Interview with Indian Muslim writer Sadia Dehlvi

"The soul of India is inclusive, pluralistic, and democratic"

Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act grants the Indian citizenship to members of persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries, yet excludes Muslims. This has sparked waves of protest all across India. For prominent Delhi-based Muslim writer Sadia Dehlvi the new law is a long overdue wake-up call. Interview by Marian Brehmer

The current protests have attracted international attention. Your family has been part of the social fabric of Muslim Delhi for centuries. Can you describe how you have experienced the atmosphere in your social circle during the past days and weeks?

Sadia Dehlvi: I come from a liberal and secular-minded circle of Muslims. My friends and I support the protests. Even though our families have been well established here for many generations, we are beginning to feel marginalized in today’s India, pushed to become second-class citizens.

Why are so many people protesting against the CAA now?

Dehlvi: This discriminatory bill is meant to disenfranchise large parts of the Muslim population. It will make it hard for many of them to prove their citizenship. You need to understand that large parts of the Indian population live without documents. How are those people going to prove their citizenship? Where are people going to go and what are they going to do if the government decides to target them? The bill has already been passed. People are angry because the real issues Indians face, such as the failing economy and unemployment, are not being addressed. They are using openly divisive politics to divert public attention. But people don’t want to be divided on the basis of religion.

What has surprised you about these protests?

Dehlvi: I have never seen any protests as big and spontaneous as these. They have been taking place in many cities across the country. People have been spurred into action because they realise that this is going too far. Although Delhi is experiencing a particularly cold winter right now, protestors have still come out in their thousands, braving the chilly temperatures.

Moreover, huge numbers of women have been at the forefront of the protests, even on the campus of Jamia Millia University [a traditional Islamic college] where police violence escalated. It is the first time since Modi came to power that Muslims have said "enough is enough". The most wonderful aspect of this movement is that Muslims are being joined by people of every faith. The protests have gone beyond being a purely Muslim cause, because people now understand that this bill is leading us in a fascist direction.

How is the government coping with such sudden and sustained resistance?

Dehlvi: I would say it was taken by surprise. They didn’t expect this kind of strength and resilience from the students. Modi's government seemed to be getting away with everything: demonetisation, the lynching of Muslims by extremist BJP supporters, the lockdown of Kashmir. People just stayed quiet. There have been protests before now, but nothing like what we are currently seeing. Maybe the BJP politicians thought they would get away with this as well. Yet even ordinary citizens seem to feel that excluding Muslims in such a way is a purely divisive idea. It’s as if the real face of the BJP government has suddenly shown itself. That is why people are using their legitimate right to protest. Not allowing them to do so is undemocratic.

Do you think that this recent government move to marginalise Muslims is part of a larger scheme?

Dehlvi: Yes, that’s quite obvious. The plans for this piece of legislation were already written into the BJP manifesto. The huge mandate Modi received at the last general election gave him and his party the chance to implement everything they have set out to do. Their ideology has its roots in the RSS which, as we know, was inspired by Hitler’s ideology. This group, which is affiliated to the BJP, has always been anti-Muslim.

Are you afraid of violence against Muslims increasing?

Dehlvi: Delhi is a cosmopolitan city and being India’s capital it has a very mixed citizenry. Most people desire to live peacefully. It doesn’t look like the BJP is going to win the upcoming Legislative Assembly Election in Delhi in February. The ruling AAP (Common Man’s Party) has delivered well for poor people, improved education, as well as electricity and public transport. The suppression of protests has been most severe in states that are ruled by the BJP. Uttar [India’s most populous state] especially is bearing the brunt of police violence, with even young boys being shot or detained. In some of the Muslim towns and economically weaker neighbourhoods, police have broken into houses and vandalised mosques. People are very scared. However, they are overcoming their fear because they want to be heard.

Members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) participate in a rally in support of India's new citizenship law on the outskirts of Hyderabad on 25 December 2019 (photo: STR/AFP)
In fascist tradition: "The ideology of the Hindu nationalists is rooted in the RSS, a Hindu nationalist cadre organization inspired by Hitler's ideology. These BJP-affiliated groups were anti-Muslim from the outset," Sadia Dehlvi explains

Are such long-term anti-Muslim policies likely to have an impact on India's rich Muslim cultural heritage?

Dehlvi: Not directly. After all, you can’t simply do away with Islamic masterpieces such as the Taj Mahal or Qutub Minar. But there have been attempts to undermine traces of Muslim history by changing the names of places and roads. In fact, the survival of the Urdu language has been endangered for years. My family used to publish some very popular Urdu publications, all of which had to close down. Recently, however, there has been a sort of Urdu revival.

Although almost dead as a written language, there are now fresh initiatives to translate Urdu literature into English. Festivals cherish the Muslim Indian heritage. But unfortunately Urdu is not really taught and encouraged; it only survives as an oral tradition. Urdu is not connected to the job market; it doesn’t get you anywhere. The state does not help in promoting this heritage; it would prefer to suppress it. Urdu is a casualty of partition, because it became the national language of Pakistan. From that time on Indians started to regard Urdu as a foreign language, forgetting that Urdu actually developed in cities like Delhi and Lucknow.

Do you think Modi's government will eventually lose support?

Dehlvi: The government is riddled with lies and double-speak. Recently, Modi claimed that there were no detention centres for immigrants in India, but as investigations have shown they are a reality. It is very scary. The fear felt by many in the Muslim community is very real. Some BJP politicians have suggested shooting at the protestors. There are extreme voices saying very damaging things. That said, the BJP has already lost many votes in elections at state level.

What is the role of the intellectuals during the current protest?

Dehlvi: Many of them raise their voices, not only the Muslims. I believe it is the secular voices that are really important. Those voices stand up for the Muslims and the oppressed. Even some BJP supporters among the intellectuals have spoken out against the bill. It is immensely important to speak out and write in a peaceful way. We have the right to protest. Every bit matters in this. Thousands of secular voices have already joined the Muslim in their protest. That’s a very good sign.

How can ordinary Muslims cope with the threats and bias they are facing?

Dehlvi: Muslims should join the protests and make themselves heard. But everybody needs to get on board. This is not just about Muslims, it is about keeping the fabric of the country and its secular values alive. Increasingly people are realising that this government’s actions go against the very core values of our constitution – especially Article 14, which states that nobody will be discriminated against on the basis of religion.

Can this government really manage to undo centuries of interreligious harmony in India?

Dehlvi: We have all lived together for centuries and we still live in a pluralistic and inclusive society. We are still however working through our colonial heritage. We adopted a foreign culture, education and parliamentary system. The British strategy was to divide and rule. Our government is currently using the same principle. Ultimately, this is an attempt to unleash hatred among people. Hopefully the country will resist and fight for the soul of India, so that it is not corrupted.

What gives you hope?

Dehlvi: The protests give me hope. We can only hope for the best; that something good will come out of it. We are a very large minority of about twenty percent. So you can’t get rid us that easily. We are all over the country; we are very well integrated and proud citizens of India. We just have to hope that the secular forces will prevail. The Koran tells us that God sends trials and tribulations to all humans, but also that after every hardship there will be ease. We need to be patient and have faith in the country, in our people, and in God. There is no doubt that these are very trying times. But the soul of India is inclusive, pluralistic, generous, hospitable and democratic. Many waves of people have made their home here down the centuries, creating the incredibly rich Indian cultural heritage. We have to keep it that way. There is space for all of us.

Interview conducted by Marian Brehmer

© 2020

Sadia Dehlvi is a Delhi-based writer focusing on Indian Muslim culture and Sufi traditions in South Asia. Her books include "Sufism, The Heart of Islam", a presentation of the mystical traditions within Islam, and "Jasmine and Jinns: Memories and Recipes of My Delhi", a cookbook that combines culinary heritage and personal memoir. She also writes as a columnist for The Hindustan Times and The Times of India.

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