It is Wrong and Unfair to Blame Muslims Themselves for their Trials and Tribulations

In a recent article, a serving IPS officer describes Hindutva as an "ethno-nationalist movement, which very avowedly anchors itself in nationalism, and not in religion" and says Muslims should give up their "victim mindset".

In a recent article with the headline, ‘Indian Muslims must rewrite their victim mindset to be indispensable in India’s rise’, Najmul Hoda, a serving Indian Police Service officer, blames the Muslim community itself for all its travails. This is both wrong and unfair because, in the first place, it absolves every other constituent of society of any responsibility whatsoever and second, indirectly supports a narrative which attributes the Muslims’ current plight to their ‘self-marginalization’.

Hoda says that Indian Muslims are in a state of despair after the Ram Mandir bhoomi pujan on August 5 but that there is nothing new about their “despondency” and “depressive anxiety” over their perceived “altered standing”. This is because “for the last 300 years, ordinary Muslims in the subcontinent have hurtled from one disaster to another. So much so that a morbid melancholia was stylised as a cultural trope, and victimhood became their favourite dope.”

A reference to the past 300 years suggests he means the post-Aurangzeb (d. 1707) period. We did have political instability in the country after the Alamgir all right, but to say Indian Muslims have ‘hurtled from one disaster to another’ is factually incorrect. As Anjali Nirmal and I have shown at length in our work Later Mughals: Their Decline and British Ascent, the real crisis in the lives of the Indian Muslims started when foreigners from halfway across the globe wrested this country from the hands of Indians.

The plight of the Muslims after the British took over has been eloquently described by the eminent historian William Wilson Hunter in his famous book The Indian Musalmans:

“It is not that they have ceased to retain the entire state patronage, but that they are gradually being excluded from it altogether… The proportion of the race which a century ago had the monopoly of government, has now fallen to less than one-twenty-third of the whole administrative body. In short, the Muhammadans have now sunk so low, that, even when qualified for government employ, they are studiously kept out of it by government notifications.”

We must take special note of this fraction of one-twenty-third in government jobs as the Muslim population in India at that time, as estimated by Belkacem Belmekki in his paper, ‘The Impact of British Rule on the Indian Muslim Community in the Nineteenth Century’, was at least one-fourth of the total population. It is obvious how methodically the Muslims were marginalized.

Hoda says that ideally, the independence of India should have enthused the Indian Muslims with a new vigour as it did to every other Indian. By saying so, he implies that the Muslims were not enthused by independence. This is a serious insinuation without any basis, which, indirectly, casts an aspersion on the dedication and loyalty of the Muslims for their country.

To say that identity was their new shibboleth is both unjustified and unfair. Why should a community lose its identity in the first place? Which law, which principle of democracy obliges them to do so?

Moreover, the desire to maintain their distinct identity in the present times is not a direct derivation of the Ashraf-Ajlaf dichotomy of the past, to which Hoda alludes. There might be class distinctions amongst the Muslims; there might even be a contrived caste system’ in Muslim society.  But this does not deprive them of their right to maintain their distinct identity with respect to other constituents of the Indian society.

The poor Muslim of 1857 might not have lost anything at the hands of the British. He was poor before 1857 and he remained poor after 1857. However, this was true of all the poor of India, irrespective of their religion or caste. It does not mean that the poor Muslims were impervious to or should have remained indifferent to what had happened to some of their better-placed co-religionists.

People can and do take pride in what some people of their ‘group’ might have achieved. After all, we have millions upon millions in this country who struggle to survive; yet, they take great pride in the fact of a man, coming from a nondescript background, having made it up to the highest echelons of power. They exult in his success even more because he is their co-religionist, performs pooja as they do and espouses socio-religio-cultural values similar to theirs.

Hoda says that the Muslims did not create institutions of modern learning and instead created seminaries. Well, even if we accept that they ‘erred’ in this, is that the only reason for the discrimination they have to face, as brought out in numerous studies including the Sachar Committee Report? Isn’t it the state’s responsibility to ensure quality education for every citizen?

Hoda claims that there is now a much higher number of mosques, madrasas and maulvis, and a much greater display of religious symbolism in dress and appearance than ever. Once again, such a generalization has been made without any supporting data. There is no proof that this is disproportionate to the increase in their population, or the rate at which the religious places of other communities have increased.

The claim that mosques and madrasas have sprung up on the Indo-Nepal border, for example, is very old. Yet, the fact remains that if it was indeed considered a serious threat to national security, why was nothing substantial done in all these years to counter them, notwithstanding the noise in the media and by the government agencies?

Moreover, where is the evidence that the Muslims are increasingly adopting a particular mode of dressing or that there is an intensification of Islamic religiosity in the public sphere? In fact, the charge is eerily reminiscent of a claim that some people could be recognized by their clothes. And if there has been a shift in sartorial style, the complex sociology behind it needs analysis.

The fact is that an increasing intolerance towards almost everything that is characteristic of the Muslims – food habits, manner of dressing, socio-religious practices, whatever – in the public sphere has made them feel deeply insecure and has driven them further into a ghettoized existence. No proof is required for the alienation that the Muslim community perceives – it is like pain; there is no pathological test that could ‘prove’ whether someone has pain in a particular part or not.

To compare what the Muslims today get to eat with what their ancestors got at any time in the past, as Hoda does, is ridiculous to the point of being absurd. By an extension of the logic, primitive man went about naked and hence no one should have any reason to complain of any misery whatsoever.

Nobody disputes the fact that the constitution does not discriminate. However, are the Muslims expected to be ever grateful for it and pay obeisance to others for that – is it not their right as citizens? Why does Hoda feel it necessary to remind them of that? From a historical point of view, there is no evidence that Islam in India rested upon the so-called ‘theology of supremacism’, as Hoda asserts. At best, it could be a matter of serious academic debate. But to suggest the Muslim masses today suffer from a “narrative of loss” at the displacement of “Islam’s supremacy” is sheer fiction.

Hoda’s claim that “Hindutva is an ethno-nationalist movement, which very avowedly anchors itself in nationalism, and not in religion”, amounts to giving an unsubstantiated certificate to an ideology and politics that millions of Indians find deeply disconcerting. Similarly, claiming that most of the major religions have been ‘secularised’ betrays a singular ignorance of the concept of secularism.

If the history of the recent past is any pointer, Muslims in India have lots of reasons to be deeply worried. Moreover, why they should not be worried? No question is ever settled until it is settled right. If some people are trying to force a false sense of optimism down their throats, it is obviously with ulterior motives.

To be optimistic or pessimistic is one’s own decision based on one’s personal assessment of the past and present. If Hoda is free to feel cheerful about the way things are shaping up for him or others like him, others have an equal right to feel victimised and be melancholic. However, to ask them to rewrite their story is to force them to condone all the injustice, real or perceived, that has been done to them. To link this ‘rewriting’ with India’s rise, is a cheap attempt at emotional blackmail by invoking patriotism.

In April 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a protest march. Eight white clergymen criticised the march. King wrote a passionate response from jail, hailed as a classic expression of their anguish:

“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, wait. But, when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will…when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society…when you are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of nobodiness—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

Reflect upon the words ‘inner fears and outer resentments’, ‘a degenerating sense of nobodiness’, and you will understand the predicament of the Indian Muslims.

Dr. N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. Views are personal. He tweets @NcAsthana.