Indian Muslims as a Threat
By Ajmal Khan
Following the Assam riots and Mumbai violence, the exodus of people from North-East India had created a panic around the country. Despite assurances of the safety and security of people hailing from north-eastern states, especially from Assam and Manipur, people packed back to their homes from cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, and elsewhere. There were rumors that Muslims are going to react to the killings in Assam and Myanmar.
Let us try to make sense of the events in Assam. There are various explanations for the Assam riots. The BJP has described the incident as an Indian verses foreigner issue. When the top most leader of the party visited Kokrajhar, he made a statement that the root cause of the recurring violence in Assam was illegal immigration from Bangladesh. However, the President of the Char Chapori Sahitya Parishad, an Assam based literary society, felt that it is nothing but ethnic cleansing. The Parishad further claimed that the Assam riots were pre-planned: first the Muslims were driven out and, then, their houses, documents and land records burnt. Some Bodo groups have demanded that the inmates of relief camps should not be rehabilitated without ascertaining their citizenship status, which shows their motive to drive away Muslims with the aim of making the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) free of non-Bodos. There is, however, another majority that feels that the clashes were the result of inordinate delay on the part of the central and state governments to rush adequate forces immediately after the two incidents and, also, that there was an intelligence failure.
In the context of varying explanations of the riots in Assam, one related question must be asked: why did the north-eastern people in Bangalore start packing up first? The violence against the people from north-east is not a new story at all. The capital city, New Delhi, is known for violence against women from north-east India. Bangalore is the place where Richard Loitam, a 19-year-old second semester student of Acharya NRV School of Architecture from Manipur, died under suspicious circumstances in his college hostel on April 18, 2012. His friends and family were disappointed with the way police handled his case. While his friends, activists, and other student organizations called for protests demanding justice, some activists protested in Jantar Mantar, Delhi; at Town Hall, Bangalore and in other places as well. This was one of the saddest and most humiliating experiences for the people from north-eastern states, which comprise of a huge student and working community spread across the county. From the Loitam incident they realized that their security is not the priority for the state. The exodus of north-eastern people in the immediate aftermath of Assam riots and Mumbai violence must be seen in this context of insecurity and anxiety borne out by the fact they are likely to be targeted across the country.
The Muslim Threat
This particular incident reiterates the popular commonsense of Muslims as a threat. The mainstream media added to this perception by claiming that text messages were circulated by Muslims indicating that they will start to react as soon as Ramadan was over and that fatwas have been issued in some parts of the country exhorting Muslims to act against the Myanmar and Assam killings. At the same time, it was ignored that a large number of Muslims were also killed in Assam. Let us look at what Johnson Rajkumar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mass Communication, St. Joseph College of Arts and Science, Bangalore, says: ‘There could be a third party involved in this situation. Here, we are talking about two minority groups that have historically been persecuted in the nationalistic discourse. So, this is a dream come true for fringe groups who are using the opportunity to brand Muslims as anti-Indian. I was surprised to see that much before the state and police took notice of this issue, a certain fundamentalist group opened a helpline, and even posted misleading messages claiming a fatwa had been declared against people from the North-East. I think slowly even people from the North-East living here are recognizing the possibility of a third-party hand in the way events are unfolding’. But this perspective was not highlighted for some time, at least not until a huge number of north-eastern people had fled their adopted cities in ‘mainland’ India.
Now, let us remember another incident which is fading from public memory in order to understand how Muslims have been portrayed as a threat in the Indian nationalist discourse: the Mecca Masjid incident at Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. On May 18, 2007, in the middle of the Friday prayers, there was a high intensity blast at Mecca Masjid. The bomb was supposed to be hidden under the granite slabs. Nine people lost their lives and around 70 people were injured. Interestingly, the police arrived on time and fired at the people, most of whom had come to offer prayers and who were helping the injured by taking them to hospital. Five people were killed and many injured in the police firing. The police explained this shocking incident by claiming that the crowd was violent and that they had to be controlled first. They further said that the mob was not allowing ambulances to reach the injured and that they were not allowing the dog-squad to enter the Masjid. The police version reiterated the stereotype that Muslims are ‘aggressive’ and prone to turning violent at any time.
Following the Assam riots and the Mumbai violence, the state authorities and right-wing groups deliberately created the impression that Muslims, as the supposed victims, will react. As I mentioned before, Muslim as a trouble-maker is a perceived popular common sense in India and this sense reaches a critical point every time there is a crisis. As a corollary to this ‘Othering’ discourse, after every incident of violence, Indian Muslims must prove their patriotism and love for the county. The reality of Indian Muslims is, contrarily, quite shocking. The Sachar Committee Report (2006), constituted for assessing the socio-economic status of Indian Muslims, concluded that Indian Muslims were a deprived people on the margin, with low socio-economic and educational indices and poor standards of living, comparable with the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and left behind in the whole development process after independence.
[Ajmal khan is a doctoral student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]