Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why circumstances in India may get better for Muslims

Things are bad for Muslims in India. It is an odd sentence because a statement about India is usually untrue if it has so few words. Where are the exceptions, caveats and context that stretch the line? But somehow, we have come to a point where seven words can describe some 200 million Muslims—the rich and the poor among them, superstars and the wretched, men, women and even the Gujarati Bohra Muslim fans of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Most unpleasant things that Western humanitarians, politicians and journalists say about modern India are not entirely true. For instance, the lament of American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar a few days ago, “How much does the Modi administration have to criminalize the act of being Muslim in India for us to say something?" This is nonsense. Usually, American condemnation of India is more sophisticated. It would say something we know is not the whole truth but we cannot zero in on the lie and pick it apart. It is the slant and implications that are erroneous.

Yet, is hard to dispute the growing view that Indian Muslims have it bad. They are not brutalized, as some people in the West seem to think, but the perpetual mental torment of the community is probably far worse than what they endured at the peak of the Ayodhya dispute, or when Islamist terrorism was the predominant fear of the world. All talk of “genocide" against Muslims is a hyperbole, but what is true is that everyday, there are a million small slaps. And that is worse.

While extraordinary events, like riots, did traumatize Muslims, they were brief and contained the promise of being rare. But the ongoing minor assaults that are ubiquitous may have filled India’s Muslims with the gloom of being treated as lesser people in their own country. Just a few days ago, yet another man in costume, his only qualification to claim sacred status, told a large crowd that if Muslim men harassed Hindu women, he would arrange the sexual assault of Muslim women. Young men in the audience cheered, even invoked a deity’s name. What the man in costume did was a crime; there were cops in the audience and the event was recorded. Yet, he walks around free, at least at time of writing. Everyday, there are things people say about Muslims—what they are, what they should be allowed to do and where they belong. It has all become banal. Before we came to this pass, it used to take an extraordinary incident to unsettle Muslims.

Many of us who have no idea how bad caste discrimination might have been are today presented with its dark might in plain sight. Their Muslim identity is held against them; their names are a liability; even the rich, famous and scholarly are diminished in public perception by their religious label. The most underrated right an Indian enjoys is the right to minor misdemeanours and I think Muslims in India have lost that right in many situations. They typically dare not express road rage, say, or get into other brawls.

Usually in India, an evil has a dark logical reason to exist. Caste, for example, may have begun in an ancient pandemic and then become a way of excluding vast sections from the use of limited resources. Discrimination against women too, as in other regions of the world, had beneficiaries. Sporadic pushes against Muslims were also battles for market access and real estate. But the current situation is not only evil, it offers no returns and has no beneficiaries. If anything, this is a situation that does not bode well for Hindus either. It has become easy for low-grade politicians to become popular just by saying nasty things about Muslims. Pakistanis can tell us how fast religious zealots of low intellect with a grouse against progress and modernity can grow popular and the destruction they can cause. Democracy is a dangerous medium if the wrong kind of people get quick breaks. The treatment of Muslims has also diminished the global prestige of Hindus. The world is ready to believe any hyperbolic report from India.

Most Hindus are not perpetrators of oppression, but then the nature of public evil is such that it does not require a majority to actively participate in it. Indifference to small injustices is enough.

Despite the grimness of India’s situation, I believe that things can get a lot better for Muslims. Maybe what is going on right now is a nadir that we had to pass before modern India rises towards a more intelligent way of being. I see hope in a powerful institution that is situated outside the government, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Some of the recent speeches of its chief Mohan Bhagwat go beyond condemning violence against Muslims. He has said that people who commit such violence cannot be considered Hindus.

He emerges from a cultural victory—a sense that Hindus have won. What exactly they have won can never be clear, but something has been won. All European thought experiments of Indian aristocrats who wished to convert India into a confused imitation of Europe have failed. An ancient society will have some biases; better those biases than flaky ideals like secularism.

Unthreatened by Islam, modern Hindus will develop the magnanimity to see the point of what Mohan Bhagwat said: “[The] Hindu Rashtra is not a Hindu-only nation." Also, top politicians will see that allowing facile hate-mongering is creating new political rivals, so it is best to enforce hate-speech laws. Also, the apparent loss of the social stature of Indian Muslims may help them command more compassion than envy. And a period of peace could show the majority that banal irritations at anything Islamic are not intuitive responses to any danger, but merely a fear of the unfamiliar.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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