The ugliness behind long-standing anti-Muslim bias in India

Until and unless the Indian society purges itself of such anti-Muslim myths, there is little reason to believe that the bias against Muslims will cease to exist.

Until and unless the Indian society purges itself of such anti-Muslim myths, there is little reason to believe that the bias against Muslims will cease to exist.

One can’t afford to overlook the unprecedented rise in anti-Muslim sentiment across India. On one hand, Hindutva has become an unstoppable political force with successive electoral victories under the combined leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. On the other hand, the saffron surge has coincided with a spike in cases of cow extremism.

Based on outright lies, Hindutva cow extremists have found excuses to butcher persons belonging to the Muslim community. Apart from that, certain forces have stoked the rumor of “love jihad” to such an extent that sections of the news media are treating it as a gospel truth despite no substantial evidence.

On top of it all, Indian Muslims (much like their counterparts elsewhere) have to bear the tag of potential terrorists because of the horrendous activities of Islamist terror groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

It is a matter of record that some young Muslims are being actively harassed and falsely implicated in terror-related cases. Undoubtedly, the state should have zero tolerance of terrorism, but the framing of innocents is an abhorrent activity that government agencies must be ashamed of.

The countrywide bias against Muslims is not a new phenomenon though. Individuals responsible for shaping and nurturing India in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have shared such anti-Islam views.

Islam and tolerance

The Koran contains several passages exhorting Muslims to respect religious freedom and uphold religious pluralism. “You have your religion and I have mine” is a famous verse (Koran 109:6) that recognizes the need for co-existence.

While Islam is a proselytizing faith, it doesn’t believe in forced conversions, as reflected in Surah Qaf.

“You are not there to force them: So remind, with this Koran, those who fear my warning.” (Koran 50:45).

Nevertheless, it must be clarified here that individuals belonging to the Islamic faith have indulged in the crime of compelling people to embrace Islam by negating the belief in the commandment of “there is no compulsion in religion” as enshrined in the scripture (Koran 2:256).

One must point out that verses promoting religious harmony and toleration are not restricted to the chapters revealed in the Meccan period when the Muslims were a persecuted minority. In Medina, the Muslims developed into a powerful force to reckon with, as Prophet Muhammad presided as the head of state. But the essence of religion pluralism furthered by Islam did not change.

Premised on the reprehensible atrocities of temple destruction committed by select Muslim emperors, some like to paint Muslims as a temple-ransacking race, contrary to Islam’s eternal teaching of safeguarding places of worship.

“If God did not repel the aggression of some people by means of others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques, wherein the name of God is much invoked would surely be destroyed.” (Koran 22:40).

It is inappropriate to hold the current generation of Muslims responsible for the intolerant actions of certain Muslim kings that took place centuries ago. By this logic, should the entire Hindu community be considered guilty for the 500 Muslim religious monuments destroyed during the 2002 Gujarat riots? It should certainly not be so, because a proposition of this kind is an insult to the word “logic.”

We must realize that forced conversions and temple desecration under the reign of Muslim emperors are not the only things that history consists of, when there is evidence that Muslim kings also extended grants to Hindu temples. Therefore, truth lies somewhere in between, and it is needless to add that whosoever destroyed temples and forced people to give up on their faith was acting contrary to Koranic commandments.

In Surah Al-Hajj, a great amount of importance is attached to respecting the different modes of worship. “We have appointed for every community ways of worship to observe. Let them not dispute with you on this matter. Call them to the path of your Lord – for surely, you are rightly guided.” (Koran 22:67).

An identical set of messages transmitted in Surah Al-Baqarah and Surah Al-Maidah are also worth recalling. The former proclaims, “The believers, the Jews, the Christians and the Sabaeans – all those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds – will be rewarded by their Lord; they shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Koran 2:62). The other Surah echoes more or less the same doctrine: “Believers, Jews, Sabaeans and Christians – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right – shall have nothing to fear nor shall they grieve.” (Koran 5:69).

Charge of intolerance

Although religious pluralism is an important theme in the Koran, a few Indian icons who have enjoyed the status of demigods for decades have found nothing except violence and hatred in Islam. The example of Swami Vivekananda, who represented India at the World Parliament of Religions (1893) and whose birthday is celebrated as National Youth Day, is a case in point.

As per Vivekananda, it was the Muslims who “brought murder and slaughter” to India as “the Hindu religion never persecutes.” Given the blatant anti-Muslim messaging underlying the statement, one can’t stop wondering why Vivekananda made such a factually inaccurate statement when caste atrocities have been around for centuries, and temple desecration was in fact carried out by Indian Hindu emperors as well who were not merely content with military victories over rival Hindu kings.

Not just that, the large-scale persecution of Buddhists at the hands of Hindu extremists during the days of Pushyamitra Shunga (who wrested power from the Maurya Dynasty) is also an undeniable reality.

But Vivekananda decided to overlook all of that and conveniently pin the entire blame of fanning violence in India on the Muslims.

“That race which is bound down to itself has been the most cruel and the most wicked in the world. There has not been a religion which has clung to this dualism more than that founded by the Prophet of Arabia, and there has not been a religion, which has shed so much of blood and been so cruel to other men. In the Koran, there is the doctrine that a man who does not believe such teachings should be killed; it is a mercy to kill him,” said Vivekananda, equating Muhammad’s teachings with “fanaticism” and “great evil.”

Vivekananda was not alone in stressing that Islam stood for putting non-Muslims to fire and sword. The Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore was not far behind in harboring anti-Islam (and anti-Christianity) views. “There are two religions in Earth which have distinct enmity against all other religions. These two are Christianity and Islam. They are not just satisfied with observing their own religions, but are determined to destroy all other religions. That’s why the only way to make peace with them is to embrace their religions,” claimed Tagore.

Questioning the patriotism of Muslims

In the contemporary age, well-intentioned intellectuals are battling for Dalit-Muslim unity to combat the rise of militant Hindutva politics. Interestingly, the foundation of such an alliance cannot be derived from the philosophy of B R Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution, because his views concerning Muslims were not very different from those of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

According to Ambedkar, the brotherhood of Islam was limited to Muslims. He expounded that “there is nothing but contempt and enmity” for those outside of this corporation (read non-Muslims).

Though Ambedkar played a key role in ensuring equality for all Indian citizens, his mind did suspect the patriotism of Muslims. “The allegiance of a Muslim does not rest on his domicile in the country which is his but on the faith to which he belongs. To the Muslim, ibi bene ibi patria [where it is well with me, there is my country] is unthinkable.

“Wherever there is the rule of Islam, there is his own country. In other words, Islam can never allow a true Muslim to adopt India as his motherland and regard a Hindu as his kith and kin,” Ambedkar said.

Now look at the striking resemblance between Ambedkar’s and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s words when it came to questioning the patriotism of Indian Muslims in his famous article “The Sangh is in my soul”:

“Islam has yet to learn the art of existing and flourishing in a country where Muslims are in a minority. They cannot convert the whole of India to Islam. After all, they have to live here. So they have to recognize this fact, and today it has become a matter of grave concern and deep thinking in the Muslim countries.”

“Because [the Koran] offers no guidance in this regard, it only talks of killing kafirs or converting them to Islam. But they cannot do it always and everywhere. How can they do it where they are in a minority? If they try to do it, a major clash will take place and only the members of the minority will be killed.”

Vivekananda, Tagore, Ambedkar and Vajpayee were all united in linking Islam with violence as if the religion were alien to tolerance, which is not the case.

The existence of ultra-conservative and anti-pluralistic interpretations of certain controversial Koranic verses cannot be denied. However, the stalwarts quoted above erred heavily in presenting these beliefs as mainstream Islam that was subscribed to by Muslims around the world by means of a consensus.

In reality, their interpretation of Islam was similar to and would be agreed by terror groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, who are responsible for shedding Muslim blood more than that of non-Muslims.

The perennial obsession with questioning the patriotism of Indian Muslims is strange given the contribution lent by Muslims to numerous fields including bureaucracy, business, cinema, diplomacy, education, politics, security and sports in post-independence India. On the contrary, the state has wronged them by doing nothing concrete about their under-representation in the public sector and socio-economic backwardness.

To recall the Sachar Committee Report of the government of India (page 11), “the alleged appeasement” of the Muslims (favorite accusation of the Sangh Parivar) has not led to the “desired level of socio-economic development of the community.”

Attitudes of three major leaders

The illustrious list of individuals who made unbelievably anti-Muslim comments does not end here.

Sardar Patel, India’s first deputy prime minister, who was responsible for spearheading the political integration of the country, once expressed astonishing satisfaction at the loss of Muslim lives. In the aftermath of the Calcutta riots in August 1946, Patel wrote a letter to C Rajagopalachari, last governor-general of India, which said,

“There is a complete breakdown of safety and order but there is nobody responsible to check the thing. However, this will be a good lesson for the League, because I hear that the proportion of Muslims who have suffered death is much larger.”

Is that how a responsible political leader reacts to riots, by expressing relief at the fact that Muslims comprised a large part of the death toll? We can also not forget the massacre of Muslims in Hyderabad under the watch of Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, with the latter responsible for burying the Sunderlal Report on the police action in Hyderabad, which is said to have claimed 50,000-200,000 lives.

Let’s face the facts. India has had a long history of distrusting Muslims. Mohandas Gandhi exhibited it when he accused the Muslims of having “as a class developed into a bully” in an article titled “What may Hindus do?”

“Though in my opinion, non-violence has a predominant place in the Koran, the thirteen hundred years of imperialistic expansion has made the Mussulmans fighters as a body. They are therefore aggressive. Bullying is the natural excrescence of an aggressive spirit,” said the article, reproduced in the book What Is Hinduism? (page 21).

Being the most prominent leader of the Indian Independence Movement, it wasn’t expected of Gandhi to write articles based on stereotypes and sweeping generalizations.

Although the Muslims have played a significant part in India’s history, with the Mughal period boasting a nearly 25% share in global gross domestic product and industrial output, besides the construction of monuments signifying the excellence of Islamic architecture (Taj Mahal and Red Fort, among others), the likes of Nehru found no merit in them.

“The Moslems who came to India from outside brought no new technique or political and economic structure. In spite of a religious belief in the brotherhood of Islam, they were class-bound and feudal in outlook. In technique and in the methods of production and industrial organization, they were inferior to what prevailed then in India,” Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India (page 267).

In the same book (page 234), he also opined that the passage of the mantle of Islam from Arabs to the Turks and Mongols developed it into a “rigid faith” suited more for “military conquests rather than the conquests of the mind”. Nehru probably forgot that Islam’s real representative is the Prophet Muhammad, who taught that an Arab is to have no superiority over a non-Arab, and managed to conquer Mecca bloodlessly thanks to the might of his spiritual message, which transcended geographical boundaries during his lifetime.

The whole point of citing these statements made by distinguished Indians is to make people realize that the prejudices we face are not anything new. For long, Muslims have been seen as outsiders, and their religion as a violent doctrine that stands for intolerance, murder and killing. Until and unless the Indian society purges itself of such anti-Muslim myths, there is little reason to believe that the bias against Muslims will cease to exist.

Today, it is manifesting itself through the false notion of love jihad, cow extremism and antagonization of Muslim emperors. Tomorrow, the issues may have changed, but the target will remain the Muslim, because he or she is “the other.”

by Saif Ahmad Khan

This article was originally published here on Asia Times.