This is an excerpt from Harsh Mander’s new book “Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India” published by Speaking Tiger
The most widely held bias against Muslims is that they are religiously and culturally socialized in ways which creates in them a huge tolerance for violence. For a long time in India, this belief was nurtured through a chauvinistic retelling of history, in which Muslims through the medieval age were portrayed as invaders and marauders who looted the country, subjugated its Hindu populations, desecrated and demolished Hindu places of worship, and forcefully converted millions of hapless Hindus to Islam at the point of the sword. PrimeMinister Modi, in his first address to India’s Parliament, chose to reinforce this reading of India’s history by speaking of 1,200 and not 200 years of India’s slavery, thereby extending the period of India’s bondage not just to the years of colonization, but to the millenniumin which the majority of rulers were Muslim.
Contrast this with Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s words, ‘Eleven hundred years of common history have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature,our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable longings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour.’ He goes on, ‘This joint wealth is the heritage of our common nationality and we do not want to leave it and go back to the time when this joint life had not begun.’ This could be the voice of every Muslim who chose secular India over a Muslim Pakistan.
Mridula Mukherjee, noted professor of history, describes Modi’s interpretation as the ‘standard Hindu communal view of history’.This highly coloured and partisan recasting was part of the colonial project so that the colonial rulers could present themselves as sources of enlightenment instead of plunder and pauperization; and this project suited the designs of both Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists. It is common for middle-class Indians today to ignore the actual facts of history—that there were both enlightened and oppressive Muslim and Hindu rulers; that Muslim rulers may originally have come from other countries but made this land their home; that conversion happened mostly voluntarily because people from the lower castes were drawn to the egalitarian teachings of Islam; and that in most phases of medieval history, Hindu sects were unmolested in pursuing their own faith and modes of worship.
The belief in the special and unique legacies of a violent history of Muslims are aggravated across north India by received, partial memories of Partition, which recount Muslims as killers and rapists,forgetting that the same violence occurred against Muslims at the hands of Hindus and Sikhs on this side of the border, and that many Muslims also saved Hindu and Sikh lives.
The preconception uniquely linking Muslims with violence gained a great fillip with the Global War on Terror. How many of us have not received a text message or Internet posting remarking that whereas all Muslims are not terrorists, all terrorists are Muslims? Most of us accept this to be a sad but undisputed fact. It is telling that we do so uncritically, especially in India, a country which lost the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, and two prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, to terror perpetrated by non-Muslims.
Both central and north-eastern India have also been aflame for decades,but again, almost none of the chief actors in these regions are Muslim.Firstly, we have accepted the uncritically selective understandingof which acts of mass killing qualify as terrorism and which do not.
Nivedita Menon, noted feminist writer and professor of political thought, rightly contests the official definition of ‘terrorism’. ‘Killing twenty people by a bomb blast is considered terrorism,’ she points out, ‘but the killing of thousands of people in 1984 or more than a thousand people in Gujarat in 2002 (or, for that matter, the killing of 40 people in Muzaffarnagar, 68 people in Orissa in 2008, etc. etc.) are not. All riots involve planning, stockpiling of weapons and systematic attacks.Why then are they not considered terrorism?’ This influences the judiciary as well, which awards the death penalty for crimes of‘terror’ but not for hate-spurred crimes during instances of communal violence.I am firmly against the death penalty for any crime, but I find these double standards popular in the middle class as well as the judiciary intriguing and morally repugnant.
In an article for the Frontline, journalist Praveen Swami points to data from the South Asia Terrorism Portal, according to which, deaths caused by Muslim attackers accounted for just one-fifth of the total civilian and security force fatalities between 2008 and 2013. In this period, terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, and Islamist terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Indian Mujahideen killed 934 civilians and personnel of the security forces.Maoists and terrorist groups in the Northeast killed 4,163 peopleduring the same period. He further documents that, barring the year 2008, Islamist terror groups accounted for 10 per cent or less of terrorism-related civilian and security force fatalities. This, he points out, is less than the community’s share in India’s population. ‘Evenin 2008, which saw a peak in Islamist violence—four major urban bombings, as well as the 26/11 attacks—killings by Muslim terrorists accounted for well under half of all civilian and security force fatalities. The insurgencies in the states of Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya,Mizoram and Tripura involve myriad Hindu, Christian and tribal groups; none of the major armed actors is Muslim. The Maoistinsurgency also involves Adivasis and caste Hindus, not Muslims.’
Every major bomb explosion is followed almost immediately by agovernment statement claiming that one or more Islamist terrorgroups were responsible, and this is uncritically relayed by the press—without even a disclaimer, or the word ‘alleged’—and accepted as truth by popular public opinion. No one asks how the government is so certain who set off the blasts within minutes of the detonation. If it knew in advance, why did it not prevent it? And if it did not know earlier, how was it so sure within minutes of the blast? This obvious official disingenuousness is possible because it falls on the fertile soilof popular prejudice against Muslims for their alleged allegiance to terror. Some courageous and impartial investigation by some of the country’s finest policepersons, such as Hemant Karkare, have revealed that many of the terror cases earlier attributed to Islamist organizations were actually the handiwork of shadowy outfits with allegiance to Hindutva thought. However, this has barely entered middle-class consciousness—and certainly not drawing-room conversations on terror. It is thus that middle-class Indians are able to block out the idea that many terror attacks are established to be conspiracies bypeople who owe no allegiance to any faith, including their own.
This same assumption that terrorist attacks must be the handiwork of Muslims is found elsewhere in the world as well. When bombswere detonated in Oslo on 22 July 2011, most people assumed—and the New York Times even reported—that this was an attack conducted by Muslim terrorists. Although this was redacted soon, the paper justified the assumption, stating that Norway had been threatened by Al Qaeda and could be targeted for sending Norwegian troops to Afghanistan. It was proved, later, that the bombing had been planned meticulously by a young white supremacist, Anders Behring Breveik, who also shot down sixty-nine young people at a youthcamp organized by the Norwegian Labour Party.
Data gathered by sociologist Charles Kurzman showed that while thirty-three people in the US died of terrorism perpetrated by Islamists after 9/11, over 300 died in mass shootingsby people from other religious identities. The Centre for Research on Globalisation went back further to find that only 2.5 per cent ofthe terrorist attacks in the US from 1970 to 2012 were carried out by Muslims.
The belief that Muslims as a rule subscribe to violence becomes the rationale among many to justify even massacres as heinous as the one that happened in 2002 in Gujarat.I recall a particularly dear friend from my boyhood days in boarding school, who is otherwise affable, gentle and liberal. When he crafted the same rationalization, that the massacre had happened in response to the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, I first contested the version that the train had indeed been set aflame as partof a conspiracy by Muslims—the forensic evidence suggested a fire accident. But even if indeed some Muslims had actually committed this horrendous crime, I continued, how did it justify the killing of even one other Muslim? By this principle of vicarious responsibility,I told him—since he belongs to a community notorious for exploiting people with usury and unfair trade—he should be fine with people killing him in retribution. Indeed, by this measure, no upper-casteHindu should remain alive, because of how they have oppressed generations of Dalits. And, indeed, no man should remain alive anywhere in the world, for what they have done, in every country, in every phase of history, to women. My friend found it hard to forgive me for this outburst, and we lost touch for many years. More recently we have again picked up the strings of our old friendship—this is one case where affection did finally overcome politics—but we always tread carefully in our conversations when we meet, to avoid the thin ice of the questions regarding collective Muslim culpability forviolence or, indeed, of Modi’s leadership.
Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer, who works with survivors of mass violence and hunger, as well as homeless persons and street children. He is the Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and a Special Commissioner to the Supreme Court of India in the Right to Food case. He is associated with various social causes and movements, and writes and speaks regularly on issues of communal harmony, tribal, dalit and disabled persons’ rights, the right to information, custodial justice, homelessness and bonded labour.