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Islam and Politics ( 26 Feb 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Muslim as the Enemy, Muslim as the Other

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

27 Feb 2016

With his head hung in shame and humiliation, Yunus Sheikh marched in Latur with a saffron flag in hand, egged on by a crowd who were ordering him to shout Jai Bhavani. At one point, he looks back and reasons with the crowd, largely composed of Hindu Right wing, that he was a Muslim but also an Indian like them. But for this Hindu Right group, the mere fact that he was a Muslim was reason enough that he should be taught a lesson, shamed and humiliated and eventually dragged and beaten up. It is another matter that he was an Indian that he was a fellow Maharashtrian; what was more important for the crowd was that he was Muslim first and last. In short, this policeman who had done nothing wrong but performs his duty for nearly three decades was reduced to his religious identity. In the debate on nationalism today, it is not enough to be an Indian, what is important is what kind of Indian you are. After all, aren’t we united in saying that the greatest threat to the nation comes from its ‘internal’ enemies? 

An incident of such a grave injustice which should have made all of us enraged has largely gone unnoticed. Except for a few media houses trying to salvage their secular image post the manufactured news in which they had collectively and decisively adjudged JNU as an anti-national university, there was no large scale debate on the said incident. Why have we become so immune that we don’t even react to such an incident? One might interject and say that we have raised our voices on issues of violence against women. Also we were present in large numbers during the anti-corruption movement.

It is true that we have protested as a society from time to time against what we have thought are important issues concerning all of us. But unfortunately, this very same society, which fought the bitter cold of December nights to reclaim the streets, is largely silent on issues which involve targeting of Muslims or other marginal sections of India like the Dalits or the tribals. Here I will only concentrate on Muslim examples. Why is it that there has been no condemnation of violence against Yunus Sheikh? One or two news items here and there will not solve the problem: what we need is a broader debate on the discrimination and violence against Muslims in this country. Perhaps these occurrences have become so common, mundane and everyday that our collective conscience no longer revolts against such practices.

It is true that what happened in Malda, in West Bengal, was highly condemnable. Wanton destruction of public property and targeted looting by Muslims must be condemned by one and all. Malda violence was widely covered in the media with some even suggesting that there was a terror link to this largely local violence. We have comments which linked this violence with earlier forms of ‘Muslim’ violence which was witnessed some years ago in suburban Mumbai. For most commentators, Muslim violence formed a specific pattern for which it was argued that state has to be super alert to nip this protest in the bud.

Contrast this with the ongoing Jat agitation. There is widespread media coverage but despite wanton loot, violence and now reportedly mass rape, no one is commenting on how this violence could have been nipped in the bud. Rather the discussion is more on knowing the reasons for Jat protest and whether their demand for reservation is justified or not. If all violence needs to be condemned with equal measure, then why is it that the violence in Malda becomes a cause a national concern and even strategic concern and hinges on being anti-national. But in the more vociferous levels of violence committed by the Jats, there is not even a hint of anything remotely anti-national. And of course, since Jats are Hindus there is no need to probe a foreign hand in the ongoing agitation. Why do we have such double standards? Or is it that the problem is much deeper?

There is a deep structure when it comes to thinking about Muslims in this country. That deep structure sees and talks about Muslims as if they are shorn of any other identity. This projected and manufactured singularity makes sure that Muslims who are embedded in very different contexts are made to appear as if they can only be understood and talked about or written through the privileging of their religious identity. It is for this very reason that an eminent educationist like Zakir Husain is only remembered as a Muslim. And it is for this reason that critical thinkers like Maulana Azad are only remembered as Muslim figures in the Nehruvian consensus.

There is almost a banality when it comes to stereotyping Muslims. That Muslims reproduce more is just one the many ways to vilify a community. There are more insidious ways to castigate the community and they are practiced within the confines of our homes. Calling them out for eating certain kinds of foods, labelling them unclean helps in creating standard impressions on the minds of the young which has a lasting impression. The strategies to paint this community as the ‘other’ of Indian society therefore has so much resonance because these images have already been imprinted on our minds through varied processes of socialization, both inside as well as outside our homes. We need to start a different discourse on the Muslims in this country, a discourse which brings their life world onto the public domain with all its attendant complexities. Only then perhaps can we start to question and eventually overcome the saffron and deranged violence on Yunus Sheikh.


A columnist, Arshad Alam is a Delhi based writer