The ‘Muslim Problem’ is a Symptom of Insecure Nationalism

The Sangh’s concerted campaign of anti-Muslim prejudice aims to completely marginalise the community in the public sphere.

The rise of the Sangh might have marginalised the Muslims politically and socially, but Muslims, or their issues, are disproportionately represented on the airwaves. Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

The rise of the Sangh might have marginalised the Muslims politically and socially, but Muslims, or their issues, are disproportionately represented on the airwaves. Credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

The distinctive quality of Indian nationalism, forged during the anti-colonial struggle, was its emphasis on inclusion and progress. The aim of nationalism was not merely the attainment of freedom but the very transformation of society. This vision of nationalism, expressed in the constitution, envisaged an egalitarian society – one devoid of caste and religious antagonisms. The leading lights of our freedom movement were, no doubt, wary of the chauvinism of European nationalism, which, in its worst forms, led to wars, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Sadly, the nationalism prevailing today would be unrecognisable to our founding fathers. Far from the high-minded ideals of our constitution, the nationalism of today is increasingly petty, paranoid and insecure. The shift from egalitarianism to majoritarianism in the character of our nationalism carries, of course, particularly dangerous consequences for minorities. We no longer aspire to transform our society, we hardly attempt to even critically examine it; all our national attention, it seems, is insidiously focused on the affairs and issues of Muslims.

The hallmark of an insecure nationalism is the dogged reluctance to countenance the nation’s real problems and inadequacies. We have the highest number of poor and illiterate people in the world, our social indicators are dire, rampant casteism still pervades all spheres of social life, gender discrimination and sexual violence are endemic, and a resurgent religious and national chauvinism threatens our individual and collective rights. However, point that out to a ‘nationalist’ and he will recoil in righteous rage, accusing you of sullying the good name of the nation. Notice the frenzied indignation that consumed us when the Snapchat CEO allegedly called us poor. Or how social activists and NGOs are routinely derided in our media, with even leading columnists dismissing them as povertarians, not to mention right wingers who instinctively suspect them of being foreign-funded fifth columnists bent on harming our image. Or the fact that of all the wrath incurred by feminists and Ambedkarites on social media, the most is dished out by self-described nationalists.

When was the last time you saw this nationalist faction participating in a protest, rally or movement against caste or gender discrimination? Every day, on average, three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits murdered and two Dalit houses burnt. But when was the last time our fire-breathing nationalistic anchors conducted a debate on rising atrocities, or systematic discrimination, against Dalits or Adivasis? Meanwhile our social media, curiously silent against caste-based injustice, frequently rants against caste-based reservations, the main instrument aimed at reversing this injustice. We might be forgiven for overlooking these small concerns relating to the people of this nation, though, considering all our energies are invested in fighting for the symbols of the nation – the flag, the anthem and, increasingly, the cow.

Much like an insecure person refuses to face his own inadequacies and instead projects them onto another person, insecure nationalists are always on the look out for others who can be branded as the bearer of all backwardness, the cause of all problems.

The issues dominating our national discourse over the past few months are testament to this phenomenon. The rise of the Sangh might have marginalised the Muslims politically and socially but ‘Muslim’ issues are now disproportionately represented on the airwaves. While wider issues of society and economy are brushed aside, Muslims increasingly find themselves under microscopic scrutiny.

Their whole way of life is dissected, analysed and critiqued on prime time on a regular basis. The burning issues in the country, it seems, are what Muslims eat, what Muslims wear, how they pray, how they divorce and so on.

While the demonisation of minorities has always been integral to the Sangh project, it has acquired increased sophistication in two respects.

First, issues of naked bigotry – such as beef, love jihad and the ‘population explosion’ of Muslims – are melded with issues reflecting legitimate concerns, such as triple talaaq and a uniform civil code. This allows the perpetuation of stereotypes to be done under a progressive garb and thus is especially useful for higher government functionaries and the media.

Second, technology now allows bigotry to be spread on an industrial scale. This includes not only social media, such as Twitter and WhatsApp, where anti-Muslim propaganda has effectively been normalised, but also the mainstream media, which has discovered the insatiable curiosity its viewers have about the affairs of Muslims.

The choice of the representatives of the Muslim community in these primetime debates is revealing. They are generally the most regressive of clerics, passed off as ‘Muslim leadership’. This makes for good drama and shouting matches, with the Muslim protagonists embodying, and thus legitimising, the worst stereotypes about Muslims – backwardness, fundamentalism and chauvinism. It is a convenient arrangement – obscure, bearded men get the celebrity they crave and channels get the ratings they desire, aside from the anchors burnishing their progressive credentials by hectoring the paid-for maulanas.

The ultimate objective of this concerted campaign, waged on various platforms, is the construction of the ‘Muslim problem’. It is meant to cement the stereotypes and normalise the prejudices about Muslims. The Muslim problem is but the flip side of our insecure nationalism – one cannot exist without the other. To keep up the delusion of the strong nation emerging under Narendra Modi, the Muslim problem provides a useful diversion, not to mention a convenient scapegoat, when the gulf between rhetoric and reality becomes especially large.

Once the existence of the ‘Muslim problem’ is accepted by large parts of society, it would then of course also need to be ‘resolved’. It was resolved through a pogrom in Gujarat, but a national solution is likely to be more subtle, whose shape we can already grasp. It involves the further marginalisation and effective disenfranchisement of the community, long advocated by Hindutva ideologues such as M.S. Golwalkar. The representation of Muslims in elected assemblies is falling across the board. The Muslim representation in the current Lok Sabha is the lowest ever, the representation in the recently elected Uttar Pradesh assembly has receded to the post-Babri riots level, in Gujarat it had plummeted under then chief minister Modi’s watch, settling at two MLAs in a total house of 182. This political marginalisation is coupled with localised violence by vigilantes, enjoying varied degrees of state support.

This concerted campaign of anti-Muslim prejudice may be conceived by the Sangh, but is perpetuated by useful followers in a supine media, driven by the iron logic of ratings, and accepted wholeheartedly by a middle class in thrall to an insecure nationalism. It now threatens to completely marginalise the Muslims in the public sphere. It is this fact that should insult a mature democracy, not an image of its flag on a doormat.

Asim Ali is at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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  • Siddhartha

    The author’s concerns on the marginalization of Muslims based on majoritarian prejudice have legitimacy, but I disagree with the root cause analyses. First and foremost, Hindu-Muslim fault lines created post Partition have been exploited periodically by politicians of all hues during elections and festivals, and is not a monopoly of the Sangh Parivar. Also, elected Muslim leaders have by and large not projected a progressive image of the community, and I am not referring to the cleric representatives on prime time shows. In the Shah Bano judgement case, Arif Mohammad Khan was not supported by leading members of his own community, like Syed Shahabuddin (a respected diplomat) which could have resulted in a landmark initiative in reforming personal laws . Ironically, when Shahabuddin himself wrote a letter to CM Modi, in an attempt to bridge the differences between the two communities, he invited criticism from the Muslim leaders, and had to tender an unconditional apology. When the Congress approached Imam Bukhari to solicit block support from the Muslim community in the Delhi elections, nobody from the community protested that this was a polarizing or communalizing attempt – the ends cannot justify the means. So the blame game cannot be one sided, the obscurantist politics is being played by both sides. Muslim liberals are usually missing in action on the real issues that matter to their community like triple talaq or education reform in madrasas or radicalization of their youth brigades, they are too busy beating the BJP with the secularism stick.

    • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

      Politics – be it cynical or issue based – is one thing. But one should not forget that the Sangh Parivar is ideologically committed to a majoritarian Hindu Rashtra. The works of Golwalkar and Savarkar make that amply clear.
      For example, Golwalkar has this to say in “We or Our Nationhood defined”:

      “The foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, i.e. of the Hindu nation, and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen’s rights.”

      With this as the ideological basis, it becomes acceptable and easy to kick the minorities around any which way one wants, and demonize or vilify them, especially if the majority buys into that ideology (which it seems to have).

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    You know sir, you have actually proved the author right. 🙂

    • Jay Dee

      So you resort to sarcasm when you cannot rebut his points?

      • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

        Sir, its pointless to try to rebut a Hindu who starts off by saying “I will tell you the real problem of Muslims”!
        Secondly, that was not sarcasm at all. I was pointing out a fact. Did the smiley mislead you?
        And if you are truly interested in rebuttal, you may kindly read what Kujur Bachchan and I have written above.

        • Jay Dee

          You mean to say that Hindus cannot point to the ills in Muslim or other communities today? Only all others have the right to point out the ills in current state of Hinduism? Not sure what you are trying to say?

          • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

            Sir, I am trying to say that mutual finger pointing has no benefits, rather it has the following bad outcomes:

            1. It serves no purpose, because it actually PREVENTS communities from changing for the better. Do you really think that if community X tells community Y: “Hey Y, this is whats wrong with you!”, Y shall smile and say “How right you are X! We will change starting tomorrow!” ? Its human nature, right? Community Y will simply harden its stance, refuse to look inwards and instead tell X: “Hey X, you better heal yourself before trying to fix us up!”. And that cycle will repeat infinitely. Real change – change that lasts – can come only from within, from introspection and self realization. That’s true for a person, a community and a nation.

            2. Secondly, this communal finger pointing is every politicians dream! It only serves to distract us (the finger pointers) from the real issues and protects our elected representatives from being held accountable for incompetence and non-performance. We get caught up in pointing out each other’s ills while they happily sneak under the radar and enjoy from the sidelines. Its the classic “divide and rule” get-out-of-jail card in every leader’s deck! Remember the British?

            See for yourself – in The Wire’s Readers Comments section, how many discussions have you seen about the looming job crisis, for example? I cant recall a single one. Most – if not all – of the really passionate discussions are about Hindu/Muslim/majority/minority/secular/sickular and the like.

            We – you, I, all of us – are doing ourselves and OUR CHILDREN a great injustice. Very soon, they will be pointing fingers at us.

          • kujur bachchan

            By all means, you can. India is supposed to be a free country. However, here is what I have to add to what Ashok Akbar Gonsalves has stated.

            The world’s great religions like Hinduism, Muslim, Christianity, to name a few, provide spiritual solace to millions of faithful, but in their roller coaster journey of thousands of years they also collect quite a few warts. You, I and other readers of The Wire (all of whom are, I believe, fairly educated and reasonable) are well aware that the URGE and DEMAND for REFORMATION (getting rid of the warts) COMES FROM WITHIN THE COMMUNITY. The state only enacts the law to make the reformation enforceable. However, mind you, it takes hundreds of years for a single act of reformation to make a positive impact on that particular religion. Moreover it is not an one time affair. Religious practices require periodic overhauling because while old warts get removed, new ones crop up. The question is, do you honestly believe in your heart that if you point out certain prevalent practices of Muslim religion that are generally assumed to be bad, the Hindu community shall be strengthened spiritually, economically and demographically? Or do you really believe that overnight the Muslim community will call for reform and ask the government to enact the reformed laws accordingly?

            Presently I reside in a town of North India. I regularly travel through the cities and villages of the Gangetic Plain (Once I used the words ‘Cow-Belt’ and I was rightly reprimanded by a fellow reader of The Wire!). Most of the times in Sleeper Class. I am frightened to see the extent of the crisis of unemployment spreading throughout our land, unchecked. I get cold shivers when I read the news, “One lakh candidates for fifty vacant posts of peons”. This unemployment crisis is a ticking time bomb. The sooner we realise the better for us all.

            As our online conversation shows, we have been lucky, very lucky. Let us use the social media or online platform responsibly and positively. Let us not get sucked into this quagmire of religious ‘tu-tu-mai-mai’.

  • kujur bachchan

    Sir, The votaries of Hindu majoritarianism have this perverse hallucination that due the presence of these Muslims and Christians, their day dream of a Hindu Rashtra is not being fulfilled. In their state of hallucination they conveniently forget that the Indian citizens professing Islam and Christianity have not migrated here from another countries but are as much Indian as any other Hindus. Empirical data or facts on the ground give no evidence at all that Muslim Indians or for that matter Christian Indians have in any way disadvantaged the Hindu majority economically or culturally. In fact, these two minority communities themselves are the most disadvantaged lot – economically and socially. Who then is spreading this sinister bogey of Muslims and Christians being bent on eliminating Hinduism from India? Of course, BJP/RSS are leading the pack.

    As against your observation, ‘Muslims need to introspect….’, I would like to put it, “We Indians need to introspect. The moderate elements have to come forward strongly and forcefully”.

    Lastly, I would like to share with you an edited version of an article titled ‘Understanding other religions is fundamental to citizenship’ written by Kenneth Primrose, head of religious, moral and philosophical studies at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen, Scotland, and first published in

    “One crucial way that people can best learn to live with one another is by increasing their religious literacy. In 1945, the British author C S Lewis said that one will gain greater insight into other belief systems by stepping inside and looking ‘along’ them, rather than looking ‘at’ them from the outside. The idea is to see religion not merely as a set of propositions held in the head, but, as a ‘lived experience’.

    The key to this kind of understanding is dialogue. This isn’t the all-too-common conversation in which the goal is to poke holes in another’s religious argument. Rather, the purpose is only to understand, however fanciful or wrong the beliefs might appear. It requires moral imagination, letting the human voice of a believer express in concrete terms how his or her world is experienced. When questions are asked, they are there to reveal rather than eviscerate. It’s similar to how you experience stories, entering into them imaginatively and empathising with the characters. Stories are at the heart of human life, and also at the heart of religions. We should understand the way human stories are affected by religious ones.

    Countries throughout the world are seeing the emergence of a poison-breathing hydra that has never been taught to understand anything other than itself. The inevitable result of this has been the scapegoating, racism, tribalism and isolationism that have marked our recent politics. Increasing religious literacy will not necessarily lead to more agreement – indeed, it might even steel our convictions. But it will lead to being able to ‘disagree better’ by tempering cheap stereotypes and petty caricature.

    Without developing religious literacy on a societal scale, it is difficult to see how our great multicultural experiment will avoid descending into the tribal warfare that so many are spoiling for. To take a small but current example from the United Kingdom, one could look at the ongoing controversy of Sharia councils. Sharia councils provide legal rulings and advice to Muslims based on interpretation of Sharia law. While they do not carry legal weight in the UK, they effectively arbitrate on a number of issues. The idea that Sharia operates as a parallel legal system in the UK is anathema to some, and petitions are being made to ban such councils. In much of the debate, what is lacking is an ability to see that justice is understood and reasoned differently from different perspectives. Of course, this does not suggest that Sharia courts should have a place in the British justice system, but rather that without some understanding and empathy, without some religious literacy, debates about such issues are liable to create more heat than light. “

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    I am glad you asked this question, sir. I respect you for that.
    I have been pondering this for a while now, cant say I have the answer – these are just some honest thoughts. I guess we must collectively find the answer. I shall be happy to hear your opinion.

    — Read what Kujur Bachchan has written below. He makes some good points, including the article he has quoted.

    — We must introspect. As Mr Bachchan says, we should honestly ask ourselves whether Hindus have in any way been disadvantaged or deprived by “minority appeasement”. My personal answer – from what I have observed and experienced in the 50 years of my life – is a firm NO. Yes there is minority appeasement, but every political party appeases its own vote bank some way or the other. So why do we get so agitated about minority appeasement specifically? Isnt it just a tactic to alienate minorities?

    — How much do we engage with minorities in our daily lives? At work? In our neighborhood? How many Muslim or Christian birthday parties do our children go to? Why do Muslims find it so hard to rent or buy a house in a non-Muslim neighborhood? How can we stop stereotyping minorities, if we dont engage with them like we do with our next door neighbors? Why doesnt anyone offer to fund Pehlu Khan’s children’s education? Why are we suddenly putting the socio-cultural habits and customs of Muslims under such minute scrutiny, when our own Hindu house is far from clean (its a MESS, to be honest!)? Why should the status of Muslims and Christians in India be any different from say that of Hindus in the USA?

    — Religion MUST remain a private matter, and should never interfere with the functioning of the state, nor our assessment of the functioning of the state, nor our choice of who should run the state.

    — We MUST stop getting distracted by non-issues, stop dancing to whatever tune the government plays (demonetization, cow protection, surgical strikes, kabristan-vs-shamshaan etc), and hold them accountable for issues that REALLY MATTER. For example, are you aware how serious the employment situation is, and that we are sitting on a time bomb of joblessness? Watch The Wire’s Jan Gan Man Ki Baat Ep. 43 – its scary. Our children would be directly affected by it 5-10 years from now, and yet we do not question the government on it! We should be having our foot on its throat on this matter, and should be continuously screaming at it “What are you doing about jobs, guys?”

    — We should realize that being patriotic does not mean unquestioning obedience to the state and the leader. Quite on the contrary, it means we MUST question the state, MUST hold it accountable, MUST make ourselves heard in protest when the state creates diversions to hide its incompetence or inaction on genuine issues, pull it back into line. The state is at our service, not the other way round. FOR OUR OWN GOOD, we MUST NOT let the state go scot free, irrespective of whether we support the party in power or not.
    — Finally, we should realize that as a nation we have SO FAR been regarded and respected by the rest of the world as tolerant and inclusive, and we have reaped the benefits of that. But the real test starts now, when the ideological underpinning of the party in power is based on intolerance and divisiveness (read Golwalkar’s two works “We or Our Nationhood defined” and “Bunch of thoughts” – they make chilling reading and leaves not an iota of doubt about the RSS’s ideology and intent). It would be STUPID of us to throw away all that goodwill, and all that we have achieved from that goodwill, on the alter of a Hindu Rashtra. And honestly – is becoming a Hindu Rashtra a worthy achievement, or does it make us a better nation? No. Its nothing but a distraction, and a kind of macho “oh I feel great about myself because at last we have avenged a 1000 years of Muslim atrocities” ego boost for some, inspired by a handful of men with hate in their hearts.

    Thats it for now. Thanks for reading through!

    • kujur bachchan

      The Only Way Forward if we wish to make India Great Again! Let not the cacophony of hatred and mistrust drown the voices of sanity and reasoning.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    You should edit the second last sentence, madam (“the ongoing momentum….”). It is perhaps not conveying what you wanted to express.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    You should edit the second last sentence, madam (“the ongoing momentum….”). It is perhaps not conveying what you wanted to express.

  • Ashok Akbar Gonsalves

    Sir – you say “insecurity in all religions”. What makes you think Hinduism or any other religion for that matter, is “insecure”? For a religion to feel insecure, the people who practice that religion must be persecuted, right? For example, the way the Jews were persecuted and destroyed in Nazi Germany. Do you see that happening here in India? Do you think Hindus are being persecuted?

    And you say “giving long rope to some particular communities” – aka minority appeasement. I ask you again – do you honestly see the majority community being deprived because of some big advantages given to the minorities? The socio-economic data does not say so.

    Sir, all that I am saying is that WE – the people of this country – must turn the discourse away from religion and community, majority and minority. Instead, make a noise about the real issues facing our nation, like jobs, the environment, the state of our cities, inequality etc. That’s the sign of a progressive nation, is it not?
    Religion should not be a topic of discussion at all – at least not among the educated enlightened ones who swim in the social media ocean. But by making it THE hottest subject, we are giving our elected leaders what THEY want (escape from accountability), instead of them giving us what WE want.

    Thanks for the discussion!