The term Islamophobia is rather inappropriate to map out the nature of post-9/11 Indian public debates on Muslim identity. Islamophobia, which simply means an intense dislike or fear of Islam or prejudice towards Muslims, is a western notion. It captures the anxieties of the middle-class white population in the US and Europe in the aftermath of the war against terror.
The Muslim identity, on the other hand, is an established problem category in India. The political class, including the so-called secularists, has never been fully comfortable with Muslim presence. The involvement and participation of Muslim communities in political processes is often reduced to an imagined Muslim vote-bank politics, while their social life is always seen as a symbol of backwardness. The events of 9/11 intensified such apprehensions. Popular global phrases like jihadi Islam, Islamic terrorism, sharia rule and so on, offered new meanings to already established debates on Muslim separatism and Muslim isolation.
This interesting merger between global anti-Islamism and anti-Muslim communalism led to a new political consensus, which may be called the “Muslim politicophobia”. Political parties adopted this refined mode to address Indian Muslims in the post-9/11 scenario not merely as a problematic religious minority but also as a part of a global Islamic umma.
Three defining features of Muslim politicophobia are relevant to understand the changing political attitudes towards Indian Muslims in the last two decades.
One, the slow and gradual transformation of the Indian Muslim identity into a reference point for global Islamic terrorism. The Islamic connection between India’s Muslims and the Islamists/jihadi organisations is evoked as the most legitimate template for making sense of violent events associated with Islam and Muslims.
Two completely different statements made by Indian prime ministers in the aftermath of 9/11 are relevant to elaborate this point.
In 2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee argued stridently that Muslims “want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger”. Three years later, Manmohan Singh made a very different argument. He took pride “in the fact that, although we have 150 million Muslims in our country as citizens, not one has been found to have joined the ranks of al Qaeda or participated in the activities of Taliban.”
Although these statements offer us two completely opposite conclusions, the manner in which Muslim identity is linked to the global terrorism clearly underlines the fact that Muslim presence in India is seen as an imprint of global Islam.
The recent Afghanistan crisis is a good example of how Muslim politicophobia functions in public discussions. A section of the media has been trying to interpret this crisis by evoking a strange speculative fear. They work hard to find evidence that Indian Muslims subscribe to the ideology of Taliban. There is a popular conception that India (read Hindus) must not rule out the possibility of an internal version of Taliban or an “Indian Taliban” precisely because there is a sizeable Muslim population.
The fear of active Muslim political engagement (or even the lack of it) is the second feature of Muslim politicophobia. The renewed debate on a Muslim vote bank in the last three decades is a good example. Muslims are alleged to vote as a collective in favour of a particular party at the national level. In the post-Babri Masjid scenario, the scope of this argument has been expanded. It is now claimed that Muslims primarily take part in electoral politics to teach a lesson to BJP.
Last year’s Bihar assembly election is an appropriate illustration of this feature of Muslim politicophobia. The Hyderabad-based party, All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), won five Muslim dominated constituencies in the state’s Seemanchal region. The success of AIMIM under the leadership of Asaduddin Owaisi was seen as an Islamic response to BJP’s Hindutva. Even serious secular commentators and non-BJP parties accused Muslim voters of a communal Islamised voting response. No one bothered to look at the political context of Seemanchal region, where caste among Muslims played a significant role in AIMIM’s victory on those five seats. The almost insignificant vote share of the party at the state level (1.24 per cent) was also neglected simply to substantiate the imagined fear of Islamic expansionism in India politics.
The third feature of Muslim politicophobia is related to the popular representation of Muslims as a politically conscious community or what I call siyasi Muslims. It is assumed that Muslims are fully conscious and informed of their collective right and hence always take politically motivated decisions. This perception has found a different overtone in recent years.
Every aspect of Muslim social life is seen through the prism of global jihadi politics. Muslim population growth is interpreted as “population jihad”, as if Muslim couples plan their families primarily to outnumber Hindus. Muslim personal law is seen as a blueprint for a sharia-based Islamic rule in India. An impression is created that sharia is the only hurdle between egalitarian Hinduism and the modernist ideal of the uniform civil code (UCC). The anti-conversion laws (which are strangely named freedom of religion laws) are also based on this fear that poor and illiterate Hindus are being converted to expand the influence of Islam in India.
It would be completely wrong to reduce Muslim politicophobia to Hindutva politics. Although the BJP has always been a clear beneficiary of this political discourse, the role of non-BJP parties cannot be ignored. These erstwhile secular parties as well as the Muslim political elite were instrumental in creating a conducive environment for Hindutva to appropriate Muslim politicophobia.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 11, 2021 under the title ‘The Muslim politicophobia’. The writer is associate professor, CSDS.