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A leisurely walk on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and interactions with the Indian diaspora were experiences to remember. One could feel palpable apprehensions about Islam and rising Islamophobia in the West. But who had a relatively higher fear factor — the people on the street or Muslims dreading a backlash due to terrorist incidents?
Notwithstanding the deepening of communal politics in India in recent years, particularly since the ascent of the BJP, questions arise on Islamophobia and communal violence in India, especially comparisons between the situation in India and the West. Such questions are difficult to answer. Some articulate that the presence of Islam has impacted Indian Hindus, which is reflected in rising communal incidents and exclusionary and discriminatory practices against Muslims, especially in public spaces, including government jobs and positions of national importance. For academics and analysts, the situation is complex, embedded in the socio-economic history and syncretic culture of India. Our clearheaded response: Islamophobia has no relevance to India.
Is Islamophobia — “a fear of Islam” — emerging from contemporary politics or is it the manifestation of a sociological and cultural game plan? If the “fear of the unknown” or “unknown power” defines a phobia, then how can this fear be present in India, where Islam has been an integral part of society, politics and everyday life for at least a millennium? Although the crusadic encounters are well-documented, the presence of Islam in the West is recent and based on selective migration. The dominant Western culture and politics is mixed up with selective and sporadic suspicions that bubble up due to some rare but spectacular violent episodes.
The Indian ethos is one of assimilation of Islam or Islamophilia, and love and respect for the other’s religion. Indeed, religious assimilation is so conspicuous across India that it is easy to miss it altogether. It would be appropriate to highlight that the Sufi saints of the subcontinent are revered both by Muslims and Hindus. Assimilation is so strong that Hindu parents let imams at local mosques serve as traditional healers for their children, with dua or Islamic prayer. In many parts of India, Muslim marriages are solemnised by the groom tying an amulet to his bride that is known as a tali among Hindus.
One could find it surprising that Mirji of Lahore, a Muslim, laid the foundation of the Golden Temple. Shirdi Sai Baba, a Muslim by birth, is one of the most popular deities in the Hindu middle class. Premchand wrote about how on hearing the cry of a distraught woman, Syed Salar Masud Ghazi got up from his wedding to save cows. Similarly, at the Cheluvanarayana temple, devotees worship Bibi Nachiyar, the Muslim consort of Lord Vishnu. There are countless such examples across India, even in Gujarat and Maharashtra, notorious for communalism in the recent past.
If, therefore, one finds no Islamophobia, how can one explain the rising violence and discrimination against Muslims in India? The answer requires an understanding of India’s social structure and postcolonial politics. Brahminical ideology is not rooted in phobias but pollution and purity. Historically, in India, Dalits have been discriminated against not due to phobias but “pollution”. One is allowed to live at the periphery of the caste system and religious order in peace as long as one accepts the hegemony of the core. Contemporary violence against Muslims in India can be explained through the purity-pollution framework.
Muslim interests were sidelined in postcolonial caste and communal politics. In fact, they were compromised by some upper caste Muslims who denied the presence of caste among Muslims during the Constituent Assembly debates and important policy-design negotiations, when affirmative action and constitutional protections were being based on caste. The best example of this is the exclusion of Muslims from Article 341 and the presidential order of 1950.
With rising political competition, some parties employ hate — rather than fear — narratives as tools to mobilise votes. We subsume the attempt to generate demographic fears about Muslims in this category. It would be fair to point out that what we find in India is Hindutva-phobia.
However, to say that there is no attempt to create a fear of Islam in India would not be correct. One sees such attempts everyday. They employ political technologies and terminologies from the West. However, this is still largely confined to some TV channels, newspapers and social media. The Islamophilia of India constructed through syncretic practices has kept the Islamophobic narrative at bay from the masses. For Indians, it is not Islam that is scary but militant Muslims, as are militant Hindutva ideologues and practitioners.