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In The Hindutva Hate Universe, All Things Muslim Are Pakistan

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The year was 2000. Durga Puja. A crowd was milling around an electronics store in south Kolkata, where a TV was playing live footage of the ICC Knockout semifinal match between India and Australia. I was on my night out with some of my cousins, and we were attracted to the TV like flies to flame.

Zaheer Khan was one of the new kids on the block, and he had just delivered the perfect inswinging yorker to bowl Steve “Tugga” Waugh. It was a sight that filled my teenage heart with pride, that an Indian fast bowler could perform such a feat. Amid high fives with my cousins, I heard these words being uttered, “Pakistan theke tule niye esche mone hoi” (“I think they have poached him from Pakistan”). I laughed a silly laugh at the comment, but it soured my mood for the rest of the evening. India won the match, but I had lost my pride.

Fast forward to 2019. A lady we know paid us a visit a few days ago. She was fretting over which new school to admit her eleven-year-old daughter in, as seats in good schools are scant, and time is running out. She lives in Kolkata with her daughter, while her husband works in North Bengal. She recounted her experience of searching for schools where her husband lives. The gist: “Some of the schools were okay. But you know…. too many Muslims there.”

This is in presence of her daughter, all of eleven years old. I find this comment objectionable, but choose not to confront her. Eventually, she managed to find a “good” school in south Kolkata for her daughter, who is happy enough to have been admitted there. “Problem” solved. I am happy for the little girl and her mother. But not with myself.

Time for another festival of democracy. It’s that one time we get to choose, whether or not we are not allowed to choose our life partners (or what we eat). So what’s on the menu? “Vote for BJP if you want Muslims destroyed,” bellows yet another provincial bigot, high on majoritarian hubris. “The population of Muslims is increasing,” he barks on.

Maneka Gandhi, a Union Minister, tells Muslims she will not work for them if they don’t vote for her. When the Prime Minister of India makes a barely veiled nuclear threat against Pakistan, appealing to the very popular “destroy Pakistan” sentiment among the Hindutva ranks and files, can we expect any better from his minions?

In the Hindutva hate universe, all things Muslim are Pakistan, and all things Pakistan are representative of The Enemy. Never mind the fact that many Indians have family on the other side of the border. Never mind that Geeta was rescued, protected and returned to India by an NGO run by Abdul Edhi, who was a devout Muslim. In this universe, therefore, “destroy Pakistan” is equivalent to “destroy Muslims”.

Hate speech and ‘tough talk’ seem to be the currencies that the ruling party is betting its reelection chances on. This kind of hate speech, without a doubt, falls afoul of the model code of conduct that ought to govern all electioneering activity, come poll season. Rule 3 under “General Conduct” clearly mentions that “there shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes”. However, this rule has been violated plenty of times in the 2019 season already.

The Election Commission seems to have picked up a peculiar sloth amidst all this. The Commission has had to be reminded by the Supreme Court that it does have powers to punish violators of the Code. But the real question is, even if the EC acted tough and curbed all kinds of hate speech and other Code violations, would there be much of a change in attitudes on the ground?

Attitudes of the majority community, i.e. Hindus towards the minority communities, especially Muslims (yep, the perennial bugbear) are worth examining as we deal with an unprecedented amount of hate directed towards them this election season. There is a (mis)perception among Indians that Muslims form almost a third of our population, when the true figure is probably around a sixth.

The 2011 census data say that Muslims form around 14% of the population. While the percentage of Muslims in India’s population is rising overall, the growth has been very slow, from around 13.5% in 2001 to 14% in 2011. But the tendency of the majority to grossly overestimate the population of the minority – and thus overestimate “threats” posed by them – predates this minuscule decadal growth rate.

It is not limited to the Indian society alone. A case study can be made of the USA, where white people are expected to form less than half the population in a generation. This has led to concerns among some American whites that they will be discriminated against, as they will no longer remain the majority. This kind of thinking is predicated upon the wider belief that minorities necessarily present a threat to the majority.

The same kind of thinking applies to the majority community in India, and this thinking itself has its history in the old-but-kept-fresh wounds of the partition. Which is why ‘loyalties’ of Muslims in India are often questioned by those most ‘scared’ of them. It is assumed that Muslims really owe their allegiance to Pakistan because that’s where they were supposed to go after partition. But how can one know when the overwhelming majority of Muslims says they are loyal to India? This space of the frightening “unknown” is exactly where Hindutva ideology has its appeal.

Another idea that is often peddled by the Hindutva brigade is that of “Muslim appeasement”. Let us examine that as well. A 2013 survey by the NSSO suggests that Muslims are the poorest religious community in India, spending only Rs 32.66 a day on an average, which is less than Rs 1,000 a month at 2013 price levels. This article provides a sobering analysis of how Indian Muslims are trapped in a vicious circle of poverty.

Let’s take education levels as an example. The number of illiterate people is highest among Muslims (190 per 1,000), followed by Hindus (84), Sikhs (79) and Christians (57). The number of persons (over 15 years) who have obtained just primary or middle school education among Muslims is 257 and 198 (per 1,000 persons), respectively. Also, the number of Muslim males of 5-14 years in urban areas attending educational institutions is 869 per 1,000 persons, which is the least among all religious groups.

A 2014 survey by the NSSO estimated the average course fee for technical courses at government institutions to be around Rs 26,000, which is very difficult for most Muslims to afford, given their average spending levels and given there is no real helping hand from the government. The Ranganath Misra Committee recommendations (2009) for reservation of 10% of seats in government educational institutions and jobs are yet to be properly implemented anywhere, at State or Central level. Remember that the percentage of Muslims in India is 14%. So even the recommended numbers are less than proportional as far as the Muslim population is concerned.

Less education will typically mean greater joblessness. And this is exactly what the data bear out. Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR), which is the proportion of a population working or looking for work, for Muslims in the urban areas is the least among all religious groups, 342 per 1000, or 34.2%. Further, among urban males, the number of Muslims employed in regular jobs is only 288 per 1,000 employed persons, while the corresponding figure among urban Muslim females is merely 249, which is by far the lowest among all communities.

Besides, data suggest that Muslims are overrepresented among prisoners and among law enforcement officials in India. All this is not even considering the spate of religious violence that has consumed lives, livelihoods and dignities of Muslims in the last 5 years. So, one has to ask, where exactly is this “appeasement” of Muslims that we hear of?

Hateful rhetoric and deliberate lies and misrepresentation have consequences. Nazia Erum’s book “Mothering a Muslim” lays out in detail how Islamophobia has seeped down to children in schools considered to be some of the best in India, and how Muslim children, especially ones who are poor, are semi-ghettoized in these schools; how parents demand that their children not be forced to sit with Muslim children in classes, and how Muslim children are being physically attacked in addition to being subjected to verbal abuse on a regular basis.

Some parents, like the lady I referred to earlier, choose to entirely avoid schools which might have Muslim students. Outside of schools, acts of cow-based mob violence against Muslims and their lynching are now proudly shared by perpetrators on social media. All this has reached fever pitch in the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and the dog whistle “anti-Pakistan” rhetoric that the hustings this season have become awash with. Hatred is becoming increasingly normalized. There is an epidemic of “othering”. Many seem to think that if the party currently in power is voted out, everything will be hunky dory. But recently an Opposition government in the State of MP invoked the National Security Act against alleged cow smugglers. Clearly, Hindutva has started setting terms in Indian politics. Where does this stop? It’s not just the voters in us, but the social, supposedly secular animals in us, that decide.

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