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HomeBetween The LinesGood Muslim, Bad Muslim: Identity and Politics in Hindu India

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: Identity and Politics in Hindu India

by Meraj Rizvi

Indian Muslims have a dual identity as the default “other”. There is a “good Muslim” and there is a “bad Muslim”. I have been a “good Muslim” for the most part of my life and have been told many times— “Oh! but you are not that kind of a Muslim” by seemingly educated friends and colleagues. For the most part, I have either ignored such comments or Felt reassured by them. This feeling of safety was always uneasy. I had to look out for potential sources of criticism—from terrorism to burqa to non-vegetarianism. The allusions were always subtle. That is the beauty of “liberal” islamophobia: it is subtle.

To not be “that Muslim”, we need to prove it through what we say, what we eat, how we behave, how we look, and so on. We must be on our best behavior to be accepted otherwise. I am a good Muslim as long as I play the part of the non-questioning, docile, appeasing Muslim. If I do not question the vilification of Muslims, the overt and covert bias, the lynching, the custodial abuse, indiscriminate incarceration in made-up cases, and so on, I may be accepted as a good Muslim. The most important thing is to look the other way even if we see clear signs of Muslim vilification. Ultimately, though, there is no foolproof formula for being a good Muslim, it is at the mercy of the public sentiment at any given point in time. We can be a bad Muslim for a reason as simple as identifying as a Muslim. We being we, is the problem.

When a community reaches this point, there is nowhere else to go. When you are pushed to the wall all you can do is fight back. The question is: when you are attacked for just being a Muslim, can you fight back without asserting your Muslim identity? And when you assert your identity (and are accused of “identity politics”) is it the best possible strategy? Is your assertion of identity an act of desperation or a natural response to an external attack? Is it strategically, tactically, morally, politically possible to fight back without asserting your identity? You cannot. Because if you leave that identity behind, you have lost the fight even before it has begun; and if you assert your identity, then, well, you are a Muslim. What option does this situation leave you as a Muslim?

This is where things become tricky for the allies who want to stand up for equal treatment of Muslims, but advise the Muslim community to express themselves “appropriately” in this socio-political situation, and not antagonize the majority Hindu sentiments. This “inappropriate expression” is a fluid idea, and can range from simply looking, acting, and living as a Muslim to being openly and loudly political within the democratic framework. When you ask Muslims to correct themselves, you are telling them that it is their fault, and only if they could correct themselves, they can create conditions in their favor. Another criticism of Muslims asserting their identity comes from the progressive left that keeps dragging the root of all the issues to the resultant superstructure of class contradictions. I agree, that the theoretical ground (based on as little knowledge I have of the leftist literature) is sound, but what you are doing is that you are asking a lamb under the blade to think about the larger reality of the food chain. At this point the crisis staring back at Indian Muslims is existential. There is no space to debate the nuances of political economy. There isn’t even enough room to breathe.

In this confinement, all colors are washed off of you, and the only color left is “Muslim”. There is no intersectionality of identities as a Muslim. You cannot be a Muslim and a progressive, you cannot be a Muslim and a woman, you cannot be a Muslim and a transgender, you cannot be a Muslim and a secular, you cannot be Muslim and an Indian, and so on. The point is, once you are a Muslim, that is all you are: the Other, who needs to be kept in check, corrected, and constantly reminded that she does not belong.

This myopic characterization of Muslims in India puts the entire burden of the legitimacy of citizenship on the shoulders of Muslims—a phenomenon that is not unique to India. France also corrects its Muslims, who need to behave in a certain way to legitimize their citizenship. Does anyone ask a Hindu or a Jain or a Parsi to act in a certain way to legitimize their right to citizenship? You can be a Hindu criminal, but does that warrant a question on the legitimacy of your citizenship? No! You are still an Indian—a criminal, perhaps, but an Indian nonetheless. Then why this burden on the shoulders of Muslims only? This brings me to Muslim politics.

It was suggested to me to remove the “and” between the word “identity” and “politics” in this article’s title. I chose not to in order to make this point: all the politics done by Muslims in India are not identity politics. Muslims have overwhelmingly sided with secular politics. Muslims have done left politics, Muslims have been centrist, Muslims are found in the right, and like any other community Muslim political ideologies range from far-right supremacist to far left-progressive.

It is natural for a minority population to support and engage in secular politics for the simple reason that in a majoritarian state a minority ends up getting the shorter end of the stick. Engaging in identity politics is, therefore, not the first choice because it makes the community more susceptible to isolation and otherization. In the case of Indian Muslims, the reason is both tactical and historical. Tactical because doing identity politics isolates Muslims as a group, furthering Othering them from the nation. Historically because the freedom struggle generated a nationalistic environment where the “Hindustani Musalman” was a politically protected species supposedly taken care of by Congress and told to take care of its own community and not engage in national politics. We know where all this has led to the political isolation and otherization of Muslims.

Then there is the mechanism of how identity becomes the center of politics. The default interpretation of the term “identity politics” is the use of identity by a minority to empower itself in a democratic system. But this interpretation completely overlooks how identity politics are used by non-minorities. Majoritarianism and Hindu nationalism feed on identity politics. The difference is that the majority’s use of identity is an exercise of power. In this hostile environment, the minority gains little by engaging in identity politics apart from Othering and an existential crisis.

Why does a minority engage in identity politics then? Not at the outset but only in response to external majoritarian pressure. A minority naturally prefers the language of reconciliation, egalitarianism, and restraint. However, this language is soon appropriated by the majority and turned around. The same language of egalitarianism then becomes a tool to trivialize legitimate identity concerns (for example “all lives matter” in response to “black lives matter”) and identity-based discrimination. This is when the majority begins to conveniently assert its identity. A sudden concern of the Savarna Hindu student bodies, organizations, and individuals in the US and other liberal democracies around South Asian identity and minority status is another example. The vicious attack on Prof. Audrey Truschke at the Rutgers University Newark campus by a group of Hindu students uses the same language of identity politics that the RSS and BJP are so critical of in India.

If the onus of Muslim identity politics needs to be put somewhere, it should be put on this political system that has left no other option for Muslims but to assert themselves fully and completely and band together to fight the vicious and non-stop assault from all sides.

This attack is not just political but has deep cultural roots. I can recall several instances where someone made casual comments bashing Muslims for their food habits, culture, community, and so on. I was told, more than once, in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots that Muslims deserved to be taught a lesson. But leaving those anecdotal instances out, there is a clear boldness among people to pass on discriminatory and hateful comments without the slightest hesitation. A sense of pride and power can clearly be felt. This is not new. The ease with which the culture of hate has percolated through Indian society suggests that this hate was always there. Only now the inhibition has been lifted.

The Hindutvization of India must also be seen in the context of the larger identity-electoral calculus of Indian democracy. The Savarna hegemony cannot survive without solving this electoral calculus in a democratic India where the elite Savarna is a minority population. In this equation, a common other has to be equated in power with the rest of the victimized majority to consolidate Dalit votes for the BJP. A sense of being cheated by your own political system to appease this other who does not deserve an equal share is a strong rallying point for majoritarian Hindu India. In this Hindu India, everyone is a Hindu and those who are not must either “return” to Hinduism, live as second-class citizens, or simply leave. It is not surprising that in violence against Muslims, the Savarna leadership is rarely the one directly involved. The foot soldiers are always Bahujans, the servants of Savarnas in the hierarchical Varna system. This solves several purposes. When the animosity between Muslims and Bahujans is entrenched, and each becomes suspicious of the other, then they cannot unite against the socio-economic hegemony of the Savarna elite. The blood and bodies of the common enemy give Bahujans a piece of Hindu pride, redirecting centuries of anger against caste discrimination. As Ambedkar taught us, Brahminism thrives on gradations of inequality Even the most oppressed group will go along with it as long as there is someone more “oppress-able” below them. Indian Muslims are gradually and methodically being pushed to the very bottom of this hierarchy.

The political economy of this conflict cannot be overlooked. The biggest beneficiary of this conflict is the neo-liberal establishment. The ongoing farmers’ protest must be viewed in this context. The assault on farmers’ and workers’ rights is not new, but a divided working class engaged in a religious-cultural conflict is a much easier target than one living in harmony.

Where does this leave Muslims socially, politically, and economically? Despite all these issues, Indian Muslims are in a position to reclaim their legitimate place in India. Since independence, Muslims in India have built a robust infrastructure with pre-independence institutions like Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia University serving as the nuclei for innumerable big and small institutions, and a large influential global diaspora that cares and contributes to the welfare of the Indian Muslims. The pathological disdain Hindutva has for these minority institutions is diagnostic of the value these institutions hold for Indian Muslims. Muslims are also aware of the national political landscape, have an intuitive sense of the political environment, and are resilient enough to sustain a long-term attack by the Hindutva. The pushback Citizenship (Amendment) Act received not just in India but all over the globe is a testimony to it. Many consider Shaheen Bagh a failed movement, but Shaheen Bagh has demonstrated the resilience of not just the political elite but common Muslims. While the attack by Hindutva has significantly eroded the strength of the Muslim community, these attacks have also pulled the Muslim community back together to fight back. But this is a fight on two fronts. On one hand, there are deep-rooted community issues: gender inequality, fundamentalism, economic inequity, poverty, lack of education, and so on. (Of course, the Hindu majority shares many of these issues as well). On the other hand, there are constant vicious attacks and victimization from the outside. While the responsibility for the former lies with the Muslim leadership, the responsibility for the latter assault cannot be pinned on the victim.

I think that Muslims have enough ideological endowment and legacy to work out a socialist-progressive society. This can be worked out within the Islamic socio-cultural framework. But to do that, Muslims must stop chasing the lost Islamic glory and look to the future. Ideologically, I do not think that there ever was an ideal society, or there ever will be one. But there will always be the oppressed and the oppressors. The relationship more or less remains the same, the identities change. And therefore, I think that identity can be a means to consolidate against oppression, but cannot be an end in itself. Taken to its logical end, identity-centric politics will eventually lead to supremacism. The Achilles heel of identity politics is its identity-centric narrative, and this narrative will always eventually be appropriated by the oppressor class. So, any politics centered around identity must work with broad egalitarian goals and ally with other oppressed groups. Indian Muslims must stand with Kashmiris for their rights as humans, farmers and workers must stand with Muslims, Muslims must stand for sexual and gender minorities, with Dalit rights, with migrant workers. Unless this broad coalition can be built around egalitarian ideals, identity politics as a tool will have limited utility, and fail eventually.

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