Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Are Muslims and Christians in India Oppressed Minorities as Some Suggest?

Clichéd as this may sound to many people, it cannot be denied that Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities have made their mark in all walks of life in India, including not only politics, cinema (some of the biggest celebrity actors in India’s leading film industry Bollywood, like Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan, happen to be Muslims, and of late, a Pakistani, Ali Zafar, can be added to the list of Bollywood celebrity actors appreciated by the mostly Hindu masses of India, and Genelia D’Souza is an Indian Christian celebrity actress), music and other fine arts, business (Azim Premji and Yusuf Hamied are, like many other Muslims, among India’s leading businessmen [1]), sports (tennis players Sania Mirza and Leander Paes, a Muslim and a Christian respectively, are stars and so are several Muslim cricket players), the media, the judiciary (India has had Muslims as chief justice) and the academia (Muslims and Christians have been vice chancellors) but they have also occupied prominent positions in the Indian security forces (even winning gallantry awards) and intelligence agencies, and many such prominent Muslim public figures in India have been very devout Muslims and even hailed from economically downtrodden backgrounds to start with. Liberal Muslim intellectuals from neighbouring Pakistan point out candidly that though their country has, from time to time, seen people from their Hindu minority being a prominent judge, diplomat, sportsman, fashion designer or actor, it has, so far been unimaginable to have a non-Muslim as their foreign minister, defence minister or heading any of their intelligence agencies, but Muslims and Christians have held these posts in India. India has had several Muslims as president (the nominal head of government in India, though technically the highest constitutional office and a very prestigious and respectable post, with the prime minister being the real head of government), and India’s current vice president (the vice president of India presides over the upper house of India’s bicameral parliament) is Hamid Ansari, a Muslim.

Hindus and Muslims often have close personal relations, even joining in each other’s religious festivities, and there are also occasional intermarriages. Many Hindus pray in the tombs of Muslim saints, and personalities like Kabir and Shirdi Sai Baba, who rejected any religious label, are revered by many people from both the religious groupings. Indeed, even those Hindus and Muslims who, to varying degrees, bear prejudices about the other religious grouping, often ironically have close friendships with individuals from that grouping, appreciate facets of their culture (for instance, many Hindus appreciate devotional Sufi music and many Muslims enjoy Hindu lore) and are often even die-hard fans of public figures (like Bollywood actors) from that religious grouping, and would like to conceal their prejudices to those of the other religious grouping and quite often, even liberals in their own religious grouping, and so, these prejudices mostly do not translate into slurs to the faces of the people of the other religious grouping. Many Indian Muslims, including those sporting beards and donning traditional Islamic attire are, with great difficulty, able to recall even a single instance of being slurred for their faith, and it is highly unlikely for one to witness such a thing happening in India, and those who think of Indian Muslims as an oppressed lot conflate the distinction between some Hindus being prejudiced against Muslims, to varying degrees, and that prejudice actually translating into maltreatment. They need to ask themselves how often they have seen Indian Muslims being slurred or how many of their Indian Hindu acquaintances would actually slur Muslims to their faces, or what fraction of their Indian Hindu acquaintances even passionately believe in antipathy to Muslims (imagine a real workplace or classroom of consisting mostly Indian Hindus, possibly cutting across socioeconomic strata, that you may have been a part of, and try to make an estimate). Also, even Bihari, Bengali and Sindhi Hindus occasionally are subjected to slurs, but that doesn’t make them oppressed communities in any sense of the term.

Unfortunately, riots between Hindus and Muslims do sporadically erupt in some specific parts of India in which people from both religious groupings lose their lives (unlike Pakistan, where Hindus in rural areas have been systematically attacked by Muslim extremists, usually without any provocation, leading many Pakistani Hindus to migrate to India in large numbers). Interestingly, many of those engaging in relief work for the Muslims in Gujarat affected by the riots in 2002 and even fighting for their cause in courts of law happened to be Hindus. There were also several instances of Hindus having protected Muslims during the riots, sometimes at great peril.

Also, while hate crimes unfortunately take place in many countries, it is important that the victims should get justice. In India, not only laypersons but even political leaders have been convicted for involvement in violence against religious minorities like Maya Kodnani in connection with the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 and Manoj Pradhan and Ashok Sahu in connection with the anti-Christian riots in the Kandhamal district of Odisha in 2008 (the anti-Christian riots had been sparked off by the murder of Hindu missionary Laxmidananda Saraswati by left-wing radicals, who in that region, mostly hail from the tribal Christian communities). Speaking specifically of the carnage in Gujarat in 2002, more than a hundred Hindus involved in anti-Muslim violence, in places like Naroda Patiya, Sardarpura and Ode among others, have indeed been convicted.

While anti-Muslim prejudice among Indian Hindus is a reality (though often blown out of proportion) and so is anti-Hindu prejudice among Indian Muslims, anti-Christian prejudice in India is comparatively a minor issue, and Christmas is celebrated across religious lines with great pomp and show across urban India. Even if one were to assume that the current government's Good Governance Day plans (the birthday of a late leader of the party in power falls on the same day as Christmas and was observed by the government as Good Governance Day) in educational institutions were to hijack the Christmas celebrations, they couldn't materialize, owing to strong outrage over such a possibility from the media and the opposition, and the notices sent out mentioned that there were to be no classes on that day, only those interested in the Good Governance Day celebrations would be required to go to school/college, and also that the Good Governance Day celebrations could be advanced or postponed to another date.

Some point out that the economic and educational backwardness of Indian Muslims proves that they have been deliberately neglected by the Indian state, those contending the same have no evidence to demonstrate this claim. Back in the British colonial times, India’s Hindu community resolved the issue of ‘traditional education versus modern education’ many decades before the Muslim community (for the Muslim community felt itself in a quagmire, given its aspiration of restoring Muslim rule in India), and so, that disparity exists, though obviously, not every Hindu was or is better off than every Muslim. But, in general, it is more difficult for the progeny of the economically backward to excel in life than the progeny of those already well-off, and so, given that this disparity has existed for long, it will not get resolved soon, and it is pointless to blame the Indian government for the same. Also, there are some Muslim clerics encouraging only religious education and discouraging modern education, and in this connection, I may cite my own experience of interacting with Muslim parents in Bavana on the outskirts of Delhi, who refused to send their child to the non-formal schools set up by the NGO Navjyoti for this very reason, and a good acquaintance of mine based in Delhi, Mr. Shams Tabrez, an alumnus of the Deoband Madrasa, who runs a trust to promote education among Muslims, points to this problem as well. It may be true that according to the Sachar Committee Report, only 4% of Muslims getting any kind of education go to madrasas (though I do not know if they counted all the unrecognized madrasas as well, and there were serious allegations of the Sachar Committee Report being politically motivated, but I understand that it is most valid and legitimate to take it as a reference-point), but in real numbers, even this would boil down to hundreds of thousands of Muslims.[2] Some point to how many Muslim-majority localities in India are very backward, without access to schools or health centres in the vicinity, but the same is also true for many Hindu-majority localities, India being a developing country, and Mr. Shams Tabrez points out that in his village in the Bhagalpur district of the Indian province of Bihar, some Muslim-majority localities are more developed than some of their Hindu-majority counterparts. A study in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh revealed that regions which were backward in terms of girls’ toilets were also, in general, backward in terms of infrastructure (including boys’ toilets), for which the local municipalities and the provincial government are to blame, which negates the allegation of a specific gender bias, and likewise, another such study on access to schools and health centres can negate the allegation of religious bias. In any case, as far as schools are concerned, India’s Right to Education Act has made it an obligation upon the government to construct schools in every neighbourhood. Also, it may be noted that many education-related schemes for Muslims have been launched by governments in India, in the provinces and the centre, including by the current BJP-led government, though they are rightly criticized, for such schemes not being available for equally economically backward Hindus.

While Indian Muslims sometimes face some genuine problems discussed subsequently in this article, the portrayal of Indian Muslims as a perennially victimized lot does injustice not only to the successes of the very many Muslim achievers in all walks of life in Hindu-majority India, but the harmonious relationship that very many Hindus and Muslims, cutting across socioeconomic strata, enjoy in educational institutions, workplaces and recreation hubs (in spite of the conscious or subconscious prejudices among some on both sides, but which don’t usually translate in interactions between individuals). The extent to which the narrative of Muslim victimhood has often been drummed up, in certain ways, dehumanize the Indian Muslim (though in ways different from those adopted by the extreme Hindu rightists), viewing him/her as someone perennially discriminated against all the time and always obsessed with a stigma (which is not even actually the case), rather than an individual who leads a regular life like any other human being [3], and this intellectually fashionable exaggeration of Indian Muslim victimhood by non-Muslim ‘intellectuals’ (trying to show off their liberalism in fighting Islamophobia and psychologically convincing themselves of the validity of their superiority complex of being the very few liberals) instills fear in many Muslims and turns off many Hindus, thus only promoting a divide. These ‘intellectuals’ have always only relied on narratives that suit their agenda, and so, the regressive sections of the Muslim clergy in India like Imam Bukhari of the Jama Masjid in Delhi hailing the destruction of Buddha statues by the Taliban or how self-appointed Muslim leaders have focused on symbolic identity issues over economic concerns, seldom find a place in their discourse, and Muslim rightist tendencies in India, even violent ones (such as an Indian Muslim terror outfit, the Indian Mujahidin), if acknowledged, are often sympathetically portrayed only as a reaction to Hindu rightist tendencies, but seldom is the same logic applied by them vice versa [4]. If Muslim rightist tendencies were only a result of the supposed Hindu oppression, then why are there sectarian clashes among Indian Muslims or why is antisemitism so widespread among so many of them, when there is no question of India's tiny Jewish minority oppressing them, or why have some of them gone and joined the ranks of the ISIS where there is no question of Iraqi Christians or Yazidis subjugating them?

Innocent Hindus have also been victims of Muslim extremism in terrorist attacks by groups like the Indian Mujahidin, as mentioned earlier in this article, and they have also been victims of terrorism in the name of Sikhism, and in India’s northeast, Christianity [5] too; so, victimhood of violence in India is, by no means, one-sided, as many wrongly portray it to be. Besides, in Muslim-majority Kashmir (a region disputed between India and Pakistan, and where most of the Muslim majority desires complete independence), hundreds of Hindus were killed by Islamist terrorists, leading most of them to migrate from their homeland Kashmir to other parts of India. For more on this, please see this article.

Some point to how innocent Muslims have been booked in terror cases or even killed in fake encounters in India. While such instances have occurred before Modi became prime minister (and we know this from judicial verdicts declaring the innocence of the accused and slamming the police), such misuse of anti-terror legislations hasn’t been only against Muslims, but even against Hindus in conflict zones with secessionist insurgencies like Assam, as also in belts where ultra-leftist insurgents are active. In fact, leave apart terrorism, innocent Hindu civilians have also been killed in fake encounters with the police alleging the deceased to have been a criminal (not necessarily a terrorist), as was the case with the episode concerning one Ranbeer Singh in the province of Uttarakhand, and so, this problem is not unique to Muslims, and in fact, this problem exists globally, even in the United States, given the number of innocent people who were detained in connection with 9/11.

The truth is that perhaps the only major problem Indian Muslims face in their regular lives, irrespective of the government in power, is the often covert discrimination in terms of not being sold or rented out flats and bungalows in Hindu-majority localities, primarily because of the suspicion (not necessarily hatred) created by terrorism (and it is irrelevant from the non-Muslim landlord's point of view what the causes of terrorism by some Muslims are, or whether Muslim terrorists globally, even in Muslim-majority countries, are a threat to other Muslims too, for the landlord's only concern is that he doesn't wish to be bombed or be heckled by security forces in a terrorism case concerning his tenant, and left-liberals who can rationalize, even if not justify, terrorism by some Muslims, should rationalize this too), and allegations of discrimination of this nature have also unfortunately come to light in localities in the United States too. However, it is not as though this discrimination exists for all apartment and housing societies across India, and this problem was also faced by Sikhs when terrorism in the name of their faith was quite widespread (as mentioned in the internationally acclaimed book ‘Curfewed Night’ by Basharat Peer), and this is also a problem for people, irrespective of religion, from India’s north-east, where there are secessionist insurgencies, and going by a survey conducted by the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a globally reputed think-tank, there are actually many more landlords in Delhi averse to renting their property to live-in couples, irrespective of religion, than those averse to renting their property to Muslims. 

[1] See, for reference, <>. The following excerpt of a book by French  sociologists on Indian  Muslims is interesting-

“… a new Muslim middle class is emerging here and there, around economic niches long occupied by Muslims (meat export, leather goods, Unani medicine) but also beyond the traditional Muslim economy (agribusiness, IT, pharmaceuticals, real estate). Moreover, this burgeoning middle class is no longer composed exclusively of traditional mercantile communities but, increasingly, includes successful entrepreneurs hailing from the lowest sections of the Muslim community …” (Gayer and Jaffrelot, 2012)

[2] I do acknowledge that there are some students who go to a madrasa where only religious learning is imparted as also to a school of a modern variety, and there are also some modernized madrasas imparting modern education as a supplement to religious education and even admitting non-Muslim students just as convent schools also admit non-Christian students. A devout Hindu friend of mine from Bihar, who rattles off Sanskrit verses at the drop of a hat and who happened to have studied in a madrasa for some time, tells me that he never faced any discrimination and in fact, cherishes some of the lessons in virtue he was taught from the Quran there.

[3] See, for reference, this anecdote about a photographer who went to visit a Muslim locality in Ahmedabad, as narrated by a Gujarati Muslim in an article-

'In March, a photographer called me from Bangalore. I admire her work and when she asked for my help to do a photo feature on Juhapura’s residents, I gladly obliged. We met outside my apartment building, where many had gathered for my neighbor Mutassim’s wedding. The photographer’s disappointment was evident when she arrived. There was no biryani or qawalli. Most men wore shiny suits. At one point, a stage was set up and the hosts invited a dwarf to dance for the guests. My neighbor’s 12-year old daughter Sifa wore heels for the first time. She cheered the loudest when the music began.

“These are not the images I wanted,” the photographer said. “I want to show the conditions of Muslims, to show how people are facing hardships under [Narendra] Modi’s Gujarat.”

I smiled. “The only suffering in Juhapura tonight,” I told her, “is that the DJ is playing far too many Enrique Iglesias songs.”

She did not laugh.'

[5] See, for reference, this BBC report-<>.
However, in the northeast, on a positive note, Christians are being outspoken against the terrorists misinterpreting their faith, and here’s an example of Christians forming a human shield around a Hindu prayer (see the second last question in the interview and the answer given to it) - <>.

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