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Islamophobia and the professed Indian Left

In India, cyberspaces are predominant domains where the manifestation of ‘left Islamophobia’ is obvious and demands attention and redressal. Muslim assertions on cyberspaces and discourses are enormously censored and subjected to mistreatment.

 By Faheem Muhammed M.P

In India, the mainstream political discourses have often been affirming that Islamophobia is repeatedly misinterpreted and undermined, usually associated with and limited to the Sangh Parivar institutions. The celebrated ‘intellectual’, ‘secular’ or ‘liberal’ discussions in India have historically failed to recognize and transpire the full scope and nature of Islamophobia in India. Aligning and limiting Islamophobia within Sangh Parivar realms has only led to vindicating and normalizing Islamophobia in India’s extremely communal public sphere. The paradoxical narratives on Islamophobia rooted in Hindutwa ideologue have well preserved the historical communal spirits targeting Muslim identities in the academia and institutions of critical thoughts. This happens to be precise in the case of professed Communist establishments in India. The narratives on Islamic identity and politics perpetrated by the so-called ‘left-liberals’ has often been misleading and distorted. By confining the idea and problem of Islamophobia within the Sangh Parivar domain, the Communist parties and thinkers have maintained and normalized Islamophobia within and throughout their cliques. To theorize it, we should distinguish between the Sangh Parivar and the ‘left’ Islamophobia. When the Sangh Islamophobia is about the utmost hatred and extermination of Muslims, the ‘left Islamophobia’ is about restricting the existential identity, political choices and autonomy of Indian Muslims. These restrictions have alienated the Muslim identity and branded Islamic politics as religious fundamentalism, just as in the case of Dalit or Feminist politics.

Fundamentalism or existentialism?

The alienation of Islamic identities is explicit in the mainstream ‘left’ discourses and circles, where every Indian Muslim is supposed to hide their Muslim identity and maintain a supposedly ‘secular’ (often assuming non -religious) attitude. These groups blatantly despise rising any kind of identity politics in the public sphere. Indian Communist establishments have thus continuously managed to disparage the assertions on the religious identity of Indian Muslims. Such assertions are instantly emphasized and branded as religious fundamentalism. It is to be admitted that the open embracement of Hindutwa symbols and dogmas, including the lighting of ‘deepams’ or commencement of ‘poojas ‘in the public domains, has never offended the so-called ‘left’ thinkers. Instead, they are deeply hurt when any Islamic identity is expressed in the public sphere. Most of the ‘left liberals’ have been even critical of perceiving religious politics in the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The use of Islamic assertions in many anti CAA protests was utmostly censured and brought in for severe criticism. Through these affirmations, the mainstream Indian ‘left’ has upheld their own notions of Indian Muslims who are supposed to be docile to the ‘elite intellectuals’ (the savarnas in the Indian setting).

A close observation of the Indian Communist parties can reveal how Islamophobic these organizations are. A ‘parental secularism’ approach can be seen in the notions of Communist groups, carrying a definition of secularism of their own. They have well succeeded in transplanting these notions into individuals and organizations affiliated with them. This ‘parental secularism’ prevents the Indian Muslims from perceiving or following political discourses that matter to them. The same ‘parental secularism’ was explicit in Indian National Congress’ (INC) comments targeting the rise of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) soon after the Bihar elections. Moreover, this is what held Muslim leaders in Congress within the line of thoughts of the majority. This states one thing in common in the mainstream Indian parties; they do not welcome Muslims to form political opinions or organize independently; instead, they prefer to be the great parent of Indian Muslims controlling them. Irrespective of the fact that this ‘control’ has only devastated secularism and particularly Muslims in India. By portraying Muslims as helpless, the mainstream parties are stereotyping them as a vulnerable social group who needs political and social support (only from the established parties) and limiting their aspirations for self-reliance and individuality, which is the same as rearing cattle in a fixed-line of control.

The Kerala model

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M), particularly has been well effective in maintaining a systemic ‘intellectual Islamophobia’ in Kerala. The paradox of CPI(M) has been in question previously, when Alan and Thala, two Muslim students, were arrested on the grounds of UAPA charges in November 2019. The students were arrested as suspected Maoists, both of them members of SFI, the student wing of the CPI(M) and local CPI(M) unit. SFI, which has been vocal in the illegal detentions under UAPA by the central government, was silent when the same happened in Kerala under Pinarayi Vijayan’s government. Similarly, Deshabhimani, a Malayalam newspaper associated with the CPI(M), has published an Islamophobic cartoon in relation to the 2020 local body elections in Kerala. The cartoon brands Welfare Party of India (WPI), a Muslim existential party affiliated with Jamaat e Islami as a terrorist organization. The stereotypical portrayal of a Muslim man with a beard and cap with an AK-47 gun has drawn fierce criticism. The cartoon was a reply to the Congress-led United Democratic Front’s (UDF) alliance with WPI in 2020 local body elections. It is known that CPI(M) led Left Democratic Front (LDF) itself had an alliance with WPI in previous elections. CPIM’ attempt to stereotype it as a terrorist organization explains the party’s twofold nature. WPI representatives refuted the CPI(M))’s “communal and extremist accusations” against it as double standards. “We contested the 2015 local body elections in alliance with the CPI(M) in many panchayats after striking a deal with Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who was then CPI(M) State Secretary,” said WPI State president Hameed Vaniyambalam.

A cartoon published by CPI(M)’s Deshabhimani depicting the Welfare Party as a terrorist organization. Source: Asian Speaks                                                                        

In October, the then CPI (M) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan made a comment that stood out for its communal overtones: that the UDF was now being led by the trio of MM Hassan, PK Kunhalikutty (of the IUML) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) Ameer. Further, the local body elections witnessed many of the CPI(M) leaders going too far, commenting on how Congress is a puppet in Muslim organizations’ hands, mainly targeting the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). In a Facebook Post, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan accused that the Congress party has become so vulnerable that it has even lost its capacity to choose its leaders, as its control is decided by the Muslim League, the second-largest opposition. This hyperbole must be seen as an effort to alienate the Muslim existential groups in Kerala to accumulate majoritarian Hindu and marginal Christain votes, which usually benefits the UDF. Vijayan’s comments have drawn fierce criticism from multiple groups. What makes it creepy is its celebration by CPI(M) cyber armies and spokespersons in the following debates. Later on, the acting Secretary of CPI(M) Kerala, Vijayaraghavan, alleged that the IUML attempted to create communal polarization with its agitation against economic reservation. He further went on alleging that minority communalism is the most extremist form of communalism, though he retracted his statement the next day.

The Kerala government has booked 46 people on February 16, for taking part in protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), even though the government had assured earlier that no action would be initiated against the protestors. The booked includes political, cultural and religious leaders, such as KK Baburaj, TT Sreekumar, J Devika, NP Chekutty, Nasar Faisy Koodathai and late T Peter. They have been charged for rioting & unlawful assembly in December 2019. However, cultural and political critics have come forward condemning the government move. The involvement of Islamic existential organizations, including the Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and Welfare Party alleges to be a reason behind the police move. This appears to be a part of the ongoing move to demonise Islamic existential groups by the mainstream intelligentsia in India. Further, the CPI (M) particularly is busy constructing the rise of the Muslim League and Muslim leadership as a threat to secularism, stating that it is grounded on religious fundamentalism. This fundamental inability to recognize and patronage the political organization of minority communities in a majoritarian nation like India itself is the indispensable challenge of Indian Communist parties.

Way forward to secularism

In India, cyberspaces are predominant domains where the manifestation of ‘left Islamophobia’ is obvious and demands attention and redressal. Muslim assertions on cyberspaces and discourses are enormously censored and subjected to mistreatment. Collective cyberbullying is very typical in most of the ‘left’ dominated cyber discourses. Individuals and social groups pursuing or expressing identity politics are instantly targeted and intimidated by established organizations’ cyber armies. Attempts to pursue autonomous political choices by Indian Muslims are treated with hostility and portrayed as dangerous, instigating further complications for their life. The Islamophobic ‘left intelligentsia’ has historically failed to realize the ‘privilege’ that entitles them to disguise their religious identity in a majoritarian state.

The stereotypical and problematic depiction of Indian Muslims by the ‘left intelligentsia’ and the media poses severe challenges to the nation’s secular fabric. The highly communal and Hinduised public domains (with Hindu symbols in public institutions) of India are overtly favouring the Hindutva politics of the 21st century. The RSS and Sangh Parivar’s key achievement is their penetration into every institution or establishment that constitutes this nation. This is accurate in the mainstream Indian parties, particularly those narrating a secular vision like the CPI(M) and a majority of the ‘left’ intelligentsia. A failure to acknowledge this paradigm reality is one of the biggest mistakes of mainstream political organizations and discourses in India. With their unknown and deliberate Islamophobic attempts, they facilitate the Sangh Parivar efforts for a Hindutwa nation.

India’s critical political discourses need to be sensitive to post 9/11 Islamophobia and its normalization in the Indian public sphere. It is to be admitted that attempts to alienate and disregard Muslim identity politics will not do any good; instead, it will exemplify ethnocentric communalism and hyper-nationalism in India. Assertions on self-identity and experiences answer the asymmetric social and political relations in India, where Muslims are one of the most vulnerable social groups, which is also very similar in the case of Dalit and Feminist politics in the Brahminical Patriarchy setting of the nation.

Faheem Muhammed M.P graduated in M.A Mass Communication from Pondicherry University.