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Contemporary Politics, Muslims and Agency

This essay is in response to Najmul Hoda, IPS, article titled Indian Muslims must rewrite their victim mindset to be indispensable in India’s rise” in ThePrint published on 17th August, 2020. Link: 

In this article, I will not only refute his claim about the “victim mindset” among Muslims, but also deconstruct his self-contradictory formulations which have been articulated in his essay, which assert his own privileged worldview and the prejudices he carries with them.

Systemic Deconstruction

Indian Muslims are not in the state of despair after the pujan, if anything the pujan confirmed their long-standing doubts about the rise of majoritarianism in the country, along with judicial prejudices which have been inflicted upon them for a long time now. The kind of despondency Muslims are experiencing is certainly new, there are two primary reasons for it since 2014, the first is consistent dehumanization of Muslims and second is the long-standing perception which projects them as “traitors” and questions their “loyalty” among politicians, elected lawmakers and supporters of the ruling party.

The Indian independence was a high point for the Muslims, where they consciously made a decision to stay in their birth land-based not in narrow-minded sectarian goals, fear and hopelessness but founded in renewed enthusiasm and hope in the secularism which Gandhi, Nehru and Azad promised them. The assertion of IPS Hoda that Muslim’s “cultural trope” drove them to their “favourite dope”, that of “victimhood” is not only poor in literary rhyming but also in taste and scope from the perspective of discussion. This line of thought has always been one of the concerns that political theorists have expressed about democratic societies, where complex injustices pass as “misfortunes” and the state and society do not see themselves as responsible.

Secondly, the arguments reduce the diverse Muslim identity into a monolith identity, which IPS Hoda himself acknowledges, they are not. It reduces their agency, not only as individuals but also community incapable of fruitful political and social action. However, the most obscure line of thought is “Identitarianism, insofar as it privileges community over individual, conflicts with democracy and, eventually, harms the minority.”; no explanation or theoretical background is provided how minorities and other oppressed identities like women, tribal and Dalit asserting their identities as a means of survival and practising collective political rights is harmful to the democracy, especially in India where the Constitution itself guarantees special rights based on marginal identities. On the contrary, collective rights are a way forward for the marginalized communities. Past experiences suggest that it has been successful to a large extent for strengthening labour laws and unions, LGBTQ and other systemically depressed groups. These collective rights which are easily dismissed by IPS Hoda challenge the prevalent hegemonic discourses where the accumulation of wealth and power has become a rule than an exception.

An Old Tomb at Sundar Nursery, New Delhi.

The claim about “the power theology” is also obsolete if analyzed from the perspective of political actions and rhetoric. For example, M.K. Gandhi has always been more popular than M.A. Jinnah ever was or will be among the Muslims in India across the states, so is J.L. Nehru among the Muslim youth in the contemporary times. Nehru, in fact, is currently more popular than M.M.A. Jauhar, Dr Zakir Hussain and Maulana Azad. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Muslims have shown their trust in the socialist/secular politics of J.P. Narayan, Kanshi Ram, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav and are inspired by their methods. Here I am insisting on the inapplicability of the said “power theology” and its limited significance in the context of post-independence Indian politics. The same is applicable for politics based on secularism and socialism in states such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana and Maharashtra.

Harmful Analytical Tools

The whole idea of “self-introspection” from the modernist lens negates the agency and moral capacities of a given community. To assume that the only way to “progress” is through socio-religious reforms and having “modern” learning methods resonates with the same idea which was propagated in the 19th century by privileged bourgeoisie ideologues like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, without undertaking the day-to-day oppression, moral dilemmas faced by ordinary Hindus and Muslims of their day. The whole idea of reform is grounded in privilege and in fact underestimates the ongoing social and political actions and agency of the people who are being subjected to that. Here we have an IPS officer who is well educated, with more means and prospects looking down upon the “non-reformed” ordinary Muslim artisan’s family and vendor’s family, or for that matter the professional and working-class Muslim citizens who are already struggling in their daily lives against prejudices which have real-time consequences in their lives.

Only a successful Muslim administrative officer is in the position to downplay the efforts, struggles and political actions by fellow non-privileged and uneducated Muslims. The ironical part, however, is that he is falling into the trap of his own analysis of the Ashraf-Ajlaf dichotomy. What we basically look in his article is a mix of modernist and postmodernist assumption, which makes the opinion piece inconsistent on the basis of argument and does more harm to the readers than good. Not to mention, Muslims have remarkably progressed in terms of literacy, the standard of living (as already written in the opinion piece) and have contributed to the nation-building in the same capacity in the field of academics, administration, judiciary, mass media, print media, etc. as their “reformed” compatriots.

Indian Muslims post-Hindutva

It was indeed the Constitution that made equality irrespective of caste and religion possible, although the ruling party partakes in manufacturing of “ill-will” towards people of a certain religion. The present government ignores and negates the whole paradigm where lynching of Muslims has become a part of its cultural ethos. The dehumanization of the Muslim identity through mainstream Hindi and English news channels and numerous other ways supported by social media cannot be more apparent. The dignity and improvements which Muslims have experienced so far are at risk in the contemporary times, and this applies to Muslims irrespective of caste, states, linguistic regions and political inclinations.

A Poster from Shaheen Bagh Anti CAA Protests, February 2020. Muslims have been successfully defining the contours of their politics.

The BJP formed its government twice without a single representative from the Muslim community, has this ever happened in the history of Lok Sabha? The self-claimed proponents of “gender equality” (triple talaq debate) vehemently denied political representation to Muslim women from Panchayat to the Parliament. I often wonder what purpose these non contextualized references to “Muslim countries” mean in the prospect of India. On the hollow narrative of Muslim women, I would like to highlight the incidents of violence in Jamia Millia Islamia in December 2019, North East Delhi riots in February and activist Safoora Zargar’s custody, where women were systemically targeted, often in obscene ways for voicing their dissent. Thus, there is an urgent need for an elaborate understanding of the term “cultural ethos of India” in the present context where the ruling party is playing a major role in manipulating and mobilizing against the Muslims through various media.

Spinning False Narratives and Compulsion of Binaries

The concept of loss is seldom a result of an “outdated theology” but rather the everyday lived experiences of ordinary Muslims in urban and rural areas. Without dwelling into the Islamic metaphysics and its epistemological understanding of IPS Hoda, I would like to narrate some of my own lived experiences, because that is how politics and social narratives are formulated, unlike in a rigid theoretical way. While on a house-hunting expedition in South Delhi’s Saket, I encountered landlords from the likes who openly objected to “giving the flat to a Mohammaden” to those who secretly told my broker that they “can’t have a non-vegetarian in the house”. Vegetarianism was a subtle way to reject me on the basis of my Muslim identity since the tenants who lived there consumed non-veg food and alcohol. The broker who seemed disappointed by these conversations, told me, “You know how it is, but don’t worry we will keep looking,” indicating how discrimination on basis of caste and religion are implicit and taken for granted in everyday life. This experience is not an outlier, most young Muslim students and professionals have been denied houses in certain neighbourhoods, after which they choose to live in what IPS Hoda and his privileged friends might call “ghettos” and complain about its “improper sanitation, lack of space” etcetera, while further stereotyping Muslims.

The opinion piece IPS Hoda authored is not critical of the system which leads to increasing marginalization and insecurities among Muslims; ironically he asks Muslims to go into deep meditation and implies choosing political inaction in the face of growing challenges. My privileged non-Muslim friends often tell me that I am “not like the other Muslims”. The “other Muslims” according to certain privileged Muslims and non-Muslims are those who do not adhere to the stereotypical notions shown in various media representations and other widely accepted public opinions. Other forms of overt systemic injustices include limited political representation, the institutionalization of Muslim criminality.

Lastly, Hindutva is neither an ethno-nationalist movement nor anchors itself in nationalism. The supposed “ethnonationalism” claim has historically obscure origins, is politically and philosophically insufficient and is incompatible with democracy and the present underlining of the Constitution. The Hindutva narrative has always tried to scribe internal and external spheres for Muslims in India that includes who they can love or marry and what they can eat and recently includes, where they can pray. The interesting part here is that an administrative/public officer is comfortable and remorseless while issuing ill-informed, ahistorical, politically incorrect and academically irrelevant “advisory” for “reformation”. Now dare I say the proponents of this ideology need serious “reform” and a much broader understanding of everyday experiences of ordinary Indians, especially Muslims? Muslims, like every other community, operate in a moral sphere. This sphere is guided by their own struggles and negotiations and they should not be condoned but admired for their perseverance, patience and hard work.

The “other” does not exist in vacuum but is in fact created through rhetoric by overlooking their practices. False pride, prejudices and self-delusion dictate how the “other” is formed. India’s multiethnic, multiclass, multilingual Muslim identity at the end of the day is simply dismissed in opinion columns of the “reformed” and “good” Muslims. Their identity is constructed through already prescribed formulas of neoliberal traditions in a grand narrative. This narrative is highly dichotomized where Muslims worldwide are either “radicals or extremist” or they are insignificant and in urgent need of internal reform.

The overarching discourse in politics and governance is a range of narratives which one follows without even realizing that it traps and narrows down the scope of discussion. It often dehumanizes, demeans and objectifies a community which it assumes as the “other”. Indian Muslims are the others, there could be another group immured into it if one does not realize the fallacies of the whole idea of constructing binaries. The dominant argument of “self-reflection” and “reform” needs to be turned on its head and instead of asking the systemically oppressed to mend their ways the government and body politic should transform itself. The legitimate recognition of institutional injustices and highlighting the struggles of marginalized people are indispensable to the discourse on India’s rise. This has to be complemented with accommodating the multitude of aspirations for equal acknowledgement, not othering of their socio-cultural and religious characteristics.

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