Not Just BJP, it is the Indian State which is Islamophobic

Image source: wikkicommons

By Iqbal Salahkar

Exactly six years back, in the first week of April 2014, the polling for Lok Sabha elections began. BJP-led-National Democratic Alliance, registering almost two-third majority in the Lower House of India’s Parliament, won with a sweeping victory. BJP’s tenure saw an increasing attack on Muslims in various forms, with the most visible form being mob lynching. Five years later, BJP returned to the Centre with an even greater majority. The anti-Muslim bias of this government, now, became much clearer this time with the abrogation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir, passage of Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 and the announcement of preparation of a National Register of Citizens.

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That BJP has an anti-Muslim bias is crystal clear. But in the process of blaming BJP, what is forgotten is that this anti-Muslim bias has been manifested by the Indian State for a very long time. Both the legislature and the executive have time and again displayed their Islamophobic nature over the years. Muslims must remember that Islamophobia has manifested itself in virulent forms earlier as well, even when the BJP did not have a majority in Parliament. And now with the Modi government in its sixth year of absolute power, it is essential for the Indian Muslim community to understand this because a failure to do so will be equivalent to undermining numerous reasons for their suffering today.

Among the most vivid examples of Islamophobia straight from the Legislature are the Anti-Conversion laws. Despite Article 25 of the Constitution giving all persons the “right to profess, practice, and propagate religion”, several Indian states have anti-conversion laws in place. At the central level, the Backward Communities (Religious Protection) Bill was introduced in the Parliament in 1960, barely 10 years after the enactment of Indian Constitution. The Bill aimed at checking the conversion of Hindus to ‘non-Indian religions’, which according to the Bill were Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Its compatibility with Article 25 aside, the Bill singled out four religions, including Islam, to be ‘non-Indian’. The Bill couldn’t make it through the Parliament but nevertheless, it showed the active presence of Islamophobic elements in the Temple of Democracy.

After a failure to clear through the Parliament, such laws began to be enacted at state level. Odisha became the first state to enact the Anti-Conversion law in 1967. Subsequently at least seven other state legislatures have cleared anti-conversion laws. By making it essential to notify, or in some cases even seek permission from the State authorities before conversion, these laws bring religion into the public sphere and thus have the potential to create uncomfortable or even threatening conditions for the individual who wants to convert.

Many of these laws have undeniable elements of Islamophobia and Christophobia. In Odisha’s Anti-Conversion Freedom of Religions Act, for example, the penalty for unlawful conversion of a minor, a woman and a member of a Scheduled Caste (SC) is much more severe than the penalty for the unlawful conversion of an adult, thus promoting the narrative that Muslims and Christian Missionaries target SCs and women (love jihad in the modern parlance) for conversion. Some of these laws do not consider reconversion to the religion of forefathers (read Hinduism) as conversion, and thus outside keeps such conversions outside the ambit of these laws.

In 1978, Freedom of Religions Bill was introduced in the Parliament by the ruling Janata Party and was supported by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. Even this Bill emphasised the necessity of protection of women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minors from coerced conversion. The Bill failed to make through, but the fact that it received support from the Prime Minister was a visible enough support of Islamophobia and Christophobia from the State. Indira Gandhi went a step further when as India’s Prime Minister in 1982, during her visit to the United States, she told James Reston of New York Times that “Enormous amount of Arab money are coming. And they have made a conscious effort to convert the very poor, mostly Harijans”.

Political Scientist Jeniffer R Coleman writes that “the passage of these anti-conversion laws reflected a wider sense of political concern over conversions, already evident in the passage of laws more indirectly geared toward eliminating the right to propagation and conversion. The passage of Hindu Law enactments in 1955-6 stipulated increased penalties for conversion away from Hinduism and were designed to keep the lower caste and untouchable communities from leaving the fold.”

From the 1970s, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) launched drive to convert Muslims among Rajasthan’s Cheeta-Merat community to Hinduism. They claimed to have converted thousands of Muslims to Hinduism. Diplomat-turned-politician Syed Shahabuddin wrote to the Union Home Ministry seeking its opinion over these mass conversions. In response, as quoted by Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), the Home Ministry in its letter dated 29 December 1983 wrote that Cheeta-Merats who had come under the influence of VHP had only thereby “reaffirmed their faith in Hinduism”. The choice of words, in an official reply by Home Ministry speaks volumes about its Islamophobic nature.

In stark contrast is Meenakshipuram mass conversion case of 1981 when thousands of lower caste Hindus converted to Islam in the village of Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu. Arthur Bonner, a former New York Times Reporter, writes in his book ‘Averting the Apocalypse: Social Movements in India’ that “Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was reported to be unhappy”. He further mentions that “Parliament appointed a thirteen member committee to visit Meenakshipuram and also to inquire into mass conversions of Dalits in other parts of the country.” In the context of the same incident, Coleman notes that the “reports indicate that the Ministry of Home Affairs under the Congress (I) government advocated the passage of anti-conversion legislation at the level of the states along the lines of the existing Acts in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Arunachal Pradesh.”

More than the Legislature, it has been the Executive which has exhibited its Islamophobic nature most blatantly as seen among the security forces. Justice Srikrishna Commission, which was set up by the Maharashtra government in January 1993 to enquire into the 1992-93 communal riots in Bombay explicitly brought out this bias. It said that “The Commission is of the view that there is evidence of police bias against Muslims which has manifested itself in other ways like the harsh treatment given to them, failure to register even cognizable offences by Muslim complainants…” It further added a testimony of a senior official and said “…That there was a general bias against the Muslims in the minds of the average policemen which was evident in the way they dealt with the Muslims, is accepted by the officer of the rank of Additional Commissioner, V.N. Deshmukh.”

Another example of a deeply entrenched anti-Muslim bias of the police were the numerous communal riots in Uttar Pradesh in 1972. In an article in EPW on November 1990, renowned historian A G Noorani, quotes a correspondent regarding the 1972 riots in Uttar Pradesh that “investigations have revealed that the atrocities on Muslims in most of the recent riots in UP were committed not by members belonging to the majority community by the police” The police and the para-military forces did not only commit atrocities, but behaving like typical rioters, also looted Muslim houses. Hindustan Times reported on August 15, 1972 that “A single PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary) man, it is reported, has made Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 6,000 from the loot.” During the riots, Indira Gandhi was not just the Prime Minister but also held the portfolio of Union Home Minister. In a poetic parallel to the past few months, after a plague of riots in various parts of UP in 1972, there were riots in Delhi in May 1973.

Cut to the present, the facts and footages surrounding the Delhi riots is fresh and available everywhere, thanks to social media. With Modi regime spending fortunes on its IT cell and media channels, Islamophobia has visibly reached its peak. But Muslims must remember that Islamophobia has manifested itself in virulent forms earlier as well, even when the BJP did not have a majority in Parliament. This indicates that it is not just the failure to keep checks on the political powers of BJP which has brought Indian Muslims to this point. There must be commonalities between the pre-Modi era and the Modi era was well which made it possible for the anti-Muslim bias to play then, as it is happening now.

Upon little reflection, one can find that commonality in their meagre representation in judiciary and media, a dismal representation in the bureaucracy, police and army, and complete absence from several areas of business and entrepreneurship. The months following the passage of Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 have served to stimulate Muslims to come out on roads. In the field of agitational politics, perhaps they have performed well – better than the past at least. Now it is imperative for them to work towards enhancing their performance in all other fields as well.

Iqbal Salahlar is an undergraduate student at Aligarh Muslim University