‘Extremely violent and brutal’: India’s Islamophobia problem has no end in sight
Resentment from the Hindu right-wing towards Muslims is emblematic of Islamophobia stemming from the BJP itself. Narendra Modi first came to power in 2014, promising development and progress but also a majoritarian onslaught against minorities, particularly Muslims.
Modi’s victory opened the floodgates of Hindutva — spearheaded by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the far-right Hindu outfit that BJP draws its spiritual sustenance — and allowed Islamophobia to set deeper roots in the world’s largest democracy.
The resistance from mainstream political parties to majoritarian communalism has been ineffective. For instance, the Indian National Congress, the BJP’s main rival, has weakened its ostensibly secular position.
Zafar-ul-Islam Khan, an Islamic scholar and former chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said “almost all opposition parties have adopted soft Hindutva, which means they will do or say nothing which goes against or angers Hindus.”
"The BJP has weaponised Islamophobia through using its IT cells and a pliant media to constantly attack the Muslim community… Since the BJP benefits politically from the vilification of Muslims, there is no hope that it will revise its anti-Muslim policies"
The May 26 derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammad by Nupur Sharma were planned responses to those questioning Hindu fanatics claiming a fountain in the 17th-century Gyanvapi mosque to be a Shivling, a phallic representation of the Hindu god Shiva.
The Hindu right-wing has long claimed the Gyanvapi mosque, located in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, a city considered holy by Hindus and which is also Modi’s parliamentary seat, to have been built by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb over the ruins of the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Several petitions were filed claiming Gyanvapi and the Shahi Idgah Masjid in Mathura ever since a nascent BJP mobilised Hindu fanatics across India to demolish the 16th-century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992. They claim all three mosques were built over Hindu temples.
Sharma — who frequently appears on such abrasive television debates to defend the Modi government and Hindu supremacy — made similar insulting remarks against Prophet Muhammad on multiple programmes that day.
But Sharma was merely amplifying arguments that an ecosystem of Hindu fanatics have flooded social media with, that the Quran stated the world to be flat; disparaging Shab-e-Meraj, the night in which Muslims believe the Prophet rode a horse to the heavens; and bringing up the Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to Ayesha when co-panellists wouldn’t relent.
Khan, the Islamic scholar said “the BJP has weaponised Islamophobia through using its IT cells and a pliant media to constantly attack the Muslim community… Since BJP benefits politically from the vilification of Muslims, there is no hope that it will revise its anti-Muslim policies.”
Indian television has proven itself to be complicit in the creation and propagation of discriminatory narratives, through debates like the one which hosted Sharma as well as other regular news programming, that are often overtly biased against Muslims.
In a coordinated effort in early 2020, Indian news media blamed the outbreak of Covid-19 upon Muslims, absolving the Modi government of its shortcomings. Social media was flooded with similar narratives, describing the phenomenon as “corona jihad”.
Moreover, derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad are also neither new nor confined to the fringes. At the Press Club of India in Delhi in April 2021, a far-right extremist Yati Narsinghanand called the Prophet a “dacoit, killer, and rapist” with little consequence.
Despite multiple complaints, the Indian police shied away from aggressively prosecuting the preacher under existing laws against hate speech. The unwillingness on part of authorities is consistent with the larger pattern of providing tacit approval to Islamophobia.
In another instance on live television, a popular Hindi channel, Sudarshan News, which receives significant funding from a regional BJP-led government, last year showed four missiles destroying one of Islam’s holiest mosques, the Masjid al Nabawi during a debate imploring India to stand by Israel’s war on Palestine.
These mainstream and social media narratives have a deep impact on the ground. Muslims have been accused of “love jihad”, a right-wing conspiracy theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women into romantic relationships with the aim of securing their conversion to Islam.
Many have been lynched to death on accusations of consuming beef (some Hindus consider cows sacred). Some BJP-ruled states have banned religious conversions, interfaith marriages, and the hijab while clamour grows to ban halal meat.
In the wake of courts allowing and legitimising surveys of the Gyanvapi mosque, Hindu groups have laid fresh claims to various mosques and Muslim shrines across India. An ongoing campaign of invisibilisation of India’s Muslim past and future.
Even before, in February, a slogan coined to keep supremacist sentiments alive after the Babri Masjid was demolished returned: “Ayodhya is just a teaser, Mathura and Kashi are still waiting to happen”.
Eyeing electoral dividends
In February this year, the BJP’s Hindu monk Adityanath won a second term in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state with the largest share of federal lawmakers, by furthering polarisation, denigrating Muslims as criminals and rioters, and reiterating old promises.
“We had said we will get Ram Temple work started in Ayodhya. Modi had got that started. Aren’t you happy? In Kashi, a grand Vishwanath Dham has been built. You’ve seen it. Then how will Mathura-Vrindavan be left behind? Work has started there too,” Adityanath had said during campaigning.
An indicator of India’s growing appetite for the persecution of Muslims is Adityanath’s governance style of swift retribution to Muslims merely accused of committing crimes, primarily by demolishing their properties, leading to an India-wide trend of deploying bulldozers as a tool of oppression, instead of development.
On June 10, Muslims across India held demonstrations against Sharma’s remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. More than 400 – nearly 300 of them in UP alone – were arrested while at least two were shot dead in another northern state, Jharkhand's capital Ranchi.
Two days later, Adityanath bulldozed a house belonging to 57-year-old political activist Mohammad Javed’s wife Parveen Fatima, whose daughter Afreen Fatima is also a prominent activist, in the city of Allahabad – that was renamed “Prayagraj” – as punishment for allegedly leading protests. At least two other houses were also demolished.
“The Indian Muslim community has always been battling Islamophobia — in offices, schools, universities and public spaces,” Afreen, 25, told The New Arab. “It's just become outright and extremely violent and brutal now.”
"As Modi eyes a third term in the 2024 general elections, he is beleaguered by a chequered track record of governance, including his mismanagement of the economy. Critics believe this will only intensify his government’s persecution of Muslims as a strategy for electoral gains"
Khan traces the roots of India’s Islamophobia to the colonial British policy of divide and rule, further solidified by the Partition of British India which led to the creation of Pakistan for Muslims. “Go to Pakistan” has become a common disparaging refrain to attack Indian Muslims.
The marginalisation of Indian Muslims and everyday Islamophobia, however, went unnoticed, hidden from the outside enamoured with the glamour and wild popularity of Bollywood’s long line of Muslim superstars, who ironically rarely played Muslim characters.
Today, Islamophobia has become mainstream with the tacit approval of state institutions, including the judiciary, she said. “The Indian Muslim community is left to fend for itself,” Afreen told The New Arab, and even if the BJP were to lose power it wouldn’t ensure a return to normalcy, she added. “The way the RSS has taken hold of the emotions of the country, it is difficult for Congress or any other party to not play the Hindu card.”
In the run-up to the landmark 2014 elections, Islamophobia manifested itself in the narratives of so-called “Muslim appeasement” by the Congress party and irrational fears of the minority — less than 14% of the population — taking over a country of more than a billion.
After the controversial citizenship law, which discriminates against Muslims only, passed in late 2019 sparked protests, prime minister Modi said in an address to party workers: “From the visuals on TV, those setting the fire can be identified by their clothes,” referring to the clothes Muslim wear.
As Modi eyes a third term in the 2024 general elections, he is beleaguered by a chequered track record of governance, including his mismanagement of the economy. Critics believe this will only intensify his government’s persecution of Muslims as a strategy for electoral gains.
“We are not going to be cowed down so easily but I am disturbed by the thought of what might follow and it’s going to be way worse,” said Afreen. “That is why we are appealing to the [international community] to not just keep an eye on India but that there is a need for action, international accountability of the monstrous state that India has become for its minorities.”
Even as India’s poor track record on human rights and shrinking security for minorities is widely recognised, most recently by the United States Department of State’s Report on International Religious Freedom for 2021, New Delhi will likely not face international pressure for course correction.
Why then was New Delhi compelled to act against Sharma can be explained by India’s crucial economic ties with Gulf countries who are among India’s top 10 trade partners and from where expatriate Indians contribute to half of India’s total annual remittance.
A report on growing illiberalism in India by the United States Institute of Peace noted that continued internal instability could damage India’s hard-power potential by reducing productivity, increasing security expenditure, and dwindling revenues.
“For the United States, the long-term value of partnership with an illiberal, undemocratic India would be less than what the Biden administration — or most of its recent predecessors — has hoped,” it noted. “If present trends persist — and they might not — Washington will find India a relatively less committed, less capable partner, especially when it comes to defending the institutions and norms of the liberal world order.”
End goal: Hindu Rashtra?
Despite the erosion of democracy, India continues to remain constitutionally a secular state — something the right-wing has not shied away from criticising. Hindu supremacists continue to be proponents of the two-nation theory rejected by Indian Muslims.
Even as the Sharma controversy is yet to fully die down, the clamour for turning India into a Hindu Rashtra is getting shriller.
Observers point to the August 2019 abrogation of semi-autonomy of India’s only Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, which preceded the citizenship laws by a few months, as part of a systemic plan to disempower India’s Muslims.
Kashmiris have historically imagined their homeland as an independent nation and refrained from commenting on matters pertaining to Indian Muslims, who in turn have maintained a careful distance from the former’s movement for secession from India.
The current regime, however, said Ali Ahmed, a former infantry colonel in the Indian Army, “assumes a monolithic Muslim identity” which has mixed affairs of Indian Muslims and Kashmiris. “Within that phenomenon, the humiliation of Kashmiris was a wider message to Indian Muslims that we are capable of anything,” he said. “It is also to send a message to Indian Muslims that they are being driven to the corner, that something is up their sleeves: Hindu Rashtra.”
The consistent persecution of Muslims, Ahmed said, could be a “conditioning in preparation for” the announcement of the Hindu Rashtra. “Their assumption that springing it up abruptly would bring backlash, especially from Muslims. So prior to springing Hindu Rashtra upon us, which might be as early as after the next election, they are probably conditioning Indian Muslims or taming them and getting them into their grip.”
Rayan Naqash is an independent journalist based in Srinagar, Kashmir.
Follow him on Twitter: @rayan_naqash