Communalism and the Muslim Identity

As we stride into the 21st century with hopes for an optimistic future, unsettled (and unsettling) questions of the past continue to linger, clouding our thoughts and souring our enthusiasm. This is because the past can never be separated from the future, and unresolved issues of the past will continue to resurface in the most insistent ways. Hence, the spectres of religious fundamentalism, communal hatred and racial antagonism constantly crop up, since the roots of these problems have never been fully wrenched out of the soil of our collective conscience. And unless mankind conscientiously grapples with these problems, the cycles of constant discontent and terror will never cease to turn.


India is no stranger to the problems of religious tension and her history is pitted with the scars of riots and genocides carried out in the name defending one’s faith. The horrors of Partition continue to persist in every religious clash and every violent communal conflagration. Murder, rape and arson loom large and newspapers burst with horrifying details of human depravity. Communalism is a serious issue with extremely damaging social and political consequences. It threatens the internal security of a country, incites panic and social unrest, retards progress and development and also makes the country’s government lose political face, both nationally and internationally. For a developing country like India which projects itself proudly as a secular nation, such rampant violence is particularly detrimental.


We lull ourselves into a false sense of security by pretending that communalism is just another problem and that civilized men and women would never fall prey to its clutches. Time after time we are proved wrong. In 1984, Delhi was wracked with communal violence following the assassination of Indira Gandhi (after Operation Blue Star) in which Sikh families were ruthlessly hunted down and burnt to cinders. In 1993, Bombay saw the violent outburst of Hindu-Muslim tensions in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Mobs butchered each other in the streets and slogans of “us” versus “them” became commonplace. This was not the first time that Muslims were projected as outsiders, and it certainly was not the last. When the fervour abated, and in the ghostly calm that followed, the nation believed that its communal passions had been finally exhausted once and for all. But then the Gujarat riots of 2002 exploded into public memory like a nightmare that confirmed the nation’s worst fears. Unfortunately, rather than attempting to salvage the situation, many politicians spouted communal slogans and took to Muslim-baiting. The communal discourse that Muslims don’t belong in this country was raised in many circles with catastrophic results.


The Indian Muslim has borne the brunt of communal tensions, since not only is he part of a minority that now lives in constant fear but also because he is projected as the root of the problem itself. This is not only unfair but dangerous as well.


India has always been a multicultural haven, drawing in diverse races into its fold. Most foreigners as far back as the Huns and the Greeks came to India as invaders and most of them (except the British) actually settled down here and enriched the local culture with their own, eventually becoming part of the subcontinent. This holds true for the Muslims as well, who not only have been part of the subcontinent for centuries, but also settled down here before we actually became “India” the nation. Hence, they are as Indian as the rest of us.


And thus, as a nation aspiring to uphold the rights of its citizens, we cannot isolate them and have them routinely targeted as terrorists and outsiders. By forcing them into ghettoes of fear and suspicion, we actually run the risk of making them prone to the fundamental ranting of bigoted clerics and propagandists. If marginalizing and alienating a portion of its inhabitants does not retard the growth of a country, I don’t know what will. The face of fundamentalism is ruthless and ugly, irrespective of the religion or ideology it claims to uphold. Thus, it is important not to confuse and conflate Islamic fundamentalism with the Muslim identity.


We never stop to consider the questions that these communal conflicts raise. Why are communal clashes becoming such a recurrent feature of contemporary history? Are humans really so intolerant that they simply cannot coexist peacefully? Is the problem at hand really a difference in religious beliefs or are there other issues at stake: poverty, unemployment, lack of equal opportunities, propaganda aimed at garnering political vote-banks, etc.? Communalism thrives on the propaganda that promotes certain vested interests. Its aim is to fulfil these interests while distracting people from the larger issues at hand. The promoters of this kind of propaganda are so captivated by the short-term gains they pursue, that they neglect the long-term losses entailed therein. The BJP’s defeat in the recent elections is proof that its communal politics can only take it so far.


The Muslim identity needs to be re-negotiated and understood in the international arena as well. This is especially/important since Islam has suffered from a poor image internationally in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the Bush administration’s War on Terrorism. Suddenly, words like “jihad” were splashed all over the international press and twisted out of proportion. It became common to equate “Muslim” with “Terrorist”. Hate crimes against Muslims soared in the U.S. while it became virtually impossible for any Muslim around the world to gain entry into the U.S.A. On the other hand, it gave the Bush administration the confidence to invade and decimate nations like Afghanistan and Iraq.


Thus, in India and abroad, the Muslim identity has been in crisis as Muslims were forced to carry the burden of their religious identities, not knowing why they were all being equated with misguided zealots, who wilfully misconstrued and misinterpreted their faith for violent ends.


With the huge Congress victory in the recent elections in India, one hopes that the tide is turning and communal politics will be kept in better check. Internationally too, the victory of Barack Obama in the U.S. presidential elections seems to herald better times ahead. His recent speech, delivered in Cairo addressed to “the Muslim world”, marked a paradigm shift in US foreign policy in its bid “to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear”.


Change is in the air. And our hearts and minds can soar again, looking to the future with optimism.


Ambar Sahil Chatterjee

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