Muslims have become orphans in today’s India: Journalist & Author Ziya-Us-Salam

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Journalist & Author Zia Us Salam.

Ziya Us Salam is an author, literary critic, journalist and social commentator and has worked for The Hindu Group since 2000. In addition to serving as the features editor of The Hindu in New Delhi, he has been the newspaper’s film and literary critic in the past. He has been writing about marginalization of Muslims in contemporary India for long.

A product of Delhi University, he started his career as a journalist in 1996 and has worked for several newspapers, including The Hindu, The Pioneer, The Statesman and The Times of India. Salam is the author, among others, of Till Talaq Do Us Part, Of Saffron Flags and Skullcaps: Hindutva, Muslim Identity and the Idea of India, Lynch Files: The Forgotten Saga of Victims of Hate Crime, Women in Masjid: A Quest for Justice, Madrasas in the Age of Islamophobia, Nikah Halala: Sleeping with a Stranger, Shaheen Bagh: From a Protest to a Movement and Inside the Tablighi Jamaat. In an interview with Mohammed Naushad Khan, he spoke frankly about the problems faced by Muslims today, saying, that if people in the corridors of power are scared of using the word Muslim, imagine how difficult it must be to be a Muslim in India today. Excerpts of the interview:

Why do you think it was important to write a book on being a Muslim in Hindu India at this juncture?

I think in your question lies the answer. It has never been more difficult to be a Muslim, to be manifestly a Muslim and to be a practicing Muslim in India than what it is now. As we all know, we got independence in 1947 and since then, barring stray incidents of communal riots, some may be slightly more than just the stray, the two major communities, Hindus and Muslims, have lived peacefully. There was social and communal harmony and people were not always judged based on their religion, their attire, and their food habits.

Unfortunately, post-2014, things have changed and as our Prime Minister said in Jharkhand, in an election campaign, the tendency is to judge people based on what they wear. And as we saw in Karnataka also, it was not just a hollow talk by the Prime Minister. It was backed up by the foot soldiers of the BJP in Karnataka. And we have seen several lynching instances, which all started with the allegations of cow slaughter. And then we have seen these calls for an economic boycott of Muslims, besides frequent attacks on mosques and madrasas. He cannot pray in his masjid, study in his madrassa, cannot eat the food he wants, or wear the clothes he wants, so where does a Muslim go? So this story is all about being a Muslim in Hindu India.

You have also written in your book about socio-political, cultural and democratic space sinking for the minorities, especially Muslims. So how would you like to respond to that?

I would not like to cloak my statement behind the word minority. I will be straightforward. The book is all about Muslims. And there is, as you rightly pointed out, there is shrinking space for Muslims in contemporary political discourse in our country. Almost all political parties are shying away from giving their party tickets to Muslims in state and Parliamentary elections. The number of Muslim candidates is going down, whether it is in Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan, Maharashtra, or MP. And obviously, the BJP doesn’t give any tickets to Muslims at all. It’s for the first time since our independence that there is no Muslim minister at the Centre. The ruling party does not have a single MP who is a Muslim. Our Prime Minister talks of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. May be in Sabka Saath Muslims are not included in his definition because in a democracy it’s important that everybody must get due representation in corridors of power.

For the country to progress uniformly, every community, every religion, and every caste has to be represented. That’s why after independence, the Constitution framers thought it wise to reserve seats for Scheduled Castes because they had suffered for ages. What the Dalits have suffered for ages, Muslims are suffering in modern India today. Muslims are the new Dalits.

Do you believe that hate against Muslims is at its peak right now?

Well, if I would say no, you will disagree with me. Yes, it is true and periodically we see this expression of hatred, particularly by political leaders, but also at the social level, on the streets, on social media and everywhere. Recently we saw what happened in Jaipur when the newly elected BJP MLA wanted some non-vegetarian food vendors, who are probably Muslims, removed. The idea is to make a Muslim invisible. You don’t allow him to grow a beard, you don’t allow her to don hijab, you don’t make it easy for him to go to Masjid to pray, and you don’t allow him to set up a shop so that Muslims are not visible anywhere. Even halal products are being banned. India is in negation of its past and there is a denial of a strong Muslim existence and contribution in the country. That’s why we see this attempt at rewriting history because the idea is not to balance out whatever had been left out in history but to undermine, not underplay, and undermine the contribution of Muslims in the growth of Indian civilization.

 So, keeping in mind the contents of your book what do you think are the challenges before Muslims?

The major challenge today is Muslims have become invisible in the political discourse of the country and in many ways left redundant. Forget the BJP, even the Congress and other so-called opposition party like Samajwadi Party, DMK, NCP and other political parties are not ready to use the word Muslim from a public platform. When Akhilesh Yadav sought the votes of everybody in UP in the 2022 elections, how many times did you see his fellow Muslim MLAs with him on stage? Or when Arvind Kejriwal sought votes in Delhi, how many times did we see his Muslim MLAs going with him from one seat to another, from one constituency to another?

The reality is that Hindutva decides the discourse of the country today. In other words, the BJP decides the discourse of the country and the other political parties are too timid to take on Hindutva. Their only recourse, which is all wrong, is soft Hindutva. And as Congress discovered in Madhya Pradesh, soft Hindutva can never replace the real hard Hindutva. The need of the hour is to go back to the letter and spirit of our Constitution and seek votes in the name of development, inclusive development.

We have this INDIA alliance which has the word inclusive in it, but it is just a letter, just a word over there. When it comes to practical elections, where does the word inclusive go? What is of concern is that political parties are not even ready to raise the issues related to Muslims anymore. How many political leaders have gone to the house of lynching victims over the last four years? When Akhlaq was lynched in 2015, we saw people across different political parties, the Samajwadi Party, the BSP, the Congress; and CPM leaders went to his house. Something similar, but to a lesser extent happened with Pehlu Khan in 2016 when Communist leaders went to his house and tried to rehabilitate the family. But after that, no political leader wants to be seen with a lynching victim, which is completely opposite to what India has stood for.

We had communal riots in the past but political leaders have always gone after the riots to be with the victims, to give them some monetary support, some emotional support. In this case, no political party, not just the BJP, is ready to come forward and extend emotional support to Muslims and say whatever has

this. How many times have you seen Rahul Gandhi make a statement about a series of lynching incidents in Rajasthan where his own government was in power? How many times do you see Arvind Kejriwal talking of lynching in Haryana whereas the Aam Aadmi Party makes no secret of its ambition to grow? There have been lynching instances in Punjab as well, what has the Maan government done over there? So it’s not that the lynching instances are taking place only in the BJP-ruled states. They are taking place in the so-called opposition-ruled states too. But the reaction of our political leadership has been uniformly of indifference.  It seems today you can kill a Muslim for no rhyme or reason and there will be no protest.

Does that mean that the attitude of political party towards Muslim is just because they have been made politically untouchable?

As I said in the book, Muslims are the new untouchables in modern India, at least when it comes to political discourse and that is a sad reality. For long we have lived with the presumption that government cannot be formed without Muslim support. I think the Narendra Modi government has done an excellent job of disproving that myth. It is still a sad comment on the  democracy of the country when the largest minority has no representative in government at the Centre. Worse, nobody is ready to speak to the largest minority or speak about the largest minority.

How dangerous it is for our democracy?

Practically we are in a Hindu Rashtra today. You see there are certain political prisoners in jail for the last three years and when their cases come up for hearing before High Court or Supreme Court or any other court, summarily another date is given 15 days later and so on. And then you have people like Narsighanand, Pinky Chaudhary and others issuing genocidal calls not from some village, remote village, but from Jantar Mantar less than a kilometer from our home ministry, from our Parliament. When they raised slogans like Jab Mulley Kate Jayenge, Jai Sri Ram, Chillayenge, for how long were they arrested? When Pinky Chaoudhary was finally arrested and it took the police more than a month for him to be arrested, he was allowed to lead a march to the police station with his supporters raising him on their shoulders, garlanding him, raising all those provocative slogans all over again while the policemen watched.

So if out of a technical compulsion, a Hindu hate monger is arrested today, the treatment meted out to him is completely different from what an alleged wrongdoer from the Muslim community faces today and that is the reality.

In your book you have used the term orphan for Muslims. Does that mean that Muslims have been pushed into corner or you believe so because they have been reduced to second class citizens?

You will understand that in our society when a child loses his father particularly if he is a youngster, say 4–5-year-old or 10 to 12 years old the attitude of people around him changes. Nobody wants to have anything to do with the family. The woman is left alone to fend for herself, for her kids and for the child. There is nobody around to embrace him, to guide him, to call him as one of his own or her own. That’s the reality of our society and it is the reality of Muslim community in India today at a much larger level. Which political party comes forward to embrace Muslims today? When was the last time you saw a political leader coming to Jama Masjid and seeking blessings. When was the last time, say, an NCP leader or a DMK leader or an AIADMK leader or Biju’s party leader came and sought the Muslim support? Today, people don’t even use the word Muslim. We just say we seek everybody’s support. They are scared of using the word Muslim today. So if people in the corridors of power are scared of using the word Muslim, imagine how difficult it must be to be a Muslim in India today.

Your book has also indicated about the kind of ray of hope still there for Muslims?

As far as I can see, that ray of hope comes from within the community. At one level you see our youngsters trying to move ahead in the field of education. I have talked of the so-called UPSC Jihad controversy the Sudarshan channel started when some Muslim boys and girls made it to civil services. But at another level, you see there is this hunger of the community to be at par with everybody else, not to be backward, economically or educationally. So there is that relentless endeavour by certain sections of our community to move ahead in life on the basis of education. We understand we won’t get the benefit of any reservation and we also understand that today Muslims as far as education is concerned are behind every community in the country. We are behind scheduled Tribes and Castes also and whatever we have to do, we have to do on our own. The path ahead is a steep but we have taken the first step. So that is one ray of hope.

The second ray of hope which I have talked about in the book is that of Shaheen Bagh struggle, that protest which turned into a movement against CAA the way Muslim women who are not so-called professional or career social activists, left their home and hearth to protest. They wanted nothing special. All they wanted was equality before the law, which is granted to all the people by Article 14 of the Constitution. Unfortunately, it is something which was sought to be denied by the Citizenship Amendment Act where for the first-time religion was made a criterion for giving citizenship to those desirous or settling in India. We have never had those instances in the past, anybody of any religion, caste from any country could seek citizenship of our country and going by the letter and spirit of the law, he or she was accepted or denied. But religion was never a criterion for that demarcation until the CAA came.

But the way the Muslim women came out led an entirely peaceful protest in Shaheen Bagh, giving rise to a hundred other Shaheen Baghs across India, and the way they held firm to the Constitution of India, to their rights as equal citizens of the country, and the way they held on to the Quran and offered their namaz at the protest site was a wonderful advertisement for democracy. Here was the minority of the country offering prayers without any inhibition, at the same time ready to stand up for the Constitution of India. How many such examples have we got across the world, where the minority community has stood up for the Constitution of that country? This was a rare, rare instance and all those who feel that Muslim women are backward, exploited, and vulnerable; I think they had to shut up after this protest.

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