Religious extremism

Why a photo showing Tamil Muslims in support of ISIS is more troubling than any IB report

ISIS speaks the language of Sunni supremacy, and it is this that appeals to some young Indian Muslims.

In the late 1990s, about a decade after terrorism first bespattered the Kashmir valley, champions of secularism in India would point out that Muslims from the rest of the country had never felt the need to join cause with the violence being perpetrated in the name of Islam in the northern state. Though the call for a holy war had drawn young Muslim men from Pakistan, Afghanistan and even Central Asia, not one of the Indian security forces that operated in Kashmir had captured a Muslim terrorist from West Bengal, say, or Bihar. This to many was sure-fire indication that the Indian polity was healthy and secular – a sign of the successful assimilation of a previously troubled minority.

Yet even then the argument seemed conceptually weak. The call to holy war in Kashmir could be ignored because the Bhojpuri or Malayali Muslim was as much of an outsider to Kashmir as a Hindu from Bhopal. The non-participation of Muslims in the violence in Kashmir was perhaps better read as an indication of the distance of that struggle from their daily lives – there was no emotive plank in the Kashmiri’s appeal to holy war. A generalised call to protect your religion or to fight with your religious cohorts is not sufficient to draw a peaceful person to violence. It needs sharper focus. And not just for Muslims: this is the reason LK Advani was ignored in the early 1980s but became a tidal political force later in the decade, radicalising hundreds of thousands across India when he fixed upon the Ram Janmabhoomi issue.

The first instance of Indian Muslim terror – in the definition that we have come to know it, causing wanton civilian death, targeting symbols of the state – were the 1993 bombings orchestrated by the Mumbai mobster Dawood Ibrahim, which he said was a response to the Hindutva attack on the Babri masjid. There is no doubt that the destruction of that mosque devastated the Indian Muslim community, who had suffered through numerous riots, and caused their own. But until then they had felt the state would protect places of worship important to the community. The numerous terrorist acts that have followed indicate the alienation many young Indian Muslims feel.

Yet it is more pertinent today to address the insidious radicalisation of Indian Muslims taking place from within. All over the nation, Muslims are preaching and being taught ever more codified versions of Islam. It is important to disassociate this radicalisation with terrorism – beards and burqas are a fair barometer of violence only in the imagination of some Western media. But it is also important to see these acts of terrorism as the sharp tip of a broader push within the community towards radicalised Islam. The surge in popularity of a Saudi-promoted brand of orthodox Wahabbism – a branch that has a venerable history in India, growing as a reaction to the saint veneration and shrine visitation that Islam in South Asia borrowed from Hinduism – has not been adequately documented.

Muslims in both Pakistan and India are turning away from the less doctrinaire interpretations of Islam that once typified the religion on the subcontinent. While everyone should of course be free to choose their own degree or investment in faith, it is also essential to note that fundamentalists of every religion teach fear and disapproval of the outgroup, and are thus harmful to democratic society and convivial living.

This push has been visible for more than a decade now, perhaps more for closer observers. And it could well be a response to the popular projection, within Muslim communities, of a Western war against Islamic beliefs. But even anti-Americanism among Muslims does not answer one question: why is it that fewer Indian Muslims were drawn to the jihad call of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Kashmir, than it seems are already being pulled towards ISIS?

A photograph has been doing the rounds of the Internet of a large group of young Tamil Muslims clad in black ISIS t-shirts. On the Internet it is being brandished by Hindu nationalists as justification for their narrow parochialism, but it should worry every citizen of India. Tamils have nothing to do with Iraq or Syria. Then why this adherence to ISIS over Al-Qaeda, indeed over the jihad in Kashmir?

The answer lies in ISIS’ rallying call. The politically savvy and militarily capable self-named Caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has astutely positioned his struggle as one against not the West but against Shia overreach. While many have characterised his ideology as pan-Islamist, it is in fact pan-Sunni. He seeks to create a Sunni state stretching across West Asia and the subcontinent. Needless to say, Shias will have at best subsidiary part in it.

The violence against Shias that has destroyed any claims Pakistan had left to secularism is an expression of an age-old animosity that goes to the very heart of the Islamic faith. It has been a source of conflict in every Muslim country. It is also the fault-line of the current battle in Iraq.

Sunnis are about 85% of India’s Muslim population. The ISIS t-shirts being worn by those young men in Tamil Nadu are not a reaction to Hindutva fundamentalism or Western political aggressions. They are a means of asserting Sunni pride. The photograph does not suggest to me that these men will join the jihad in West Asia. But it does suggest to me that the Sunni-Shia divide will continue to excite violence long after Western nations have ceased to be a perceived enemy of Muslims.

 
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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.