Islamophobia in India: How Kashmiri Muslims can make their voices heard

Published 11.05.2018 00:00
Updated 11.05.2018 00:43
A Kashmiri Muslim prays as he lights candles at the grave of his relative to mark Shab-e-Barat, one of the holiest nights on the Islamic calendar.
A Kashmiri Muslim prays as he lights candles at the grave of his relative to mark Shab-e-Barat, one of the holiest nights on the Islamic calendar.

The oppression of Muslims by the Indian government in Kashmir seems to not be going away due to the increasing Islamophobia in the country, despite India's international portrayal of being a country of freedom and peace

Kashmir, the northernmost geographical area of the Indian subcontinent, is one of the hottest issues in the region.

To shed light to the ongoing crisis, professor Salman Sayyid talked to Daily Sabah on a range of issues concerning Muslims in India and about the popular movement of Kashmiris for the right of self-determination.

Daily Sabah: Do you think India's global image as the "largest democracy and secular country" has allowed it to keep its problem of Islamophobia away from critical scrutiny?

Salman Sayyid: The story of 1947 is being told as that of one "good brother" and one "bad brother"; one failed state which is always Pakistan and one successful state which is always India. But the fact is it has nothing to do with what is actually happening in those two countries. It becomes part of the image [and] the image is important for the Indian elite; but it is also important for many of the European elite because part of it is Islamophobia which says that the only possibility of being successful Muslims is being around in India ... that it is all integrated ... lovely, and so forth.

There are two things: The struggle over the number as there has always claims been made about the size of Muslim population in India but part of it is the way to delegitimize of 1947 [the two-nation theory]. That is the context of it and that is why the struggle in Kashmir is not recognized as a national liberation struggle because it is simply not taken into account that Kashmir is most heavily policed place on the planet in terms of security personnel to the population. Actually, Kashmir has the longest occupation in the contemporary world.

There is a kind of evasion of that and you have kind of this attitude that really India does not have this thing to worry about. So, for example, when you have [Muslim] lynching over beef eating or something else, that is all dismissed. And it is not just after Narendra Modi's coming to power but it has been happening since 1947; 80 percent of those victims have been Muslims and the perpetrators enjoyed some kind of support from agencies of the establishment.

This is a phenomenon [and] India has existed with this claim of being secular and democratic but had a systematic insults basically going on which have been attacking the Muslim population and this is one of the reasons that Muslim population in India is becoming more and more urbanized partly because of these kinds of attacks but the narrative of Muslims is missing and even the courageous Indian activists don't talk about it.

A Kashmiri Muslim woman and a child cross the barbed wire police barricade during restrictions in downtown area of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir.

DS: How do you see the idea of "Hindu" India?

Sayyid: The idea of India as a Hindu country first is a paradox. The name India, which is used by Indian nationalists, is not from Sanskrit. The whole idea of what India is was partly a creation of European ethnographers who understood India to be primarily the land of Hindus. And, therefore, any non-Hindu presence in it - which they meant basically Muslim - was considered to be an invasion and that the narrative has gone first in the British Empire and then it was carried by the Indian National Congress [INC].

So, it is a much older thing and even now when India is under the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP], the idea of Muslims goes back to Pakistan and at the same time, the BJP wants Pakistan to be part of larger India.

[That is] India is considered to be essentially Hindu and that is what defines it. These are not empirical geographies ... these are kind of geographies which exist in peoples' heads.

DS: What are the possible consequences of the growing Islamophobia in India?

In the West and Europe, Islamophobia is based on the idea that Muslims are recent immigrants. "Muslim" and "the immigrant" almost become the same term. But there are a number of countries like India, China, Thailand and Russia where you can't say Muslims are immigrants because the state emerged around them ... there were already Muslims living over there. So, India can't simply say that Muslims are recent immigrants because Muslims were there even when India was not there.

So, when such is the case, then the way Islamophobia is going to be performed is going to be slightly different [but] that does not mean it is not going to take some of these ideas which are circulating around West against Islamophobia; but it does have its own kind of peculiarities and its own specifics which center on the idea of what place is there for Muslim minorities.

Now one project would be - and this is where a secularist [Nehru kind of] project and the [Narendra] Modi project are not fundamentally that different - that these minorities would have to become integrated into the national majority which can mean that they have to give away their cuisine, living [and] way of life. So, one model is to make all the minorities homogeneous by saying that everyone in India is Hindu and therefore, they have to stop being anything else; or you do it like everyone in India is an Indian citizen but Indian citizen is almost Hindu. There is a kind of secularism on the template of the dominant religion that is Hindu and therefore, that is something which is not open for everyone.

Secularism in the contemporary context in India is used for disciplining Muslims. They [Muslims] are being constantly called to be secular.

DS: Given the fact that Indian Hindus are asserting themselves, what kind of a future do minorities, especially Muslims, anticipate?

What is emerging in India right now more starkly is almost like the 'Jim Crow' system which existed in America itself. After African-Americans were given their political freedom from slavery, elaborated systems of regulation evolved alongside which denied them social and economic rights slowly edging them away.

For example, lynching [Muslims] started occurring because the point of lynching is to terrify the minority ... to discipline them.

India has a very stratified society and you hear about the people who are really very well connected saying that they are afraid to eat outside in a restaurant in Delhi because people may think that they are eating beef. But how that is going to effect how Muslims can act; how Muslims think of themselves; how they are able to be part of that public sphere is what is actually happening.

Now, the only way around would be a formation of Muslims in relation to other groups like Dalits but also with like-minded progressive forces in India who want to have a different idea of India.

The struggle for the future of Muslims or minorities really depends of what kind of India emerges; they have to become participants of that kind of a project. [But] it is going to be a difficult project because no one gives up power on demand ... power has to be fought over.

DS: What is this "Muslim minority" problem?

One of the problem that the world has is the Muslims minorities. Because Muslims minorities are not containable, their ability to become ungovernable is much stronger. We have an example in Australia where Muslims are being isolated.

Isolating Muslims is very, very difficult. It is challenge unless Muslims start isolating themselves. So, you will see every project has been to isolate Muslims [so] that they should not be able to think of anything else [other] than themselves.

That brings in the technologies of resistance and the possibilities of resistance and this is why it is important that Muslims in that struggle, in that kind of consciousness, are aware of the cosmopolitan possibility that they cannot be contained and that is the strength.

Take for instance, the rebellion of Africans in the new world order. Muslims were prominent in those fights. The reasons partly are: To rebel is to possess certain kinds of expertise, skills and a certain kind of political literacy. How to rebel requires the need to know how to demonstrate and how to negotiate.

DS: Why has the Kashmiri struggle not been able to transcend itself?

The Kashmir resistance after 70 years shows us the failure of the Indian policies. There is no doubt about it.

There are many reasons [why] the Kashmiri struggle has not been able to transcend its locality. Partly because it is caught up in this thing that whenever Pakistan raises the issue of the Kashmiris, it seems to be a problem between India and Pakistan. And this is, I think, the failure of Pakistani policy, as well. But it is also a fact that if Pakistan did not do anything, the situation in Kashmir would be worse than it is today. That is one aspect of it.

The problem is that India has been able to treat Kashmir as an internal security issue; and in that sense there are many, many convergences between many great powers that they all have problems with Muslim minority.

In the case of Kashmir, an image is emerging that if you are not a Muslim and you break the law or if you can't fight a Hindu or something like that and you have to go to court, you have no confidence whether the court will treat the case on its merits. When we say courts, there is a certain sense when we know the rules of the game. But [if] the rules of the game are such that you could never be able to transform them, then the law becomes the system of oppression rather than a system of any kind of justice. And this is what has happened under the British rule.

DS: If plebiscite is held, in which direction do you see Kashmiris going?

If India was certain it would win the referendum, it would have been held long ago. They do not want to do it because they know they won't win. If Kashmir becomes independent, it would be no harm to both the countries. The track record of India's relation with its neighbors should give Pakistan confidence because India has ruined it relation with all her neighbors. There is no reason to assume that India will be a model neighbor. Even if independent, it is very impossible to imagine a hostile Kashmir to Pakistan.

The Kashmiri struggle has not same kind of clarity as of Palestine because of the fact that it requires a re-description of India as a colonizing power; that is what the problem has been.

The Kashmiri diaspora has been less able to broaden the notion of struggle.

The Kashmiri struggle, in a way, has not been central to the identity of Pakistan and the problem is that Pakistan is still in "legality and illegality thing of the instrument of accession." Argument should always be about the popular determination.

There is also the fact that, unlike the Palestinian struggle, Kashmiri leadership is not certainly acquiescent with the Indian rule for a very long time. The leadership in Srinagar, at a time, was not in favor of at least Kashmiri autonomy. It sided with Indian and tried to work within that system. So, the Kashmiri community was already split.

DS: What is the way forward for Kashmiris?

Without underestimating the challenges, the only way for Kashmiri people is to become organized; they have to become fitter than those who are trying to oppress them. There are lot of things they can do but they have to become politically more conscious; it is part of day to day struggle. It may not look like that it will deliver immediately, but that is the condition of possibility of liberation.

If you want to end occupation, you have to end the occupation of your mind!

And more importantly, what is missing is the narrative of "future Kashmir." What would the future Kashmir look like? What is the purpose of that? We know occupation and oppression is wrong, but what is the kind of the society we want to live in? I think those are the kind of conversations that need to start taking place because what it will do is that it will generate hope among people for future.

DS: Of late, there have been a few incidents where some youth, described as fringe elements, have been trying to link political movements in Kashmir with Daesh or al-Qaida. Will Kashmiri people reconcile with this new idea?

No one in their right mind should identify with Daesh because the whole point of liberating Muslims should not be sectarian and should offer something better rather than a mixture of Ba'athist and Takfirism.

Where you have Takfirism, you do not have the possibility of a better Caliphate future. Anything that has to do with Takfirism will be a problem if you think how Takfirism has been used to destabilise and fragment the Muslim societies.

Daesh is the second-biggest enemy of Muslim liberation. No future can come of a process that makes violence primary.

This kind of attempt is completely counterproductive, not only to Kashmiri struggle for political rights, but to the future of the Muslim Ummah.

*Riyaz ul Khaliq is affiliated with the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, Turkey

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