Is India’s biggest minority on the way to being made politically irrelevant? With the BJP picking Yogi Adityanath, among the most virulent anti-Muslim voices, as UP chief minister, the debate is no longer whether Indian Muslims are pampered; it is whether they are being shoved out of the national discourse. Sonia Sarkar gets a measure of the shifting equations
“Unless proved to be ‘good’, every Muslim was presumed to be ‘bad’.”
— Mahmood Mamdani
Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, written in the backdrop of 9/11
He rears cows; doesn’t eat beef. He believes the Mughal emperor, Akbar, was an invader but hails the Mewar ruler, Maharana Pratap. He despises Aurangzeb and has a soft corner for Dara Shikoh. He abhors the skull cap in his daily life but flaunts it at a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rally.
Meet the good Muslim of India – a Muslim not defined by his or her own religious or cultural belonging or mooring but defined by parameters set by Hindu ultra-nationalists, many of who sit saddled in power today. Does it say something that one of the most consistently strident and divisive anti-minority campaigners – Yogi Adityanath – has been handpicked to lead Uttar Pradesh, our most populous and politically influential state?
One such “good” Muslim comes from UP itself and was recently applauded on the floor of the Parliament for disowning his “terrorist” son. Sartaj Ahmed of Kanpur disowned his son, Saifullah, killed in an encounter last fortnight in the thick of the final rounds of polling in Uttar Pradesh. Hailing him, Union home minister Rajnath Singh told the Lok Sabha: “We should all be proud of him (Sartaj).”
Did Sartaj have a choice? That’s the question many are asking now.
“Sartaj had to prove his nationalism by disowning his son,” asserts Delhi’s Mohammad Aamir Khan, 38, who spent 14 years in jail, being falsely implicated in terror cases. “Strangely, a Hindu’s patriotism is never questioned. Why don’t fathers of Hindu men, who were recently accused of spying for Pakistan’s ISI, disown their sons, just as Sartaj did?” Khan asks.
Umar Khalid, the PhD student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who was arrested for allegedly shouting anti-India slogans last year, says society profiles him by his religion. “I don’t even call myself a Muslim, I am an atheist, yet they term me a bad Muslim. But these circumstances make you feel conscious of your Muslim-ness,” Khalid says.
This is a hard time to be a Muslim in India. Branding at the hands of ultra-Hindu groups, often backed by the powers, comes easy; belonging, as the recent outcome of the UP Assembly election might attest, comes tough. The BJP, which swept UP by a landslide, chose not to give a single Muslim a ticket. Hindu groups and leaders are quick to label Muslims as good and bad; Muslims are under pressure to prove their loyalty to the nation.
For quasi-political Hindutva groups, a good Muslim is one who exhibits ample love for the country or subscribes to their ideology of ultra-nationalism. Often, they cite the example of how the Bollywood Muslim trio of lyricist Shakeel Badayuni, singer Mohammed Rafi and music director Naushad, showed their patriotism by composing a Hari bhajan, Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj for Baiju Bawra (1952).
For the RSS, a Muslim who is fairly a Hindu is a good Muslim. “A Muslim doesn’t necessarily have to worship Ram as God but he must accept that Ram was a great personality and he doesn’t oppose the building of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya,” says a Nagpur-based Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader.
Pakistan-born Canadian author Tarek Fatah is the new darling of Hindu nationalists because he lambastes radical Islamists. “Traditionally, India is a land of Hindus; I can never support the invaders,” Fatah tells The Telegraph from Geneva. His argument is ahistoric, and rubbishes hundreds of years of syncretic culture and tradition that went into the making of plural India.
When Hindu groups love a Muslim, they reward him too. For example, recently, they named Dalhousie Road in Delhi after Dara Shikoh. According to them, Shikoh was a good Muslim because he translated the Upanishads into Persian; Aurangzeb, his brother and slayer, was a bad Muslim because he was devout and imposed religious taxes on Hindus during his time. The erstwhile Aurangzeb Road now stands re-named after former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, another “good” Muslim because he was the architect of India’s nuclear programme, he knew the Ramayana and played the veena. And this exercise of rechristening Aurangzeb Road as A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road took place to send a strong message that there is no space for “bigoted rulers” like Aurangzeb in India. Recent works on the last great Mughal emperor, such as Audrey Truschke’s Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth, suggest that he was more sinned against than sinning. But historical truth or detail has seldom come in the way of ultra-nationalists. Aurangzeb stands condemned and deserving of being airbrushed.
Bringing some “good” Muslims together in 2002, the RSS floated the Muslim Rashtriya Manch. Last year, the forum asked all Muslim members to rear cows and also brought out a booklet, on cow and Islam, highlighting the importance of cow in Islam.
“A good Muslim is someone who accepts Indian culture and tradition,” says RSS leader Indresh Kumar. “Muslims who are born here, should be loyal to India.” But that loyalty is for Muslims to prove, each step of the way. If Hindus think some Muslims don’t conform to their idea of loyalty, they’d want them packed off to Pakistan. That’s the diktat they issued to Bollywood superstars Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan when they recently spoke out against rising intolerance in the country. Often, the net is cast wider. During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Union minister Giriraj Singh called out to all those opposed to Narendra Modi to head to Pakistan.
Muslims in India have for years been told “mend your ways, else go to Pakistan”. Hyderabad Lok Sabha member and no-nonsense Muslim voice Asaduddin Owaisi recalls that during his growing years as a Hyderabadi teen, a group of Hindu men would routinely come by his house in an upmarket neighbourhood and shout: ” Musalman – Kabristan ya Pakistan…“(For Muslims – it’s either destination graveyard or Pakistan).”
Delhi-based human rights activist Mahtab Alam has come to believe that many in his community sub-consciously feel the need to distance themselves from “bad” Muslims. He too has done it. “Once someone told me that S.A.R. Gilani, charged and acquitted in the Parliament attack case, was teaching in Jamia Millia Islamia, my alma mater. I quickly corrected him, saying, Gilani teaches in Delhi University, not Jamia. By saying so, I was not merely stating a fact but was disassocia-ting my alma mater and myself from the ‘bad’ Muslim.”
Muslims often make a conscious effort to prove their loyalty. In 2008, Mumbai’s Muslim Council refused to bury the Pakistani terrorists involved in the 26/11 attacks in the Marine Lines Bada Qabrastan. Recently, Muslim clerics in India spoke in unison against televangelist Zakir Naik, whose affairs are under investigation.
Despite displaying their patriotism repeatedly, Muslims are routinely stereotyped. During any India vs Pakistan cricket match, a Muslim is invariably suspected to be supporting Pakistan. A Muslim man with a beard and a woman in hijab are seen with suspicion. Recently, a young schoolteacher in Mumbai resigned after she was asked by the headmistress to remove her hijab and burqa before singing national anthem during the school assembly. Last year, a Muslim soldier was dismissed from the Indian Army because he refused to shave his beard. Again last year, Bollywood actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui was not allowed to act in a Ramleela in his west UP village for being a Muslim.
“Bad” Muslims have been routinely targeted. Two years ago, Mohammed Akhlaque of Dadri in UP was lynched for allegedly storing beef. Last year, two Muslim men in Jharkhand were hanged to death by self-styled cow vigilantes for allegedly trading in cows. Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s patriotism was also questioned for not being part of the International Yoga Day two years ago, and for not saluting passing contingents at the R-Day parade. Ansari hadn’t been invited to the yoga event and isn’t, as Vice-President, supposed to take the salute; only the President, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, is.
On the sidelines of rampant political discrimination and name-calling, Muslims have continued to fare poorly as a social group. In 2008, the government-appointed Rajinder Sachar committee report stated that Muslims suffer from severe deprivations in education, employment and health services. Houses are not rented out to them; they are forced to live in ghettoes. Indian human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concerns over profiling of Muslims as terrorists.
Hatred against Muslims has grown manifold too, fuelled by social media Hindutva activism. M. Reyaz, assistant professor of Journalism at Calcutta’s Aliah University, says, he chooses not to confront anything “obnoxious” against Muslims posted on social media: “Argument with them is futile.”
Experts say that this sort of labelling becomes stronger when politicians make the Hindu-Muslim divide more obvious. Addressing an election rally in UP recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his infamous kabristan-shmashan reference, sending out a clear message on which side he stood. “The good Muslim-bad Muslim narrative gets validated when a prime minister makes such references in his speech,” historian S. Irfan Habib points out. Muslim representation in Parliament and the UP Assembly is at a low, and in both Houses the BJP coasted to victory making it apparent it wasn’t bothered about them. “It seems Muslim voters have no relevance and that’s a reason to worry,” Habib says.
Writer and theatre actor, Danish Husain, however, feels that paying attention to the Good Muslim vs Bad Muslim debate would mean playing into the hands of rogues, who have usurped the nationalism narrative. “This is a bogus distinction and an attempt to deflect us from the real issues of the country,” Husain says. “None including the media should fall into the trap.”
Perhaps, that’s a sound advice for Muslims in India too. But only perhaps.
My name is Khan, and I…
A Good Muslim
1. Rear cows; don’t eat beef
2. Don’t wear a skull cap socially but flaunt it at BJP rallies
3. Don’t ask for constitutional rights
4. Don’t object to the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya
5. Lambaste radical Islamists; practice yoga
6. Tell everyone that I am supporting India in an India vs Pakistan match; oppose Pakistani actors in Bollywood
7. Am always apologetic about any crime a Muslim commits in any part of the world
8. Never question radical Hindus and self-styled cow vigilantes
9. Sing bhajans, celebrate Holi and Diwali, invite Hindus to Iftar
10. Consider A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as the ideal Muslim.
A Bad Muslim
1. Am into cow-trading; eat beef
2. Wear a skull cap socially without inhibitions
3. Claim my constitutional rights
4. Question the demolition of Babri Masjid
5. Don’t sing Vande Mataram or chant Bharat Mata ki Jai
6. Question atrocities against Muslims
7. Question police ‘encounters’
8. Don’t consider Muslim rulers
of India as invaders
9. Vote for ‘secular’ parties
10. Sympathise with Maoists.