In our world today, there is much which has become globalized — the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the films we watch, the songs we dance to, and the social networking sites on which we compulsively exhibit our lives in real time. But, in my travels during the past decade, I have discovered something else which has also become globalized — prejudice. Specifically, prejudice in drawing-room conversations among middle-class people about Muslims. In every city in every country in the world, where Muslims are not in a majority, be it Copenhagen, New York, London, Delhi or Ahmedabad, the conversation over dinner is likely, at some point, to veer to the subject of Muslims. And the dominant view of many people — otherwise affable, educated and liberal — is that Muslims mean trouble, big trouble!
Above all, according to this new globalized ‘common sense’, Muslims are sympathetic to violence. Indeed, they are the most violent people in the world. People admit that not all Muslims actively engage in violent activities, but they insist that all — or almost all — ‘within their hearts’ subscribe to bloodshed and revenge.
They are convinced that most Muslims are fundamentalist by socialization and teaching. Their religion teaches violence. It is ferociously intolerant and hostile to every other faith. It is also regressive, and subjugates women behind veils and encourages families to breed large populations to ultimately submerge the peaceable communities in which they live.
It is for this reason that if I was writing a history of the new India of today, I would regard its second defining feature, apart from the exile of the poor from the conscience of people of privilege, to be the legitimization of prejudice among the middle classes. This display of open bigotry in many ways would have been unthinkable during my childhood and youth.
Since my father-in-law served in many senior positions in the armed forces, several of his friends who visit our home are senior defence officers. Without over-generalizing — and there are, indeed, thankfully, some wonderful exceptions — I find among them a high degree of anti-Muslim prejudice, converging seamlessly in their minds and hearts with a nationalist-militarist hostility towards Pakistan. I recall one particular discussion with a senior naval officer. ‘All Muslims are anti-national, you have to accept this,’ he declared with conviction. I had to ask, ‘Sir, what is the empirical basis of your belief?’ ‘They created Pakistan,’ he thundered, ‘what more proof do you require?’ For a while, I was stunned into silence.
India today has more Muslim residents than both Pakistan and Bangladesh, and their ancestors voluntarily chose to live in secular India over Muslim Pakistan. The patriotism of a Hindu who chooses to migrate to the US is not questioned. On the other hand, the large majority of Muslims I encounter are grateful that their parents or grandparents chose to continue to live in India.
Recall Maulana Azad’s passionate opposition to the idea of Pakistan. ‘As a Muslim, I for one am not prepared for a moment to give up my right to treat the whole of India as my domain and to share in the shaping of its political and economic life’.
There is also remarkably little radicalization among Indian Muslims. Despite widespread anguish after the carnage of 2002 in Gujarat, there are very few credible reports of survivors taking up arms against the state. It is not that they have submitted passively to injustice. They have relied mainly on the instruments of democracy and law to fight the grievous wrongs they suffered, in solidarity with large numbers of non-Muslims.
It is this shared sense of solidarities across faith and identity which endures—although under great stress—in India. The majority of Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, continue to demonstrate in the ways they live their lives, and in the choices they make even while facing injustice and inequity, their shared and equal commitment to India’s secular democracy.
An excerpt from the just-released Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice And Indifference In New India.