‘Dear’ but ‘disowned and damned’: plight of Muslims in ‘new’ India

People living in Denmark for less than 20 years are accepted as Danish. But Muslims tracing their ancestry for several hundred years in India are being told they are not Indians, reflects Tabish Khair

‘Dear’ but ‘disowned and damned’: plight of Muslims in ‘new’ India

Tabish Khair

Imagine having grown up in a family that increasingly disowns you. At first, it is just a distant cousin or so who whispers that you do not ‘really’ belong to the family. It is easy to ignore such whispers because (shall we say) the aunties and uncles, the heads of the family, insist that you belong.

Then the whispers grow. They turn into shouts and abuse. And many of the family members who do not whisper stay silent when you are abused. Soon it is not just a far cousin who shouts that you do not really belong. It is people closer to you. It is even an uncle or an aunt at times. They dismiss you. They dismiss your positions because the moment you differ, you do not belong to the family. And what is worse, the heads of the family now maintain a ‘judicious silence.’

That is what I feel about India today.

I grew up in an extended Muslim family, spread over much of North and East India. The members differed in many ways. Their professions differed, their lifestyles differed, their Urdu differed. Even their Islam differed: some were very religious, some moderately religious, some unconcerned about religion, and there were even four or five who were resolutely anti-religion. But the one thing all of them were convinced about was this: they were and had always been Indian.

Not that we had not heard the whispers. There had always been some who dismissed Muslims as ‘foreigners’ or ‘Mughals’ or, increasingly, ‘Pakistani’ and ‘anti-national.’ But it had been easy to overlook such whispers in the past. They were few. No one we actually knew would think along such lines. My Sanskrit tutor was a member of the RSS, as were at least two of my father’s friends (both from families known to us for generations) – but we never felt any hatred from them. I am convinced even today that they and their descendants never hated us or considered us ‘foreign.’ It all changed in the 1990s. The whisper turned into shouting. The shouting turned into hatred. The hatred turned into abuse and violence. We had been naïve. Our old Hindutva friends – those who supported the various iterations of the BJP in the past or even drilled with the RSS – had also been naïve, at least those who genuinely believed that the whispers were just a necessary political gambit. All of us seemed to have believed – as I hoped in an essay in Outlook in 2014 – that trust in human decency might suffice.

In my case, as someone born in Muslim circles, I was also inclined to look at the genuine grievances that some Hindus had against some Muslims. I had to look inwards – and I did not like what I saw of some Muslim leaders and their response to things like gender rights or democracy. I insisted that a democratic nation could have no space for ‘Hindu’ or Sharia laws, no matter how they were interpreted, because religions are based on revelations or unquestionable sacredness, but democracy has to be always negotiable at a mundane, ordinary level. There were other Muslims like me. Hence, I balanced my criticism of Hindutva with my criticism of Islamic fundamentalism. I thought that such balance would make those Hindus who were silent in the face of the whispers to think again. To speak up.

It did not happen.

True, there are millions of Hindus who continue to take a stand against such abuse. But these do not come from the Hindutva fold, which includes not just bigots but also neoliberal ‘moderates.’ And the millions of Hindus who take a clear stand against such abuse are themselves under attack: urban naxals, anti-national, Maoist, sickuler, Hindu-phobic, etc. It is the Hindutva fold that I am talking about. It is the descendants of my Sanskrit tutor and my father’s RSS friends that I am talking about. Why are they still silent?

I have children living in Denmark, and I want them to grow up as Danes, because this is where they were born and this is where they will live. Danish is their first language, though they speak other languages too. A multicultural iteration of Danishness is their culture. They have been here for twenty years or less, but I do not know a single Dane who would say that they are not Danish. On the other hand, Muslims, who have been in India for 1,500 years, are still not Indian for so many Hindus! And political leaders or public figures can say or imply this without strong condemnation by every other Indian!

I feel fatigue because just as the Muslim electorate has been effectively marginalized – and some even claim that millions will be officially deregistered in a few years – people with names like mine have been sidelined. I can only sing praises, be a mechanical nightingale! The moment I offer a single note of criticism, I am met with a torrent of abuse. And, more shockingly, ‘moderate’ voices educating me about how bad Muslim countries are. Why should I, an Indian (because, unlike my children, I am legally and culturally Indian), be lectured about ‘Muslim countries’? Why should my Indianness be stripped from me, that too in ‘moderation’, and I be thrust into a communal identity?

I feel fatigue not because of the foul shouting, but because of the silence. And that includes the ‘judicious silence’ of the heads of the national ‘family’ now. I have for years demanded that Muslims, religious, semi-religious and irreligious, need to oppose the fundamentalist tendencies in Islam – not in order to prove their ‘innocence’ to others, but in order to prevent the destructiveness of bigotry and intolerance from spreading within their own communities. I have demanded it even in the years when I would be vigorously attacked for such statements in liberal or leftist circles. I must say that many Muslims, like me, have stepped up over the years – some far more boldly than me and at greater risk to themselves – and spoken against such tendencies in Muslim communities. I particularly admire those who are religious, and have nevertheless spoken up – for they, by definition, do it in a more precarious context.

Hence, my expectation from the so-called ‘moderates’ – the silent cousins, uncles and aunts – in the Hindutva fold is no different from my call to Muslims, especially religious Muslims. But that is not how it is heard, even by many orthodox Hindus who claim that they are politically ‘open’. It has come to the point where I do not want to comment on Indian politics anymore.

When conversation and discussion are not possible, only experience can teach. Unfortunately, its costs are higher. When history looks back, that is what it will note: the pity of it. The needless and avoidable pity of it all.

(Tabish Khair lives and teaches in Denmark and is the author of over a dozen books)

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