In Review Review essay

How oppressed are Muslims in India?

Updated 02 Aug, 2016 08:38am
Muslims offer Eid prayers at the Jama Masjid, Delhi | Reuters
Muslims offer Eid prayers at the Jama Masjid, Delhi | Reuters

Muslims in India form the largest religious minority in the country. According to the 2011 Census, they comprise 14.4 per cent of India’s total population — roughly 174 million people. To use the word ‘minority’ for them, therefore, is misleading: they are the third-largest Muslim population anywhere in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan. Minority status, however, refers to a group’s relative power vis-à-vis other groups rather than to its numbers alone (note the case of women everywhere or blacks in South Africa during the apartheid). In that sense, then, Indian Muslims certainly are a minority, particularly when one considers the growing influence of Hindu right-wing forces since the 1980s.

But just how oppressed are Muslims in India? For Pakistanis – and particularly for those whose families migrated from India – this question is a source of endless curiosity, not the least because the answer either justifies or undermines the very notion of the Pakistani nation-state. If Indian Muslims, in fact, are oppressed then – regardless of Pakistan’s myriad internal troubles – the people of Pakistan can still breathe a sigh of relief that they live in a land of their own. On the flip side, if Indian Muslims are not oppressed, then what exactly was the Partition trauma about? As academic literature produced on Indian Muslims in recent years tells us, there are no simple answers to these questions.

This sense of marginalisation has been steadily increasing since the rise to prominence of Hindu right-wing ideologies

Scholarly interest in Indian Muslims is not recent and can be traced to the colonial period. Orientalist scholars during the British era presented the subcontinent as a patchwork of different religious groups — an understanding that informed the policies of the colonial state and made its task of ruling its Indian subjects manageable. This understanding was echoed by the indigenous Hindu and Muslim elites who used religious identity as a means of shoring up their own power (a practice that continues even today on both sides of the religious divide and, indeed, on both sides of the India-Pakistan border). On the whole, this approach hindered the fluidity of beliefs and religious practices across communal boundaries which has always existed in the subcontinent, and which persists despite hindrances even today.

Saba Naqvi has documented the subcontinent’s syncretic traditions in her book In Good Faith: A Journey in Search of an Unknown India. She highlights many instances of boundary crossing that regularly take place across religious divides despite the best efforts of right-wing forces. For the most part, however, scholarship on religious communities in India has continued to repeat the notion that the most significant divide in that country – and the one that creates conflict most frequently – is the one between Hindus and Muslims. While this simplifies a much more complex reality, it subtly reinforces the logic of the two-nation theory.

Most of the scholarship on Indian Muslims produced in the last 50 years mimics the Orientalist approach in two important ways: it views one of the largest Muslim populations in the world as a homogenous and unified group; and, for the most part, it views that population through the lens of the north Indian urban elite. Books such as Hasan Suroor’s India’s Muslim Spring: Why is Nobody Talking about It? deny the vast diversity that exists among Indian Muslims in terms of region, class, sect, gender, and caste.

Hindu extremists demolish Babri mosque in Ayodhya, triggering widespread Hindu-Muslim violence in 1992 | AFP
Hindu extremists demolish Babri mosque in Ayodhya, triggering widespread Hindu-Muslim violence in 1992 | AFP

His work, instead, focuses largely on middle-class, urban, north Indian Muslims as he argues that there has been an “awakening” among India’s Muslims which is driving them away from their supposed historical insularity and conservatism. In order to underscore his argument, he implies that there are two categories dividing the Muslim population of India: “good Muslims”, who are liberal and moderate in their political and religious leanings, and “bad Muslims”, who are conservative and fundamentalist in their outlook. Such a division is not just without any scholarly basis, it is also troubling as it drastically reduces the myriad political and religious views prevalent among Muslims living in different parts of India.

Similarly, Salman Khurshid, a prominent Congress politician since the 1980s, has recently made his own attempt to diagnose the problems of Indian Muslims. His book At Home in India: A Restatement of Indian Muslims is more a memoir than an academic study, but it suffers from a similar malaise as some other books, in that it attempts to represent all Indian Muslims through the experience of a few members of the urban elite. Much of the book is dedicated to revisiting debates over Muslim personal law – which preoccupied many writers throughout the 1980s and the 1990s – along with recounting of the history of Aligarh Muslim University, the quintessential bastion of the north Indian Muslim elite.

Though both Suroor and Khurshid raise the issue of a growing sense of marginalisation among Indian Muslims, neither is able to deal with this question in a meaningful way because their work is not sufficiently grounded in field research. Both are also, sadly, apologetic in tone, taking great pains to prove that Muslims are loyal subjects of the Indian state — a strategy used by minority elites to secure their position within the power structure since the colonial period.

Fortunately, such simplistic approaches to the study of Indian Muslims are waning. A new generation of scholars is emerging from different disciplines whose work is grounded in empirical research. Two recent books, for instance, shed light on the complexity and diversity among Muslims in India through the lens of political history.

Also read: Strangers in the house: The adverse effects of solidifying ethnic boundaries

The first, Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation by Hilal Ahmed takes an innovative approach to understanding the evolution of Muslim politics in north India. The author focusses, in particular, on the discourse related to Indo-Islamic historic buildings such as the Jama Masjid in Delhi and the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya as a means for understanding the construction of Muslims as a political group by a variety of actors. In the process of unpacking how Muslim unity is asserted through these key sites, Ahmed cleverly demonstrates the constructed, contested and evolving nature of Indian Muslim identity itself.

His approach is important in that it does not take the category of Muslims as a given; rather, it traces the construction of this political category as a process that is both contested and continuously evolving. The book also moves away from simplistic binaries such as communal/secular that have plagued many other discussions of Indian Muslims.

One of the most notable recent contributions to the understanding of Muslim histories in India is Mohammad Sajjad’s Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours. It moves away from the former centres of Mughal power which have generally been the focus of studies on Indian Muslims. Sajjad’s carefully researched work outlines the rich history of political mobilisation among Muslims in Bihar, the third-most populous state in India and one with a significant Muslim population, from the colonial period to the present. The author highlights the resistance amongst Bihari Muslims to the two-nation theory. This has largely been overlooked in studies of the pre-independence period which generally focus on Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal.

Sajjad, however, points out that Muslim political groups in Bihar were both anti-colonial and anti-separatist in orientation and regularly allied with Hindu groups in their political struggles. In the postcolonial period, he describes the movement for the promotion of Urdu – which began in the 1950s and continued through the 1980s – as a mass-based campaign, not carried out in religious and communal terms, but instead, on the basis of the rights guaranteed to linguistic minorities in the Indian constitution.

Sajjad points to another subject hitherto untouched by other scholars: the question of caste among Muslims. Though Muslim elites in India would have us believe that there is no caste system among Indian Muslims, the 1990s witnessed the emergence of two significant movements: the All-India Backward Muslim Morcha and the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz. These two movements campaigned for the rights of lower-caste Muslims in Bihar.

Sajjad’s contribution is important in two ways. First, it focusses on a part of India that is under-researched when it comes to the study of Indian Muslims. Second, it not only highlights the issue of caste amongst Muslims but also focusses on mobilisation among – and also led by – non-elite groups. For this reason, his is a welcome addition to the existing literature on Indian Muslims.

Prayers being offered on the last day of the holy month of Ramzan at Jama Masjid, Dehli | Reuters
Prayers being offered on the last day of the holy month of Ramzan at Jama Masjid, Dehli | Reuters

Though many Muslims in India occupy various important positions in the state and the society – which mostly depends on where they come from and what are their class, caste, and gender – a growing sense of marginalisation among Muslims across India is hard to deny. This sense of marginalisation has been steadily increasing since the rise to prominence of Hindu right-wing ideologies and organisations during the 1980s, when the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi issue was used to sharpen religious divides across India. While the occurrence of communal violence has declined since the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, the alienation felt by religious minorities – including Muslims and Christians – has continued to increase, particularly after the victory of Narendra Modi as prime minister in the 2014 election.

The marginalisation of Muslims in India is, indeed, well documented. In the mid-2000s, the Indian government commissioned two studies — the Sachar Committee Report of 2006 and the Misra Commission Report of 2007. These highlighted a higher prevalence of discrimination towards Muslims and socio-economic deprivation among them as compared to other religious groups. Little concrete action, however, has been taken to address these issues at the policy level. If anything, the situation has only worsened.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its partner organisations in the Hindu right have started a concerted campaign against all religious minorities, including Muslims. The main features of this campaign include protests against the so-called ‘love jihad’ – Muslim men allegedly converting Hindu women to Islam by trapping them in love affairs – and ‘ghar wapsi’ (homecoming) initiatives which convert Muslims and Christians ‘back’ to Hinduism. Moves towards Hinduisation have also been taking place across India.

While Hindu nationalist groups are waging a concerted campaign against all religious minorities in their efforts to Hinduise India, Islamist forces are doing the same and even worse to religious minorities on this side of the border.

For example, the government in the state of Maharashtra – where the Shiv Sena has successfully drummed up anti-Muslim sentiments for years – recently imposed a ban on beef trading. This will disproportionately harm poor Muslims working in meat and leather industries. All of these are signs of growing intolerance and a gradual yet steady process of de-secularisation, which do not bode well for religious minorities in India.

As a result of these shifts in the Indian polity, academics have also begun to investigate the issue of marginalisation more seriously. One issue that has received attention in recent years is that of the spatial segregation of Muslims, particularly in urban areas. Two recent books discuss this issue in depth. The first one, Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalisation, is edited by two French scholars, Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurent Gayer. It is a collection of studies on Muslim mohallas – exclusively Muslim neighbourhoods or ghettos – in cities across India. Each chapter is dedicated to a different city and includes portraits of major cities such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi and Lucknow.

The book also includes research on cities which are rarely the focus of studies on Indian Muslims. These include Cuttack in Orissa, Kozhikode in Kerala and Bangalore in Karnataka.

By providing detailed studies of such diverse geographical sites, Muslims in Indian Cities draws attention to the vast diversity of experiences that exists among Indian Muslims. It provides a nuanced understanding of the issue of marginalisation, highlighting the fact that the reasons for spatial segregation of Muslims vary in different cities depending on the context. In cities such as Ahmedabad and Mumbai – where large-scale communal violence has taken place in the past – the level of spatial segregation and insecurity among Muslims is predictably high. In cities in southern and eastern parts of India, where Hindu nationalist groups have historically had less of a presence, Muslims are generally in a relatively secure position vis-à-vis other religious groups. This may be changing, however, as the Hindu right wing rapidly makes inroads into those parts of India as well.

An Indian Muslim man walks into a mosque in New Delhi. A portrait of Mahatma Gandhi hangs on the wall of the  Delhi Police Headquarters in the background | AP
An Indian Muslim man walks into a mosque in New Delhi. A portrait of Mahatma Gandhi hangs on the wall of the Delhi Police Headquarters in the background | AP

My own book Questioning ‘the Muslim Woman’: Identity and Insecurity in an Urban Indian Locality focusses on the issue of marginalisation and insecurity among women living in Delhi. The book deliberately focusses on the experiences of Muslim women, who had previously only been viewed in a simplistic manner through the lens of the veil and personal law. Based on research conducted over the course of a year in Zakir Nagar, a neighbourhood situated in Delhi’s ‘Muslim belt’, my book highlights multiple and shifting factors that determine one’s experience of insecurity even within the same locality. If a range of experiences can exist within such a small geographical area as Zakir Nagar, one can only imagine the diversity of experiences that may exist within a huge country.

At the same time, Questioning ‘the Muslim Woman’ demonstrates a growing sense of marginalisation among all Muslims which is tied to the historical memory of various incidents of violence, beginning with the Partition. I conducted my research almost a decade ago and Muslim localities – including Zakir Nagar – have continuously grown since then. This points to the fact that marginalisation amongst Muslims is not decreasing, and may actually be growing as the forces of Hindutva become stronger across India.

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The state, too, has contributed to this sense of marginalisation. Since the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, Muslim men have increasingly become the targets of the state’s security forces. They face human rights abuses during siege and search operations carried out under the pretext of anti-terrorism operations, both within and outside the confines of the law. Two young men were killed in 2008 in the infamous Batla House encounter, which occurred in the same area where I had conducted my research; many others have been arrested without charge from that same area and countless more from across India.

Manisha Sethi’s book, Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India, carefully documents the dark underbelly of counterterrorism in which fake encounters and illegal detentions are regularly used as a means of asserting state power against unwanted citizens. Such state excesses have only increased the sense of alienation among Muslims — particularly those living in urban areas. Consequently, along with Dalits and Adivasis, Muslims make up a disproportionately high percentage of the prison population, mirroring the situation of African Americans in the United States.

One positive outcome of these negative developments is that there seemingly is a steady decline in generalist studies of Indian Muslims. Most of the recent literature, instead, suggests a growing maturity among scholars marked by an awareness of the diversity that exists within this vast population. There is also a shift towards empirically grounded studies. There are, however, still several areas that require further exploration, which is good news for budding scholars. These include the issue of caste among Muslims (a subject that also requires attention in Pakistan), which has remained a taboo for too long.

There is also a gaping hole in academic literature when it comes to studies of Muslims living in the southern and eastern parts of India – particularly in Assam – which houses the highest percentage of Muslims in the population of any state in India.

Muslims offer Eid prayers at the Jama Masjid, Delhi | Reuters
Muslims offer Eid prayers at the Jama Masjid, Delhi | Reuters

In order to correct the elite bias that has existed for long within academic literature on Indian Muslims and to properly understand the issue of socio-economic marginalisation among the community, more research needs to be conducted on poor and middle-class Muslims who comprise the vast majority of the Muslim population in India. Finally, more attention must be paid to the gendered experiences of being Muslim, moving beyond the simplistic notion of Muslim women ‘behind the veil’ and taking into account the growing insecurity among Muslim men.

Finally, to return to the fraught question with which I began this essay: just how oppressed are Indian Muslims? Though the formulation of this question is problematic for multiple reasons – not least of which is the assumption of uniformity amongst this group – I will hazard an answer: while Indian Muslims are undoubtedly facing increasing insecurity and marginalisation – particularly as Hindu right-wing forces become more powerful – they are still in a more secure position than religious minorities in Pakistan.

While Hindu nationalist groups are waging a concerted campaign against all religious minorities in their efforts to Hinduise India, Islamist forces are doing the same and even worse to religious minorities on this side of the border. The marginalisation of Muslims in India, therefore, must be viewed within the wider context of growing religious majoritarianism in South Asia as a whole — a process that began picking up steam in both India and Pakistan during the 1980s.

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Additionally, India is still officially a secular state where the rights of religious minorities are enshrined in the constitution, despite Modi government’s best efforts to the contrary. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Pakistan where the Objectives Resolution solidified a second-class constitutional status for non-Muslim Pakistanis and where the definition of ‘Muslim’ itself is continuously shrinking. Rightly or wrongly, for many secular-minded Indians who are concerned about the deteriorating situation of religious minorities in their country, Pakistan stands as a warning of what might be in store for them in the not-too-distant future if they fail to quickly correct their path.

This was originally published in the Herald's April 2015 issue under the headline 'The Muslim question'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer teaches sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.