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The era of competitive communitarianism


As an agnostic, who has no affiliation with institutionalized religion, I found myself this week thinking about how I might feel if I was born a Muslim instead of being a Hindu – all other things, such that the class, influences and privileges being the same.

Would I still be able to ignore my religion? Or would it be an invariable part of my identity, both cultural and political?

In some ways, I have the luxury of denying my religion because I was born into the majority faith in India. And no matter how many political attempts there may be to cast the Hindu Indian in the victim mold, the truth is, I have never experienced discrimination based on faith.

Perhaps the choice to reject religion is a privilege similar to that shown by some of us who reject caste. Because we have not been oppressed on the basis of caste, we are pursuing the utopia of caste absence.

Of course, there is no escape from religious polarization, even in our day to day life. My name has been mutilated into “Burkha” by the Hindu right, to taunt my pluralist politics, and I have been called a right-wing apologist by the Muslim right for my plea for a uniform and progressive civil code that does not will not discriminate between men and women, as religious codes do.

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This week, when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath attacked Muslims by implying that those who said “abba jaan” were getting a disproportionate share of the development pie, I found myself thinking about how isolated it must be to be a middle class libertarian Muslim Indian.

Since then, we have been told that the excavations were aimed at the Samajwadi party, and that Abba Jaan is hardly derogatory. But the context is everything. The affection some used for their fathers (although I’ve mostly heard the more laid back abba and ammi among friends, the jaan seems more of a movie staple) has been used here almost as an insult, to portray the whole of the Muslim community as beneficiary of “additional” sops.

How alienating, enraging, hurtful and suffocating to be the target of that kind of dog whistling.

And, on the other end of the spectrum, in what is a mirror image of the same kind of prejudicial mindset, are the self-proclaimed guardians of the Muslim Personal Law Board (MPLB), who repeatedly defile the interests of the community, with their and antediluvian remarks. More recently, two of its members hailed the rise of the Taliban, and while the board has moved away from those comments, the damage was done.

Crushed between the bigotry of anti-Muslim rhetoric and the weight of Islamist extremism, would I look in vain for “normality” in this shrinking intermediate space?

The truth is, even well-meaning liberals subconsciously fall for a visual representation of Indian Muslims that is cliché. The grammar of mosques, burqas, beards and short pajamas is how every TV report has portrayed Muslims. And while many adopt overt religious markers, millions more do not. The wide line is very problematic.

As an Indian Muslim, I imagine that I would seek in vain to find an authentic shadow of myself in the cinema as in the news. I should also face the fact that politics failed me. The ruling party has made it clear that it does not need me. The secular slogan has been corroded by those claiming to marry it, since Shah Bano’s judgment ordering child support for Muslim women was overturned under Congress.

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And pluralism has been violated by the Hindu right, with its brazen and crude questioning of the patriotism of Muslim citizens. Viral videos of Muslim men beaten while being made to say Jai Shri Ram or invited to sing the national anthem have a subtext that goes beyond mob violence. The subtle signal is the suggestion that Muslims are not patriots.

Yes, two MPLB members have only accentuated this baseness with their Taliban romance, but it is totally unacceptable to expect Muslim citizens to stand up and prove their distance from the terrorists in Kabul. .

And yet, when a Naseeruddin Shah or a Javed Akhtar does precisely that, they get pounded. The Hindu right hates them because they call them “love jihad” and hate crimes against Muslims. The Muslim right hates them because, in their minds, they are not true believers anyway. Akhtar and Shah are celebrities whose fame will offer them protection, even though their words have been put under the microscope for the same reason.

Think what millions of their religious compatriots (at least by birth accident) think today; how this feeling of not belonging, neither to this nor to that, must hurt and anger them – and sometimes, frighten them – in this polarizing era of competitive communitarianism.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

Opinions expressed are personal

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