The War on Muslims
Hindutva nationalists want to take our places of worship, our positions in government, and even our citizenship. They will not stop until everyone is Hindu.
Four-time member of Parliament Asaduddin Owaisi has been one of the most outspoken voices opposing Islamophobia in India—he plays an especially significant role as India’s 220 million Muslims face one of the most turbulent periods in their history. Owaisi writes movingly about the attempts by the Indian state to erase the identity of the largest minority in India, abetted by the silence of institutions meant to safeguard them against just these injustices. At this moment, when U.S. President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Ministry Narendra Modi meet at the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue to discuss democratic values, Owaisi has an important intervention, a perspective from a representative who needs to be heard.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi identifies himself as a Hindu nationalist. The Hindutva ideology of his political party—and that of its parent organisation, the paramilitary group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—is expressly inspired by the Nazi and fascist movements of Europe. Hindutva ideologues had openly embraced a vision of India that is rooted in anti-Muslimness; indeed, Hindutva has little else to offer in terms of a national vision besides a visceral hatred of Muslims. During eight years of Modi’s Prime Ministership, Muslims have been subject to constant efforts to deprive them of equal citizenship. These include the unconstitutional repeal of the special status enjoyed by the Muslim-majority region of Jammu & Kashmir, the enactment of a citizenship law that excludes Muslims, and efforts to create a National Register of Citizens.
The Hindutva movement has long undertaken a ‘division of labour’ between its political and ‘cultural’ parts. While the political organs have used state machinery to target Muslims, its ‘cultural’ wings have committed barbaric violence. Earlier this year, in various parts of India, Hindutva groups organised processions where armed men danced to anti-Muslim music. The mobs desecrated masjids and dargahs and attacked homes as the processions passed through Muslim neighbourhoods. BJP-led state governments revictimized Muslims further by arresting hundreds and illegally demolishing their homes and businesses. No action was taken against those who organised these processions or those who inflicted violence on Muslims.
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More recently, Hindutva organisations have renewed their efforts to convert or demolish mediaeval-era masjids. It is likely that they were emboldened following the Supreme Court’s
judgement in the Babri Masjid case, a decades-old legal battle that has served as a test case for the Sangh Parivar. In November 1949, Hindu idols were surreptitiously placed inside Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Muslims were barred from using the masjid while worship of the idols continued. On 6 December 1992, an organised mob of thousands gathered in Ayodhya and demolished the masjid. In 2019, the Supreme Court awarded the title of the land to the Hindu parties. In September 2020, BJP and other Hindutva leaders accused of demolishing the masjid were all acquitted. In effect, the demolition was handsomely rewarded, and no one faced any consequences for it.
In 1991, just before Babri Masjid was demolished, India’s parliament enacted the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. With the exception of Babri Masjid, the Act froze the religious character of all places of worship in India. Under the law, no one is allowed to convert the religious character of a place of worship, and its religious character must remain the same as it was on August 15, 1947—when India gained freedom from British Rule.
This has not stopped Hindutva upstarts from going to court demanding the right to observe Hindu rituals in the Gyanvapi Masjid located in Varanasi (Modi’s parliamentary constituency). Litigation is also underway against the Shahi Idgah of Mathura, the Kamal Maula masjid in Madhya Pradesh, the iconic Qutub Minar, and Baba Budan dargah in Karnataka. Besides this, demands have been made against numerous other historic masjids and ‘Muslim’ monuments, including Taj Mahal and Masjid-i-Ala in Srirangapatna (Karnataka).
Within the Hindutva ecosystem, there is a dangerous fixation on the past. Prime Minister Modi has referred to India’s ‘1200 years of servitude’. He was implying that not only was the colonial rule one of subjugation, but so was the medieval-era rule of Muslim dynasties. With no modern concept of nation-states existing during the period, it was a strange assessment to make. In the last few months, Modi has invoked the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb twice. Similarly, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has repeatedly insisted on the Hindu ancestry of Indian Muslims; he once even compared Muslims to goods stolen [from Hindus]. I have personally been at the receiving end of this fixation. Hindutva leaders have concocted an amusing, fictitious Brahmin lineage for me. This insistence on a ‘Hindu past’ is based on the following premise: The ancestors of Muslims were ‘forcibly’ converted to Islam, today’s Muslims should, therefore, ‘return to the fold’.
Rather than recognising India’s layered and diverse history, Hindutva ideologues insist that India was a continuous Hindu civilization with a single identity. It is based on the casteist idea that religious identity is not a matter of personal choice, but of birth. The sinister implication is that Muslims are somehow inauthentic Indians, and they can be full citizens only if they were to ‘acknowledge’ their ‘Hindu past’.
Many have cited the recent claims over Gyanvapi and Mathura’s Idgah as instances of Hindutva nationalists living in the past at the cost of the present. However, these claims should be viewed in the broader context of social ostracization and violence that Muslims have been facing. There have been repeated and open calls for Muslim genocide and social and economic boycotts against Muslims have been enforced in various parts of India. No legal action has been taken against those who have incited people to genocide. Moreover, visible symbols of Muslim identity—hijab, azaan, Friday prayers, halal meat—have been subject to vilification campaigns by Hindutva groups. The nexus between mobs and state governments has effectively criminalised the conversion to Islam and its propagation. A person can also expect state or mob violence if they marry a non-Muslim, transport cattle as a Muslim, consume beef, or offer Friday prayers in an empty lot.
The mere existence of Muslims in India—both in history and at present—defeats the narrative of a single, monolithic Indian culture. It is the most solid evidence that India has always been—and, hopefully, always will be—home to multiple identities, diverse languages and religious beliefs. Hindutva’s obsession is not with the past, but with Muslims.
With the erasure of Muslim identity, it hopes to create a homogenous Hindu Rashtra. Constitutions do not transform social attitudes; they do not annihilate systemic oppressions. But they can offer the tools to resist state and mob violence. Even as Indian Muslims face calls to make them second-class citizens, we have sought to rely on constitutional remedies. Citizens in constitutional democracies have a political voice in the electoral field and they can legitimately expect courts to do justice. Unfortunately, resistance to Hindutva violence has mostly been a lonely struggle. Political parties have chosen either to eagerly participate in our dehumanisation or to maintain a ‘strategic silence’. Hindutva radicalisation has also gone unchallenged within Hindu civil society, thus giving the impression that anti-Muslim violence enjoys widespread acceptance among common Hindus.
If the disputes over the Gyanvapi and Idgah masjids are allowed to fester for too long, young Muslims will become permanently disenchanted with constitutional processes and will resign themselves to suffer injustice. If this happens, the process of formalising second-class citizenship of Muslims will be more or less complete. With that accomplished, the dream of a modern, secular democratic republic will be all but buried.