After a toxic election season when the Muslim was everybody’s whipping horse, the Prime Minister, showing consummate magnanimity in victory, reached out to all who have felt stigmatised and excluded with a new inspirational slogan — sabka saath sabka vikas sabka vishvas. Heartened by this assurance, some Muslims named their new-born children “Narendra”, even as Muslim leaders welcomed his resolve to win over the “trust” of the minorities.
Aware of the sheer magnitude of their powerlessness, most Muslims, however, live in dread of the future. The gratuitous cruelty of the last few years — lynchings, ghar wapsi, anti-Romeo squads, beef vigilantism and the rhetoric of pure hate, cannot be subsumed by catchy slogans of solidarity and togetherness. Had the Mahatma been alive today, he would remind the political class that brotherhood, like non-violence, “is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart and it must be an inseparable part of our being”.
A few weeks back, the print media made passing mention of the Rajasthan High Court verdict acquitting five Muslims, mainly Kashmiris, of all charges relating to the 1996 Samleti blasts. That these men had spent 23 years in prison for a crime they did not commit aroused neither horror nor indignation, because such injustice has become commonplace. What these victims reportedly narrated of their experience in various prisons during those interminable years is Kafkaesque — bone-chilling techniques of torture, forced signing on blank paper, and hideous treatment at the hands of their fellow inmates. Even among these social outcasts living in wretched prison conditions, Muslims were targeted for being Muslim. It struck me that our jails are a microcosm of India today, with shades of an unwritten National Register of Citizens in force.
These five men have finally got back their freedom, but there are numerous Muslims who remain in custody as alleged terrorists. A 2012 study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that although Muslims account for 10.6 per cent of the Maharashtra population, they comprise over 30 per cent of the prison population. The study observed that the police and intelligence agencies’ bias against Muslims led to a number of arrests under TADA and MCOC Acts, and even the Official Secrets Act. It is common knowledge that in the wake of a terrorist act, scores of Muslims are rounded up and incarcerated — actions viewed as unavoidable “collateral damage” in the war against terrorism.
Instead of addressing the colossal injustice suffered by this community, the government has recently strengthened the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) by introducing amendments that will further imperil the lives of innocent Muslims. The latest amendment — to name and shame an individual by designating him a terrorist even without conviction by a court — will ensure that he remains forever a suspect. An outcast in the eyes of society.
Our Constitution is a secular Republic, but the line separating the state and religion has blurred. Supremacist, ethnocentric Hindutva with its explicit anti-Muslim bias now provides the ideological underpinning for State social policy. There is profound disquiet at the government’s plan to extend the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to the rest of the country. In blatant disregard of the fundamental principle of equality, the objective of the NRC is to identify and deport “infiltrators”, barring Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians who are perceived as refugees fleeing persecution.
The entire exercise is clearly aimed at hounding undocumented Muslims and will, inevitably, punish even those among them who are Indian but have no documentary proof of birth or citizenship. This exercise to declare people “non-citizens” based on religion as one of the criteria, will go down in history as one of the most unrighteous state-sponsored acts in a democracy. The fact that the entire Assam NRC operation is being monitored by the Supreme Court makes it even more reprehensible.
The social ecosystem is steaming with schismatic tensions and ubiquitous daily cruelty. The sacred Jai Shri Ram chant has morphed into a political slogan of power and intimidation. On the first two days of the recent Parliament session, the central hall resonated with religion-tainted sloganeering. BJP MPs chanted Jai Shri Ram to which the Opposition responded with shouts of Jai Hind and Allah-o-Akbar. Predictably, the odious example set by Parliament members has spilt onto the streets, with regular incidents of Muslims being assaulted for refusing to chant Jai Shri Ram.
A leading social scientist has attributed BJP’s thumping victory in 2019 to the spread of Hindutva through a relentless RSS machinery and the resultant capture of the collective consciousness of the majority. The decades of indoctrination of the young and old in the Shishu Mandirs, Vidya Bharati schools and shakhas — across the country, have come to fruition. Considering that the millions of disciples churned out by these institutions are infused with ultra-nationalistic fervour and rabid anti-minority views, there is reason for the minorities to be afraid.
In this fraught atmosphere comes the staggering Kashmir decision. A state which has been in turmoil for decades is now a hell-hole, incarcerated behind spools of barbed wire. This ill thought-out move has dealt a body-blow to peace and brotherhood in the country. And the endless strife in the Valley will inescapably also affect communal harmony in the mainland. As relations with Pakistan have reached a point of no return, the animosity against Pakistan, like always, will mutate into vilification of the “unpatriotic” Indian Muslim. Worst of all, the asymmetry and injustices of the social order and the fear that the dominant evoke in the dominated will turn the country into a veritable tinderbox, vulnerable to insurgency and terrorism.
Tragically, Gandhi’s land is now one of the most hate-filled, violent societies on Earth. The state today is in thrall of using brute power to settle conflicts with one’s own people. What the all-powerful forces seem to ignore is the inalienable truth that the Indian Muslim’s destiny is inextricably tied to that of the country: Both will rise or fall together.
(This article first appeared in the print edition on September 23, 2019 under the title ‘An inseparable destiny’. The writer, a former civil servant, is secretary general of the Lok Janshakti Party. Views are personal.)