How Are India's Muslims Feeling?

A systematic effort is on to isolate Muslims at more or less every level of our society. Where does the common Muslim find herself in the world's largest democracy?

The sudden but continuous rise of organised violence against Muslims in India ever since the Modi government came to power has reached such a level that there is a constant fear among ordinary Muslims of the country of losing their lives or livelihood.

A Google search with the keywords ‘Indian Muslim in fear’ offers dozens of articles and reports written each year since the 2015 mob lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh (UP).

From reports about a former vice president’s statement over the state of affairs to a Bollywood actor expressing concern over the country’s situation, the results also include accounts of victims of hate crimes and their families in Uttar Pradesh fighting for justice. Myriad other reports speak of the trauma of Muslim residents leaving a city after communal violence.

The spate of violence that commenced with the suspicion of meat in the refrigerator of a Muslim household is no longer in need of a ‘reason’. Any lunatic will pick up a gun someday and shoot you down simply because you exist, and one will only be left fact-checking statements and videos of the incident to contend that their actions were the result of years of hatred and not an act of momentary passion.

Over the past several years, this lingering fear has now become deeply ingrained in the minds of common Muslims, forcing them to change their style of living in order to save their lives. The fear is so deep-seated that almost every person who gave their comments for this report did so on the condition of anonymity.

Sarah*, a native of Bihar’s capital city Patna, said, “The incidents on trains [previous lynchings and the recent shootout in the Jaipur-Mumbai Express] have shaken me to the core. I had already stopped carrying food during train journeys, and even if I did, I made sure that it did not look like meat. Sometimes, instead of having a proper meal, I only rely on snacks while travelling.”

Railway Protection Force constable Chetan Singh shot to death three visibly Muslim passengers aboard the Jaipur-Mumbai Express last month. Photo: Twitter.

“After the Jaipur Express incident, an elderly couple I know booked flight tickets instead of travelling by train. They are old and not comfortable with air travel due to lack of experience, and it also costs more. But the truth is that people are avoiding travelling in trains.”

The fear and apprehension regarding train journeys has escalated during the last several years. Zeba*, a native of UP who pursued her studies in Delhi and now teaches at a university, shared her experience.

“When I stayed at the hostel while studying, I used to bring a little extra food from home. I loved kebab parantha, but ammi [her mother] plainly refused to allow me to carry it in the tiffin [box]. This change took place only four or five years ago. Now, the people’s attitude is getting worse day by day.”

Zeba shared an anecdote regarding one such experience. “A few years ago, I was coming to Delhi by train. I do not wear a burqa, niqab or hijab, which means one cannot identify my religion by looking at me. But what about one’s name?”

“That day a couple, with their six- or seven-year-old daughter was sitting opposite me. The girl was playing and talking with me. Soon, she asked my name, which I impulsively revealed and to which she asked, ‘Are you a Muslim?’ When I said yes, she quickly retorted, ‘Why do you live here, why don’t you go to Pakistan?’”

“I was left speechless. I did not know how to respond to her. After the exchange, neither her parents nor she spoke to me for the rest of the journey.”

Also Read: Why I Will Never ‘Go to Pakistan’

Fear not limited to any one class

Journalist Rana Ayyub is a member of the elite class, but she recently shared her concerns about the religious identity of her family members on social media.

On August 4, after the Jaipur Express killings, Rana wrote in a post on Instagram, “My father loves his Friday prayers ritual. He applies ittar [a kind of perfume], wears his crisp white kurta-pyjama and his Muslim skull cap before he walks to the neighbourhood mosque for the Juma namaz.”

“He has all the visual markers of a Muslim man. With the train incident, with the provocative speeches, the brazen killings and targeting, I wonder if he – a privileged Muslim man – is safe enough?”

Ayyub’s post received around 750 comments, most of which relate similar fears and share ways adopted by people to avoid any untoward incident.

One user wrote that when any of her relatives is on the bus or train, she avoids using the Muslim greetings of ‘salaam’ or ‘khuda hafiz’ on the phone. A student from West Bengal said that most of the students in his class are Hindus and that sometimes they raise slogans like ‘Jai Shri Ram’, which evokes fear in him.

Author Rakshanda Jalil also belongs to the upper class like Rana Ayyub and is well aware of her privileges.

In an article published in The Wire titled ‘Fear and Depression in Indian Muslims Palpable Even Among Those who are ‘Privileged’’, she narrated how she was looking for a house in a posh area in South Delhi, in a building with Muslim home owners on every floor and an old mosque in proximity.

“After several visits, I eventually chickened out from buying that perfectly lovely apartment in a perfectly lovely neighbourhood,” she wrote.

The Muslim-dominated Gulbarg Society was burnt by mobs during the 2002 Gujarat violence. Photo: Dawnpope/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

“There seemed to be a giant, invisible yet perfectly legible ‘X’ marked on that building. The proximity to the mosque, and the presence of Muslim homeowners on every floor of that house in an otherwise entirely non-Muslim neighbourhood, brought visions of Ahmadabad, of the Gulbarg Society, of the brutal killing of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri and at least 35 others inside that ill-fated housing society.”

“Well-meaning, liberal friends made me feel small and silly for my chicken heartedness. ‘Oh come, on!’ they chided, ‘That was Gujarat! It can’t happen in Delhi.’” And worse still, there was the shaming: ‘You too? You with all your privileges? You can’t think like this!’”

“Yes, with all my privileges – of education, of class, of having friends in ‘high places’ – I feel scared, more scared than I have ever been in my entire life. I am 60 years old and confess to a crushing fear, one that weighs my chest with an inexorable weight and makes it difficult to breathe sometimes.”

Sarah hails from an upper middle-class family and shares a similar fear as that of Rana Ayyub.

“Earlier I used to wait for Fridays,” she said. “Now, as soon as Friday arrives, I get anxious that some untoward incident might happen in a mosque. One day my father and brother were a little late in returning from Friday prayers and I got really worried. Papa never used to take his mobile phone while going to the mosque for Friday prayers.”

“Now, I insist that he carries his phone. Even a slight delay in his return makes us call him anxiously,” she continued.

‘Wherever I go, my religion reaches there first’

Shaukat* works in the Indian Railways and does not want to give any more information about his identity. He usually dons what is described as the stereotypical Muslim marker – kurta-pyjama and a beard.

“See, there is a political atmosphere against Muslims, but people like us who can be easily identified get remarks like, ‘How did you end up in the railways, mian ji?’ Our abilities are sometimes questioned owing to our identity. There are in fact many tiny matters of everyday life in which the behaviour of people suggests that wherever I go, my religion reaches there first.”

Also Read: In New India, a Muslim Rose Smells Different From a Hindu Rose

“If by chance there are two to four Muslim employees in a section, people begin remarking that the place has become like Pakistan. Sometimes they make such remarks to one’s face such as ‘you are the ones ruling here.’”

“If women from our families participate in office parties or functions, other women comment on their dress or headcovers and ask them why they need to dress up this way in the present age. It means something or the other is going on in their mind regarding our identity.”

The prejudice and fear about Muslim identity are getting more and more deep-rooted each year. Osama, who works in an NGO, says, “I look like a Muslim, which is perhaps why when I am travelling, people start playing videos of inflammatory speeches in loud volume. I also feel that many times, the presence of a Muslim family in the train makes people from other communities uncomfortable and scared.”

“Once, I was traveling to Rajasthan at a time of communal tension, when I got a call from my brother. I offered him salaam as per my habit and he immediately told me not to do so. He also told me not to reveal my name to anyone after getting down at the station and give another name if needed.”

Areeb* is a corporate employee based in Kolkata. Regarding the prejudice against Muslims, he says, “We know people from other communities who are good to us, but now their opinion of Muslims in general seems to have changed, as appears from their conversations.”

“For instance, a friend commented about a specific professional work: ‘So many Muslims have entered the profession and they are doing the work at random rates. They have ruined the market!’ I wondered later if there was any need to add the word ‘Muslim’ to the sentence,” he said.

“But facing a mentality of hatred … has become an existential curse for the Muslims. They have automatically set certain unspoken rules. For example, wherever they are, even while travelling, they find it better to stay unnoticed. You don’t know when you will become the target for the person in front of you.”

Photo: PTI.

Sharib*, a teacher at Aligarh Muslim University, also felt the change in the attitude of non-Muslims. He said, “I am often travelling as I did during my studies. Back then, I used to travel in sleeper class and never realised that I was a Muslim who was being viewed in a different way. I used to travel like everyone else.”

“I saw people offer namaz. Personally, I did not like it at the time. But others did not mind it. They instead gave space to offer the prayer. Out of respect they even stopped talking to each other until the prayer was over. But today if someone offers namaz even on their berth, people take offence. They start playing the Hanuman Chalisa on their mobile phones.”

He further said, “Earlier we used to interact with anyone and everyone on the train, and that was the fun of it. But now I feel scared. We are scared of even uttering a word unless the fellow passenger starts the conversation himself. What caused this rift? Clearly, an opinion has been etched about us on a large scale.”

“Moreover, I strictly tell my Muslim friends and acquaintances not to carry food on the train and not to take part in any debate. In matters of dress, I have strictly instructed my sisters to not wear hijab and so on. I ask them to dress up like non-Muslims. It’s not because we are scared, but because we don’t want anything bad to happen to our loved ones.”

“To some extent, we are compromising with our identity, because there’s not much else we can do.”

Increased challenges for women

Women’s rights and freedoms are discussed in Indian families only as long as they are conveniently affordable. The problems that women and girls generally face owing to their gender have compounded for Muslim women, with the additional burden of their religious identity.

Decisions which were already difficult, such as those regarding traveling alone, education and employment, have the new aspect of religion added to them.

For instance, a PUCL report states that 1,000 female students had dropped out amid the hijab controversy in Karnataka colleges.

There are also reports that Chetan Singh Chowdhary, who fired gunshots in the Jaipur-Mumbai Express, had asked a woman wearing a burqa to chant ‘Jai Mata Di’ at gunpoint.

But is religious identity or the hijab the only issue? Noman*, who studied at a prestigious university in Delhi and is currently employed as an assistant professor in a university in Bihar, says, “There has been a difference in the attitude towards women after the recent incidents. Earlier, we used to worry about their safety because they were women. Now, being a Muslim has added to our worries.”

“A young female relative of mine had to get admission into college and the family chose one that was nearby. Something similar happened with another relative. His daughter had made it to the merit list of a renowned college. But since it was seven to eight kilometres away from home, the elders in the house did not allow her to join it, and she had to enrol in a nearby college.”

Women wearing a niqab, burqa or hijab also face a similar fear. Imrana Khatoon, a housewife from Darbhanga, says, “I feel scared to step out of the house wearing a burqa now. God forbid, if there is any kind of tension in the current environment, we can be easily spotted. There is also a concern about fellow passengers in the train.”

“Now, it has become more important to hide one’s identity. In our religion, the thing [veil] which was made for women’s safety is becoming a cause of insecurity for us.”

Also Read: Who Takes Exception to the Hijab?

Rehana* lives in Delhi and works in the media as a freelancer. She says, “I wear a hijab, but I work from home most of the time according to my convenience. I have this option, but many women are in such jobs where they have to go out every day, and in today’s environment, it is a big challenge for Muslim women.”

Rehana is right. Not everyone has the freedom to opt for work from home. Nabila*, a primary school teacher from Madhubani in Bihar, says, “No one has ever said anything to me openly till now. But sometimes in conversations or otherwise, there are certain words or certain behaviours which strike me, and I feel under pressure because of it.”

“Recently, I had gone for departmental training, and as per habit, I was wearing a burqa. But before entering the training centre, I took it off. While doing so I felt as if I was being watched and that I should hurry up.”

“Perhaps it is my own misconception or lack of self-confidence,” she adds. “But knowingly or unknowingly, I have started trying to hide my identity while leaving the house. As far as fear is concerned, for me it is like experiencing an invisible world. My daughter is still young, but I want her not to adopt any religious identity. Whatever she wants to practice must remain within the house.”

Hijabs have also proved fatal for the professional lives of women. Delhi resident Shayla Irfan used to teach at a reputed school, but one day she was told that her students and their parents were not comfortable with her wearing a hijab, so she must give it up.

Shayla left the job. Even in her next job interview, she was told that she would get the job if she removed her hijab.

Lubna Amir, a dentist from Pune, has a similar story. Despite being a topper in her studies, her Muslim identity came in the way of her getting a job. A renowned dental clinic asked her to remove her hijab in order to get a job there.

Lubna refused. She gave up her dream of doing clinical work and joined a bioinformatics company. In a conversation with Al-Jazeera, she said, “They have a problem with us being Muslims, but a bigger problem is with our Muslim appearance.”

Muslim women in hijab participate in a candle light march during a protest rally over the ‘hijab’ ban in Karnataka, in Kolkata, February 11, 2022. Photo: PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra

Social media peddling fear at every doorstep

In her article, Rakhshanda wrote:

“I suspect I am not alone in this. I feel this fear and depression among a great many Muslims in urban India. I hear it in their silences. I sense it in their steadfast refusal to get drawn into political debates. I notice it in their stoicism in the face of virulent hate swirling about in school and college WhatsApp groups. I spot it in the hastily withdrawn social media posts drawing attention to some recent communal outrage or atrocity.”

One bitter truth of Digital India is that WhatsApp groups are playing a key role in delivering communal toxicity to every household. The WhatsApp group of any apartment or society is a primary centre for supplying hatred round the clock in the guise of religious messages.

Fake news and provocative messages against Muslims are continuously being shared in the WhatsApp group of one such housing society in South Delhi. The group also includes two Muslim families who reside in the society.

Initially, some people and those Muslim members shared verified content and fact-check reports to counter the fake news, but communal messages kept pouring until they were tired of correcting and countering them.

The hatred against Muslims has increased to such an extent that during Ramzan this year, the Hanuman Chalisa was recited in a prominent society in Noida to protest against namaz being offered at one place with the permission of the management.

Earlier, Bajrang Dal members had created a ruckus in Moradabad, UP, for offering tarawih prayers at a private property. The matter reached the police, who refused to grant permission to the property owner to organise the mass prayer.

Muslim families living in such hostile environments are not in a position to trust their neighbours or the people around them.

Also Read: Social Media – and its Cesspool of Toxicity – Now Occupies a Central Place in Our Democracy

Fear among Muslims is not baseless

During the last several years, attempts have been made to dismiss the fears among the Muslim community and their growing suspicions. Hindutva leaders have often offered them advice ‘not to be afraid’. However, the Muslims do not agree with it at all.

Shaukat says, “Brainwashing is now complete. Media is spewing poison all the time. In such an environment, one does not feel good deep inside. You may call it fear or whatever, [but] knowingly or unknowingly, there is a constant and lingering sense of worry. This is happening more blatantly against Muslims in New India, and this attitude has been ingrained into their personality.”

“We cannot call this fear and anxiety imaginary. One thing or another is happening on a daily basis.”

Sarah comments on the impact this environment has on her mental health and says, “I have started having nightmares about being trapped in a communal riot and being completely helpless. When I shared this with my mother and some friends, they said they had similar experience.”

Rehana also enumerates some social aspects of the aftermath of the violence against Muslims. She says, “As far as I have observed and understood, the Muslim people who are able to afford it are giving priority to traveling by personal vehicles or by air.”

“People do not want to invest in Hindu-dominated areas, fearing attacks. They are avoiding shopping in Hindu-dominated markets. Shopkeepers are not using Muslim names or boards with Urdu writing. Muslim people doing small jobs in homes or societies have reduced their visits to Hindu areas or societies.”

Sharib adds, “Our mental condition is such that when we get together – even if for something as simple as having tea – we talk of nothing but similar news and share our worries about the situation in future. We have been reduced to nothing but our existence.”

Rakshanda describes this fear, saying, “I don’t ‘look’ like a Muslim, so to an extent, I am safe. Unless called out to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ to profess my Indianness, I am largely safe.”

“But what of my name? How can I camouflage that on a railway booking chart? Or hide it when asked to provide proof of identity? While my first name can afford some benefit of doubt, for it might pass as a Parsi’s, my surname is a dead give-away.”

“When push comes to shove in the New India that is Bharat, not even speaking English will give me an exit pass if a mob baying for Muslim blood were to gherao [surround] me. All my so-called privileges can be brought to naught by a lumpen crowd. The realisation is chilling.”

For Areeb, these changes are not just a matter of today or tomorrow. “This is happening as per a planned political strategy,” he says.

“Secondly, India is quickly becoming a society of people who do not step forward to rescue [someone] if [they are] being targeted because of their religion, or if a situation like the Jaipur Express train arises. This is the mindset politics is toying with. Even if Narendra Modi is no longer in power at the Centre, we are not going to easily get rid of this hatred and mentality.”

Is it dangerous for me to be identified?

When asked to comment, Faiyaz Ahmad Wajeeh, assistant editor of The Wire Urdu, said, “These days, I am sensing a fearful silence a lot more around me. There is noise in this silence, but people are pretending as if everything is fine.”

“I know people who are worried about their appearance and a dress that gives them away from a distance. This concern has escalated after the Jaipur Express murder case. In such a situation, some people may shave off their beard or stop wearing a niqab, but what about people who study in madrasas or work as imams? Can they take such a step out of fear?”

“Even if I do not call it fear among the Muslim community, my biggest concern is: can I one day be recognised as a Muslim too? That is going to be dangerous. Few people want to talk about this fear. Many Muslims have started keeping their religious identity hidden behind the cover of silence.”

“Muslims feel that whenever they are or will be targeted for their religion, neither anyone from other communities nor even the police will come to their rescue. I could talk about hope, but the way the state has patronised hatred and the way slogans of genocide are raised in dharam sansads, there is not much hope visible. The Muslim community has been put to sacrifice at the altar of power.”

An asterisk indicates that the person’s name has been changed.

This article was first published on The Wire Hindi. It was translated into English by Naushin Rehman.