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Are Indian Muslims victims of their ‘victim’ mindset?

By A Faizur Rahman

In the recent past, Muslims in India have been demonized, abused, suspected and some even lynched with impunity.

A case in point is the merciless killing of Pehlu Khan, a poor dairy farmer from Haryana who was bludgeoned to death by a mob of about 200 cow vigilantes in April 2017 while legally transporting cows for his farm. On what basis can anyone dismiss as unwarranted (or fake) the victimhood, trepidation and helplessness of Khan’s family?

Indeed, institutional recognition of the victimhood of such Muslims who have been psychologically affected by the fate of victims like Pehlu Khan came when the Supreme Court condemned “horrendous acts of mobocracy” and asked Parliament to enact an anti-lynching law against cow vigilantism and lynch mobs.

And a few days ago in a landmark ruling, the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court called out the scapegoating of some Tablighi Jamaat members and observed that it was an “indirect warning to Indian Muslims.”

Obviously the court was aware that hate-incidents against Muslims saw a sharp rise after it came to light that several participants in the Tablighi Jamaat’s Delhi conference held in March this year had tested positive for Covid-19. News portals carried horrifying accounts of how Muslims were mercilessly assaulted on suspicion of intentionally spreading the coronavirus. The brutalities included the display of posters banning the entry of Muslims into towns and villages and the circulation of anti-Muslim videos.

Truth be told, the distrust of Muslims goes back a long way to pre-Partition days when the Pan-Islamic politics surrounding the Khilafat Movement was imputed to the entire community and it was charged with harboring extra-territorial loyalties. Historian Neeti Nair’s Changing Homelands provides deep insights into this grim reality. It recounts how during a unity conference in 1925 Lala Lajpat Rai felt that Muslim assertions about their love for India and their “readiness to resist foreign invasions” were so hemmed in by “ifs” and “buts” that they left an “atmosphere of distrust in many Hindu minds.”

Rai’s antagonistic attitude may have been the result of his close association with Arya Samaj which had already come into conflict with the Muslims in the late 1800s when it tried, as Nehru put it in The Discovery of India, “to become a defender of everything Hindu, against what it considered as the encroachments of other faiths.”

According to historian N Gerald Barrier, Arya Samaj’s systematic attack on Islam amplified Hindu-Muslim rivalry and produced a regularized pattern of conflict. In an article in the May 1968 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies, Barrier mentions fifteen major riots between 1883 and 1891 over ‘kine-slaughter’, ‘kine’ being another word for cow.

But the historical Muslimophobia, as the citations suggest, has more to do with the political insecurities of Hindus than any fear of the Muslim religion except perhaps in the case of the Arya Samaj whose raison d’être was to protect Vedic Hinduism from not just the “alien” faiths of Islam and Christianity but also the idolatrous beliefs within Hinduism. At the same time, distorted historical accounts added to the problem by portraying Muslims as products of Islamic intrusions into India.

In India’s Islamic Traditions, 711-1750 renowned historian Richard M Eaton writes that modern textbooks routinely characterize the advent of Persianized Turks in India as a ‘Muslim conquest’, and the entire period from the 13th to the 18th century as India’s ‘Muslim Era’. “That is to say, the agent of conquest is not a people as defined by their ethnic heritage or place of origin, but rather, a religion, the Islamic religion”, he laments.

In comparison, even when the 16th century Spaniards justified their conquest of Mexico in religious terms, modern texts never speak of a ‘Christian conquest’ of America, nor is the post-1492 period ever called America’s “Christian Era.” It is always the ‘Spanish conquest’ of Central and South America and ‘European settlement’ in North America.

Eaton blames medieval Indo-Persian chroniclers for promoting the notion of ‘Islamic conquest’ of India and identifying Islam with the fortunes of their royal patrons. However, Sanskrit sources claim that from the 8th to 14th centuries, Rajput, Brahman and other contemporary Indian elites referred to the invaders not by their religion but by their linguistic identity — most typically as Turks or Turuska. “These findings,” says Eaton, “permit dramatically new ways of conceptualising the character of cultural encounters at the dawn of the appearance of Muslims in north India.”

The challenge for those genuinely interested in India’s rise lies in correcting the skewed annals of Muslims in South Asian historiography and de-linking religion from their imperial past. They must also be part of efforts to mitigate the mutual distrust between Hindus and Muslims by legally neutralizing the purveyors of hate who polarize society for their narrow ends through the fabrication and spread of fake news. Advising any one community to rewrite its victim mindset will only deepen the misgivings.

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