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ith every passing year, Islamophobia in India is becoming more normalized and mainstream. To understand how and why the figure of “the Muslim” and the religion of Islam are seen as a threat to the nation in a country with nearly 80% Hindus, it is vital to comprehend the antecedents and manifestations of a form of contemporary resurgent majoritarian Hindu nationalism, otherwise known as Hindutva. Hindutva, or the assertion of Hindu-ness as a salient political identity seeks to construct the spatial idea of a pure nation and Hindu land, which needs to be secured against its external and internal enemies or Others. The Hindutva project in India predates the creation of postcolonial independent India through the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Its origins can best be traced to the founding of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925 and the subsequent expansion of a family of right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations collectively termed as the Sangh Parivar. Several prominent early RSS ideologues were admirers of Nazi Germany and advocated ethnic religious/Hindu nationalism in India.
Through several initial decades of post-colonial India, the Nehruvian idea of a secular socialist democratic republic remained dominant, however, by the early 1990s, a combination of various social and economic forces resulted in the ascendancy of Hindutva alongside an IMF mandated “opening up” of the economy through liberalization. Hindu nationalist leaders of the current ruling party, BJP, back in the 1990s established their credentials through a series of nationwide spectacles of Hindu power (“rath yatras”, literally chariot processions) that culminated in the destruction of a historic mosque - Babri Masjid - in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. In December 1992, thousands of organized right-wing Hindu vigilante group volunteers converged on this ancient archaeological monument and demolished it to pave the way for a temple in the name of the Hindu God Ram at his birthplace Ayodhya. This single incident was a watershed moment in designating the subordinate existence of Muslims as Indians. Over the next decade, following the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the launch of the “War on Terror,” global Islamophobia became well aligned with an indigenous Indian version. In 2002, under the chief ministership of Modi, the western Indian state of Gujarat witnessed horrific anti-Muslim riots. By 2014, the Hindu nationalists of the 1990s gave way to Modi-led BJP and its own galaxy of extremist politicians who had no qualms in openly professing to explicit anti-minority opinions, especially when it came to Muslims. In 2019, Modi-led BJP won a majority for the second time in a general election that was marked by a widespread anti-Muslim sentiment. The rest of the world has overwhelmingly stayed silent when it comes to the radical religious transformation in India, presumably since it is a “rising power,” “democracy” and “market.”
Like the other rising power, China, India has sought to suppress Muslim populations’ rights, freedoms, and ability to dissent. The democratic credentials of India are persuasively undermined when it comes to the only Muslim majority region of Kashmir; formerly a state known as Jammu and Kashmir. India was once referred to as the “jewel in the crown of the British empire”; now, Kashmir is often referred to as the “crown” of India. In the feminized cartographic representation of India’s geo-body, Kashmir is represented as the “head” of “Mother India,” and any suggestion of Kashmiri self-determination is met with horror at the idea of “beheading Mother India.” The obsession with Kashmir is overwhelmingly territorial, as evident in right wing extremist slogans such as “we will die or kill but we won’t cede an inch of Kashmir.” Recently, this territorial obsession took the form of unilaterally enforced concrete constitutional and legal changes. In August 2019, the state was converted into two union territories (“Jammu & Kashmir” and “Ladakh”), and its special autonomous status guaranteed under Article 370 of the Indian constitution (in recognition of the unsettled international/bilateral political dispute of Kashmir) was revoked. This abrogation of Article 370, the bifurcation, and the stripping of statehood, all of which fundamentally altered the legal and constitutional status of the territory and its inhabitants, was done overnight, and without any consent of the people. These changes were followed by a communications blockade that lasted several months and covered all forms of telephony and internet. The partial, arbitrary, and selective restrictions of this communications blockade still continue at the time of this writing in September 2020. In 2020, legal changes to the “domicile law” were effected, giving expedited permanent settlement status and rights to Indians in the territory, thus paving the way for demographic change. The rationales given for lack of consent and silencing of dissent in August 2019 were the familiar colonial ones: that it was being done for the “development” and modernization of the people and that it would bring more rights to Kashmiri women. The placing of Kashmir as the “crown” of territorial India and as integral to the very idea of India has led to the erasure of the specificities of Kashmiri Muslim identities.
How it works
The Hindutva project of the Indian nation, especially in its post 2014 extremist avatar under the helm of Prime Minister Modi and his associates, is transforming India into a culturally Hindu nation within a hierarchically ordered Hindu-ness with upper caste affluent Hindu males at the peak. In this new image, Muslims do not derive their rights and access to justice as equal, free individuals in a constitutionally guaranteed relation with the state, but from compliance with Hindu majoritarian norms. Those who challenge the diktats of Hindutva are labelled anti-national, Pakistani or Western agents. Depending upon the context and the vulnerability of the challengers, they can be killed, raped, physically attacked, maligned, harassed, bullied, or divested of any institutional or other power they may have.
Sacrality is invested in the idea of India as a Hindu land even as violence is used against minorities and dissidents. Islamophobia in India works to enable violence, subjugate, and intimidate Muslims as a threat to the nation, in several different registers — Indian Muslims as suspect citizens; Kashmiri Muslims as emphatically problematic always already terrorist Muslims; Muslim refugees, such as Rohingyas, as “invasive pests”; and the collective neighboring Muslim nation-state of Pakistan as an existential enemy. There is a powerful link between representational tropes and violence in each of these cases.
Other: Indian Muslims, Kashmiri Muslims, Muslim Refugees, Muslim Pakistan
Indian Muslims have been subject to widespread discrimination and violence. They are often represented as “unclean”, “over populating”, “backward”, “unpatriotic”, “scheming”, “invaders”, “outsiders.” Evidence of this is not hard to find. As Muslims generally eat meat, the purity of vegetarian Hindus is understood to be defiled by them. The “beef ban” was enacted early in the Modi tenure. Since then, there have been numerous cases of violence against Muslims on the suspicion of possessing or eating beef, or transporting cattle intended for slaughter. The phenomenon of lynching minorities, and especially Muslims, became truly mainstream in recent years (cases such as Akhlaq or Pehlu Khan have come to be known after the names of their victims). There is a predictable pattern in these cases – organized right-wing Hindu vigilantes gather and kill Muslim Indians and the court cases against the perpetrators come to nothing as the suspects are exonerated on specious grounds.
In multiple instances, self-confessed Hindutva hate speech ideologues or instigators of violence are actually garlanded by their supporters when they are released from prison. Muslims are subject to violence if they refuse to chant Hindu slogans such as “Jai Shri Ram” (Hail to Ram, the Hindu God) in order to verify their patriotism. On the very day that Modi was elected in 2014, a Hindu mob killed a Muslim man in Pune because of his skull cap (a Muslim symbol). An extremist BJP politician, who shared a platform with a Hindu pride and masculinity advocate and suggested that Hindus exhume the graves of Muslim women and rape them, became the Chief Minister of India’s electoral bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh. After 2014, perpetrators of well-evidenced gory violence against Muslims in the Gujarat genocide who had been convicted and sentenced to long prison terms have been given bail by the pliant courts (for instance, Babu Bajrangi in 2019, Maya Kodnani in 2018).
Hindutva organizations exhort Hindu women to have more babies so that the overpopulating Muslims do not take over the country. There are campaigns such as “Bahu Lao, Beti Bachao” (bring a daughter-in-law, save a daughter) that work towards ensuring Hindu women do not marry Muslim men. Muslim men are portrayed as rapacious, lascivious, devious, and scheming so that instances of marriage between a Muslim man and a Hindu woman are seen as the practice of “Love Jihad” (Jihad through the means of love) where a Muslim man intentionally corrupts the purity of Hindu women, and this results in such couples being intimidated, attacked or even killed. In a thoroughly patriarchal society like India, legal focus selectively targets the regressive and gendered practices of Muslim community as a way of confirming their backwardness. When India is imagined as a feminine spatial geo-body (“Mother India”), Muslims are represented as foreign to that body and hence deserving to be domesticated at best, and expelled or exterminated at worst.
The ideology of violent nationalism has captured the state and has conspicuous support amongst the public. It is ever more the case that apparatus of the state such as the police and judiciary act to support the Islamophobic anti-Muslim violence through delays in hearing cases or problematic judgements. After August 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear the petition relating to the communications blockade in the Kashmir region for several months, thus collectively punishing Kashmiri Muslims and denying them access to necessary means of life and livelihood. In November 2019, the final Ayodhya verdict on the Babri Masjid gave the contested site to Hindus, citing a 1024 page-long anonymous Supreme Court judgement that unprecedentedly did not name the judge who wrote it. In September 2020, a special court acquitted all the BJP leaders for their role in the demolition of Babri Masjid by Hindu rioters.
In early 2020, protests against the December 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) were in full swing because the CAA changes would discriminate against only Muslim (but not Hindu or other religious) refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the granting of Indian citizenship. The NRC exercise would be a massive bureaucratic endeavor to verify citizenship that would disproportionately affect the most marginalized in terms of their ability to produce all the documents required. These changes would simultaneously create a religious basis for citizenship to exclude Muslims, and also result in the creation of enforced statelessness on a scale of millions across the country. The construction of detention camps for those deemed non-citizens commenced in 2020, and the future is grim.
In February 2020, shortly after the visit of Brazil’s Bolsonaro and when President Trump visited India to hold rallies with PM Modi in Gujarat, the anti-CAA/NRC protests, especially on university campuses, were met with severe violence. The capital city of Delhi saw targeted violence against Muslim neighborhoods, particularly those that have voted against the ruling Modi-led BJP in state elections. BJP leaders had used the slogan “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” (translated loosely as: “these traitors to the nation, shoot those bastards”). At this time, video evidence emerged to show police brutality against Muslim protesters. In one horrific video, men of the Delhi police in uniform can be seen prodding injured Muslim protesters who lie dying on the ground; they are asked to sing a patriotic song and taunted with the word “Azaadi,” or freedom. In spite of all the documented evidence, Muslim students are still being targeted for punishment.
Notwithstanding the disconnect between Indian Muslims and Kashmiri Muslims – as the former are required to continually prove their patriotism and commitment to the rhetoric of Kashmir being an integral part of India – there is hardly any systematic attempt even to assimilate Kashmiri Muslims, who are seen as radical Other. Kashmir Muslims are seen as the worst kind of Muslims, because they are Muslims from a Muslim majority region of India, which has witnessed a longstanding uprising against the Indian state, often with the support of Pakistan. The cause of Kashmir’s Hindu minority (otherwise known as Kashmiri Pandits, many of whom had to leave the Valley during late 1980s/early 1990s in an exodus where the circumstances remain curiously un-investigated) is weaponized by the right-wing for political profit and to keep the Kashmiris divided along communal lines. This region, once seen as exotic and often feminized, has been subjected to extreme militarization and total surveillance along with decades of emergency powers that give effective immunity from prosecution to the armed forces (for example, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act). In spite of overwhelming evidence of continued human rights abuses and suppression of rights (enforced disappearances, mass rapes, preventive detention, arbitrary arrests, use of torture, media censorship, and so on), the Indian public, through restrictive and state-centric media coverage, only perceives this through the lens of terrorism, separatism, and possession of territory, even if it means extermination of people (a popular slogan is: “Doodh maango ge toh kheer denge, Kashmir maango ge, toh cheer denge’; literally, ‘if you ask for milk, we will give you pudding, if you ask for Kashmir, we will tear you to bits”).
In February 2013, in a case on the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, the Kashmiri Muslim Afzal Guru was executed by hanging (a “rarest of rare” criterion) on the basis of circumstantial evidence (the only one sentenced to death from all the suspects), in a judgement that included the phrase “to satisfy the collective conscience of the nation”. His family was not informed prior to his execution, and his body was buried in prison in Delhi. Subsequently, in 2016, student leaders at University campuses like the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) were charged with sedition for having raised slogans in support of freedom for Kashmir; members of the legal fraternity carried out processions in the capital city against the students, who were attacked and pelted with stones within the court premises. In the summer of 2016, Muslim majority Kashmir Valley protestors and civilians including children were subject to mass pellet-blindings after the extrajudicial killing of a Kashmiri militant. In 2017, a Kashmiri Muslim man was tied to the front of a jeep and used as a human shield by an Indian Army major who was awarded for his bravery for having done so. These are just a few of the many instances of individual and systemic violence, and dehumanization of Kashmiris.
Dissenters in India are often labelled anti-national, subject to intimidation, vilification and character assassination, and asked to “go to Pakistan.” This existential othering of Muslim Pakistan assists in the cause of creating a Hindu India. It has also presented itself as a surefire way of gaining electoral victory based on Anti-Pakistan hyper-nationalism, as was the case in the 2019 general elections where Pulwama attacks in Kashmir and exchange of hostilities with Pakistan played a major role in ensuring the BJP’s success. Muslims in India are faced with a rhetoric linked to the global war on terror as demonstrated in the trope that “Muslims are a problem wherever they are”. Every action of Muslims is interpreted within the Islamophobic context — in 2020, Muslims were even accused of carrying out CoronaJihad to deliberately spread the virus in India. There is a documented use of technology, and especially social media and WhatsApp, to circulate and intensify Islamophobic hate. In recent years, BJP legislators have openly used hate speech against Muslims who are, or are perceived to be (because they are undocumented Indian Muslims), Rohingya refugees or from Bangladesh. The current Indian Home Minister, and Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah, has more than once referred to Muslim migrants as termites, promising to throw them into the Bay of Bengal.
Islamophobia in India is multidimensional, pervasive, deeply rooted, and dangerously ascendant, especially in the ways that affect marginalized Muslim populations in economically deprived or politically conflicted regions. Muslims in India have to contend with racist stereotypes, prove their patriotism, face increasing physical and symbolic violence, and still be seen as latent Pakistani stooges or probable non-citizen migrants or refugees. What Muslims face in India, and in Kashmir in the name of India, is egregious violation of rights and accelerating violence; this is exacerbated both by the use of technology in the form of surveillance and large-scale data registers, restrictions on Internet use, social media hate, and newer “non-lethal crowd control” style weaponry, and by developing infrastructures such as detention camps or enacting legislation to enable land grabs or demographic change.
For Modi, China is complexio oppositorum, as he both contrasts his majoritarian nationalism with forms of rule in China and emulates aspects of them. Thus on the one hand, the Indian government is legitimated as democratic, while China is communist and authoritarian; while on the other, Modi is a Chinese style leader who can cut through the worthless noise of democracy. Contrapuntally, the Left in India is tied to old ideas about the Chinese state, and though critical of Modi, does not speak up on Chinese repression in Xinjiang.
The ethnic and religious chauvinism and punitive regimes of surveillance and repression of minority and Muslim populations in the practices of these two rising powers, China and India, are simultaneously different and alike. On the question of human rights, both combine maintaining economic relationships and sustaining religious and ethnic persecution. The international community often won’t speak about people in Kashmir or Xinjiang because the people in these places are strongly against these regimes of power. Analogously, the global war on terror and continued Islamophobia as underscored by speech acts and policies of leaders such as Trump has meant continued use of terror as a master narrative against persecuted populations. Addressing the denial of rights of marginalized and oppressed Muslim minorities globally, thus, requires us to engage with these multiple contexts in order to develop transregional understanding of challenges, learning, and solidarities.
Dr Nitasha Kaul is a novelist, economist, poet, and a Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, London. Her work, over the last two decades, has been on identity, democracy, political economy, Hindu nationalism, rise of the global right, feminist and postcolonial critiques, Kashmir, and Bhutan.