What it is like to be a Muslim in India

Being Muslim in Hindu India: A critical view 
Author Ziya Us Salam
Publisher: HarperCollins, India
Pages 313. Paperback
Price: £16.97
Reviewed by M Ghazali Khan

India’s Hindutva (Hindu supremacist) Prime Minister Narendra Modi has once again resorted to spewing venom against Muslims. ‘As long as Modi is alive, I will not let reservations of Dalits, Adivasis, OBC to be given to Muslims on the basis of religion,’ he told an election rally in Telangana on 1 May 2004.

Earlier, on 21 April, in another rally in Rajasthan, he had referred to Muslims as ‘infiltrators’  If the opposition Congress party comes to power, ‘They will gather wealth from you and give it to those who have more children…They will distribute it to the infiltrators. Brothers and sisters, they will not spare even your mangal sutra [a necklace presented by the bridegroom to the bride at the solemnisation of the wedding].’ 

What Narendra Modi did was not new. He came to power riding the beast of anti-Muslim hatred. His hateful statements during and after the Gujarat genocide in 2002, when he was the Chief Minister of the state, are on record, in which he referred to relief camps set up for displaced and violence-affected Muslims as ‘child producing centres‘ and taunted Muslims as ‘Hum paanch humare pachees (We five, our 25)’. Interestingly, the man taunting Muslims for having a large number of children is himself the sixth child of his parents. 

No one in or outside India is surprised by Modi’s latest display of opportunism and low moral standards. However, previously he used to use innuendos without making direct mention of Muslims. Now he is using brazenly Islamophobic language and is attacking Muslims directly. The reason may be that he is getting discouraging ground reports from intelligence agencies and is now making last last-ditch attempt to arouse sectarian hatred of his disgruntled Hindu voters. Another reason for this renewed brazenness may be the indifference of the Muslim world towards the plight of Indian Muslims, as well as the international community’s ineffectiveness in addressing the genocide of Palestinians. After all, from terrorising the Muslims to bulldozing their properties with impunity Narendra Modi is blindly adopting all the tactics used by his Zionist friend Netanyahu to eliminate the Palestinians.   

Spreading hatred and divisive politics has proved to be the most efficient and useful tactic used by Narendra Modi to garner votes. These vicious methods ensured his uninterrupted Chief Ministership of Gujarat from 2001 until his ascent to the Prime Minister’s seat in Delhi in 2014. The assumption of the highest seat of power in the country failed to make him learn some decency and a sense of responsibility. In 2019, he vented his anger against anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act—CAA—protesters and said that they could be recognised by their clothes

It is not that Modi is the first Prime Minister to have used sectarianism as a political weapon. Before him for at least 26 years, Muslims continued to be blackmailed by the Congress Party that if they did not support it, Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the political wing of the militant Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), would come to power. With this predicament, coupled with weak Muslim leadership, Muslims failed to find an alternative way out. By the 1980s, BJS’ reincarnation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), formally formed in 1980, called Congress’s bluff and challenging its soft-Hindutva, it came with the real and aggressive supremacist politics and succeeded in showing Congress the way out. It is a fact that every issue that the BJP has been using to spread disinformation and hatred against Muslims was created by the Congress

Indian Muslims have been facing hatred since 1947. But according to senior Indian journalist Ziya Us Salam and the author of Being Muslim in Hindu India, they ‘… have had to come to terms with orphanhood slowly, painfully—in fact, the realisation has only now begun to sink in, many decades after the loss of the Father of the Nation in 1948. It took a long time, maybe more than 60 years, and a succession of leaders of various political parties, but the realisation dawned on the community that it had no godfathers in independent India.’ 

The fact is that until the 1980s, when former bureaucrat Syed Shahabuddin entered politics, it was very rare to see a letter in a mainstream newspaper or magazine written by a Muslim, let alone an article on Muslim issues. Muslims working for these publications could not speak their minds, lest they be accused of ‘communalism’ (in the Indian context, it was and still is used as a synonym for ‘extremism’) and be sacked. But in the 1980s, a noticeable number of Muslim journalists appeared. But sadly, many of them chose to display their belief in a secular system of government by compromising on principles and by tolerating injustices. In the post-1980s many Muslim names emerged in the Indian media, but only a few of them have exhibited courage like Ziya Us Salam. 

Salam does not only expose the fascism, intellectual bankruptcy, and shallowness of the Hindutva government that has rewritten Indian history to the extent of introducing brazen lies in textbooks and is hell-bent on changing the Muslim names of towns and cities, he also takes on the Muslims who wrongly glorify Muslim rulers as champions of Islam. For example, exhorting the dreamers of both sides, he says, ‘The battle between Ghori and Prithviraj was one resulting from political ambition, not from civilizational conflict. And the Muslim fanatics who often quote Ghaznavi and Ghori and the rest with pride would do well to remember that the former was no crusader of Islam, setting out to slay the enemies of the religion.’  

A former film critic, who would know better than Mr Salam about the Bollywood culture and the hatred it is spreading through brazenly anti-Muslim films. He writes: ‘Hindi cinema has often been happy to play the handmaiden of the predominant political dispensation of the day. Back in the 1950s when India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid great emphasis on socialism…Hindi filmmakers were happy to come up with films that sought to propagate the same message of secularism and egalitarianism…Cut to post-2014. Our filmmakers still listen and often dance to the political beat of the day. Many directors are happy to make films to further the politics of the government.’  (Page 37)

In one of the examples of Bollywood’s Hindutva zeal, Salam cites Akshay Kumar‘s Samrat Prithviraj which describes the Rajput king as having defeated and killed Afghan king Mohammad Ghori. But says Salam: ‘In reality, Prithviraj died in 1192 and Ghori lived till 1206 following which the latter’s manumitted slave Qutbuddin Aibak laid the foundation of the Mamluk dynasty in Delhi.’ (pages 38-39)

Salam adds: ‘While being factually inaccurate, the film continued the rather daft division of pre-modern history as an interplay of Hindu and Muslim kings fighting for their respective faiths.’ Salam discusses a few more interesting historical characters and shows how they are deliberately ignored, like, for example, Raziya Sultan, the 13th-century empress who, ‘…could have been celebrated as being almost a democratically elected ruler in the age of emperors and empires…’  (Page 39)

He cites examples of how in the name of history anti-Muslim hatred has continued to be fed to students and the masses and concludes: ‘We have had Delhi Sultans, Rajput warriors, Maratha rulers and Mughal kings and emperors, but never quite kings or Islamic rulers. In fact each ruler had plenty of support from the followers of another religion. This is the reality which Bollywood film cannot change, no matter how lopsided its narration, how bigoted its motive.’ (Page 43) 

Divided into seven parts— ‘Political Marginalisation,’ ‘Rubbishing Mediaeval History,’ ‘Kill a Muslim a Day,’ ‘Wrath on Houses of Worship,’ ‘Matters of Love,’ ‘The Jamaat and the Hijab,’ ‘Looks and Beyond,’ and ‘Finding Their Voices’—consisting of 30 chapters, this book talks boldly with proofs of injustices against Indian Muslims and the prevalence of anti-Muslim trend as a new norm, especially since 2014.

India, known and admired as the largest democracy in the world, rarely knows that Muslims continue to be marginalised and deprived of their representation in parliament and state assemblies by reserving Muslim majority constituencies for low-caste Hindus legally referred to as the Schedule Castes (SCs). 

Salam writes: ‘While a lot has been said about the political marginalisation of Muslims since 2014, what often slips under the radar is the reality that since the 1980 elections, Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha has either been declining or at best stayed stagnant even as the community’s share in the general population went up.’ (page 11)

Salam further elaborates (pages 28 and 29): ‘With over 14 per cent of India’s population being Muslim, they ought to have had around 74 MPs in the Lok Sabha [the lower house of the parliament] if there was population-based representation in the House. Yet, the community has never come close to being represented by those many MPs; the highest was 49 in the 1980 General Elections, with the average being just a tad under 27 since then. The reason for the low representation of the community in the corridors of power lies in the fact that seats with a high percentage of Muslims are reserved for SCs. While attempts to ameliorate the lot of SCs are laudable, they have often come at the cost of Muslims, who, according to the findings of the Sachar Commission, lag behind all communities (including SCs in many parameters such as health, education, employment, and political representation…This is not a new development; it has been going on since Independence.’ (Emphasis added)

In addition, Muslim candidates for parliament and state legislative assemblies are picked and fielded by respective parties with great care, making sure that they will never dare raise Muslim grievances. One of the worst anti-Muslim riots in India occurred in Moradabad in 1980, when the parliament had the highest ever number of Muslim MPs, 49, i.e., 9.3% of the total, and Congress, with Mrs Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister, ruled the centre as well as the states, including Uttar Pradesh, where Moradabad is. Similarly, in 2013, one of the most savage riots in the country broke out in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, when the 403-member state assembly had 63 legislators, the largest number of Muslims in the country’s history. During the Moradabad riot, Muslim MPs belonging to the ruling party proved their loyalty by keeping mum in parliament, and it was left to Syed Shahabuddin of the Janata Party and Mehmood Banatwala of the Muslim League to raise the issue. In the Muzaffarnagar riot, the situation was even more pathetic because there was no Shahabuddin or Banatwala to protest against the police’s inaction against the perpetrators. 

But despite the gravest challenges, Salam sees a ray of hope in the changing mood of the younger generation. ‘The besieged community… Instead of being drawn into a game of one-upmanship with purveyors of hate and exclusion, it decided instead to focus on internal cleansing, concentrate on education, and participate in open competition in the market to nudge ahead, bit by bit, step by step.’ (Page 281) He substantiates his argument with the number of Muslims appearing for competitive exams in the civil service, judiciary, and police. 

Presenting the resilient side of the community, Salam concludes in the last chapter, ‘Muslims move past their clerics,’ with a note of optimism: ‘The night is still not over. It is dark, very dark, still as the subsequent evidence in north-east Delhi proved. Yet, the tiniest ray of light seems to be coming through. It is early, but a new dawn may just beckon.’ (Page 307)

Salam has rightly criticised some of the clerics, but he has been a bit uncharitable in painting all of them with one brush and saying that they are stopping Muslim youths from going into modern, or ‘secular education’ as he prefers to call it. Some of them are running schools colleges and coaching centres preparing Muslim students for competitive exams. This scribe, during a visit to his hometown, Deoband, has himself heard a cleric in a Friday sermon exhorting Muslim students to become doctors, engineers, and lawyers and prepare for competitive exams and join civil services, police and judiciary. 

But can this route help the Muslims in overcoming the danger they are facing? Once I put this question to Dr Syed Zafar Mahmood, a former bureaucrat, who runs the Zakat Foundation of India, an organisation coaching Muslim students for competitive exams and about whom Salam has talked quite a lot in the book. Dr Syed Mahmood said that the mere existence of Muslims on high posts will ensure that community members are not discriminated against. Citing his own example, when he was posted as a commissioner in Agra (or Ajmer, I do not remember correctly), he said: ‘It was only my third for the fourth day on this post when an elderly Muslim man came to me and thanked me for helping him. I said: “I have never met you before, I know nothing about you, how could I have helped you?” He replied: “Sir, I have been running from pillar to post to have an application approved and no one was listening to me. The day you came here, the attitudes of the staff changed, and my application was approved.’”

Dr Mehmood added: ‘Though this is not the only option and Muslims should go in other professions too. But the existence of an honest, Allah-fearing and duty-conscious Muslim in the administration means the absence of a bigot from that post. Let more and more honest Muslims join these services.’

However, such an important book that must be read by everyone interested in Indian Muslim affairs, suffers from the absence of notes and an index. For detailed notes, however, a QR code has been given towards the end of the book.

M Ghazali Khan

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