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Articulating the Eerie Silence

By Nishat Haider

This mottled light, this dawn by night half-devoured,

Is surely not the dawn for which we were waiting.

This is not the dawn in quest of which, hoping

To find it somewhere, friends, we all set out….

(“The Dawn of Freedom” by Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

When Mosarrap asked me to write about my experiences as an Indian Muslim woman, I realized that he was keen to excavate some of my deepest anxieties, doubts, and fears in an era which can be best described by the term ‘post-traumatic age’, an epoch troubled with political catastrophes.  A ‘third world’ Muslim woman is of particular interest to any academic analysis in postcolonial studies because of her strategies of survival that are continually negotiated in the face of contradictions of cultural heterogeneity, modernity, nationalism, or identity (Hai 50). In the dominant nationalist discourse and its historiography (which is predominantly hegemonic and majoritarian), while there is glorification of Hindu middle-class/upper-caste women as the adarsha bhartiya nari (the ideal Indian woman), there is a near elision of Muslim women. What is even more deplorable is the fact that the category ‘Muslim,’ if visible at all on the margins of the nationalist/popular discourse, is rendered as violent and predominantly male. Therefore, the questions of majority/minority and marginal/mainstream need to be revisited so that we are able to evolve an understanding of the history as well as culturally diverse and multilingual reality of India (Kumar 80).

If, as I have argued, Muslim women are largely absent or marginalized within the written history of India, their representation in contemporary India is similarly both scanty and generally negative. The usual misconstructions that seem to taint debates on Muslim women are the propensity to see Muslims, particularly Muslim women, as a monolithic category and the exceeding significance accorded to Islam, especially the Muslim personal law, in defining their status. Hence retrieving personal memory as a fount of alternative histories which resists the totalizing impulse of ‘official memory’ is increasingly becoming significant as a potential, oppositional archive that allows access to elided/muted voices. However, this is an uneasy task. The reason I say uneasy is because, when you try and recall the values and views that were instilled in you and you believed in, and how the ethical mores of your milieu belie your expectations and belief system, you become self-critical and effacing.


I was always a woman who had a ‘life of the mind,’ ceaselessly introspective, restless, and questioning. I come from a family of Shia Syed Muslims who trace their lineage from the King of Semnan (Persia), Hazrat Sultan Syed Makhdoom Ashraf Jahangir Semnani (1287 – 1386 CE), a great Sufi saint of both the Chishti and Qadiri orders of Sufism. His urs is commemorated on 28th of the Islamic month of Muharram at his shrine in Ambedkar Nagar in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. My father, however, is a man with a very cosmopolitan outlook. Since there is an automatic conflation of Muslim religiosity with anti-modern and anti-national stance, my parents sent me to a Roman Catholic convent school for my education. While Christ was my savior in school, at home, Maulvi sahib (a tutor who imparted conventional religious education) took great care to groom me into a ‘proper’ Shia girl. I grew up with the belief that the ability to pass off as an unmarked, normalized citizen and to blend with the majority community (Hindus) required a willingness and ability to divest myself of all the markers of Muslim-ness. The Muslim identity markers are interpreted usually as signs of disloyalty towards the inherently Hindu nation.

I became more Anglicized in my temperament, tastes, and attitudes than the other Muslim Shia girls of my age. Though my parents gave me carte blanche in the intellectual realm, they denied me permission to pursue my higher studies from any institution located outside the city because it was not ‘kosher’ for young and unmarried girls from the Muslim ashraf khandaan (distinguished/elite families) to live away from home. Though my extended family relented on sending me to Aligarh Muslim University (one of the premier institutions of India established by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan in 1875 to train Muslims for government service in India and prepare them for advanced studies in reputed British universities), my parents decided to send me to Lucknow University which was by and large not associated (even in public perception, falsely or otherwise) with any religious group or community. But much to my surprise when I appeared for the interview for a faculty position at the same University, I was dissuaded by the then Head of the English Department (one of the experts on the panel). In fact, she suggested that I should try for a position at Aligarh Muslim University. Today, I find the construct of a ‘liberal good Muslim’, bestowed on me by very close and well-intentioned Hindu friends, very strange because in the mainstream, majoritarian, and hegemonizing national imaginary, Muslim is a monolithic and monologic category – uneducated, anti-modern, and violent.

I suppose my first recognition of Muslim women’s issues was in coming to terms with my mother’s experience. A very talented and intelligent person, she was married off at the age of sixteen to a thirty one year old lawyer who had very strong leftist leanings. My mother inherited her entire moral fiber from her mother, a very strong woman who rose to the position of headmistress of a girls’ college. In fact, I grew up in a family of women achievers. They have always inspired me to pursue my dreams, to work hard, and to never give up. While my father is very liberal in his beliefs, my mother is deeply religious. The earliest memories of my childhood include playing in the lap of trade union leaders and women in distress who sought legal help from my father. Though my mother kept herself aloof from my father’s political ideology, she had very strong views on the importance of women’s education. Fluent in Urdu, English, and Hindi, she nurtured in me a love for literature and language. I had access to the huge library of my parents with books ranging from classics, travelogues, memoirs, history, theology, and jurisprudence. Though we did not observe purdah, my mother imposed a clear segregation of mardana (male) and zenana (female) spaces inside the house. In hindsight, this demarcation allowed her physical and intellectual space for her own self, what Virginia Woolf calls ‘a room of one’s own.’

My father, despite his hectic life as a judge, found enough time to engage with my school activities and enable me to develop my opinions on everything rationally. He always made exceptions for me. I grew up listening to heated debates and arguments on contemporary political and social issues in my father’s chamber. My father, an avowed socialist and liberal nationalist, has always celebrated Independence Day, Republic Day, Holi, and Diwali with far greater fervor than Eid. An avid lover of old temples and architecture, he took me to almost all the temples of India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari (and even Puri where non-Hindus are denied permission).

However, all hell broke loose in our stable universe in 1992 after the demolition of the Babri Masjid (mosque) which was situated on the allegedly sacred ground of Ramjanambhoomi at Ayodhya in India. My nerves start shivering at the mere recollection of the outbreak of violence and large scale riots in its aftermath. My house became a police camp overnight. There were serious threats. Our mailbox was inundated with hate mails. But my father was untouched and undeterred by all these fears. Though as a sitting judge of the High Court, he was advised to be accompanied by security personnel everywhere, he refused to let his daily routine be disturbed by the violent zeal of fringe groups. He has tremendous faith in the goodness of people. He resumed his daily morning walks soon after, unarmed and unattended, as always. Throughout this period of communal conflagration, my parents maintained sang froid.


In this last part of the essay, I would like to give an account of Hindutva politics that has driven a wedge between communities in India for political benefits. During the last three decades, the memory of the partition of the Indian subcontinent based on religion and its associated violence has been kept vivid by the vociferous demand of a certain section of Hindus as a rationale to recapture and restore temples allegedly destroyed by Muslims. According to Christophe Jaffrelot, Sarvarkar’s ideology of Hindutva (first articulated by V.D. Sarvarkar in a 1922 book of the same name) conflated religion, geography, and culture, so that being Indian was equated with being Hindu (Jaffrelot 26-7). It views Jews, Christians, and Muslims whose families have lived in India for centuries as simultaneously still Hindu at their core and, also, alien, because their primary loyalties presumably lie outside the borders of India. The Hindutva movement is a ‘conservative revolution’, combining paternalist and xenophobic discourses with the democratic and universalist ones that are on rights and entitlements (Hansen 4). The primary goal of Hindutva is aimed at controlling the Muslim and Christian minorities and, secondly, to transform the Hindus in order to awaken the Hindu nation.

Hindutva is intensely concerned with the creation (or, its proponents would say, the “awakening”) of a very specific form of collective memory. Hindutva versions of collective memory have been performed in numerous ways, of which the actual demolition of the 16th-century mosque (known as the Babri Masjid built by the Mughal emperor Babur) on 6 December 1992 that, Hindus claimed, had been constructed upon the ruins of a temple built to mark the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama at Ayodhya (in Uttar Pradesh), led to unprecedented violence in much of India. The Hindutva movement for the Ram Janambhoomi is basically a movement for the self-assertion of a wounded civilization trying to re-invent its roots. Hindutva ‘dismembers’ India as a historically and culturally diverse and fragmented society, and ‘remembers’ India as a unified Hindu nation whose origins lie in the misty reaches of prehistory. For over a decade now there has been a deliberate attempt to portray that Hinduism is in danger and that the danger comes from Islam and Christianity.

The Sangh parivar1 has treated Gujarat as its laboratory since the 1980s, experimenting with its saffronisation (Hindutva) project. The anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 was masked by the Hindutva forces as ‘inevitable’ and ‘understandable’ acts to secure the Hindu Self. The (meta)discourse of security offered the forces of Hindutva a tool to legitimize violence as nonviolence, killers as defenders, rape as understandable lust, and death as non-death. (see, ‘Muslims,’ ‘Genocide’; Independent Fact Finding Mission, 2002; Lessons from Gujarat; Mander, 2002; Varadarajan, 2002). According to official accounts, the death toll crossed 900 whereas according to unofficial assessments it ranged from 2000-5000. Men, women, and children have been slaughtered mercilessly; many of them have been lynched. Property worth hundreds of crores has been destroyed. Muslim dargahs and mosques have been demolished; some of them have been converted to Hindu temples. Women have been sexually assaulted with brutality. There is no disagreement that the loss of every kind has mainly been suffered by Muslims.2


Some of the deepest wounds that the people of India carry in their souls are born out of the violent estrangement that has been engineered in their land between religious communities. Personal and collective memories, as they intersect with history, not only endeavor to bear witness and testify but also to negotiate the fissures between memory and history, and remembrance and representation. The Indian national mind has been afflicted with the intellectual cancer of thinking of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. But where do Indian Muslims like myself, who have had more Hindu friends than Muslims, fit in? I’ve spent my life believing myself to be a part of ‘us.’ Today there are Indians, respectable and politically discerning as well as intelligent Indians winning votes, who say that I’m really ‘them’! Hence, I feel, it is imperative to re-witness, ‘act out’ and reconstruct the Muslim memories, individual, and collective traumas of communal violence, if we seriously wish to ‘work through’ and move on.

[Dr. Nishat Haider is an Associate Professor of English at the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow. She is the author of Contemporary Indian Women’s Poetry (2010). She has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and her essays have been published in a variety of scholarly journals and books. Email: ]


Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is an organization founded in 1925, which is the core of a family of militant Hindu nationalist organizations called the ‘Sangh Parivar.’ The leading political organization in this family, called the Jan Sangh, is now the Bhartiya Janata Party, which was at the helm of affairs in the state of Uttar Pradesh when the militant Hindu mobs demolished the Babri mosque. All the organizations in the RSS family of militant independently of Hindu-Muslim antagonisms, but in practice has thrived only when that opposition is explicitly or implicitly present.

2 For further information see Ahmad and Nussbaum. 

Works Cited

Ahmad, Riaz. Gujarat Violence: Meaning and Implications. Economic and Political Weekly May 18, 2002. Print.

Aiyer, Mani Shankar. Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist. New Delhi: Viking, 2004. Print.

Jafferlot, Christophe, and Thomas Blom Hansen, eds. The BJP and the   Compulsions of Politics in India. 2nded.  Oxford India: New Delhi, 2001. Print.

Hai, Ambreen “Border Work, Border Trouble: Postcolonial Feminism and the Ayah in Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India.” Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000): 381.  Print.

Hansen, Thomas Blom. The Saffron Wave. New Jersey: Princeton, 1999.Print.

Mander, H. “Cry, the Beloved Country: Reflections on the Gujarat Massacre.” 10 Nov.  2004. Web.

Niranjana, Tejaswini. Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism, and the Colonial Context. Berkeley: U. of California P, 1992. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha C. The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2007. 17-79. Print.

Stoler, Ann Laura and Karen Strassler. “Castings for the Colonial: Memory Work in ‘New Order’ Java.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 42, no.1 (2000): 4-48. Print.

Kumar, Sukrita Paul. “Beyond Partition: turns of centuries in Aag Ka Darya.” India International Centre Quarterly 29. 2 (Monsoon 2002):  87-94. Print.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. My take on the present and the future is that we all need to take the first step in overcoming our prejudices—interact, talk to our own self, then to ppl close to us and then to ‘them’; form relationships, and eventually become friends. Strike an emotional bond with your inner self and then strike it with them. revisit each facet of your persona- religious, academic, philosophical- all of them. Forge it to be strong enough to withstand anything and everything.

    February 16, 2013
  2. Dr Nishat Haider #

    Thanks for your suggestions, Rajan. Any genuine act/process of reconciliation requires four compulsory components (in random order): public acknowledgement of discriminatory violence; collective remorse for injustice, suffering and communal hatred; reparation to enable victim survivors to dignified life without fear; and legal justice by the institutions of the state. In the absence of these component, reconciliation remains a distant dream.

    February 26, 2013
  3. Amitabh Mitra #

    Expressed beautifully, we live in strangertimes, basking in the moonlight through filigreed windows, lets hold on to it, let it seep in with all its fragrance and ancient wisdom.

    October 6, 2014
  4. Nishat Haider #

    Thanks for your evocative observation and words of appreciation, Amitabh Mitra-ji.

    October 13, 2014
  5. Nishat H-Hussaini #

    This is eerie indeed.bearing the same name as you, my bringing up being the same as described by you.I faced similar situations while studying in the top college then University of South India.Both my parents mingled with other religions, a Cambridge returned father, the armed services milieu made them socialize with the cream of society where religion did not figure. I concede that there was no disparity, no differences in religions.oh it was a blessed childhood.In Hyderabad, the nostalgia for a lost culture was shared by both sides, the Kayasth upper classes and the Zamindars.The wounds of the Police Action would probably have healed had it not been for the Babri Masjid demolition. A fabric was torn and a true syncretic lifestyle was destroyed in this country . Loved reading you in Cafe Dissensus.

    January 20, 2017

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