, but religiously devout is forced to synchronise these two facets by external as well as internal forces.

In India, the situation is becoming more bleak and many people are changing the way they dress, what they carry in their lunchbox, what they name their child and when they step out of their house. It is telling that those Muslims who ‘don’t look Muslim’ (which in itself is an offensive phrase often used by ‘well-intentioned’ people who are trying to tell a Muslim that they don’t fit stereotypes) are also facing huge pressure.

I remember when I came back from university in Syria and was writing for newspapers and magazines largely about issues to do with Islam and
Muslim communities, a well-wisher wrote to my parents saying that they thought I should try and write about other things for fear of being thought fundamentalist. I cannot remember the number of times I have been asked point blank with a straight face whether I am a devout or a practicing Muslim which in my view is a deeply personal question that normally wouldn’t be asked of people from other communities. The atmosphere is such that people feel entitled to ask such questions without thinking about how offensive they are being. I often ask myself why.

Why are Muslims distancing themselves from their religion? 

The world is in search of the ‘moderate’ ‘liberal’ or ‘modern’ Muslim wherein each of these identities is less about political beliefs and more about the practice of religion. The less devout a Muslim the more acceptable they are.

On the other hand, the leaders and scholars of nearly all Muslim schools of thought are also involved in this quest and carry out an internal othering of sorts – the technical term being “takfeer” or the act of declaring someone a kafir – and so you see the average Muslim is stuck between an assault on their identity from outside and a hardening from inside. It is really a modern problem.

The beauty of Islamicate traditions is has been that religion has often embedded itself in local cultures without compromising its essence. In
today’s globalised world where cultures become impediments to efficient free markets, certain interpretations of Islam – specifically the literalist ones – are also adapting to this reality and offering religion sans culture which, in my view, only creates deracinated individuals.

The sheer linguistic diversity of Muslims acts as a buffer but even on the plain of language we see changes taking place which reflect the anxieties of being authentic: the Allah Hafiz vs. Khuda Hafiz debate being a small example.

In my opinion, much like there are multiple even conflicting voices in a family, there are many Muslim voices and to try and identify one or
two as more authentic is to fall right back into the trap of what literalists do, which is to say my way or the highway. 

What’s your take on the plight of the Rohingyas?

In the 21st century perhaps one of our most pressing challenges along with that of environmental and ecological degradation is that of the refugee. The refugee, in many ways, speaks of the failure of not just sovereign states, but of the international community in preventing people from becoming stateless.

The detention or refugee camp in a sense represents the distillation of the problems we face. All over the world people are migrating and in many cases fleeing the North. The causes are manifold and range from the long-term – colonialism to the more recent – civil wars. From the disruption of local economies to the rise of neo-liberal markets. From environmental disaster to predatory wars in an effort to secure geo-strategic corridors and natural resources.

In South Asia, the Rohingyas face this plight and perhaps it is compounded for them because rather than being seen as an ethnic problem with its roots in the colonial past, they are conveniently reduced to their Muslim identity both by detractors and sympathisers.

The camps in South-West China for the Uyghur, the crisis of the 4 million people not on the National Register of Citizens in NorthEast India, the law equating the nation-state with Judaism in Israel, the relentless bombing of Yemen, the strife in Iraq, Syria and parts of North Africa, the instability in the Arabian peninsula and the entrenchment of a political Islam in South-East Asia, Iran and Turkey that often thrives on global issues and nationalism rather than pressing domestic concerns, are all indications of a highly unstable and fractious future.

The weaponisation of citizenship is perhaps one of the most concerning issues to emerge out of all of this.

How different is the ‘North Indian Muslim’ from the rest of India? Is the North Indian Muslim in some sense superior? 

Within North India there is also a great amount of diversity so in that sense one cannot speak of it as a homogenous whole. From Kashmir
to Punjab to what were formerly known as the United Provinces there is a huge amount of diversity in terms of language and culture.

There is no question of superiority or inferiority and indeed for me Hyderabad was in a sense a part of a shared literary landscape after the decline of Delhi as a centre of patronage. What is important is the area which was the site of the politics that preceded the Partition of India. 

An uncle of mine used to joke that without Bengal and Uttar Pradesh we might not have had half the problems that we face today. He used to say these regions gave the ideological and intellectual impetus and provided the laboratory as it were and the rest of India had to suffer the consequences. Jokes aside, North India was really a way of circumscribing the scope of my work which is actually about the local,
regional, proto-national (not to imply the inevitability of nationalism) and the trans-national.

You focus on the role of literature and poetry to understand what it means to be Muslim and Indian. Is this is a first kind of a study/book in the subcontinent? 

A huge amount of work has been done on poetry, literature and scholars have also written about individual poets, for instance, Allama Iqbal, and questions of Indian Muslim identity but what my work tries to do is slightly different. I try and use poetry as an archive and in particular as the site where the vicissitudes of a rapidly changing political sphere and the accompanying trauma were confronted and negotiated.

Sadly, a vast amount of work done in Urdu is simply not on people’s radar as we still suffer from the arrogant assumption that work in other languages can at best be sources that are simply mined for information. English in that sense is the last and lasting triumph of colonialism.

I focus on a set of themes and try to trace them in the work of a number of people, who might not be regarded as poets of the first order, but whose ideas were nonetheless crucial in giving shape to conversations about what it means to be Indian and Muslim.

They also tended to be newspaper/ journal editors as well as politicians: Shibli Nomani, Hasrat Mohani, Zafar Ali Khan to name just three. The Mushā’irah or formal space of poetry has also not been really explored in depth as an important part of the equivalent of an Indian public sphere and I think the manner in which I explore the changes that it underwent over the course of almost 100 years is something that hasn’t been done yet.

What did it mean to be Muslim in India between 1850 and 1950, the period you cover in your book, and what does it mean to be Muslim in India post-2013 when Narendra Modi became prime minister?

The period between 1850 and 1950 was one of cataclysmic social and political upheaval where Muslims, like others, were grappling with questions of politics and nationhood while now nations are de facto entities. An interesting question to ask then and now would be about how to understand the ummah and the individual Muslim’s link to and conception of this, not just as a spiritual collective but a political unit. I also think there are probably a few areas in which not much has changed.

In the 19th century, anti-colonial movements led by Muslim leaders were often deemed to be extremist movements and the ‘spectre’ of the
fanatical Muslim was as prevalent as a political issue as it is now albeit with political contexts. Overall there would be continuities, ruptures and new dimensions as far as trying to understand what it meant to be Muslim then and now.

How did the idea of patriotism evolve in the period you cover for your book?

Patriotism as a stepping stone towards nationalism is something that emerges with European ideas of trying to locate an authentic beginning or root for the nation. These ideas were novel and completely new in the second half of the 19th century in India where there was a great amount of anxiety and curiosity about why the colonisers had so easily been able to replace powerful empires.

These questions were also being asked in other parts of the colonised world. Many people thought the answers lay in scientific and technological advancement and others also thought that the European manner of social organisation also played an important role.

Therefore, people started searching for the nation to put it crudely. Of course, this is also the period in which territoriality emerges as an important factor in defining nationality. Overall a more metaphysical sense of rootedness became replaced with a more material conception which obviously meant that people’s idea of home was circumscribed by physical geography rather than imagination and multiple sets of belonging.

Why did you choose to study this (1850 and 1950) period?

My interest in the period was largely driven by many of the questions that are still being debated today. One of the most important questions in my opinion that is being asked in countries across the world is about whether, for Muslims, there is a tension between belonging to a nation vs. being a part of the ummah?

Another is about various aspects of political Islam. You see one of the most enduring and lasting legacies of Islam has been its inbuilt urge towards transcending tribal units of identity but of course an interesting tension arises when the dominant form of political representation is predicated on some form of tribalism: racial, ethnic, religious, linguistic etc.

I thought the best way to understand how people were grappling with these issues would be to explore them in the absence of formal nation-states. In other words when nations were being conceived of, imagined and defined. Politics all over the world but particularly in the extra-European world was going through fundamental transformations. As a teaching aid I use the concept of the normative horizon which is that set of ideas that inform political discourse at any given time.

In other words, the set of ideas you cannot escape no matter where you turn, metaphorically speaking. Today the only normative horizon is that of the nation-state. There is no way to escape this horizon and its attendant ‘vocabulary,’ in the broadest sense possible, with law being the most obvious site of contestation, but even this requires engagement with ideas of sovereignty and nationhood that are taken for granted. Even globalisation and the free market has not been really able to undo the vice-like grip that nationalism has on identities.

However, 150 years ago one could argue that there were multiple normative horizons in which religion was an important one and in which belonging could be conceptualised in various ways- local, regional, imperial, international (not in the modern sense of the word) without necessarily contradicting each other. There was no need to have a dominant identity like there is today.

This was a time when modern ideas of identity were being contested and forged but had not been entrenched through the apparatus of the state.
Thus it is an interesting period to chart the changes that were taking place.

Should we look forward to another book from you as there is an urgent need for a perspective on Muslim identity in the here and now.

I am working on some other book projects that I want to finish, but eventually I would like to write a book that is modelled around the course I teach at Ashoka University called “Critical Concepts in Islam” where we take a theme every week for 13 weeks and try and deconstruct ideas so
that we complicate people’s understanding of Islam.  

My Urdu book, in both Nastaliq and Devanagari scripts, should be out in a few months as soon as I can persuade a publisher to print a book
with both languages bound into one volume. It deals with essays on various aspects of Muslim identity.

Sadly Islam has become a pop subject and therefore there are a huge amounts of mediocre, if not downright terrible books, are being published
to suit various agendas. I dont think, therefore, that there is an urgent need for a new perspective, but rather an urgent need for a nuanced and more complicated perspective that transcends the politically polarising debates that circumscribe our lives today.

Who is the Muslim voice now? Who should be the Muslim voice? 

To speak of the Muslim voice is to ride roughshod over the diversity that exists within the Muslim world. It would be better to speak of Muslim voices. Metaphorically speaking, the Muslim voice is anyway something that has come to be viewed with suspicion and some amount of fear.

There are plenty of people who would like to be the Muslim voice, from the various potentates of West Asia to the ulema of particular schools
of thought to the militarised extremists that are carrying out orders for the geopolitical interests of various countries – but, so far, the sheer geographic, linguistic and cultural and not to forget religious identity has forestalled any co-option of the voice. As Ed Said wrote in “Covering Islam”, the media across the world has not made preserving this diversity easier because it has thrived on presenting stereotypes which do, of course, exist but cannot account for the collective views of 1.8 billion people.


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