In India, Muslims Are the Safest Enemy to Have

The representation of Muslims as a fictitious enemy allows the majority to carve out a more unified self for itself.

Majoritarianism in India is being constructed faster than we can imagine. There is not only a large-scale celebration of Hindu religious symbols in the public sphere but also a deeper consent, both active and tacit, to the violence against the minorities, especially Muslims. Today a cross-section of castes and classes does not seem to be perturbed by the kind of open lynchings that we have visualised as part of the ‘new normal’ under the current political regime.

Among many other reasons, Muslim is the safest enemy to have in India. Muslims are a numerical minority; they are socially backward and economically marginalised. An odd 15% of the population stands no chance to win against a majority of Hindus who constitute over 80% of India. It would be an exaggeration to think that an average Hindu in India isn’t aware of this fact, yet we continue to vilify Muslims as a grand-stand enemy that threatens the security of the nation. Perhaps, this is precisely why there is such an easy consent and consensus in making the Muslim the symbol of all that is wrong with this nation. He is an enemy who is vanquished even before the war has begun. Where does this kind of a cultural sensibility come from?

Also read: The Invisible ‘Other’ in Today’s Segregated India

Among various other sources, including a ‘global war on terror’, is what I would refer to as the ‘epic consciousness’ – the mass consciousness that we have collectively imbibed in course to getting socialised through the epics, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In epics, the result of the war on evil is known even before there is a war. There is no question of Lord Ram losing the battle to Ravan, or in the Mahabharata there is no chance of the Pandavas losing the battle to the Kauravas. Yet, the epics interest us immensely. The stories within the stories interest us because we know the larger narrative. The end interests us not because the story has a surprise twist but precisely because it offers us the comfort of being predictable. The narrative structure offers twists with stories within the story but keeps the larger storyline linear, simple and predictable. The victory of ‘good’ over ‘evil’ where the evil is only seemingly and ostensibly powerful but in essence never stands a chance to win.

Such a narrative structure offers us many comforts, especially in times of ‘liquid modernity’ with time-space compression and with growing uncertainty of the everyday life. The more the everyday life becomes uncertain, the more we pine for certainty and predictability. The more the everyday challenges, the more we look for certainty of winning. The narrative structure of the epics allows us the rare comfort of also enjoying smaller defeats in light of the larger victory that is certain to come. The smaller discomforts can be borne with while awaiting the final victory.

Muslims fill that space of vanquished adversaries that epics are based on. Credit: Victoria Leigh/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Muslims fill that space of vanquished adversaries that epics are based on. Credit: Victoria Leigh/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Further, it allows us to collectively feign an anxiety, while in our subconscious we are assured that there is actually no real cause for worry. We can afford to lose a battle or two, as long as the final battle is ours, because the smaller defeats do not add up to anything. It is unlike facing a job interview based on our past achievements, it is unlike a tournament of cricket where every loss has its impact on the final result and where every loss makes the series victory all the more difficult and all the more less authentic because even the margin of the victory matters.

Muslims fill that space of vanquished adversaries that epics are based on. They provide the majority to feign anxiety, feign a challenge that is not real. The masculine Hindus who take part in lynching, with state protection, with legal impunity and in large numbers against badly-outnumbered Muslims (in many cases just one old Muslim, like Pehlu Khan) in each of the incidents of lynching that we have been witness to is the playing out of this predictable-unpredictability that we are collectively socialised into. These incidents then provide the majority community a sense of victory, sense of duty, sense of preparedness for physical battles against the adversary in the service of the nation. The larger narrative structure of the epics is written into the isolated incidents of lynching. While at one end they reinforce the epic consciousness that the majority is socialised into, at the other end they also provide the symbolic comfort and certainty that the modern life has robbed us of.

The imagined homogeneity, virility, unity, aggressiveness and physicality of the ‘Muslim body’ is the ideal ‘other’; it fills in the empty space in the structured narrative of the epics. The fluidity of identities that modernity ushers in brings with it an anxiety of loss of identity and the symbolic representation of the Muslim as the solid and a unified entity allows the majority to carve out a more unified self for itself. Muslim is also therefore the ‘other’ of the ‘liquid modernity’ helping us to redefine who we are as a collective. Since a positive unity becomes difficult in the complexity that modernity ushers in, the imagined Muslim simplifies that complexity into a palpable simplification of generating a unified Hindu identity.

Also read: The Lynching of a Nation

The important point, though, is that this adversary comes with a guarantee of being vanquished. This subterranean assurance makes it inviting to the majority to identify with the project of constructing a majoritarian polity in India. Thus, even a peace-loving Hindu, an everyday Hindu and a middle-class Hindu do not find it difficult to endorse the violence that comes with no cost. It can afford to endorse the drawing-room patriotism and cartographic nationalism that demands of us no more than a cost-free hatred against a palpably strong but essentially weak adversary.

Muslim is the hyphen that joins the comfort of certainty provided by the ancient epics with the unavoidable discomfort ushered in by fast-paced modernity. The black hole of modernity marked by pervasive insecurity and faceless urbanisation is reconfigured into a more familiar terrain through the common and collective ‘othering’ of the Muslims. The current right-wing mobilisation in India has rather successfully created a fictitious enemy out of the Muslim and demonised the community that matches the proportion of the epic battles with the assurance of the victory that epics guaranteed us. For every loss and every insurmountable challenge of the everyday life, here is an assured victory that we can collectively gloat on. The comfort in times of harsh realities is perhaps too difficult to let go in near future.

Ajay Gudavarthy is associate professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.