This essay is in response to an article by Najmul Hoda, IPS, titled Indian Muslims must rewrite their victim mindset to be indispensable in India’s rise in ThePrint, published on August 17, 2020.
In this essay, I will not only refute Hoda’s claim about the “victim mindset” among Muslims, but also deconstruct his self-contradictory formulations that have been articulated in his article, which asserts his privileged worldview and the prejudices he carries with it.
Indian Muslims are not in a 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 that have been inflicted upon them for a long time now. The kind of despondency Muslims are experiencing is certainly new, and there are two primary reasons for it since 2014: the first is consistent dehumanisation of Muslims, and second is the long-standing perception among politicians, elected lawmakers and supporters of the ruling party of Muslims as “traitors”, questioning their “loyalty”.
India’s independence was a high point for Indian Muslims, when many of them consciously made a decision to stay on their birthland — this decision was based not on narrow-minded sectarian goals, fear and hopelessness, but founded on renewed enthusiasm and hope in the secularism that Gandhi, Nehru and Azad promised them.
The assertion of IPS Hoda that Muslims’ “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, Muslims are not. It reduces their agency, not only as individuals but also as a 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 on how minorities and other oppressed identities — including women, tribal communities and Dalits — asserting their identities as a means of survival and practising collective political rights is harmful to democracy, especially in India where the Constitution itself guarantees special rights based on marginal identities.
On the contrary, collective rights is the way forward for the marginalised communities. Past experience suggests that it has been successful to a large extent for strengthening labour laws and unions, LGBTQIA+ and other systemically depressed groups. These collective rights, easily dismissed by IPS Hoda, challenge the prevalent hegemonic discourses where the accumulation of wealth and power has become a rule rather than an exception.
The claim about “the power theology” is also obsolete if analysed from the perspective of political actions and rhetoric. For example, M K Gandhi has always been more popular than what 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 some states including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telangana and Maharashtra.
The whole idea of “self-introspection” from a 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 that was propagated in the 19th century by privileged bourgeoisie ideologues including Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, without undertaking the day-to-day oppression and 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 artisans’ families and vendors’ families, or for that matter, the professional and working-class Muslim citizens who are already struggling in their daily lives against prejudices that 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 find 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 than good to the readers.
Not to mention that 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.
It was indeed the Constitution that made equality possible, irrespective of caste and religion, although the ruling party partakes in manufacturing “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. Dehumanisation 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 that Muslims have experienced so far are at risk in contemporary times, and this applies to Muslims irrespective of their caste, states, linguistic regions and political inclinations.
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” (the triple talaq debate) vehemently denied political representation to Muslim women from the Panchayat level to the Parliament. I often wonder what purpose these non-contextualised 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, the North East Delhi pogrom in February and activist Safoora Zargar’s custody, when 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 mobilising the country against Muslims through various media.
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 upon 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” and some who’d secretly tell 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 the basis of caste and religion is implicit and taken for granted in everyday life.
This experience is not an outlier — most young Muslim students and professionals are 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” etc., while further stereotyping Muslims.
The opinion piece IPS Hoda authored is not critical of the system that leads to the increasing marginalisation 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 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 and institutionalisation of Muslim criminality.
Lastly, Hindutva is neither an ethno-nationalist movement nor does it anchor 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, including whom they can love or marry and what they can eat, and has recently included 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? The Muslim community, like every other community, operates 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 a 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 dichotomised in which 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 that one follows without even realising that it traps and narrows down the scope of discussion. It often dehumanises, demeans and objectifies a community that it assumes as the “other”. Indian Muslims are the others; and there could be another group immured into it if one does not realise 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 marginalised people are indispensable to the discourse of a democratic and an equal India. This has to be complemented with accommodating a multitude of aspirations for equal acknowledgement, and not othering their socio-cultural and religious characteristics.