Interview with identity politics expert Mujibur Rehman "Muslims feel deeply unsafe in present-day India"
Dr. Rehman, what is cow vigilantism and how is it taking over India?
Mujibur Rehman: Cow vigilantism has become a menace in India. Unfortunately however, that is not how the government sees it. Cow vigilante groups are people who randomly target those they suspect of owning cows for the purpose of slaughter and beef consumption. They claim that their purpose is to rescue cows, but all the indications – not to mention incidents – suggest that they are vigilante bands of robbers whose sole purpose is to target Muslims, with the aim of unleashing violence.
What has led to the growth in violence towards Muslims over the last couple of years?
Rehman: Violence against Muslims in India is not a recent development. It is something they have been putting up with for years. Research suggests that since the 1940s the loss of life and property among Muslims has been disproportionately high. The emergence of the Ayodhya movement in the 1980s, however, saw societal antagonism towards Muslims mushroom. Hate campaigns conducted by various right-wing organisations have consistently presented Muslims as an existential threat to Hindu identity. Moreover, under the BJP government, these groups now feel emboldened. That′s not to say, of course, that previous governments were particularly efficient at protecting Muslim lives or property.
What is behind the lynching of Muslims?
Rehman: Lynching is mainly being used to create a climate of fear among Muslims, with the expectation that they will eventually stop slaughtering cows and consuming beef. But it′s not going to work. Eating beef has been turned into a Hindu-Muslim issue. The fact is, however, that dalits (the lowest Hindu caste) also eat beef, so it is actually an upper caste issue. Cow vigilantism is a reflection of the muscle power of majoritarian politics – the message being: you live and die at our mercy.
What are the implications of these developments for minority rights and secularism in India?
Rehman: Hindutva does not believe either in secularism or minority rights. Hindutva groups don′t regard Muslims as a minority, but rather as oppressors of Indian history who need to be taught a good lesson. Unable to conceive of secularism, Hindutva politicians, activists and supporters see it as a Muslim initiative. Even though Indian Muslims remain the poorest religious minority in modern India, they are always accused of being the most pampered. The way Hindu nationalists promulgate such interpretations borders on the sadistic.
What needs to change for Indian Muslims to stop feeling like second-class citizens in their home country?
Rehman: Much needs to be done. Whatever their religion, all fundamentalist groups and groups engaged in hate campaigns should be banned outright. The judicial system needs to come down very heavily on all perpetrators of violence. India urgently requires new national legislation – scheduled caste atrocity laws – against mob lynching.
And there is a role for civil society organisations too: reconciliation work between the two communities should be a top priority. It is crucial that steps are taken to prevent ghettoisation and promote coexistence in the same physical space, thus helping to dispel suspicion and undermine the hate campaigns.
How unsafe is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's India for Muslims?
Rehman: The rise of PM Modi represents a new phase of Hindutva politics. It differs in many ways from what we saw during the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party under L. K. Advani's leadership in the late 1980s. In his capacity as prime minister, Modi has not made any provocative statements against Muslims, but his studied silence on issues that directly impact Muslim lives – such as cow vigilantism or ″love jihad″-related violence, has raised legitimate questions regarding his commitment to the constitution. He tries to give the impression that he is doing a balancing act, while maintaining his credentials as a leader on the Hindu Right. All this has fostered an atmosphere of fear and mistrust among Muslims regarding the state of India under his leadership. There is a lot Modi could have a done. He could, for instance, have met the families of cow vigilantism victims, such as Mohammed Akhlaq′s relatives, and offered them consolation, reassuring them that his government would protect them. But he didn′t. Hardly surprising, then, that Muslims feel deeply unsafe in present-day India.
Interview conducted by Roma Rajpal Weiss
© Qantara.de 2017
Mujibur Rehman is a member of faculty at the Dr K R Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India.