By Shaista Aziz Patel
At the conference on Dismantling Global Hindutva and its violence held in September 2021, I had a difficult time scanning the conference program to see where Muslims were as organizers, speakers, and as sites of critical discussion. I could find only a few instances of Muslim presence and not always in ways that would encourage us to actively think about the core place of anti-Muslim violence –as it appears at various intersections of the dominance of Hinduism, caste, gender, and sexuality in the formation of right-wing Hindu nationalism in India and diaspora. This conference claimed to present “multidisciplinary perspectives,” and yet, the reality that most of the speakers and organizers were caste-dominant Hindus really worried me as a caste-oppressed Muslim scholar of Critical Muslim Studies. At this conference, Interdisciplinarity, which is about the critical work of connecting the streets to academia, and also centering the people who are the actual targets of violence, seemed to have been co-opted by South Asian academics in the US who are comfortably situated in terms of caste, class, and citizenship. The organizers and presenters of this conference received several threats from Hindu nationalists in India and diaspora, and I genuinely appreciate the efforts of mostly graduate students and untenured faculty who carried the burden of organizing this conference. However, it was troublesome that the actual subjects targeted by Hindutva forces in India, the Dalits, the Bahujans (lowered-caste people), Indian and Kashmiri Muslims and other religious minorities were displaced from the positionality of those constantly under the threat of death and incarceration in India. These are the people(s) who have been targeted for centuries, for millennia, and regardless of Hindutva in power.
Many Muslim and other caste-oppressed people on social media have presented powerful overall critiques of the conference. Here I am going to focus on the (only) panel explicitly on anti-Muslimness, titled, “Islamophobia, White Supremacy, and Hindutva” which featured South Asian American professors Anjali Arondekar, Deepa Kumar, Anupama Rao, and Black scholar, Demetrius Eudell, and was moderated by Manan Ahmed. With a Muslim(-identified) moderator and not a single Indian or Kashmiri Muslim speaker, it is perhaps not surprising that conversations only remained in the vicinity of critical discussions on anti-Muslimness in the formation and contemporary workings of Hindu nationalism. In some high-theory presentations, both, the brutality and the banality of violence against Muslims, were completely shrouded. Even though Ahmed opened the panel with discussing for a few minutes about the hate disinformation campaign in India which circulates Muslims as the source of the Covid-19 breakout, the conversation soon shifted away from specific focus on Muslims even as there were some hinting conversations bringing histories of sexuality into thinking about the ongoing dispossession of Muslims and Dalit-Bahujan people at the site of legislation such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), under which Indian Muslims fear deportation and other violence. Under these Bills, Dalits without state-approved identification papers have also been coerced into presenting themselves as Hindu in an effort to secure some safety for themselves. These Bills are explicitly anti-Muslim, and discriminate against migrants by dividing them into Muslims and non-Muslims. Millions of Muslims whose names do not appear in the NRC fear deportation or imprisonment in the ten-mass detention camps the government plans to build, complete with boundary walls and watchtowers in Assam, another region under what the Kashmiri Muslim feminist scholar, Huma Dar, labels as the “Brahminical Indian occupation.” The history of labeling people, particularly Muslims, as illegal and marking them for lynching in Assam is not new. Anybody working on the Indian brand of Islamophobia would know about the Nellie massacre where in February 1983, within a period of six hours, over 3,000 Bengali Muslims were massacred under the guise of “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.” There is also the category of “D-voters,” or “doubtful voters” under which people with alleged lack of proper citizenship credentials are put in as a step towards making them stateless. These measures have preceded the construction of the first illegal detention camp, spread across 2,88,000 square feet, being built with Muslim and other caste-oppressed people’s labor, the size of seven soccer fields. As one of the Muslim laborers at the detention sites, Ghulam Nabi, asked, “How is it human to isolate a person from the population, from his family and put him behind these giant walls? But once again, Muslims were displaced from any critical analyses of these legislations.
Moreover, I waited to hear a mere mention of Babri Masjid, an iconic and historical mosque in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which, in December 1992, was stormed over and destroyed by a state-supported Hindu nationalist mob mobilized by the Indian government at the time. The demolition of the mosque was accompanied by the massacre of about 2,000 people. That December and January of the next year, protests by Muslims and attacks by Hindu nationalists broke out, further killing 900 people in Bombay. Lest we think that destruction of the Masjid was carried out by an extremist group on the fringes we need to remind ourselves that a day or two before the demolition of the Masjid and launch of all the killings, three-time Hindu nationalist-masquerading-as-liberal Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee incited the crowd at the Lucknow with: “Sharp and pointed stones have come out. No one can sit there. The ground has to be leveled. It has to be made fit for sitting. Arrangements for a yagya will be done, so there will be some construction” In September 2020, a special CBI court in Lucknow acquitted all those accused of ‘conspiracy’ to destroy the mosque. In its stead, a temple is being built with the intention of opening by the end of 2023. The fact that an iconic mosque was destroyed, and that (caste-oppressed) Indian Muslims fought for justice for almost two decades, was conveniently forgotten, or perhaps more aptly, actively erased. Even in their quest to stand against Indian brand and global circulations of Islamophobia, these savarna Indian scholars can never support Islam and Muslims. They are too secular to raise their voices about demolition of an iconic masjid and the Hindutva project of building a mandir. When the CBI court’s decision came out in late 2020, many such secular Hindus were protesting the decision, and recommending that instead a hospital or a school be built at the site of Babri Masjid. I ask them: What is the difference between those you understand to be Hindu nationalists building a temple and you seculars and (seemingly) critical savarna academics advocating for a school or hospital? If the response is that you are at least not massacring Muslims, that in itself should tell us Muslims a lot. Both groups have condoned the destruction of the mosque and the bloodshed and given their own rationales for it which in no way supports the struggles of Muslims against the violent Hindu state of India and its Hindu nationalist and secular citizen subjects.
I have mentioned the above as only a couple of quick examples to show that anti-Muslimness in India is not a new phenomenon, and how important it was at this conference to center Indian Muslims and their voices at this panel. Though Muslims have always been considered as foreign invaders in India under any and all governments whether overtly Hindu (nationalist) or those purporting to be secular like the Congress, the situation has worsened in recent years under Modi’s government. Even in this moment when Brahminical occupation called India is at the brink of multiple genocides, primarily that of Muslims, the conference organizers could not find a single Indian Muslim speaker? If the reader is thinking that maybe they reached out to Indian Muslim academics and organizers who all refused due to the threats this conference was receiving, I urge you to think again. From the anti-CAA-NRC protests held at Shaheen Bagh and in various parts of India to protesting the recent ban on hijab in Karnataka, Muslim women in India and globally are at the forefront of these protests and other modes of resisting the Hindu (nationalist or not) state. No single diasporic Muslim or not, Indian or not, organization can purport to lay essentialist claims to what and where Muslim women can speak. From the then 82 year old Bilkis Bano who despite age and health restrictions contributed to holding down the fort at Shaheen Bagh to the 17 year old Muskan Khan responding to terrifying Hindu mob ‘s heckling over her hijab with “Allahu Akbar,” Indian Muslim women’s history is one filled with courage of the kind these (and us –I include myself here in some of the privileges) well-protected, caste, class, and citizenship (multiple in many cases) privileged American university professors can never even dare to imagine.
Moreover, I wondered why there was no critical discussions at the intersections of caste, Muslimness, and Islamophobia in India. Caste markers, and coerced constructions as castelessness for governance purposes, have affected more than 70% of caste-oppressed Indian Muslims as undeserving of reservation, and as perpetual foreigners to India. There is, increasingly, a gap between the quality of life of Indian Muslims, which seems to be deteriorating even further, and other caste-oppressed people. The 2006 Sachar Committee Report showed that Muslims in general fare even lower than Hindu (or Hindu identified) Other Backward Classes (OBC) in India. As the data from a relatively recent report by Sam Asher et al., titled, Intergenerational Mobility in India shows, Muslims are being left out from educational mobility in India whereas Dalits are getting integrated into it. This is not to stage an oppression Olympics among the most marginalized groups but to merely state that the very dire situation of Indian Muslims requires a very focused and grounded analysis –something that was completely missing from this panel and the Conference overall.
Even in some banal (or not) ways, there were issues with the language (seemingly of resistance) that was being used. Calling India as Hindustan is but another tactic of potentially alienating religious minorities including Muslims and making them into outsiders. It is not always radical to look for words in one’s native or native-adjacent languages, in a desire to appear less colonial and more radical. For instance, one of the presenters kept mentioning the word “Hindustani” to refer to various practices of resistance. The word Hindustani is but a conflation of language, (caste Hindu) nationalism, and (caste Hindu) nation, used to sharpen the divide between Urdu and Hindi languages. The idea that Hindustani is freeing from the shackles of so-called “communalism” (a word that is always used as a euphemism to cover systematic and brutal violence against Muslims in India –the idea that there isn’t a structural anti-Muslim dispossession of Muslim lives and living but merely a tiff between Hindus and Muslims), is just a Brahminical project for systematic marginalization of Urdu and its speakers (predominantly Muslims). The “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” slogan, popularized by Pratap Narayan Mishra later on used to invoke a post-partition Nehruvian consensus, was always and essentially rooted in Muslim exclusion even if it gave the façade of an opposition to the construction of a staunchly Hindu identity. Whatever the aim of some of these words might have been at some point, we have to understand how these words are now being used in exclusionary and violent ways to exclude Muslims from the fabric of social, economic, and political life in India. Moreover, as Sanober Umar has brilliantly shown us, the decline of Urdu and its institutional recognition as a “regional/linguistic minority language in Uttar Pradesh (until 1994) significantly informed the constitutional construction of ‘the casteless Muslim’ in the same stage setting era of the 1950s”. I wish I had her article available to me back in 2015 when some seemingly (or rather, self-proclaimed) Brahmin and savarna intellectuals attacked me for posting something in Urdu on my own Facebook wall, claiming that Urdu was an imperial language (in the context of India). I wish I had an opportunity to share this article with the panelist I am referring to here at the Islamophobia panel.
Lastly, but most importantly, there was no mention of the occupation of Kashmir and the ongoing genocide of Kashmiri Muslims under Indian occupation in that panel. To invite non-Muslim Indian panelists –one of whom was at least honest enough to note that they did not know anything about the context of Hindutva in India but still felt comfortable accepting the invite to speak— who could not even acknowledge what has been happening in Kashmir, particularly post the revoking of Articles 370 and 35A, to me, just seemed like the distraught kin of those being labelled as Hindutva, at least when it comes to their own anti-Muslimness. If Muslims and their lives and rights mattered to these Indian panelists, they would not have been grandstanding their so-called expert analysis with words and scholars mentioned that did little to contribute to any of it. Kashmir needed to be at the front and center in this conference and inviting one Kashmiri Muslim academic doesn’t let this conference get off the (Islamophobic) hook.
Given both, the banal and spectacular violence attached to Muslims and Muslimness in India, it was unfathomable and completely unethical to me that not a single Indian Muslim was on this panel on Islamophobia. What was also troubling for me is that the conference deeply shored up the constant binary of the good Hindu (the critical kind who can befriend Muslims and even condemn Islamophobia –maybe of the kind the seemingly secular Congress party under whom Babri Masjid got demolished and the massacres of Muslims happened) and the bad Hindus (the Hindutva kinfolk of these good Hindus). I was not expecting much from this conference given who the organizers were. However, the Conference fell even below my expectations with no concrete focus on the systemic ways in which anti-Muslimness structures India and its global Brahminical supremacy. On a conference on Hindutva and its terror, did nobody think about Muslims and inviting Muslim speakers for the only panel that was supposed to talk about Islamophobia? Saying that they did not invite Muslims or Dalits as speakers for our own safety is not good enough. While upper-caste Indian-American academics were shocked by the level of harassment they received for this Conference, for Dalits and Muslims, brutal violence and terror is precisely what marks our daily lives in India and in diaspora. The so-called radicality of this Conference did nothing but further contribute to the erasure of Indian Muslims and Indian brand of anti-Muslimness. It carried out Hindutva’s goal. Genocide of Muslims is an aesthetic project for Hindutva. Genocide of Muslims is an aesthetic project for this seemingly anti-casteist but clearly and always anti-Muslim left.