Muslims in/of India: surrogate oppressors or colonizers?

Voters stand in a queue to cast their vote outside a polling booth during the state assembly election, in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, India, February 8, 2020. | Photo: Reuters/Anushre Fadnavis

A Muslim woman deconstructs how dominant majoritarian narratives reconstruct Indian Muslim women as the perpetual Other.

Misria Shaik Ali | 

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This is an article, an opinion, a perspective or a rant by a Muslim woman who is fed up. She is caught in the deep crisis of belonging to the land she is in/of—”born into, grew up in, the land she professed her religion, wore and did not wear hijab, walked around freely and at most times, cautious of the piercing stares that construct her as “the other.” This is an article by a Muslim woman who is continually constructed as “other”—not just by the proponents of Hindu Nation but also those well-intended saviours from the majority community.

Accepting Muslims/Islam?

Dushyant Dave, representing the Hijabi Students, on September 19, 2022, in the Supreme Court of India said, “India gave birth to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism. Islam came here without conquering and we accepted.” A series of questions then emerge: First, on India: Where is the land where Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism emerged? And is it the India of 1947? Of 1971? The Indian subcontinent? Bharat of 1947? The Bharat of the Vedic era? Akand Bharat? Maybe Sadat Hassan Manto would say wherever Toba Tek Singh is! Second, on “we accepted”: who is the “we” who have “accepted” Islam in India and its Muslims who practice it?

When such a statement was invoked in the Supreme Court, with a whole nation as spectators, a chilling discursive spectacle stroke the precise chord in the cultural psyche of India: the Muslim as the other. This discursive spectacle has set fire to the Muslim body and the toxic fumes of anti-Muslim hatred are being inhaled by a nation that is suffering as it breathes. This discursive spectacle frames the Muslim as Other, an outsider whom “Indian” religions have so graciously accepted, even worse have “tolerated” forever. The rhetoric like “we have accepted the Muslims” reproduces and repeats itself, solidifying the cultural imaginary of Muslim otherness/alterity to India.

The rhetoric of acceptance and tolerance sediments the liberal collective consciousness in India. Friendly as they may seem, the ways in which they relate to Muslim in/of India is through othering. So, in liberal savior’s collective consciousness, Muslims remain “accepted others” but still “others.” The Muslim alterity is the spectre that haunts independent India and Bharat. Now it seems Hijab needs to be not only accepted “as an essential practice of Islam” by the court but also by proponents of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism so that their religious sentiments won’t be hurt on seeing a Hijabi student in their class. This rant explores the sites where the presence of Muslims was imagined to oppress and hurt people of a religion.

Barely this is a critique of Dushyant Dave or what he as an individual said: very few people like himself are even calling a spade, a spade [the woman who is ranting here has not done as much as Mr Dave has done against the marginalization of Muslim in/of India]. Dushyant Dave, Vrinda Grover, and CPIM Brinda Karat (when it involves poor Muslims) are a few people who are not cloaking the violence against Muslims in/of India as violence against a “minority” (as seen in articles by renowned social activists) or violence against a “particular community” (like Jamaat-e-Islami Hind does). Second of all, a narrow discursive imagination that pertains to the historiography of India, distressed by the collective cultural psyche of the nation is emerging in the Hijab hearing—around the grounds of this emergence, I pen down this critique.

Making of India in Hijab row

On September 8, 2022, a Nizamuddin (advocate) was simply voicing a thought that has come up in the minds of the many spectators of the Hijab row: why is the turban allowed in schools, and not the Hijab? Justice Gupta hearing the argument responded, “please do not compare with Sikhism. It has been completely ingrained in Indian culture.” Be it, the judges who are hearing the case or the advocate representing the Hijabi students, Muslim otherness to India, Indian culture and Indianness is often invoked without critical thought. Here, an India as primarily differentiated from its Muslims emerges.

Some laud Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism for gracefully accepting Islam that did not come with the intent of conquest—Islam’s acceptance in India are used as anecdotes to romanticize “Brahmic/Indic” religions as fundamentally accepting and tolerating (while it was Cheraman Perumal in modern day Kerala who sought to explore Islam subsequent to his dream of moon-splitting, and trade with Arabians was carried out to make Hindu empire wealthy and glorious; the acceptance was politico-economic and cultural). On the other hand, Hindu Postcolonial Studies [HPS] and its related political groups state that “Hindus have been the victims of at least two distinct eras of colonization, the Islamic and the European.” Against this, HPS calls for an “intellectual decolonization.”

In either group, the Muslim remains the other or even worse, reduced to an anecdote that supplements the Dharmic religion’s supreme ideals of tolerance and acceptance. Whose othering, should one be angered by? Those who reduce Muslim existence in India as nothing more than a signifier of the virtues of acceptance, tolerance or glory embedded in Dharmic faiths, or those who construct us as colonizers? Keep anger aside, let us first consider the othering of Muslims as colonizers.

Muslims as surrogate colonizers and oppressors?

Mimasha Pandit goes to the emotional roots of the Swadeshi Nationalist Movement in her book Performing Nationhood. One of the stories that she tells to unravel the hidden transcript of resistance in the Swadeshi movement complicates, if not refutes, the imaginary Islamic colonization of India. The plays by Swadeshi theatre artists desired to create a collective conscience against oppression perpetuated by the British. However, the artists were not able to make direct reference to British Raj as oppressors as the Raj was watching over these plays. If the artists were to construct the British as oppressors, the artists knew that their “well-intended” work for making the lay people understand oppression would be censored and prohibited. The assumed intellectual superiority amongst the artists as experts on oppression was obvious.

The Swadeshi theatre artists eventually found a surrogate for the British oppressors in the Muslim and Muslim became “the scapegoat.” The many audiences/oppressed who watched these plays did not comprehend that the representation of Muslims as oppressors is merely an allusion. They treated this as the truth rather than as a myth that was used to create a collective conscience against oppression. Even the “well-intended” making of the collective national conscience othered the Muslim as early as the turn of the 20th century making India’s islamophobic roots deeper than often described. As a surrogate to weave the language and imaginary of oppression, the Muslim came to be the colonizer, the oppressor, and the outsider in this collective conscience-making resistance project.

Sangisetti Srinivas narrates another myth of liberation from Muslim oppressors that the BJP has actively constructed in “Hyderabad” (in quotation to denote not the current metropolitan city of Hyderabad) since 1998. Since 1998, BJP has called for September 17 when “Hyderabad” was merged into the Union of India (in 1948), to be recognized as a “liberation day” and as a “state festival.” The “police action” in “Hyderabad” is often described as a request by Nizam Osman Ali Khan to (the then) Indian troops for maintaining law and order. However, Srinivas claims that the police action was a ploy to merge Hyderabad forcefully into the Union of India. It was planned and orchestrated by Sadar Vallabhai Patel and executed by his envoy KM Munshi.

The BJP continues to sell the day as the day the Nizam surrendered to Patel and as the day when “Hyderabad was liberated from the “shackles of Muslim rule””. What’s worse? The Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxists) have been furthering this right-wing narrative since 1988, for electoral gains. As against this narrative, a committee appointed by Nehru’s government, led by Pandit Sunderlal, found that over 27,000 to 40,000 Muslims were killed by Indian troops in the police action, that is, targeted excesses against common Muslims were committed. In this episode, liberation as invoked by BJP means not just liberation from Muslim rule but also liberation simultaneously meant targeted excesses against common Muslims.

So, if for Hindu Postcolonial Studies, decolonization of India means liberation from Muslim rule (as if it even exists today!), for BJP Karyakartas, liberation means carrying out targeted excesses against common Muslims. Double pronged, every act of lynching a Muslim is then imagined as a liberation from the oppressor by the Hindu counterparts and remember the construction of Muslims as surrogate oppressor has its roots also in Swadeshi theatre. The Hindu who lynches/assaults the Muslim actively imagines himself/herself as a victim of the oppressors who does not belong inherently to India, so outsiders. The imagination of India as a land “indigenous” or the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism is shared by liberal saviours, the right-wing, the communists and many many followers of these religions.

Is Hinduism indigenous to India?

Articles are being written on why/how Hinduism should be considered the world’s largest indigenous religion. This is even as tribal peoples of India are demanding that they should not be categorized as Hindus like the British did and the Sarna Dharma code should be recognized outside of the religious fold of Hinduism. [This raises the question, “are Hindus in/of India or indigenous to India? Which are the other communities that are in/of India?”]

Furthering this narrative are dualisms that arose in (Arya Samaj and Hindu Mahasabha’s) thought collectives that othered Muslims and Christians namely, Indic vs Abrahamic, Abrahamic vs Syncretic. Even progressive intellectuals and scholars uncritically reinforce these dualisms (or may be fully aware of what they are doing). In many academic accounts, Abrahamization has framed as anti-syncretic and so detestable; an unpleasant process through which the Indian populace is losing its syncretism and polytheism (I am too guilty of this until I figured the sentiments of Muslim alterity that underlie it!).

By pointing out these mythical narrative constructions and the dualisms they reproduce, I am not only calling for historic accounts of an Indian past which actively stops othering Muslims but I am remaining terrorized about the future. Soon, an Indian genomic reference grid will be produced by the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Brain Research under the Indian Genome Project based on the genes of merely 10,000 “Indians”. The Ministry of Culture has committed itself to creating “a DNA database of Indian tribal population and to trace migratory history of the Indian population.” Such DNA profiling of indigenous peoples has been criticized by Indigenous Scholar Kim TallBear: “to use genomics within processes of recognition… will always be simultaneously nonneutral, political acts and science-based governance decisions with profound implications.”

If these mythical narratives are rationalized through (politically driven) scientific research in the climate of the CAA-NRC (Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizenship) and the absence of documents, would Muslims be mandated to give their genes to acquire citizenship?

(See also: What if the Indian genomic reference grid doesn’t have any place of Muslims who are in/of India? Oh, I forget! For the liberal saviours, the right-wing, the communists and many many followers of so-called Indic/Dharmic religions, Muslims are always already the colonizer, the oppressor, the outsiders!!! Muslim alterity spread across the political spectrum constraints Muslims’ belonging to the lands in India where their houses, villages and their kin (be they Hindu or Muslim) live.


Even if there is no place for a Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain or for that matter Christian in the reference grid, the 2019 amendment to the Citizenship Act helps to ensure that they are provided citizenship because their religions “originated” in India. How else could this country be if the majority focused less on mythopoeic origin stories and more on the critical realities of the people in/of India?


Misria Shaik Ali is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She tweets at @SAmisria.