Muslim identity ‘flattened’ in today’s India, say experts
New Delhi, Mar 28: Many organisations in the development sector that worked with Muslims did not want to acknowledge that they did so, and then there were some who did not want to work with them at all.
Activist and author Farah Naqvi said she realised the sombre truth during her research for her new book “Working with Muslims: Beyond Burqa and Triple Talaq” that was released by former vice president Hamid Ansari yesterday.
The issue of “flattening” Muslim identity in India echoed in the packed hall of the India International Centre where an eminent panel discussed the book, which investigates the reality of NGOs and their developmental work with Muslims in eight major states of India.
Written in collaboration with the Sadhbhavna Trust, the book studies 373 NGOs and their work with Muslims. Of the 373, 79 are from Uttar Pradesh.
Ansari, who delivered the keynote address, set the ball rolling on the debate and said there was need to discard the “virus” of considering Muslims with “apprehension, intolerance and otherness”.
Discussing people’s fear of working with Muslims even on something as acceptable as developmental work, Naqvi said she found during her research that a large number of organizations worked with the community but didn’t want anyone to acknowledge it.
“There were also an equal number of organizations who simply did not want to work with Muslims in the first place,” Naqvi said during the discussion that was attended by the likes of actor Sharmila Tagore and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah.
“A large number of organizations that we interviewed would ask Muslims? They would say, ‘We don’t know the identity map of the people we work with… we don’t know if they are Hindus, Muslims Christians, Dalits… we just know that they are poor’,” she told the gathering.
She quoted another respondent as telling her that this was a divisive way to look at development.
According to Naqvi, it was not just because of the present “aggressive” political environment that people want to hide the fact that they worked with Muslims.
“The secular baggage necessitates flattening of all identities beyond those of poor, even those identities that add to the layer of discrimination and impoverishment, and this at a time when Muslims in mainstream politics — both at the level of representation and national concern — are being invisibilized and marginalized,” she said.
Social activist Harsh Mander, who was also on the panel, said after Partition this was the most difficult time for a Muslim to be in India.
“Fear has settled into the hearts and souls of Muslim people across religion, caste, class and gender … and then the kind of stories I hear from my travels across the country… ‘Koi phone train mein kare toh as-salamu alaykum nahi kehna’ (Don’t greet in Urdu if someone calls while you are travelling in train). Don’t get into a fight. Don’t get into an argument. Keep your head as low as possible.”
The former IAS officer added that there are 180 million Muslims and they are central to the imagination of India, to its creation and to its future.
“BJP is the first ruling party that has no Muslim representative in the Lok Sabha and is happy about it… and the BJP can do that. But Muslims have become castaways and political untouchables for other political parties too,” said Mander.
Siddharth Varadarajan, founder-editor of the news portal The Wire, said there is an “endless cycle of poison” in the public sphere against Muslims.
“It was Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma who said that ‘APJ Abdul Kalam musalman hote hue bhi itne bade desh bhakt the’ (Despite being a Muslim APJ Abdul Kalam was a nationalist) and this is something he said while allegedly praising the former president,” he said.
“Now, in any self-respecting democracy such a minister would not have survived his job but here we forgot about it … he has gone out to make other statements,” he said.
Varadarajan also questioned the present government’s “smartly coined slogan” ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ and said it has a coded message.
“’… it means that others were favoured until now, others have been appeased and we are stopping that appeasement under the garb of flattening out identities.”
He added that the term appeasement should have been “retired hurt” in 2006 when the Rajinder Sachar Committee came out with its data, revealing the dismal social, economic and educational conditions of the Muslim community in the country.