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To Them, I Am The 'Other': Hindu-Muslim Identity Politics And 'The Banality Of Evil'

Indian Muslims are often perceived as backward or less capable of excelling in various fields. Very often, they are viewed with sucpicion by the law as well as other civilians. Such stereotypes can be traced back to the politics of identity which primarily revolves around the question of recognition and 'othering'.

Installation Artwork titled 'Humanity Goodbye' by artist Nikhileswar Baruah
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As a Muslim scholar researching identity politics, I am often confronted with my own social vulnerabilities that come with my religious identity. One such incident of discrimination and humiliation occurred recently during one of my field assignments. I wrote an essay about it but failed to impress one of my professors who chided me for "reducing everything to Hindu-Muslim", claiming it was a "childish act which will eventually help BJP". He asked me to "address the larger question first rather than simplifying the approach to this dichotomy.” He also added, “If you are facing problems because you are Muslim then it’s an additional disadvantage”. This is perhaps how perhaps Brahminical epistemology works. But the incident is an example of the wider scale of discrimination and "othering" many students like me face inside the so-called safety of their classrooms. 

This was not the first time when my religious identity became a matter of vulnerability for me. The year was 2018 and I was making an exit at the Botanical Garden metro station in Noida when I first realised that to "them", I was the "other". It happened when I was trying to scan my card at the exit gates when it glitched. A commuter, who was standing behind me, had to wait for like 8-10 seconds. In my discomfiture, I let them pass ahead of me. While the commuter scanned their card, I could hear them murmur: “People like you terrorists always block civilians’ way”.  

Even after half a decade, these words continue to resonate in my ears. "Terrorist"...For a moment I got lost in contemplating the whole incident. Instead of going to customer care to get the technical glitch fixed, I went upstairs and sat on the platform for nearly two hours, reflecting on my identity. Who was I? What did the world think of me? Thousands of thoughts and self-doubt were racing through my head: Is my appearance a problem? Is the bear too threatening? Do I look "too Muslim"? Do others perceive that as a threat? I would have stopped that girl then and there only, and confronted her. But I couldn’t. Her perception towards Muslims was indeed something which must have developed in due course of time. But since when? What could the incident be that moulded her views and prejudices in this manner? Was her hatred the product of the growing political fundamentalism and political polarisation of the country? That day, I decided to pursue research on identity politics. In a way, I was trying to answer my own unresolved questions and also those that victims of religious violence or discrimination face.

People always claim India is the world’s largest living democracy. Still, Muslims in India often face discrimination, hate and sometimes even violence. It could be because of their choice of food, how they are dressed, or even the words they use. In 2018, a study found the use of hateful and divisive language by high-ranking politicians to have increased by almost 500 per cent in the past few years. There have been 902 incidents of documented hate crimes between 2015 to June 2019. Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people—36 of them Muslim—were killed across 12 Indian states and around 280 people were injured across 20 states by vigilante groups with affiliations to different right-wing platforms.  

The continuous domination of majoritarian religious politics through electoral legitimacy can lead to what Barbara Walter in her book How Civil War Starts calls an “anocracy” - a transitory phase between democracy and autocracy. She argued that it is through anocracy that civil war starts. In the past few years, anocracy among various factions emerged as an accelerant that fuels social hate.

And social media is one such faction through which IT cell dishes out its anti-Muslim propaganda. Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai App targeting Muslim women are examples of many. Barbara calls them “ethnic entrepreneurs” which leads to violence. The past few years have also seen a growing intolerance for any critical commentary that questions the dominant narratives. Does identity formation play any role in shaping the discourse that promotes hatred?

Identity Matters  

The politics of identity primarily revolves around the question of recognition which shapes the consciousness of being. As Karl Marx dialectically put it, a Master becomes Master when Slave recognise him/her as Master. And a Slave becomes Slave when the master recognises him/her as Slave.  

But how does one go about claiming their identity in society? How should one present himself/herself in a more acceptable form? Amartya Sen in his book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny talked about identity reductionism. He criticised the reductionism of identity on two levels. First, what he called ‘identity disregard’ where a man scraps his/her identity and comes out as an ‘economic man’ or ‘rational man’, and this has been propagated by economists like Adam Smith who have reduced man to the mere economic unit. Sen called these people rather a ‘rational fool’.  

The second one, he termed ‘singular affiliation’ where a person associates himself/herself only to one identity and is primarily shaped by various social norms and contexts. Now, this singular affiliation leads to violence if it is imposed forcefully on a person which is now the case with Indian Muslims who are forced to prove their nationality where nationality is associated or religious identity is associated. This sort of appropriation of identity has been leading to the formation of what Christophe Jaffrelot called ‘ethnic democracy’ in India.  

Identity is the most vital tool for political mobilization. It is an identity which forms the primary base for political representation and resistance, especially in a democratic setup. In the past year, the ruling party in the Centre ceased to have even one Muslim Parliamentarian, which clearly shows the systematic and active exclusion of minorities from major political institutions.  

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On the question of resistance, an agency of a person itself is most important. Because it’s the agency of a person who gets discriminated against and belittled, not their other affiliations. Hannah Arendt has rightly said, “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man”.

Process of Othering  

The idea of othering Muslims operates on two different levels. One on the ‘segregation level’ where segregationist argues that Muslims are inherently defective or dangerous. This is one of the reasons why Muslims nowadays face an ample number of difficulties in finding a house on rent in non-Muslim localities. Recently my friend has been denied a house in Greater Kailash-2 when the owner discovered his Muslim identity. Raphael Susewind in his paper argued that segregation faced by Muslims in Delhi is the third largest, behind only Ahmedabad and Hyderabad.  

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Another form of othering happens at the ‘assimilation level’, where people from the majority community sometimes do raise their voices against injustice faced by Muslims, but they also argue that Muslims should change their behaviour, and their culture in order to assimilate with the mainstream of the society. When it comes to the question of assertion of identity they don’t expect us to assert our identity of who we are, rather want us to rally behind them without having our own sense of agency.  

A Battle Of Perceptions  

Indian Muslims are often perceived as backward or less capable of excelling in various fields. Very often, they are viewed with suspicion by the law as well as by other civilians. My so-called ‘Muslim-look’ has often earned me the moniker of "terrorist" from my majoritarian friends, who later dismissed it as a joke. This clearly reflects a majoritarian mindset in which minorities are posed as threats to them.

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Narratives like "love jihad", "land jihad", "gauraksa" further cement such sociological "othering" on minority communities. 

The "othering" is perhaps most visible in the so-called "ghettoisation" of minorities vis a vis their residential status. In India, for instance, Muslim-dominated spaces are often projected and perceived as stinky, unhygienic and unsafe. People often associate these kinds of neighbourhoods with stereotypes of violence and crime. More importantly, people sitting in higher academia with their academic credibility and acceptance use the word ‘ghetto’ to define such areas. 

But instead of fighting over words, we should stress more on how these words shape ideas and perceptions about people from minority communities and encourage the perpetuation of the ‘Banality of Evil’, as Hannah Arendt calls it, as the new normal.

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(Mohd Alfaz Ali is a Doctoral Researcher at Jamia Millia Islamia. His research interest lies in identity politics, and the question of secularism and communalism. Can be contacted at mdalfaz129@gmail.com . Views expressed in this article are personal)

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