Given the State of Indian Muslims Today, the Possibility of Radicalisation Cannot be Ruled Out

If the number of zealots among Muslim Indians attracted to the phantasmagoria of global Islamic Jihad was minuscule, it was because of India's secular constitution and pluralism. Aggressive Hindutva is changing that.

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“Terrorism, like viruses, is everywhere… It is at the very heart of this culture which combats it… as though every machinery of domination secreted its own counter apparatus, the agent of its own disappearance – against that form of almost automatic reversion of its own power, the system can do nothing. And terrorism is the shock wave of its silent reversion.” – Jean Baudrillard

The horrific murder of a Hindu tailor in Udaipur, Rajasthan, and a chemist in Amaravati, Maharashtra by Muslim zealots has predictably resulted in a disingenuous debate on lines dictated by political expediency, deep-rooted biases and ideologial loyalties.

Since it is premature to speculate on whether these were isolated acts or the culmination of a larger conspiracy also involving foreign elements – as the National Investigation Agency is set to look into – let us state the politically incorrect obvious: radicalisation, now or later, among at least some sections of Muslim Indians is beyond any shadow of doubt.

Let us also add: if the number of zealots among Muslim Indians attracted to the phantasmagoria of global Islamic Jihad was minuscule, it was because of their country’s secular constitution and the largely salubrious lived experience of being in a plural society –despite sporadic aberrations. 

The arrival on the scene of belligerent, merciless and mirthless Hindutva in the 1980s launched the long process in which their sense of belonging slowly but steadily began to be replaced by an existential fear. They were suddenly being held accountable for the real and imagined crimes of medieval kings and sultans who bore names like theirs.

An Indian Muslim’s psyche today, regardless of their adherence or otherwise to the faith of Islam, is a minefield of rage, frustration, helplessness and fear. There is evidence now to surmise that many have begun to shed their fear and confront the reality head on. The elite among the community may be thinking of the first opportunity to migrate to safer shores where their children can build a decent future, while some perhaps secretly wish their forefathers had not believed in the promise of the republic’s founders that they would be treated as equal citizens.

Let us be clear about one thing: if the constituent assembly had envisaged India as a ‘Hindu Pakistan’ – which it is fast becoming – many more among the Muslims of the country, or even most of them, would have taken the pains to cross the then bloody borders. They decided to stay put because they believed in the promise of pluralism, harmony and coexistence as well as a bright future. They genuinely refused to share Jinnah’s apprehensions, which now sound so perspicacious even to the staunchly secular among the Muslims.

Their sense of trust in the idea of India must have been further reinforced when Mahatma Gandhi valiantly took three bullets in his frail chest, chanting ‘Hey Ram’ in defence of their rightful place in the new Republic. To them, Nathuram Godse and Savarkar must have appeared as rare abominations in a sea of sanity. They cannot be faulted for an absence of clairvoyance in not foreseeing the cataclysmic turn the Republic would take a few decades down the line.

We are not at a crossroads now, but at a definitive U-turn which will inexorably push the nation down a spiral of violent metamorphosis in 2025, the centenary of the formation of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

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Four characteristics of India’s Muslims make their plight even more vulnerable against the backdrop of their everyday humiliation, marginalisation, and stigmatisation.

First, the community does not have even a semblance of an enlightened leadership, either nationally or regionally. The most influential leaders of the community, without exception, belong to what can crudely be described as a class of mealy-mouthed, myopic, and incorrigibly un-modern opportunists – clerics and non-clerics. Consider that the Muslim Personal Law Board is now more worried about the absence of an adequately retributive blasphemy law in the land than about the political storm that threatens to engulf the community.

Also worthy of note is the fact that this body, which comprises almost all religious and social organisations working among the Muslims in the country, has not so far bothered to convene a meeting of the community’s leaders from various states to discuss a wise, prudent, and pragmatic way to address the current situation, whereas it will catapult itself into the scene the moment some religiously emotive issue comes to the fore. This body thrived consistently on cheap, medievalist and obscurantist sentiments.

Second, all the so-called secular opposition parties have now concluded that words such as ‘Muslim’ and ‘minority’ are avoidable terms to be used only in private conversations. Using these words in public – they, perhaps rightly, decided – will cause further loss of votes among the Hindus, a major chunk of whom have already got on the Hindutva bandwagon. A leaderless and disjointed community, abandoned by parties and people they thought would stand by them, is a sure recipe for radical imaginations.

Third, every member of the community wakes up from disturbed sleep every morning to a new set of news stories involving them in one way or another – pogroms and riots; arrests of people with Muslim names for crimes such as checking facts; shocking stories of videotaped lynchings; venomous pronouncements; calls for genocide or threats of rape by ‘love mongers’ like Yati Narsinghanand, Bajrang Muni or other vocal ‘patriots’; attacks on mosques and worshippers followed by arrest and persecution disguised as prosecution of the attacked; yet another court case claiming a mosque was built on the ruins of a temple; one more city renamed or sought to be renamed because it ‘reeked’ of Islamic domination in the past; one more Muslim home bulldozed as a retribution for ‘rioting’; filthy dirt thrown at the ultimate sanctities of the faith on social media or television debates by the ruling party’s national spokespersons; dwindling representation of the community in state assemblies and Parliament; bans in different states on the hijab, aazan and so on; stories with all sorts of prefixes to jihad such as ‘love’, ‘Corona’, ‘land’ et al; a meat seller arrested for selling chicken wrapped in newspapers which had pictures of Hindu deities; round-the-clock spewing of hate against the community by a large number of highly popular television channels.

The list is endless and the pain unbearable. 

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Fourth, and perhaps the most significant of all the reasons that makes the Muslim community vulnerable, is the worry about the future of their children in a country where they are being systematically turned into nobodies.

The Sangh parivar is not going to moderate its views, nor change its ways. You cannot throw away nearly 200 million people into the Arabian sea. The toothless and internally divided opposition is unlikely to get its act together and throw an effective challenge against the ruling dispensation. The Muslim religious, political and social organisations do not show any signs of coming up with a wise course of action within the bounds of the constitution and the law. If they come together as embattled citizens sans religious rhetoric and decide to fight constitutionally and politically, they still have a chance to regain lost ground and assert their equal citizenship, but one sees no such initiative from the community’s existing leadership.

Now, even the judiciary is increasingly appearing to be partisan, at all levels. In such a depressing scenario, the likelihood of radicalisation among some sections of the community cannot be ruled out. We may argue that it will be suicidal – that it it will push even more Hindus to Hindutva and that the entire community will have to pay a heavy price for the thoughtless actions of a few, and so on. But the sad truth is that the community is staring at a situation where arguments, logic and debate seem to make no difference.

‘If you cannot live with dignity, you had better die with dignity’ is an argument that has the potential to persuade many, as happened in the context of internecine conflicts in several parts of the world, including in our close neighbourhood. Emotive religious rhetoric will serve as fuel to the fire of anger that is already spilling out into the open.

External forces will definitely fish in troubled waters and do all they can to foment a retaliatory course of action from the embattled minority. Many in the Pakistani establishment must be feeling ecstatic now as their founding father’s pet theory is being proven right in India, at long last. 

Is it too late for us to make a last ditch attempt at saving the republic and redeeming the idea of India as a plural, democratic, harmonious and composite nation-state? The advent of another Gandhi may be an impossibility, but the likelihood of legions of citizens metamorphosing into little Gandhis may still be a potent counter to the forces of hatred.

Perhaps the time is ripe for the resurfacing of the old Gandhian slogan of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’. Hate can be defeated only by love, but the public space in India right now is emptied of all noble human emotions. The Muslim is the principal whipping boy who is blamed for all the ills that plague the republic. The question that all right-minded Indians should ask themselves is whether or not we can set aside our minor differences and come together to defend the country.

If not, what awaits us is the ignominy of  being clubbed together by future historians with ill-fated countries ranging from Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and so on.      

Shajahan Madampat is a cultural critic and commentator, writing in English and Malayalam. His book God is neither a Khomeini nor a Mohan Bhagwat: Writing against Zealotry came out in 2020. 

‘The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.’