When I was in Class XI, a professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University came to speak to us about the wound rendered upon Indian Muslims by the demolition of Babri Masjid. A girl in our class, recently arrived from Bangalore, stood up and told the gathering about the Muslim family that lived in the flat next to hers as she grew up. This family, she said, always supported Pakistan during cricket matches. This was the median Indian Muslim sentiment, she said. Muslims support Pakistani cricket, and if they do, they should be sent there.

At the time, I was angry. It was an emotional moment; India was fighting a war in Kargil. I argued that Muslims in India had no such disloyalty, that she didn’t know what she was talking about, that I wanted more proof than cheers heard through a closed door. The JNU professor, his PhD students and my own teachers landed heavily on my side. These were the accepted liberal pieties, and if you reproduced them with enough faith you would not meet contradiction.

The problem is the truth lies somewhere between our positions. I had shaped my understanding via my own upbringing—I remember this girl, as she made her point, insisted she was not talking about ‘Muslims like you.’ And though she based her views on observation, and possibly the mutterings of family and neighbours, her sample size was too small to be of validity.

The suspension of 67 Kashmiri students from their university in Meerut for supporting Pakistan during a cricket match ignites this debate once again. Yet I sense another liberal piety at work, this time in how the story has been reported. In the last decade or so, as the difficult experience of Kashmiri Muslims has been acknowledged more readily in mainstream media, there has been a small shift in attitudes, with editors sanctioning stories that bring to light their resentment against the Indian state. I suspect this is why this story has been published so widely. Yet the story only tells part of the tale—and here I find myself in brief concordance with Hindutva’s most reactionary—why is it that our media does not report that other phenomenon, that Muslims in various parts of the country, unaffiliated with the struggle for an independent Kashmir and untroubled by the military crackdown therein, feel a bond with the Pakistani cricket team?

I’m terming this non-reporting a liberal piety because it comes from a good place—people interested in living peacefully with one another do not want to foster suspicions against minority communities, and they certainly do not want majoritarian brigands to violently censure minorities for such beliefs, even if it goes against their own ideas of what it means to be a citizen. But if we are to come to terms with the various sub-nationalisms that have reared up in independent India, we need to enlarge our understanding of what nationalism has meant as a historical force, and how it is used today.

Benedict Anderson demonstrated that nationalism is a construct, a cultural artefact. It might seem a spontaneous sympathy embedded within each of us, one of “profound emotional legacy", but it is in fact the distillation of a complex crossing of historical forces. The problem, every time India plays Pakistan in a cricket match, is that the debate about the Indian Muslim’s nationalism is framed on both sides by those who, according to Anderson, “hypostatize the existence of Nationalism-with-a-big-N" (to hypostatize is to assume the reality of an idea or proposition). A binary is addressed—are Indian Muslims supporting Pakistan or not? If they are, they are “unpatriotic", and not legitimate members of the Indian state. Those that support India? They’re the Good Muslims.

Q. Why has the Indian Muslim’s loyalty been in question since 1947?

A. Pakistan.

Henri Tajfel, while formulating his social identity theory, argued that an in-group is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. An out-group is the converse, a group with which a person does not identify. Various phenomena are associated with such groupings, but most relevant to this discussion on the birthing of Nationalism (‘with a big N’) are that in-group cohesion and attachment increase when intergroup relations are competitive, and identification with an in-group activates a motivated desire to positively differentiate that group from out-groups.

To put this in the context of our debate: Despite the platitudes presented in our textbooks and more vapid histories, since its inception in 1947, the cohesion of the “in-group"—members of the Indian state—has been strengthened by the constant spectre of the “out-group", Pakistanis. In the same way, across the border, the cohesion of the Pakistani national identity (even more, perhaps, a creation of 1947) has been fostered through a direct religious and ethnic comparison with the peoples of India. This is the reason why even liberal Pakistanis have difficulty in imagining the Indian Muslim as a full member of the Indian state; why a common schoolyard taunt towards Muslim boys, at least in Delhi, where I grew up, is ‘go home’ (with reference to Pakistan); and why prime ministerial aspirants in India are able to argue, without generating any response of note, that persecuted Hindus from Pakistan should be given political asylum within our borders. Not persecuted Christians, or Communists, or Ahmadis, but persecuted Hindus.

Aside: When India shares national borders with six other countries, why does the term “across the border" (see previous paragraph) immediately denote Pakistan? Because it is “the" border, physical manifestation of the emotional boundary that Indian nationalism has constructed itself upon. Indian nationalism has not premised itself in the same manner against any other nation: not Bangladesh, Nepal, China or even, as might be expected, its former colonial master.

This leaves the Indian Muslim uniquely vulnerable. His cultural identity is a visible approximation of the prayer, diet, dress and custom in the one place imagined as the anti-India. So, a ghetto of Muslims, in almost any city in the country, is casually referred to as ‘mini-Pakistan’, because the customs of the people there are seen somehow as intrinsically Pakistani, not intrinsically Muslim. This is also why most Hindus—from every level of education, privilege and liberality—who see green flags fluttering over Muslim ghettos assume that it is the Pakistani flag being displayed, when in most cases it is the flag of the Jamaat-E-Islami-Hind, a peaceful organisation that aims to help Muslims establish their place in the Indian cultural panoply.

That some Indian Muslims, not just Kashmiris, support Pakistan during cricket matches must be acknowledged. But categorisation is self-fulfilling, some will say, and sport excites tribalism. It does not immediately follow—and this seems to be the consideration at the crux of the issue—that they will support Pakistan in a war against India. Yet it does not immediately follow that they will not, either. No one on either side of the debate can assert their position with complete confidence. What we can say with certainty is there has been a failure of assimilation, that has in part been caused by a rarely acknowledged, yet generally accepted, narrowed definition of what it means to be Indian.

But this is not all. Forces within India’s Muslim community augment this alienation. One is the undeniable supranational exhortation that exists in Islam, the insistence that there is a comity between Islamic peoples that lies above national boundaries. While an extension of comity is usually a good thing, in this case it poses a unique challenge to the project of nation-building in places like India and, increasingly, the West, where Muslims are significant minorities.

The caste background of most Muslims, converts from untouchables, means they suffer what has been characterised a doubled marginalisation, based on their religion but also failure to shed their caste identity. But perhaps most disturbing has been the failure of the political leaders of the Muslim community in India, in almost 70 years since independence, to properly challenge this marginalisation. A common refrain is that Indian Muslims needed an Ambedkar, someone who could articulate and establish the community’s position in the democratic spectrum. Instead, parties like the Congress and their self-styled “secular" regional counterparts have wilfully recruited their Muslim leadership from amongst gangsters and ultra-religionists. As such leaders have found themselves in increasing political favour throughout the country, they have sought to strengthen the basis of their support—so, the gangster-politico promotes a certain kind of lawlessness, while the maulvi-politico promotes ever-stricter readings of Islam even as he overplays Hindu animosities, and the adherents of both find themselves pushed even further away from a complete and content citizenship of the nation they call home.

The idea of the devout, bearded, skull-capped Muslim as not-quite-Indian has been established so comprehensively that we have internalised it. How completely I myself had internalised it, how deeply it sat in my mind, I only realised one night, as I walked down Marine Drive amid a swaying, singing crowd. Dhoni had just hit that six, India had won the World Cup, and we tumbled from the stadium, deliciously delirious, to a stunning sight. Along either side of the road Mumbaikars danced and sang and swung tricolours. It was a rare moment of communitarian happiness. As I walked with my friends down this pulsing road, I spotted a man in a pristine kurta pyjama, skullcap, and flowing beard. He was smiling as widely, as deliriously, as anyone else. His wife stood beside him, clad from head to toe in black hijab. At his knee was his son, dressed exactly like every other little boy there, waving a small plastic tricolour. To my eyes there was something incredibly poignant about the scene. I sprinted to him, drunk on the moment, and gave him a hug. He laughed and sent me on my way with a handshake and wide smile. It was only the next morning, when I looked back on the night, that I wondered if that smile had a tincture of admonishment: yes, I don’t look like you, it might’ve said, but you need not be surprised that I am here.

Prayaag Akbar is a journalist with The Sunday Guardian.

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