New Age Islam
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Islam and Politics ( 26 Apr 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Lynching of Pehlu Khan and the New Normal


By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

26 April 2017

Ye To Hona Hi Tha. The absolute distance and nonchalance in the voice still disturbs me. A friend of mine was trying to justify the violence against Muslims in 2002. Muslims are like that only: they don’t mix and they fly the flag of Pakistan where they live. There is a limit to toleration. The majority had to react someday. Now they will be fine as they have been shown their place. Coming from a friend whom I had known for nearly a decade shook me to the very core. There was something fundamentally wrong with the way sections of the majority community was looking at the Muslims. Such hatred though had an underlying logic to it. Negativity about Muslims had to be internalized in order to give vent to such a hatred.

After nearly two decades, the underlying hatred against Muslim is expressing itself in a different form. Today it has the acquired the form of targeted lynching. There is perhaps no internal logic to such hatred: being Muslim is fair game. The peculiar thing about lynching is that it is a public spectacle. The lynching of Pehlu Khan and others, therefore happens in full public view. It is not just a lesson for the individual victim concerned; it is also a message to all Muslims that a similar fate awaits them if they do not ‘behave’. This expected behaviour though is not clear. Clearly in Pehlu Khan’s case, there was no illegality involved. He was a licenced dairy farmer and he was legally transporting cows. And yet he was targeted. So it is not so much a question whether he was within the ambit of law or not. What we are witnessing is something more sinister: that your being Muslim is enough to get you lynched. What is more appalling is that due to the public nature of lynching, people who have no intimate knowledge of the problem also join in. Thus for the bystanders who were watching this incident and who decided to join in eventually, the name Pehlu Khan was enough to prove culpability. In short, you need not know the real issues at hand before giving vent to your grievances. Lynching of Muslims is becoming a sport and everyone can join in.

Most of these Muslims who have faced such inglorious deaths also happen to be low caste Muslims. Religion and caste today fuse to produce what is called the Muslim identity. Public beating of lower castes in this country has been the rule for centuries. Despite stern provisions in the law, atrocities of such nature gets reported almost on a regular basis even now. The case of the public flogging of Dalits in Gujarat is not the only incident. Rather than calling it caste violence, statist discourses call it as a mere law and order problem. But the problem is note that simple: fundamentally India remains a caste society and lynching must also be understood through a caste lens. Muslims and low castes are not mutually exclusive categories. A majority of Muslims are in fact low caste and all policy documents recognise this fact. Additionally, through the Brahmanical trope of othering, they carry the burden of being Mlecchas. Thus they are the bearers of a double pollution: as low caste as well as Muslims. Not for a moment I am suggesting that victims of lynching like Pehlu Khan are first asked about their caste and then lynched. But I am definitely arguing that hatred towards the Muslims is not just about their religion but also because they are low castes. The corpse of Pehlu Khan becomes not just a site of intense hatred based on religion, but also bears the mark of brutal history of caste in this country. Privileging one over the other would only lead to a diminished understanding of the complexity of identities which an Indian Muslim carries within himself.

The expectation that the ruling dispensation should condemn such lynching is a bit naïve. I call it naïve simply because they are the very same people who created such a problem in the first place. With every such killing, the normality of violence against Muslims reaches a higher ceiling. The so called fringe is perhaps not the fringe at all; it actually tells us how the majority within this country thinks about Muslims. 

And why just blame the ruling dispensation when cow protection has been high on the agenda of so called secular parties like the Congress.The problem is that we have never confronted the problem with all the might that is required. As I look at the responses to the murder of Pehlu Khan, I fear with trepidation at the silence of the secular parties on the issue. No candle light vigils, not even a silent symbolic protest against such a brutal lynching. I wonder whether the secular response has also reached a new normal.


Arshad Alam is a social and political commentator and a columnist.


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