The Insecure Muslim

The demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, marked a watershed for the Indian Muslim. Nationalism was being redefined, and Hindu ‘tolerance’ made the Muslim insecure rather than reassure him. A decade later, the social and economic boycott following Godhra, especially when the Bharatiya Janata Party was in power, added to this. On the other hand, the post-September 11 war on terror focusing Islamic fundamentalism put Indian Muslims in a fresh dilemma. The jihadi type of Islam posed a thread to their identity in a secular nation. Confused they lost no chance in showing off their patriotism, even at a cricket match. The war in Iraq reminds them that their faith is under threat globally too. In the following pages. The Week attempts to make a journey through the battlefield that is the Indian Muslim’s mind.

Wearing a white skullcap, Abdul Wahid knelt down in Delhi’s jama Masjid to pray for India’s victory against Pakistan in the World Cup match on March 1. He wrote a cap with tricolour stripes to the mosque the next Friday. Wahid had to join a protest rally after the prayers, against the impending war on Iraq, and he chose to sport the tricolour lest he be branded anti-national.

With 13 crore Muslims among its one billion people, India is home to the second largest Muslim population in the world. Yet unlike in Europe or Muslim countries, anti-war protests here have been largely confined to the precincts of the Jama Masjid in Delhi and the Azad Maidan in Mumbai, or the anti-American chorus at Friday congregations across the country. Even then, people like Wahid are keen to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Or, they fear, they will have to share the fate of Muhammad Afroz, whom the Mumbai Police arrested after September 11 on charges of being an al Qaeda man. After three months of detention, the court granted bail to the 25-year-old who was training to be a pilot in London. “I confessed I was an al Qaeda member under duress. On September 11, I was at Bedford flight training school in Leicester. The records prove that,” he said. “The police also detained my elder brother, Muhammad Farooq, for 40 days. They made him my financier.

Afroz said he had come back from London to avoid marrying a girl his parents had chosen for him there. “My parents later relented and asked me to complete my training,” he said. “I was leaving for London when the police arrested me from a hotel.”

Many Muslims feel they are victims of the post-September ‘war on terror’. “Perhaps, Gujarat wouldn’t have happened if this war on terror wasn’t there,” said Ilyas Rasool Qasmi, convener of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, about the bloody aftermath of Godhra where Hindu zealots targeted Muslims after 58 karsevaks were torched to death in February last year. “Muslims are feeling vulnerable. They are passing through one of the difficult times of history.”

History is their guide. Many times in the 55 years since the violent birth of a secular nation they have had to make overt displays of their love for the country, even at a cricket match. Khalid Muhammad organized a special prayer in Mumbai for the victory of the Indian team over Pakistan in the World Cup. “We love this country as much as anyone else,” he proclaimed. “We mourn its losses and cherish its victories like others do.” A huge crowd watched the Indian triumph on a large TV screen at Khalid’s Noor Muhammady restaurant at Bhendi Bazar. On Republic Days and Independence Day the dessert at Noor Muhammady is a tricolour pherni.

Tayab Tai of the Muslim Council, a welfare organization at Mohammad Ali Road, arranged a similar show for its Muslim residents. They exploded in frenzy every time a Pakistani wicket fell and set off fireworks when Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag hit the Pakistanis out of attack. In Aligarh, where riots had broken out after Godhra, students at Aligarh Muslim University poured out on the campus to celebrate India’s conquest at midnight, making Saood Usmani, a BDS student, wonder why the Muslim has to prove his loyalty. “Didn’t we repose our trust and align our fate with the destiny of this country at the time of Partition?” he asked.

Tushar Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, agrees. “Why should the Muslims make a show of their loyalty?” he asked “Indian Muslims could have left at the time of Partition, but they decided against that. Haven’t they passed the acid test?” Perhaps, but there is no doubt about the sense of insecurity among Muslims. “They feel the future doesn’t belong to them,” said Ashis Nandy, social psychologist and director of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. “This feeling has now spread to parts like West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and is more prevalent among the middle class. It will take them a long time to recover.”

Islamic scholar Asgar Ali Engineer, who heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, demonstrates how this insecurity creeps in. “After September 11, President Bush didn’t allow retaliatory attacks on Muslims. He even visited a mosque to reassure them. But when Prime Minister Vajpayee was asked, ‘Will Gujarat repeat,’ he answered, ‘Will Godhra repeat?” That’s why Muslims are feeling insecure.” Moulana Waheed-ud-din Khan, another Islamic scholar in Delhi, said Muslim participation in the Ekta Yatra after Godhra. Unlike the retaliatory blasts in Mumbai after Hindu zealots pulled down the Babri Masjid in 1992, was indicative of the their insecurity. Post-Godhra, the average Muslim is seized by anxiety over how to cope with majority communalism. As scholar-thinker Dr. Rafiq Zakria puts it in his book Communal Rage in Secular India, “Hindus have all the sinews of power, the government, the army, the police, the public and private sectors; all are ranged against them. So far private sectors; all are ranged against them. So far the villages were immune to the communal virus; but now they are also contaminated by it. How can a minority face such a formidable combination?”

The feeling of frustration is all too evident when Ismailbhai Sindhi, a refugee in Modasa, Gujarat, speaks. “We beg [Chief Minister] Narendera Modi to finish off the rest of us. Only that could put an end to our suffering,” he said, the memories of riots still fresh in his memory. The Sindhi Muslims, agriculturists from nearby Kidiyad village, are still mourning their 74 clan members, including 34 childern and 30 women, torched alive while fleeing a mob, but treated as ‘missing persons’ by the government. “The killers roam free. We had to abandon our village and farms. There is no hope for justice,” said Salimbhai Sindhi, who is the sarpanch of Kidiyad.

What worries educated Muslims most is the non-existence of law and order in Gujarat. And they do not see those officials, who connived with the powers that be, or simply failed to do their duty, being punished. Nor have they hope in political parties out to take advantage of vote-bank politics.

According to M.H. Jowher, president of the Society for the Promotion of Rational Thinking in Ahmadabad, Muslims are faced with a huge prejudice in society, and political parties saw an opportunity to consolidate power based on it. Muslims should redefine themselves as Indians, not merely followers of a particular religion, who were badly dealt with. They should recending deeply that they are part of a nation and hence their aganda henceforth should involved Hindus as an integral part of their lives,” said Jowher, who abandoned a corporate career to diagnose the societal ills that led to the conflagration of hatred and blood shed in Gujarat. “Succour will come from their own effort and not from the clergy or non-government organizations or political parties.

ut now, the Iraq crisis has come as a grim reminder to Indian Muslims that their faith is under threat globally too. This feeling stems from the fact that while they pride themselves for being at the heart of India’s secular dream, they simultaneously identify themselves with the Ummah (global community of the faithful). Confused and frustrated, many Muslims want to be left alone. As Gulrez Shah, a student, put it, “We are part of two concentric circles-the nation and the Ummah. But we would like to be left alone. We would like to play neutral.

So are they conflicting? “Certainly not,” said Asgar Ali. “Loyalty to faith is a spiritual concept and loyalty to nation is a political concept.” All the same, there are few takers for Bush’s claim that the Iraqi regime is a threat to world peace. “This war on terror is a farce, the real target is Islam and Muslims,” said Habeeb, a mass communication student in Aligarh. “And when they react in self-defence they are labeled as terrorists.

S.S. Owaisi, MP and leader of Majlis-e-Itehad-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim United Forum), a potent political force in Andhra Pradesh, is annoyed with the Centre that has “not done enough diplomatically” to prevent the war on Iraq. “There were times when India championed the non-aligned cause, but today we are standing with America. Vajpayee should have called for a resolution against war,” said Owaisi.

However, mindful of the US support for their cause, Kashmiri separatists are trying to balance their criticism of the US. “War will only worsen the human rights situation in Iraq,” said Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. “It will be a humanitarian disaster.” As a Muslim, everyone is concerned about the people of Iraq, said another Hurriyat leader. Many Muslims are hopeful of better times again. “It is one of those difficult periods of history, it will also pass over,” said Moulana Abdul Rafia Nadwi, chairman of Nadwat-ul-Uloom in Lacknow. And for all the crisis of faith and identity, more and more youngsters like Wahid are showing up in mosques of Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow and Hyderabad.

With Anosh Maleker (Ahmedabad)
By Tariq Bhat
The Weekly Cochin, India
April 6, 2003