The age of competitive communalism

Think of the agony and struggle of an Indian Muslim today, sandwiched between the Hindu Right and Islamist extremism
Representational Image. (File photo) PREMIUM
Representational Image. (File photo)
Updated on Sep 17, 2021 05:13 PM IST
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As an agnostic, who has no affiliation with institutionalised religion, I found myself thinking this week about what I might feel had I been born a Muslim instead of a Hindu — all other things, such as class, influences, and privilege being the same.

Would I still be able to shrug off my religion? Or would it be an invariable part of my identity, both cultural and political?

In some ways, I have the luxury to disown my religion because I was born into the majority faith in India. And no matter how many political attempts there may be to cast the Indian Hindu in the mould of the victim, the truth is, I have never known discrimination based on faith.

Perhaps, the choice to dismiss religion is a privilege similar to the one shown by some of us who dismiss caste. Because we have not been oppressed based on caste, we chase the utopia of castelessness.

Of course, there is no escaping religious polarisation, even in our everyday lives. My name has been mauled to “Burkha” by the Hindu Right, to taunt my pluralistic politics, and I have been called a Right-wing apologist by the Muslim Right for my advocacy of a progressive uniform civil code that will not discriminate between men and women, as religious codes do.

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This week, when Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath took a swipe at Muslims, by insinuating that those who said “abba jaan” used to get a disproportionate piece of the development pie, I found myself thinking about how isolating it must feel to be a middle-class, libertarian Indian Muslim.

Since then, we have been told that the dig was aimed at the Samajwadi Party, and that Abba jaan is hardly pejorative. But context is everything. The endearment used by some for their fathers (though I’ve mostly heard the more casual abba and ammi among friends, the jaan seems more a staple of the movies) was used here almost as a slur, to portray the entire Muslim community as beneficiaries of “extra” sops.

How alienating, enraging, hurtful, and suffocating it must feel to be at the receiving end of this sort of dog-whistling.

And, on the other end of the spectrum, in what is a mirror image of the same sort of prejudicial mindset, are the self-appointed custodians of the Muslim Personal Law Board (MPLB), who repeatedly sully the community’s interests, with their atavistic and antediluvian remarks. Most recently, two of its members hailed the ascent of the Taliban, and though the board distanced itself from those comments, the damage was done.

Crushed between the bigotry of Muslim-loathing rhetoric and the burden of Islamist extremism, would I search in vain for “normalcy” in that shrinking in-between space?

The truth is that even well-meaning liberals fall subconsciously into a visual representation of Indian Muslims that is cliched. The grammar of mosques, burqas, beards, and short pyjamas is how every television news report has represented Muslims. And while many embrace overt religious markers, millions of others do not. The broad stroke is highly problematic.

As an Indian Muslim, I imagine I would search in vain to find an authentic shade of myself in both cinema and the news. I would also have to confront the fact that politics has failed me. The ruling party has made it clear that it doesn’t need me. The slogan of secularism has been corroded by those who claim to espouse it, ever since the Shah Bano judgment ordering alimony for Muslim women was reversed under the Congress.

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And pluralism has been violated by the Hindu Right, with its brazen and coarse questioning of the patriotism of Muslim citizens. Viral videos of Muslim men being beaten as they are made to say Jai Shri Ram or urged to sing the national anthem have a subtext that goes beyond ugly mob violence. The subtle signalling is the suggestion that Muslims are not patriots.

Yes, two members of the MPLB only furthered this baseness with their romancing of the Taliban, but it is entirely unacceptable to expect Muslim citizens to stand up and prove their distance from the terrorists in Kabul.

And yet, when a Naseeruddin Shah or Javed Akhtar does precisely that, they are pounded upon. The Hindu Right hates them because they call out “love jihad” and hate crimes against Muslims. The Muslim Right loathes them because, in their minds, they are not true believers anyway. Akhtar and Shah are celebrities whose stardom will offer them protection, even if their words are placed under a microscope for the same reason.

Think of what millions of their religious compatriots (by accident of birth, at least) think today; how much that feeling of not belonging, neither to this nor that, must hurt and anger — and sometimes, frighten — them in this polarising age of competitive communalism.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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    Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. She tweets as @BDUTT.

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Saturday, December 04, 2021