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Indian Muslims not part of global ‘umma’. It’s an illusion created by India’s foreign policy

Indian Muslims' link to a 'pan-Islamic' threat is implicated in political discourses varying from separatism and terrorism to communal violence and demographic challenges.

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The protests of the ‘Islamic world’ to the recent blasphemy controversy brought to the fore a fear that has often lurked at the back of the postcolonial Indian mind — the fear of trans-Islamic consolidation.

The Hindu nationalist movement has never shied away from overtly expressing the nature of the potential threat arising from Indian Muslims acting in concert with forces emanating from across the broader Islamic neighbourhood. Post 9/11 and the global war on Islamic extremism, this perception has also been periodically fuelled by certain sections of the Indian media as well as the national security establishment. This pan Islamic threat is implicated in political discourses varying from separatism and terrorism to communal violence and demographic challenges.

The BJP has skilfully employed this image of Indian Muslims, as privileging their extraterritorial loyalties to the global Muslim community (‘umma’) to their loyalty to the Indian nation, to drive its project of Hindu consolidation. Its success draws partly from the fact that these concerns have a long history and are deeply rooted in the Indian psyche.

But this globalised image of Indian Muslims is not sociologically rooted: a function of the lived reality of Indian Muslims. A rich strand of sociological literature on Indian Muslims has consistently highlighted the prevalence of a bewildering diversities of Muslim communities. Many scholars have argued that it is impossible to even discuss Indian Muslims or Indian Islam in the singular because of these remarkable divergences in both religious aspects (observances, sects, practices) as well as socio-cultural dimensions (caste, class, language, culture).

There is also scant evidence of a widespread identification with the interests and concerns of a globalised ‘umma’. The argument of certain observers of Indian foreign policy that Indian Muslims exert an organised force in the formulation of foreign policy choices is at the very least unsubstantiated by hard evidence. The surveys of electoral behaviour of Indian Muslims do not furnish any indication of foreign policy priorities playing a distinct role in the electoral choices of Muslims as compared to other communities. Similarly, the voting record of Muslim legislators in Parliament have not been marked by any significant break with the foreign policy positions of their respective parties.

There have been occasional protests organised by sections of the religious elite on global issues such as the Iraq war or Arab-Israeli conflict, but that does not necessarily entail the existence of organised ethnic pressures on foreign policy. The easing of Indian relations with Israel, for example, began under a Congress regime that was dependent on the support of Muslim voters; further, this policy shift was free of any domestic backlash associated with the existence of a well-defined ethnic pressure. At any rate, even those scholars who posit the influence of the domestic constituency of Indian Muslims as one element in the formulation of India’s Israel policy, only ascribe to it a marginal role, compared to the determining role assigned to India’s relations with the Arab world.

The Indian establishment’s conception of Muslims as a distinct, monolithic community was refracted through the imagination of a global Islamic world, thus fostering the illusion of Indian Muslims as part of a globalised community. The particular form of this illusion of a globalised identity depended on India’s foreign policy regimes and the external environment it operated within. Thus, whether this trans-Islamic identity of Indian Muslims was viewed as a benign influence and even an asset to be leveraged, or was in fact conceived as a malignant influence and a threat to be contained, depended on the broader grand strategy of India in a changing world.

For the purposes of analysis, we shall roughly divide Indian foreign policy regimes into three eras: the Nehruvian era of non-alignment, the pro-Soviet era, and the post-Cold War era to see how India’s grand strategy towards the Islamic world influenced the conception of the Indian Muslim community.

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Nehruvian era

Ever since the Mughals, Indian rulers have been preoccupied with securing ties with the predominantly Muslim West and North-West. Nehru understood the importance of this region to India’s security and its ambitions of great power status. However, India did not have (and still does not have) a large military presence in the Indian Ocean littoral. Hence, the post-colonial Indian state immediately recognised the central importance of the ‘soft power’ legacy of the Indo-Islamic culture that blossomed under medieval Muslim rulers as a bridge towards cultural and economic ties with the region.

Nehru built close ties with the Muslim leaders of Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia, and reached out to Arab and Persian politicians and intellectuals as part of the Non-Aligned Movement. India was also a key organiser of the Bandung conference (1955) that became a symbol of Afro-Asian solidarity. Indeed, the ten-point declaration adopted at Bandung was influenced by Nehru’s five principles of peaceful coexistence (Panchsheel). Thus, anti-colonialism and ‘Third World’ solidarity grounded India’s ties to the Muslim countries of Asia and Africa. According to one estimate, the twenty-nine countries represented at the Bandung Conference represented more than half of the global Muslim population.

Thus, the Islamic world was seen in this era as the resisting force to colonialism, which the Indian foreign minister V.K. Krishna Menon famously characterised as ‘permanent aggression’. This establishment’s benign view of the Islamic world was reflected in its accommodating stance towards a domestic Muslim community which was dependent on the patronage of the Congress party. This accommodation was primarily manifested in the cultural domain as protection of the distinctive religious character of Muslims, as evident by the exclusion of Muslims from the Hindu code bills passed in the 1950s.

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Pro-Soviet era

The Indian polity started drifting towards the Soviet camp under Indira Gandhi. The Sino-Soviet split and the later Sino-US détente had changed the calculations of the Indian foreign policy establishment.

However, India’s worldview of the Islamic world changed little during this time, and India was still confident of the effectiveness of its strategy to thwart Pakistan’s objectives of rallying the Islamic world against its interests. A significant break in this worldview came around the start of the 1980s as Islamic extremism came to be viewed as a ‘subversive’ or ‘destabilising’ force. This was the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when the Indira Gandhi regime broke ranks with the non-communist world and effectively endorsed the invasion, denouncing the ‘outside powers’ that had backed ‘subversive elements’ in Afghanistan.

The United States became a close military partner of Pakistan post the invasion, as Pakistan became a critical frontline state in the anti-Soviet alliance. For this anti-communist axis, Islam became an invaluable resource for resisting Soviet expansionism. This excited India’s discomfort for various reasons, not least being the threat of spillover of Islamist militancy within India’s borders. Alongside this burst of Sunni/Wahabi militancy, the Iranian revolution of 1979 not only destabilised a friendly regime but also surcharged this spectre of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ at the doorstep.

The increasingly majoritarian politics of the country, reflected both in the rise of the BJP as well as the right-wing turn of Indira Gandhi in her final term, was fuelled further by this ferment in the Islamic world. As Islam was no more a benign anti-colonial force but a subversive and fundamentalist force, the Indian Muslim community began to be viewed with ill-concealed suspicion. The issue of ‘influx of Gulf money’ became a substantial factor in Hindu nationalist mobilisation, and caused a spate of riots in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. The upward mobility of Muslims in towns of western Uttar Pradesh owing to commercialisation of agriculture was conflated entirely with ‘petrodollars’ and trading ties of Muslim businessmen with Gulf countries, and constructed as a trans-Islamic security threat to the majority community.

Similarly, the Meenakshipuram conversions of Dalits to Islam were also framed as a conspiracy fuelled by Gulf money, including by the ruling Congress and the national media. The critical role of the intervening variable of political parties becomes apparent here. As Steven Wilkinson demonstrated, the petrodollars bogey could not create a similar Hindu nationalist mobilisation in Kerala (which had much closer ties to Gulf countries) because of the bargaining power of IUML (Indian Union Muslim League) in the consociationalist framework of Kerala.

The inflated threat perception of this global Islamic resurgence, fuelled by majoritarian political mobilisation, also perhaps explains the depth of backlash to the Shah Bano controversy, which was seen as not just a defence of orthodoxy, but also the expression of a malignant fundamentalism that was part of a global Islamic upsurge.

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Post-Cold War era

The critical paradigm shifts of the post-Cold War era in India’s complicated relationship with its Muslim community came with the participation of India in the post-9/11 global war on terror. As India constructed a sophisticated anti-terror state machinery, underpinned by draconian laws such as POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act 2002), the engagement of the Indian state with Muslims became increasing security-centred and anchored to the objective of managing extremism. The human rights violations committed by security agencies in the ‘crackdown’ on terror have been exhaustively documented by civil society associations, such as the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association (JTSA), which published a chilling report in 2012, detailing 16 cases involving more than 40 Muslim men who were framed and condemned to long stints in prison before being acquitted.

The political vocabulary of using strong-arm measures or even violence to combat terror has been employed by Hindu nationalist forces to drive religious polarisation in states such as Gujarat, which saw an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 after the ruling party alleged a Pakistan-backed terror attack in the town of Godhra. The role of the media in propagating the stereotypes of ‘extremist Muslims’ is backed by a colossal body of evidence.

The rise of the BJP in national politics is driven in no small part by its ownership of the national security issues through its uncompromising rhetoric on Pakistan and Islamic extremism, which are viewed as the main security threats in the popular imagination. When asked about India’s biggest threats in a 2014 Pew survey, 90 per cent respondents included Pakistan, 85 per cent included Naxalites and 80 per cent included Lashkar-e-Taiba. Both Pakistan and terrorism, by design, seamlessly align with the BJP’s domestic politics of Hindutva and anti-Muslim prejudice.

The post 9/11 engagement of the Indian establishment with the Muslim community has also been marked by the high point of a phenomenon that the scholar Hilal Ahmed has termed as ‘Muslim politicophobia’. This Muslim politicophobia denotes a new political consensus emerging from the fusion of global anti-Islamism and anti-Muslim communalism in India. According to Ahmed, Muslim politicophobia is defined by three features: one, the ‘transformation’ of the Indian Muslim identity into a ‘reference point for global Islamic terrorism’; two, ‘the fear of active Muslim political engagement’; and three, the intensification of popular representation of Muslims ‘as a politically conscious community’.

The globalised image of Indian Muslims, therefore, does not emanate organically from the sociological characteristics or religious beliefs of Indian Muslims, nor is it an inevitable outcome of the developments of the global Islamic world. It emerges from a complex relationship between Indian Muslims and Indian foreign policy regimes, structured by a historical context, and mediated by the critical role of political parties, state agencies and the media.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in New Delhi. He tweets @AsimAli6. Views are personal.

This is an edited extract from the author’s essay Indian Muslims and the ‘Muslim world’, first published in the Seminar magazine’s issue #758 titled ‘Exploring Muslim India’ in October 2022. Read the full essay here.

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