On 8th July 2018, senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India Indira Jaising stated that the “lynching of Muslims in India has become a badge of honour for the perpetrators”. Drawing parallels between the lynchings of African-Americans in the late 19th century during the advent of the Jim Crow laws, Jaising argues that lynchings and mob violence in India specifically target Muslims and she urged the Indian government to legislate anti-lynching laws for protecting Muslim minorities[i]. Drawing strikingly similar comparisons between Indian Muslims and African-Americans, a recent study titled ‘Intergenerational Mobility in India,’[ii] by Sam Asher (World Bank), Paul Novosad (Dartmouth College) and Charlie Rafkin (MIT), concludes that in terms of educational mobility, Indian Muslims are worse off today than African-Americans.[iii]
Although there are a host of statistical and empirical studies of discrimination and violence against Muslims, there remains the lack of a conceptual category to frame this brutality. Hence, despite the use of the history and plight of African-Americans as a marker to measure the situation for Indian Muslims, the analytical comparison halts at victimization figures and statistics. The trajectories of the African-American Civil Rights Movement or the Black Power Movement would never be applied as a paradigm for analyzing or proposing a way forward for the Indian Muslim community as it would deem to disrupt the secular common sense by focusing on ‘the Muslim’ as an identity. Although Jaising states in her writ petition that lynchings of African-Americans paved the way for white supremacy, the question of what type of supremacy is being played out when it comes to the lynchings of Indian Muslims remains unanswered. Secularism, as a virtue to which all identities must ultimately ‘orient,’ has been the assimilating engine constitutive of a national (Indian) identity signaling the alterity of the Muslim identity. The imposition of such a secular episteme at the cost of a Muslim subjectivity has played a prominent role in this regard. For instance, the current spate of lynchings is not a recent phenomenon, as we are led to believe; rather, Indian Muslims have been subjected to mob violence at an industrial level at the hands of Hindu right-wing forces ever since independence[iv]. But by domesticating subjectivities, the epistemological position ascribed to the secular narrative cedes the moral high ground by equating violence with the general category religion, oblivious to the existing stark asymmetry between these religious groups (Hindu and Muslim). By deploying concepts like communalism or communal violence to depict anti-Muslim violence, not only does this epistemological grounding lay equal blame on the victim and perpetuator alike despite the overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, it also impedes any enquiries into racism or the racialization process in India, let alone Islamophobia.
Hence, unlike in the case of systemic racism and violence against African-Americans where white supremacy was identified and confronted through mobilization and calls for legislation, racism as an analytical category has never been employed in Indian academia. In the Indian scenario, the secular language deploys terms such as fascism, which is interpreted as bad capitalism, to describe the violence against Muslims. Unfortunately, apart from Dalit intellectuals, Brahmanical or Hindutva supremacy remains unidentified and unconfronted and any Muslim attempts to do so would be branded as a communal action against national integrity. For example, the Sachar Committee report of 2006 empirically ascertained the systemic and structural discrimination of Indian Muslims since the formation of the Indian state, but the resulting plethora of academic analyses or journalistic commentaries failed to locate prejudice or systemic racism.
Reeling from the loss of a rich and diverse political legacy, and subsequently being entangled within the dictums of this secular-national framework, the violation of Muslim identity becomes all the more profound, thus incapacitating any attempts at locating the political. An Indian Muslim version of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. for that matter would simply not happen, because any such ‘dream’ would be projected as a threat to the secular fabric of the Indian nation. Christianity and the church played a pivotal role in the African-American civil rights movement. King formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a coalition of church leaders that provided a unified Christian front for African-American organizations and was influential in the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While Indian church-led protests against state environmental policies in 2013 and right-wing Hindutva groups are viewed as normative, similar mobilizations for a unified Muslim front in India, even for anti-lynching legislation, would be regarded as antagonistic within this episteme. This is because in India, using the term religion in conjunction with Islam is a scandal, i.e. the category religion only becomes acceptable within the Indian public sphere sans Islam, hence it is not religion more generally but Islam specifically that constitutes ‘the other’ of Indian secularism.
Using the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 as a precedent, a discussion around enacting a similar comprehensive law, such as an ‘Islamophobia Act,’ which would criminalize not only lynching, but also all forms of abuse and atrocities that shatter self-respect and esteem, deny economic, democratic and social rights, discriminate and exploit, has yet to be initiated. This cannot be achieved by a benign secularized conceptualization of Islamophobia. Deepa Kumar, in her Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, traces a genealogy of Islamophobia and asserts that the entwinement of religion and politics in Islam is an Oriental myth propagated by conservative scholars like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington. She contends that pre-modern Islamic history, with its bifurcation of labor between the Ulema and scholars on the one hand and the Sultan/Caliph and the bureaucracy on the other, constituted a secular ethos that modern Islamists are attempting to subvert.[v] In addition to equating Lewis and Huntington with Islamists, what Kumar inadvertently does is project Eurocentric categories onto the Islamicate, thus rendering an assertion of Muslim subjectivity as epistemologically inferior. The fact that this argument is made as part of an attempt at conceptualizing Islamophobia points towards an epistemic silencing, even amongst the supposed defenders of Muslims. To be used as a conceptual tool, Islamophobia has to be understood by focusing on the political rather than cultural or religious aspects and this leads to a new theorization of Islamophobia. Sayyid in his Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives defines a Muslim among other things as a subject position and from such a subject position ‘Islamophobia’ is understood as the negation of Muslim political subjectivity. This is to be measured not just in opposition to right-wing Hindutva but also to the secular project itself. Thus, Islamophobia is a form of racialized governmentality[vi], something that needs to be named. Its continual circulation in public debate testifies to the ways in which it hints at something that needs to be addressed.[vii] This opens up the possibilities for drawing from African-American resistance narratives facilitating a Muslim subjectivity, a position that refuses to be a mere statistical indicator of victimhood but rather one that is aimed at propelling a counter-hegemonic project; one that promises Indian Malcolm Xs.
[i] Writ Petition (Civil) No. 732 of 2017, In the Supreme Court of India Civil Original Jurisdiction. For an overview of lynchings and mob violence against Muslims in India and government complicity: https://theleaflet.in/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Written-submissions-by-Indira-Jaising-in-Lynching.pdf
[ii] Novosad, Paul; Asher, Sam; Rafkin, Charlie. Intergenerational Mobility in India: Estimates from New Methods and Administrative Data, September 2018. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~novosad/anr-india-mobility.pdf
[iv] Shaban, Abdul. Lives of Muslims in India: Politics, Exclusion and Violence, Routledge, 2018.
[v] Kumar, Deepa. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, Haymarket Books, 2012, pp. 81-86
[vii] Sayyid, S; Vakil, Abdoolkarim. Thinking Through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives, Columbia University Press, 2011.