Muslims’ attitude towards national security is a highly debatable issue. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah repeatedly raise the issue of national security, nationalism and the Indian Air Force’s Balakot strikes in their election speeches, there is very little systematic examination of the views of Indian Muslims on these subjects.
Hindutva politics has tried to establish that Muslims are not sufficiently patriotic and hence do not care about the security of the country. The BJP seems to suggest that ‘terrorism has no religion but all terrorists are Muslims’. The secularists, on the other hand, prefer to stay away from the debates on national security as it disturbs their narrative of Muslim victimhood.
As a result, the views, opinions and anxieties of Muslim communities are not given adequate attention in the popular discussion on radical Islam, the expected role of liberal Muslims and the threat of ISIS in India.
Muslims’ imaginations of national security
I conducted a series of group discussions with Muslims in four states: Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the last two months. The participants were asked to reflect on the issue of terrorism, (especially in the wake of the Pulwama attack in February), ISIS impact in India, solution of the Kashmir problem and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
There was a consensus that terrorism has no relationship with Islamic teachings. However, Muslim participants did not reduce everything to this ‘political correctness’, which celebrates Islam as a religion of peace. Instead, they talked about the impact of the so-called Jihadi terrorism on their everyday lives.
More specifically, five sets of arguments emerged out of these discussions.
First, it was claimed that Muslims were also killed in terrorist violence, but no one bothered to talk about them. This deliberate ignorance creates a wrong impression that a war between Muslims and non-Muslims is going on and the Jihadi groups represent the interest of common Muslims.
Many participants also mentioned the Pulwama incidence. They strongly condemned this attack and described it as an anti-Islamic, anti-national act, because it was meant to kill innocent people irrespective of their caste or religion.
Second, most of the Muslim participants remain indifferent towards the Kashmir problem. They claimed that Indian Muslims do not associate themselves with Kashmir at all. For them, the Kashmir problem is a bilateral issue between Indian and Pakistani governments, which should be resolved through negotiations.
Third, the confined nature of public debates, especially on TV and social media, is also highlighted. Participants strongly asserted that Muslims are not allowed to express their feelings and anxieties openly. Even the collective Muslim reaction to the Pulwama or Balakot episodes have been seen unenthusiastically.
For instance, if Muslims celebrate Balakot airstrikes (as many of them said they did in Old Delhi), it is seen as a kind of a ‘patch-up’ or ‘face-saving’ exercise, especially on social media.
But if Muslims do not respond to such events, they are targeted for being disloyal to India. In such a context, Muslims are highly confused as their religious identity is posed as an anti-thesis to the nation’s security.
Fourth, Muslims participants were very critical of the ISIS phenomenon. Although they do not think that the global Jihadi group might be able to establish base in India, there was a strong apprehension that radical Hindutva politics wants to use the threat of ISIS to target Muslims. Many of them said that the government should control all kinds of radicalism and devote its energies to deal with issues such as unemployment, poverty and education.
Finally, the growing threat of Hindutva to Muslim identity is identified as an important concern of national security. In a highly charged discussion, a local auto-mechanic in Udaipur said, “India as a nation is made up of different religious communities, if Muslims are not feeling secured, is it not a national security issue?”
What is national security, officially?
Let us locate these Muslim responses in the official discourse on national security.
National security has two interlinked components: external threats from neighbouring countries (especially from Pakistan and China) and internal threats, such as terrorist violence and spread of radicalisms of various kinds (including online radicalism). The Ministry of Defence is responsible for the external threats, while the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) takes care of the internal threats.
The MHA officially identifies four subthemes of internal security: Terrorism in the hinterland of the country; Left-wing extremism; cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and insurgency in the north-eastern states.
These sub-themes have evolved over the years, especially since the 1990s. The current government has not made any changes in this list.
Interestingly, the MHA does not recognise Hindu radicalisation as an internal security issue. The MHA Annual Report 2017-18 is virtually silent on Hindu radical mobilisation and incidences of mob lynching, which has emerged as a new form of violence against Muslims.
This simple administrative classification of sub-themes has a different political overtone. The rise of global Islamic radicalism fits well with the terrorism category. Similarly, separatism in Jammu and Kashmir may also be interpreted as a form of Islamic terrorism. In this sense, it is officially possible to figure out radical Islam, or even for that matter, any form of Muslim collective assertion, as a potential threat to the nation. However, there is no such provision to respond to the challenges posed by Hindu radicalism.
Does this discriminating attitude affect Muslim perception of national-security?
It would be too early to make such a sweeping generalisation only on the bases of a few group discussions. However, there is a need to secularise the national security discourse.
After all, “all Hindus are not involved in mob-lynching or cow-vigilantism, but most of the time innocent Muslims are killed in the name of Hinduism”.
The author is a scholar of political Islam and associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Views are personal.
This article is part of a series by the author on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and how Muslims vote. Read the others here.