Islamophobia has deep historical roots in India. Historical movements like Shuddhi, etc. have been rebranded under BJP, which manifests the growing tide of Islamophobia.
On May 27, 2022, Nupur Sharma, a spokesperson of India's ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), on national television. Later, on June 1, Naveen Kumar Jindal, the Delhi BJP media chief, made similar remarks on Twitter. Though, after condemnation from around the world, the BJP has suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslims, but the incident reflects a pattern of the BJP leadership who regularly makes inflammatory, anti-Islamic, and anti-minority comments, and gets away with it. The paper is an attempt to understand this phenomenon of Islamophobia and its relations with the emerging Indian Hindu nationalist polity.
Islamophobia is a xenophobic sociopolitical phenomenon that refers to a fear of the Islamic faith and hostility towards its followers, the Muslims. Usually, xenophobia is associated with the behavior of fear and hatred towards the out-group, but in the case of Islamophobia, the reactions are more aggressive and voracious. In the West, an increasing number of people view Islam and Muslims negatively, and around 55 percent wished to stop migration from the Muslim countries. The origins of Islamophobia are rooted in the history of the interaction between the West and Islam: Islam was perceived as a threat to Christian Europe. The far-right anti-Islamic networks in Europe have used the colored memories of the Crusades to the Holy Land in the period between 1095 and 1291, the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683, and the colonial wars against Muslims in Afro-Asian regions, especially the Algerian campaign since 1830 through 1962 to provoke hatred towards Islam and Muslims. In the recent past, the Danish cartoon incident of 2005–06 and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, contributed to the re-emergence of the Islamophobic attitudes. In this environment of suspicion and distrust, it is argued that the peaceful coexistence of Islam and the West is impossible because both are based on ideas of immutable cultural differences. Furthermore, the philosophical thought of Islam and Muslims is projected as inherently oppositional and antagonistic to neoliberal Western values. These anti-West and modernization projections of Islam and Muslims help develop conspiracy theories, such as the Islamization of the Western world; accordingly, it is claimed that Muslim migrants and their high rates of fertility would change the Christian character of Europe. This rhetoric of a demographic threat entails that if and when in power, the Muslims will introduce shari'a law and turn Europe into a caliphate. Consequently, these threatening imaginaries are reflected in frequent institutional discrimination of Muslims, like Hijab ban to hate crimes, arbitrary detention, torture, and ethnoreligious cleansing. The Muslim world claims that Islamophobia has emerged as a new form of racism that justifies violence and discrimination against them. This racism promotes intolerance of Muslim religious symbols and rituals such as prayers, clothes, eating habits, living arrangements, and so on. These attacks on Muslim religio-cultural identity are often supported by state policies.
Those who challenge these diktats of Hindutva are labeled anti-national and Pakistani agents. To verify their patriotism, the Indian Muslims were forced to publically chant Hindu slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” (Hail Ram, the Hindu God).
In India, the Islamophobic attitude is deep-rooted: the Muslim dynasties ruled and dominated its economy and polity for over five centuries. This domination ended with the arrival of European powers and the construction of a British Empire in the Indian subcontinent, the British Raj. Under the Raj, the Brahmin upper-caste Hindus quickly learned English language and expanded their influence in its administration. These Brahmins viewed Indian Muslims as competitors and attempted to exclude them from the socio-political and economic power structure of the Raj. The intellectuals and reformers of this upper caste-class, Brahmin, described Indian Muslims as outsiders and occupiers, which is why both Indian and Hindu identity constructs ignored Muslims and constructed their identities on the conception of their origins of the Aryan race and religio-cultural inheritance of the Vedic era. To trivialize Muslim contributions to the Indian civilization in writing the Indian history, the pre-Muslim Hindu era was directly linked to the story of freedom struggle of All India National Congress. In the post-independence era, the Congress under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised minorities of a secular constitution, but Nehruvian secularism remained mostly a rhetoric of the Indian state to win the minorities’ votes at the electoral constituency level. The Congress candidates always ran an aggressive communal campaign against Indian Muslims on the issues of cow protection, Urdu language, and Pakistan. Similarly, the Indian courts and other institutions interpreted this claimed secular constitution through ideational prism of the majority community that ensured the hegemony of Hindu norms, traditions, and values. Prime Minister Nehru himself defined Indian Muslims in good and bad terms, the pro-Congress secular Muslims were projected as good Indian citizens, while others as communal and reactionaries. The Congress allied itself with the conservative elements of the Indian Muslim community to ensure their support in the electoral contestations. Miss Indira Gandhi and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, continued this policy and contributed to the ghettoization of Indian Muslims and their decline in almost every aspect of the Indian national life.
Hindu nationalism demonstrates explicit Islamophobia in its conduct and ideology. The entire Hindu identity construct is in opposition to Islam and Muslims: according to the Hindu nationalists, a Hindu must share three essential elements with his in-group: a common nation (rashtra), a common race (jati), and a common culture or civilization (sanskrit). Under this definition, Indian Muslims were declared alien because they followed a foreign religion whose holy lands were in Arabia. Additionally, their loyalty to India was suspected because, accordingly, they do not accept India as their motherland (mathrubhumi), the land of their ancestors (pitribhumi), and their holy land (punyabhumi). As aliens, Indian Muslims fall outside the Verna system, a socio-religious hierarchy based on cast purity: they are treated as impure (mleccha). The Hindu nationalists have repeatedly termed Indian Muslims as unclean, overpopulating, backward, unpatriotic, scheming, invaders, and outsiders. Similarly, their entire contribution, rather than mere presence in India, is treated as a source of pollution in the Hindu religion and nation. In line with their ideological convictions, the Hindu nationalists argue that Indian Muslims' arrogance and treachery is reflected in the partition of the Indian subcontinent into two states; and later, in independent India, the Muslim determination to preserve their distinct identity and civilization. Accordingly, the ghettoization of Indian Muslims is a consequence of this Muslim communalism and its appeasement of the Congress in the name of pseudo-secularism. The Hindu nationalists claim that the Indian Muslims' social isolation, rejection of modernization, and refusal to integrate into the mainstream have made them a major drain on the Hindu economy and society. The entire Muslim community is suspected of extraterritorial loyalties that make them the main security threat to Hindu rashtra (nation). That is why Indian Muslims are advised to get integrated into Hindu rashtra through the process of Hinduization: the movement of Shuddhi invites Indian Muslims of Indian origin back to the religion of their ancestors. The rest of the Indian Muslims are instructed to avoid public demonstration of their religious symbols and rituals and adopt Hindu ethos. They have to accept Hindu heroes and legends, Bharat as their holy land and its history as their own.
There are several personalities, like Dayananda Saraswati and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, and organizations like Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha, that had contributed to the advancement of the Hindu nationalist agenda. But Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) emerged as the main leader of Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia in India. It confines itself to the social arena but has created a web of wings and affiliated organizations in every walk of life to propagate its philosophy of Hindutva, the Sangh Parivar. Sangh Parivar condemns the Congress’ policy of secularism as a Muslim appeasement policy and terms it as a borrowed Western idea to rob the Hindu nation of its right to rule India in accordance with their Hindu ethos. The Sangh Parivar has developed yatra strategies to mobilize Hindu population on Hindutva philosophy and against the Indian Muslims. In such yatras, they propagated to build Ram Mandir, abolish article 370 (which preserved the unique status of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir in the Indian Union) and replace Muslim Personal Law (MPL) with Common Civil Code. In December 1992, one such Ram Rath Yatra demolished Babri Masjid. The political wing of Sangh Parivar, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), came to power in 1998-2004 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In this period, they did not have a parliamentary majority and were dependent on a diverse coalition, therefore, it followed a policy of soft Hindutva that promoted rewriting of school textbooks and appointment of pro-Hindu elements in the administration. In 2014, BJP again came into power at the centre under Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi. Earlier, he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat where he presided over a major anti-Muslim riot in 2002, in which over 2000 Muslims were slaughtered. Interestingly, the day he was elected as Prime Minister, a Hindu mob killed a man in Pune because of his skull cap (a Muslim symbol). The events of 9/11 provided the Modi government with an opportunity to successfully link Indian Islamophobic attitude with the emerging hostile trends in the West and justify their violent anti-Muslim policies in Kashmir and the rest of India. In line with the Western Islamophobia, Sangh Parivar argues that Muslims cannot live in peaceful coexistence with others; instead, they propagate their faith through terror and threats. In this favorable environment, Sangh Parivar cadre threatened the ordinary Indian Muslims to understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority of Hindus. During this period, the Hindu Cow protection vigilantes of Gau Raksha Seva Samiti under the garb of beef ban regularly committed violence against Muslims on the suspicion of possessing or eating beef, or transporting cattle intended for slaughter. In this regard, the tragic lynching of Akhlaq or Pehlu Khan on the suspicion of carrying beef acquired international recognition.
The Hindu nationalists have repeatedly termed Indian Muslims as unclean, overpopulating, backward, unpatriotic, scheming, invaders, and outsiders. Similarly, their entire contribution, rather than mere presence in India, is treated as a source of pollution in the Hindu religion and nation.
In 2019, the re-election of BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi with an absolute majority gave the Hindu nationalists new confidence to implement their extremist Hindutva agenda. The BJP sympathizers, workers, and leadership openly asserted that India was a Hindu land and that only a Hindu nation would have all the rights. In this Hindu state, Indian Muslims would only have their constitutionally guaranteed rights if they comply with Hindu majoritarian norms. Those who challenge these diktats of Hindutva are labeled anti-national and Pakistani agents. To verify their patriotism, the Indian Muslims were forced to publically chant Hindu slogans of Jai Shri Ram (Hail Ram, the Hindu God). Additionally, the conspiracy of Love Jihad (Jihad through the means of love) was popularized, which claimed that to gain demographic domination, the Indian Muslims are engaged in a plot to lure and forcibly convert Hindu women to Islam on the promise of marriage. Hindus were advised to Bahu Lao, Beti Bachao (bring a daughter-in-law, save a daughter) in order to protect the purity of Hindu women and the majority in India. Additionally, ten Indian states passed anti-conversion legislation to ban these religious conversions through marriage. These laws further ban religious conversions, except in the case that an individual wishes to reconvert to his immediate previous religion. This clause is included to facilitate the Hindu supremacist groups to reconvert Muslims and Christians into Hinduism under their campaign of Ghar Wapsi (Returning Home), a reinvention of the Shuddhi Movement. The rise of Hindu communalism influence affects every section of the Indian society and state, including Bollywood, journalism, social media, sports, police, and judiciary. In November 2019, Indian Supreme Court gave its final verdict on Ayodhya Mosque case which awarded the entire contested site of Babri Masjid to Hindus to construct their Ram Janmabhoomi. In September 2020, a special court acquitted all BJP leaders for their role in the demolition of Babri Masjid by Hindu rioters in 1992.
In this environment, the BJP government made a major decision on the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In August 2019, Article 370 was abrogated, the state was bifurcated into two union territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, its special status was revoked and was stripped of statehood. All this fundamental alteration of the legal and constitutional status of the territory and its inhabitants was done without any consent of the people. These actions were followed by a communications blockade that lasted several months and covered all forms of telephony and the internet. The partial, arbitrary, and selective restrictions of this communications blockade still continue. In 2020, the Modi government introduced a domicile law that gave permanent settlement status and rights to Indians working in the territory, thus paving the way for demographic change. The popular resentment and freedom struggle of the Kashmiris was dubbed as terrorism. The popular slogan of the Hindu nationalists was; Doodh maango ge toh kheer denge, Kashmir maango ge toh cheer denge (If you ask for milk, we will give you pudding; if you ask for Kashmir, we will tear you to bits). Similarly, the Modi government's response to the Muslim protest against the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) was hostile and aggressive. In Delhi, the Muslim neighborhoods, particularly those who voted against the ruling BJP in state elections were violently targeted. The BJP leaders used communal and provocative language and asserted that “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko”, which roughly translates to “What should be done to the traitors of the country? Shoot them”.
India enjoyed the benefits of its claims of an old civilization, secularism, and the only functioning democracy in the developing world. Its educated and professional workforce has penetrated the top business and technology-related companies of the West. Its diaspora settled in Europe and the United States is integrated into the local society and is very successful economically. Similarly, it has used its size and population to attract the external powers and established beneficial relations with most of the important nations. All these elements had afforded India opportunity to play a greater role at the international level and give moral lectures to other states on human rights, dignity and equality, but the rise of Hindu nationalists and their policies have damaged its soft image. Many countries of the world now see with concern its policies in Kashmir and against its own largest minority, the Indian Muslims, especially in the CAA. The UN human rights office has described CAA as fundamentally discriminatory, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government agency, has classified India as a “country of particular concern”. The U.S. members of Congress have also expressed similar concerns. The human rights activists of several Muslim-majority nations and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a group of fifty-seven member states, have advised India to take urgent steps to stop the growing tide of Islamophobia.
India is an oil deficit country and its successive governments have been sensitive about its oil supply from the Muslim Gulf. Additionally, around 7.6 million Non-resident Indians (NRIs) are living and working in West Asia and send back home valuable foreign exchange. India’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), stood at approximately USD 90 billion in 2020-2021. The recent badmouthing of its spokesperson has generated a very strong reaction from these states. Additionally, India is finding it difficult to purchase wheat from Turkey, and palm oil from Indonesia, and sell its products in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Though, at the moment, the situation is not very serious, however, if these Islamophobic trends continue, India will face serious difficulties in its relations with the Muslim world in particular and the rest of the world in general.
India is a country of over one billion highly diverse people. In the recent past, the political elite has exploited these differences with deadly consequences to its state and society. Prime Minister Modi’s government has once again instrumentalized and weaponized these differences, specifically religious differences, to gain electoral victories for its Sangh Parivar. These victories have emboldened them to practice discrimination and commit violence against minorities, especially Muslims. Consequently, Islamophobia in India is becoming more normalized and mainstream and has marginalized and alienated Muslims. On December 22, 2020, the best description of this rising Islamophobia was provided in the three-day event of the Hindu Yuva Vahini (a Hindu youth religious group) where hundreds of attendees rose in Nazi-style salutes and vowed to "fight, die and if required, kill" to turn India into a Hindu rashtra.
The writer is on the faculty of Quaid-i-Azam University (School of Politics and International Relations).
E-mail: [email protected]
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