Barefoot: To be a Muslim in India today

To be a member of the largest religious minority in India is to live with a mounting disillusionment and a sense of fear that never goes away…

October 24, 2009 02:44 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 09:48 am IST

Muslims demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Tuesday protesting against the cartoon of Prophet Mohammad in Danish Newspaper.   Photo:Sandeep_Saxena NICAID:111590050

Muslims demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Tuesday protesting against the cartoon of Prophet Mohammad in Danish Newspaper. Photo:Sandeep_Saxena NICAID:111590050

“In so many ways, I feel reduced to a second class citizen in my own country, only because of my Muslim identity. I fear we are losing every day the India we love.”

These words, with small variations, echoed in many diverse voices from far corners of the country. In a national meet on the status of Muslims in India today, organised by Anhad in Delhi from October 3 to 5, 2009, many individuals and representatives of organisations gathered from several parts of India. They spoke of negotiating life, relationships, work and the State as members of the largest religious minority in India. The predominant mood in these intense deliberations, which continued late into the evenings, was of sadness and disappointment, and of growing despair. Muslim citizens shared their mounting disillusionment with all institutions of governance, and more so with the police and judiciary, as well as with political parties and to some extent the media, and of a sense of fear that never goes away.

There is, on the one hand, the constant dread of being profiled as a terrorist, or of a loved one being so profiled, with the attendant fears of illegal and prolonged detention, denial of bail, torture, unfair and biased investigation and trial, and extra-judicial killings. There is, on the other hand, the lived experience of day-to-day discrimination, in education, employment, housing and public services, which entrap the community in hopeless conditions of poverty and want. This is fostered in situations of pervasive communal prejudice in all institutions of the State, especially the police, civil administration and judiciary; and also the political leadership of almost all parties; large segments of the print and visual media; and the middle classes, and the systematic manufacture of hate and divide by communal organisations.

The pervasive sense of insecurity, reported from various corners of the country, derive greatly from the prejudice, illegality and impunity with which police forces across the country deal with the challenges of terror. This is a regular pattern that recurs after every terror attack, and sometimes even when there have been no actual terror episodes but the State authorities claim that there was a conspiracy which they detected and prevented.

Chilling pattern

Testimonies from many States in the country — including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Rajasthan — delineate this chilling pattern of brazen police illegality. Muslim, mostly male, youth, usually with no criminal records, are illegally picked up by policemen in plain clothes, and taken blind-folded in unmarked vehicles to locations like farm houses which are not police stations. There they are tortured to coerce them to confess to terror crimes. Many men testified to brutal and terrifying forms of torture. A few are killed in extra-judicial killings or ‘encounters’. The rest are ultimately produced after several days of illegal detention before magistrates, who deliberately ignore injuries that suggest torture. They are then officially remanded to extended police custody, and ultimately accused of a range of crimes of terror and treason. Many are charged with multiple crimes of terror, sometimes 20 or even 50, allegedly committed in many States, making it impossible for the youth charged with these grave crimes to defend themselves. Even if the legal justice system worked efficiently, it would take many years, sometimes decades, for these cases to be heard and concluded against each of the individuals. For all these years, the youth would continue to be held in detention. Nothing could possibly compensate for their lost years, and for the suffering of those who love them.

Almost none who bears a Muslim identity is exempt from the fear that they, or members of their families, can be subjected to the same allegations of terror links, and to similar processes of detention, torture, encounter killings or prolonged, multiple and biased trials. No class, no profession, no part of the country, is safe, as long as you are Muslim. Completely different standards are applied in the cases of the Hindutva terror organisations which have come to light. It is almost as if being Muslim and (usually) male makes you an automatic suspect of terrorism, and it is not the burden of the State to prove your guilt but your own responsibility to prove your innocence.

Denied aspirations

But the anguish of Muslim citizens was not restricted to targeting in the name of terror. People underlined also the many unmet aspirations of men and women of the community to participate as equal partners in India’s development. Many spoke of the importance to them of modern and high quality schooling and higher education, for both boys and girls, and sought much higher levels of public investment in their education, in modern mainstream schools and institutions of higher education.

There was careful and thoughtful analysis of the design flaws in the schemes of the central UPA government to address the low social and economic indicators documented by the Sachar Committee. It was pointed out that the per capita levels of investment for the community are still abysmally low. The new scheme for investment in districts with high minority population, at best cover 30 per cent of the total population. These programmes, which represent the UPA government’s major initiative to address the socio-economic backwardness of the community, are for development of districts with higher minority populations rather than programmes focussed actually on the minorities; therefore they prove blunt instruments, as much of the expenditure is on general infrastructure and little to directly benefit deprived people of the community. The scholarship programme for girls and boys from minorities was welcomed, but this scheme also suffers from infirmities of procedure and targets which limit its impact. Financial institutions including nationalised banks are still reluctant to extend credit to Muslims.

There were many testimonies about open prejudice and bias of public institutions towards Muslims. There were also reports of profiling against Muslims by the criminal justice system even beyond terror crimes, reflected in disproportionately high Muslim populations in jails. Many sensitive and senior positions in both central and state government departments, including in the home, education, social welfare and information departments, continue to be held by officials with sympathies with communal ideologies and organisations, and the UPA government has done little to identify and replace them.

Widely prevalent

But it was confirmed that these prejudices are equally evident outside government as well. In particular, sections of the media actively reinforce communal stereotypes, as well as uncritically broadcast the police version in terror-related arrests and encounter killings. Textbooks often show similar bias, and this is particularly dangerous because for millions of poor and especially rural children, the textbook is the only source of the printed word which they can access. People also reported bias in private recruitment.

Muslim men and women from many parts of India confirmed difficulties in getting homes on rent or on sale in non- Muslim localities, or admissions in schools and higher education. People spoke of systematic efforts in many corners of the country to destroy and boycott the livelihoods of Muslims. Sustained decentralised hate campaigns are organised which portray Muslim men as predators against Hindu girls, and people who slaughter the cow which is sacred to the Hindu community, and vigilante groups supported tacitly by the police target Muslims violently for these alleged social violations.

These voices are not simply of victimhood or of injustice to a particular community. They testify to the massive and varied challenges that have been mounted against the basic values of the Indian Constitution, including democracy, secularism, fraternity and the rule of law. What is threatened is not just the future and well-being of a community. What is under grave assault is the idea of India itself.

People underlined also the many unmet aspirations of the community to participate as equal partners in India’s development.

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