Saira does not call her son by his name when they are out of the house. “I prefer using J, it doesn’t have a Muslim ring to it,” said Saira, 40, a former colleague whose first name I have changed on her request and whose Muslim identity was never previously a point of discussion. “I cringe as I say this, but it is true.”
Whenever J asked his mother the difference between him and his friends, she always told him there was none. They were all Indian with different names, she said. That explanation, an evidently troubled Saira told me, is weakening at a time of uncommon anti-Muslim prejudice and violence.
“I never thought there will be a day when I will live in fear in my country,” said Saira. Her 80-year-old father, who lives in a Hindu-majority area, told her he never imagined living in such times. “And this from a man who has witnessed the Partition riots,” she said. “I tell my house help never to disclose her identity when she is travelling alone in a train. Yes, it has come to this.”
Just before I spoke to Saira, I heard the odd but disquieting story of Nazmul Hassan, an Aligarh power-plant engineer detained by the police on July 2 after being found on a railway station in a burqa. The police questioned him closely to determine if he was in any way connected to terrorism, but as the truth tumbled out, they appear to have felt sorry for him.
“When Hassan was handed over to the GRP [government railway police], he was crying and shaking and kept repeating that he is a simple man who has never done anything wrong,” Senior Superintendent of Police Rajesh Pandey told the Times of India. Hassan was in a burqa because he was recently threatened by a fellow passenger he accidentally jostled when alighting from a train. The man insulted his Islamic faith, and – joined by others – said Hassan would be driven out of Aligarh.
“I had read about Junaid’s killing [a Muslim teenager stabbed to death by Hindus in Haryana last month] in a train...a few days ago,” Hassan was quoted as saying. “I was scared for my life after the threat.” So, he wore a burqa, believing no one would harm a woman.
Hassan’s fear submerged the facts: Muslim women, particularly those in burqas and hijabs frequently feel threatened, a feeling that has only grown in recent times.
Last year, two Madhya Pradesh Muslim village women – not in burqas – were kicked and slapped, first by cow vigilantes and later by a crowd that gathered, on the suspicion that they were carrying beef. The meat turned out to be buffalo – called sabzi, or vegetable, in local parlance, a euphemism that betrays the fear over any kind of meat – but none of that should have mattered.
The police, of course, arrested the women because they did not have a permit to sell meat under a state cattle preservation law, but did not arrest those who beat and abused them, claiming that “no one had complained”.
Cow vigilantes run riot
Across North India, as numerous narratives have revealed, Hindu groups have mobilised across towns and cities, rushing like angry bees to menace or attack Muslims who they believe have acted up or need to be shown their place. Occasionally other minorities, such as Dalits and Christians are also targets. Gau rakshak dals, cow-protection organisations, roam the highways, checking vehicles – often with police support – that carry cattle.
Last year, Maharashtra asked for volunteers to help the state enforce a ban on beef. As the Indian Express revealed, despite a clause that disallowed applications from those with political or religious links, many successful applicants freely acknowledged they were members of Hindu organisations, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Ram Sena, Hindu Sena, Shiv Sena, Durga Vahini, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Most of these groups use the cow as a fig leaf for violence against minorities, mostly Muslims, transforming even formerly genteel cities into cauldrons of tension.
“My hometown Allahabad was a city of education and open political debates,” wrote an anonymous man, who described himself as “an atheist with a Muslim name”, in an essay published last week on Arré, a web portal. “Now it is overrun by saffron-gamcha [scarf]-wearing bikers, where to live as a Muslim is to live in subterfuge.”
As anti-Muslim rhetoric spreads, attacks based on rumour and lies increase and Hindu groups believe local administrations will back them – particularly in the North – there is a growing fear of living and travelling while Muslim in India.
There are two reasons why these fears should not be ignored.
First, whatever Hindutva apologists may say, there is little doubt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dog-whistle pre-election speeches in 2014 about the horrors of a “pink revolution” – a reference to India’s beef (actually buffalo meat) exports – first indicated that political cover might now be available to Hindu extremism. Soon enough, an assortment of cow vigilantes emerged, whose methods, toll and effects have now morphed into calculated terrorism, as police and state governments often do as little as they can.
As my colleagues at IndiaSpend.org (of which I am the editor) reported, after an analysis of reportage in the English media, 97% of cow-related violence since 2010 has occurred after 2014. About half the cow-related violence – 32 of 63 cases – were from states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party when the attacks were reported. Of the 28 Indians who died over this seven-year period, 24 were Muslim.
To those who have questions about the data collection, the police do not categorise cow-related violence as such, and the English media, perhaps because of their national spread, tend to be more comprehensive about such reporting than regional-language media. A particularly important point is that more than half the attacks (52%) were based merely on rumours – not that there was ever justification for violence.
Second, let us, for the moment, accept the dodgy Right-wing explanations so common on television and social media debates: that these attacks have nothing to do with religion, and that lynchings were as common under the previous government. They may well have been, but few were ever lynched because they were Muslims or Dalits rumoured to have eaten cows. Nor were protests against the lynchings labelled “anti-national”, a threat to India or driven by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
Yet, there is no doubt that India’s largest minority feels unusually disempowered and threatened at this time. One may not accept the reality, but in a rational democracy committed to a justice system and the rule of law, that such a feeling exists should be reason enough to spark soul-searching among Hindus and galvanise a government that claims to speak for all Indians to take corrective action.
Instead, the BJP insists that except for triple talaq all is well with Muslim India. To accept reality is hard when the ruling party’s state governments, members and its extended Hindu family of organisations are involved in the polarisation of ideas and people.
The lynchings and the anti-Muslim rhetoric, meanwhile, have led to not just a feeling of siege but revealed hidden prejudice among friends and families. This is certainly true of my friends and family. Some uncles and cousins now find it acceptable to forward hate-filled posts against Muslims on WhatsApp. Bigotry is socially acceptable.
My daughter’s friend’s father – whose secular-minded father gave his sons the middle name of Kumar – grew up in secular Bangalore barely aware of being Muslim. Most friends were Hindu, and he was not particularly religious. “Today, for the first time I get the feeling that I am Muslim, and I wonder where are we heading,” he said.
A Muslim friend narrated how an old Hindu friend suddenly asked, after India’s cricket defeat to Pakistan last month: “You must be happy no? Your team won.”
Similarly, the anonymous atheist writer with a Muslim name I referred to earlier begins his piece with this line: “‘Eid Mubarak ho bhai. Aap ki team jeet gayi. [Your team won].’ It took me some time to recover from this congratulatory message.” It was from a school classmate from his hometown, Allahabad.
In the piece, he described how he was raised, reciting “Our father who art in heaven” every morning for 13 years in an all-boys Catholic school in Allahabad. He studied in an Arya Samaj college in Delhi, and now works in an Indian-American company in Mumbai. Things, he observed, are different now in his old home town:
“In the last few years, I could sense a gradual change in the mahaul [atmosphere] of UP, but at least we were happy that the ultra-right wing was still the fringe. Then the fringe arrived near the centre, but it was still cool. And then, the fringe took over... I went home a month post the declaration of Adityanath as chief minister. Now, healthy political debates at chai addas [tea stalls] have been replaced by Pakistan Immigration Agencies. The number of times I was offered a ticket to our friendly neighbour by the people I knew [or thought I knew], would run Thomas Cook out of business. The other day, I was chatting with someone about the glorious utopic [sic] days of demonetisation when we’d ride unicorns on rainbows in the beautiful long queues outside ATMs, and he asked me to shut up or go to Pakistan.”
The new dread is evident among many in the growing Muslim urban, professional classes, who were unaffected thus far by years of wrongful arrests of Muslims, and the police often allying with Hindu mobs during riots. They confirm how dormant prejudice now bubbles forth among Hindu friends.
Saira tells me a story that sounds familiar. The daughter of one of her best friends from school asked her mother how she was friends with “Simi aunty” if she was Muslim. Saira is known as “Simi” to friends and colleagues. The friend told her daughter that Simi aunty isn’t “that kind of Muslim”. Saira, who has often been told at workplaces that she “does not look Muslim”, asked her friend what she meant by “that kind of Muslim”. The response in such circumstances, whether to Saira or anyone else, is the same: “Oh, you know what I mean.”
What they mean is that the majority of Indian Muslims are dangerous, religious fanatics with large families and extra-territorial loyalties. What they also mean – and will increasingly admit, if pushed – is that there is no better time than now to keep them in their place because we finally have a government that does not pander to Muslims.
There could not be a worse time for this exclusionary approach. More Muslims are enrolling for education than ever before, and families are becoming smaller as they try to aspire to the Indian dream. Although under-represented, scores serve in government, particularly in the police, paramilitary and armed forces. I know many of these Indians – proud of their land and its tradition of diversity – and I know there is disquiet at best and anger at worst at their Indian-ness being questioned.
A nation with such a large minority riven with fear and foreboding is not likely to be a place of peace, development and aspiration, as the prime minister wants it to be. Such a nation cannot hope to reach its potential if 172 million Indians fear that anything could happen to them at any time.
“I am scared because I don’t want to bring up my son in this society, which is spewing hatred because I come from a minority community,” said Saira. “I’ve had people, educated people, telling me, ‘Oh, but people from your community kill in the name of religion, and that feels okay?’ I mean really, it has come to this?”
Like many Muslims I know, Saira acknowledged that she had always lived with stereotypes and hurtful comments, “often said in jest”. You always support the Pakistani cricket team because you are a “mullah”. You will always marry a “mullah”. But she did not believe a time would come when a teenager named Junaid would be lynched and left to die on a railway station with no help forthcoming from onlookers because he was Muslim. Now, she considers the unthinkable.
“Maybe it is time to change my son’s name,” said Saira. “His name is Junaid.”
Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.