Dividing India into 'us' and 'them'

I Mean What I Say

by Shashi Tharoor

4 min read
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*Every thinking Indian must ask himself or herself what our country's growing culture of violent hate crimes against its Muslim minority, which have escalated dramatically under BJP rule and allowed to occur with impunity, portends for us as a nation and a people. Is this the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free?

Carts set on fire by miscreants during a protest over controversial remarks made by two now-suspended BJP leaders about Prophet Mohammad, in Ranchi. Photo: PTI

The recent backlash in Muslim countries to the toxic rhetoric being spewed in India's domestic political debates, against their religion and its sacred figures and practices, has thrown a harsh light on the rampant Islamophobia that has been encouraged in our country by the ruling party and its supporters. Openly insulting the Prophet may have been the last straw, but in recent years the camel's back has been all but broken by many other examples of shameful bigotry and hatred.

A bulldozer demolishes the illegally constructed residence of Javed Ahmed. Photo:ANI

Residents of the capital have witnessed a spate of inflammatory anti-Muslim rallies, some of which have spilled over into violence. Rioting consumed parts of Delhi in February 2020; a majority of the victims were Muslim. Incidents of lynching of Muslims, especially for the 'offence' of transporting or consuming beef -- the Hindu vigilantes consider the cow holy - have increased dramatically under BJP rule. Anti-cow slaughter laws have been passed in most states and are implemented with greater zeal than judgement both by police and by self-appointed cow-protection mobs. A number of incidents have emerged of mobs beating Muslims and forcing them to chant Hindu religious slogans. And the onset of 'bulldozer politics' - with Muslim homes and shops being singled out for demolition for 'illegal construction', when hundreds of other violators are ignored, has made life unviable for hundreds of Muslim citizens. A Muslim journalist, Siddique Kappan, has been jailed for nearly two years now on charges of sedition, terrorism, and incitement -- just for trying to do his job.

Siddique Kappan

Social media is rife with Islamophobic messaging, many of it in BJP-curated WhatsApp groups spreading toxic hatred for Muslims, their religion and their history in India. Sins, real and imagined, of past Muslim invaders and rulers are blamed on the entire community. Under BJP rule campaigns have been run against inter-faith romance (Muslim men have been accused of 'love jihad' to entrap Hindu women), religious conversion (which is permitted by India's constitution but outlawed or restricted in an increasing number of states), and Muslim practices of marriage, divorce and alimony (which are decried as anti-women's rights).

While right-wing zealots speak publicly of Muslims in blood-curdling language, police have charged Muslim students under draconian terrorism and sedition laws for the frivolous offence of cheering for Pakistan in its cricketing rout of India at last year's cricket World Cup. When India lost to Pakistan, with nine of India's eleven performing below par, only the fast bowler Mohammed Shami was vilely abused -- because, as a Muslim, he was deemed to be not merely a sporting failure but a failure to do his best against his co-religionists on the opposite side.

Mohammed Shami. Photo:ANI

The barbarity is widespread. Whereas previous governments sought to soothe communal passions, promote harmony between communities and offer official encouragement (including tax incentives) for the promotion of India's pluralism and diversity, the BJP is unapologetic in its pursuit of its intolerant majoritarian Hindutva ideology. Leaders close to the ruling establishment routinely excoriate the Muslim minority and its alleged appeasement by previous governments and demonise Muslims as a disloyal threat to India's Hindu ethos.

For decades India was proudly secular, and the Muslims who stayed on, refusing to opt for the Islamic State of Pakistan that had been carved out of India by the British, were honoured symbols of India's pluralism. India has had two Muslim Presidents, and innumerable Cabinet Ministers, State Chief Ministers, High Court and Supreme Court Chief Justices, Ambassadors, Governors and even captains of national sporting teams from the Muslim community. Once, government officials pointed proudly to Muslims in positions of prominence as evidence of India's ability to overcome the bitter legacy of Partition with Pakistan; today the government seems to be busy disempowering Muslims wherever they can find them. Muslims are dramatically under-represented in the police forces and elite central administrative services, and over-represented in the prisons. As of this month, the ruling party will not have a single Muslim elected representative in either House of Parliament, or in any state legislative assembly.

What dismays liberals like myself is how thin the veneer of India's constitutional secularism appears to have turned out to be. Just eight years of BJP rule has stripped away India's claims to millennia of religious co-existence and acceptance of differences. Decades of touting Hindu-Muslim amity seem to have been shredded in just a few years. Sentiments that a couple of decades ago would have been deemed impolite to even express in polite society are now declaimed from political platforms. Bigotry has infected even government agencies and officials. The police have often enabled rather than stopped the torment of Muslims. Hostility to Muslims seems to have invaded the mind-space of a significant section of North Indian society -- even if the South has still seemed able to resist the contagion -- and been sanctioned by media coverage that enables or condones it. The much-vaunted free press has been complicit in the erasure of India's long-standing syncretic cultural traditions.

As a result, India is witnessing the gradual normalisation of separating Hindu from Muslim, segregating Muslims, excluding and disempowering them, and dividing Indian society into 'us' and 'them'. A variety of institutional methods, political campaigns, legal policies and administrative procedures are making Indians accustomed to the routine expression and practice of anti-Muslim bigotry.
Every thinking Indian must ask himself or herself what our country's growing culture of violent hate crimes against its Muslim minority, which have escalated dramatically under BJP rule and allowed to occur with impunity, portends for us as a nation and a people. Is this the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free?

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