From the time of Babri Masjid and Ram Mandir to CAA and NRC – the problem of Muslims in India has been one of finding the right ‘adjective’. The viral poet Hussain Haidry called himself a ‘Hindustani musalmaan’. Former diplomat Syed Shahabuddin ran a journal called Muslim India in the 1980s against political pressure to say ‘Indian Muslim’ instead. Now, Asaduddin Owaisi and thousands of Muslim protesters are tagging themselves to the Constitution while debating NRC, CAA and the Delhi riots. The prefixes and adjectives may change, but the burden of patriotism for Muslims in India has not.
Owaisi said in the Lok Sabha: “Please don’t radicalise us. We don’t want to join ISIS. We are fighting them. We will die saving the Constitution. We hold the Constitution dear to us. Seventeen crore Muslims will lay down their lives. If possible, we will build our graves over here. But we will not allow the carnage to continue.” He was talking in the context of the Delhi riots.
Muslims of India, by choice
Four years ago, another Muslim, poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar stood up in the Rajya Sabha to give his farewell speech, and saw it fit to attack Owaisi to assert his loyalty to India: “Ek sahib hain jinhe khayal hai ki voh national leader hain, hala ki hakikat yeh hai ki voh Hindustan ki ek state Andhra ke ek sheher Hyderabad main ek mohalle ke leader hai. Unhone yeh kaha hai ki voh Bharat Mata Ki Jai nahin kahenge (There is a gentleman here who calls himself a national leader but is actually the leader of a locality in Hyderabad. He has refused to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai).” Akhtar then proceeded to say that declaring ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ was not merely his duty but his right, before thumping the table and shouting it thrice.
Even before this, in 2008, yet another Muslim leader, Omar Abdullah felt compelled to present his own patriotic credentials to the people of India. In a speech during the no-confidence motion on the US-India nuclear deal, he said famously: “I am a Muslim and I am an Indian. I see no distinction between the two…The enemies of Indian Muslims are not the Americans and the enemies of Indian Muslims are not ‘deals’ like this. The enemies of Indian Muslims are the same enemies that all the poor people of India face—poverty, hunger, unemployment, lack of development, and the absence of a voice.”
All the wonderful words that so-called secular Indians faithfully produce whenever they are questioned about where the loyalties of Muslims lie. Even now, 72 years after Independence, Muslims, celebrated or not, rich or poor, on screen or in legislatures, in poetry or in prose, are constantly asked to produce a certificate of their nationalism.
Forget the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or the nationwide National Register of Citizens. Much before they were a gleam in the eyes of the Narendra Modi government, we, the ordinary Indians, the aam aadmis and aurats, were conducting our own version of the Tebbit test, unmindful of the plain fact of history: as Harsh Mander has pointed out, Muslims are Indians by choice while Hindus are Indians only by chance.
Good and bad Muslim
We have also accepted, over the years, a binary: the ‘good Muslim’ and the ‘bad Muslim’. Through countless movies and innumerable prime time television news shows, we have been given to understand that there are two kinds of Muslims.
One who aids, abets and carries out terror attacks, with the ultimate aim of breaking India. This Muslim is usually a firm believer in Islam, and therefore a ‘bad Muslim’. Then there is the other kind of Muslim, the ‘good Muslim’ who is almost a Hindu, whether in the way s/he practises his/her religion or eats his/her food or celebrates his/her festivals. The ‘good Muslim’ has to constantly distance themselves from the ‘bad Muslim’. No such division is in place for any other religion.
So, Muslims have been voluntarily proclaiming allegiance to India ever since the Partition of India on religious grounds, whether in popular culture like Bollywood films, in poetry or in speeches delivered in Parliament. In current times, says author Natasha Badhwar, we are seeing this performative patriotism on the streets of India in anti-CAA rallies and demonstrations and at the 400+ sit-in protests, most of them led by Muslim women all over India. All of them swear by the Constitution and sing the national anthem with pride.
Movies have sold the ‘good Muslim’ to us with almost missionary zeal. The secular Akbar of Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and the pious figure of Khan Sahab—the pucca musalman of Zanjeer (1973)—worked well for Congress’s nation-building project then. But with the coming of the BJP and the ‘New India’ project, it was replaced with the binary of the good and bad Muslim, notes historian Hilal Ahmed of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. So, there was the barbaric Alauddin Khilji of Padmaavat (2018) and the brave nationalist Captain Khalid Rahmani of RAW desperate to wipe out his father’s great betrayal in War (2019) to suit the BJP’s Hindutva-driven nationalism.
Muslim leaders and public figures have had to adjust themselves with these conflicting notions of Muslim presence. That is the reason why there are significant differences in patriotic expressions of Muslim leaders, Hilal Ahmed notes.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad declared himself a nationalist by adjusting his Islamic identity within the framework of Jawaharlal Nehru’s unity-in-diversity thesis. Asaduddin Owaisi is an extension of Azad’s position. Instead of Nehru, he invokes the Constitution to express his patriotism. On the contrary, Arif Mohammad Khan embraces the BJP’s Hindutva nationalism to assert his reformist/nationalist Islamic identity, arguing that anything less would be a surrender to a colonial mentality of divide and rule.
Indian or Muslim?
Ask most Muslims, and they will tell you that it’s not merely politicians who have to constantly prove their patriotism. It extends to every aspect of the daily life of every Muslim in India. As lawyer and author Saif Mahmood points out: “We have always liked a particular type of Indian Muslim—one who publicly calls himself a believer in the ‘Ganga Jamuna’ culture and asserts his Indian identity by categorically ousting all references to his religion. The classic ‘Hindustani musalman’ has no space for Muslims who seek to assert their religious identity. An acceptable ‘Hindustani musalman’ on the street must, at regular intervals, diss Pakistan and make public declarations against terrorism to show allegiance to his country. He must also assure his country fellows that he celebrates Diwali, plays Holi, and gets a rakhi tied by a Hindu sister who knows nothing about his religion. While he must do everything to prove that he is making proactive efforts to integrate into the majority’s culture, the majority is free to ask him every single year if the Eid he is celebrating is ‘meethi’ Eid or ‘bakri’ Eid.” Like the police officer played by Rajat Kapoor in Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk, he must be the ‘good Muslim’, the ‘sarkari musalman’ who ensures the ‘bad Muslim’ (the young terrorist) doesn’t get away.
The cycle seems to be never-ending. And perhaps it will take someone to break the wheel. Hussain Haidry wrote a highly regarded poem Hindustani Musalmaan, which went viral in 2017. He says perhaps this time around, instead of him answering what his identity as Indian Muslim is—a question that he knows the answer to, but now categorically refuses to answer or explain after 72 years of democracy in a secular country—his allies from the majority religion should collectively ask the Modi government this very question in the first place.
He adds: “I keep wondering how to ask for equality and justice in my own country. As an Indian or as a Muslim? I ask because in the past few months—from the passing of the CAA to the protests against it, from the ‘communal riots’ to the deaths in the violence—both my identities are menacingly shuffled as per the convenience of the propaganda machines and the government. The CAA coupled with the NRC refuses to recognise me as an Indian and discriminates against me as a Muslim.” Haidry says the propaganda against anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protests refuses to see him as an Indian and sees him as a “jihadi”. He is not seen as an Indian but a “gaddar” who needs to be “goli maro-ed”. And then, if he dies, the minister-in-charge suddenly stops calling him a Muslim altogether—”erases the identity which is the very cause of my death”—and calls me an Indian and nothing else, Haidry says.
This is what the Modi-Amit Shah government and the majority of this country have done to Muslims, stripped them of their dignity and their certainty. All we can do is ask for proof, in certificates and sentiments, so that we can measure their Indian-ness against arbitrary and invisible standards. Which is why, Harsh Mander says to The Print, “I tell Muslims wherever I go, please don’t give anyone the right to ask about your love and loyalty.” Not now, not ever.
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.