The anti-hijab row in Karnataka has invited a heap of bigoted arguments that are being passed off as ‘progressive’ opinion in a newspaper which not very long ago took money to publish a blatant example of official-sponsored dogwhistling. A ‘then and now’ Uttar Pradesh government advertisement contrasted a visibly Muslim man in a kaffiyeh as a Molotov cocktail-hurtling arsonist, supposedly representing UP before Yogi Adityanath, with a photo of him begging for mercy with folded hands now that the BJP is in power. The man no longer wears the kaffiyeh or any bodily marker of Muslimness, so thoroughly cleansed of evil he has been. One can readily understand recent events in India, particularly Karnataka, through this advertisement.
The advertisement subtly pushes the Hindutva desire of cultural domestication of the violent Muslim man who in the popular Hindutva imagery, terrorises everyone. It suggests that if Muslims are made to realise how violent their Muslimness is, they will be embarrassed and compelled to reform. This is why sanitisation of the visible Muslim is pushed by the mainstream media as a necessary endeavour under the Hindutva regime. More recently, an image was shared by the official handle of the BJP Gujarat featuring a dozen skull-cap clad and bearded men in white kurtas (all visible Muslim markers) being hanged. But this supposed influence of the brutish Muslim man cannot be curtailed as long as another set of visible Muslims – the Muslim women enslaved by hijabs – exist.
There is no dearth of examples to suggest that what is happening in Karnataka is not an isolated instance of cultural cleansing of the visible Muslim identity. We are being convinced by majoritarian forces that Muslims being vocal and visible genuinely assails Hindu sentiments. This is why no Hindu politician dares to defend former vice president Hamid Ansari when he is viciously attacked by the government, or strongly condemn the attempt on Lok Sabha MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s life or the mob setting Salman Khurshid’s house on fire.
We saw mobs of ‘vigilant’ citizens in Gurugram attempt to drive out Muslims from praying in designated open areas as a protest against public inconvenience (in legal language) and land jihad (in political discourse). There is a vicious campaign going on in Madhya Pradesh against azan. In Uttarakhand, there is a full-fledged campaign against ‘land jihad’ (simple definition: Hindutva grievance against Muslims owning land, houses and shops). We have seen scores of attacks on visibly Muslim men employed in the meat work industry and fruit vending around Navratra and throughout 2021. The past one year saw multiple attacks on religious sites of Muslims by those combating ‘land jihad’ and on the bodies of Muslim men in the name of ‘love jihad’.
The decapitation of Arbaz Mullah or the stomping of Moinul Haque’s body should have been a tipping point to start these uncomfortable conversations on the propaganda of love jihad or land Jihad. This could have been the right time to recall the erasure of cities and public spaces with Muslim names across the country, especially in Uttar Pradesh.
It is now evident that the orchestrated attack on the visibly Muslim Tablighi Jamaat under the garb of COVID jihad was a part of the episodic culling of the visible Muslim from public view. In that sense, the attack on food, names, language, religious practices, lifestyle, and traditional livelihoods should be considered a form of ethnic/cultural cleansing of the Indian Muslim. Cultural erasure cannot be made possible without a relentless economic attack on the community. The past one year saw relentless campaigns calling for a boycott against Muslim businesses. For example, the campaign against ID fresh, the Khans of Bollywood (now called Urduwood), the Gujarat VHP protests against Muslim eateries, the attack on meat workers on Navratri, protests and thook (spit) jihad propaganda and violence against rotiwalas. Anandswaroop, a prominent Hindu saint who spoke at the infamous Genocide Summit in Haridwar explained these campaigns in clear words, “My argument is that if you [Muslims] want to remain associated with us, you should first stop reading the Quran and stop offering namaz.” Then he offered a solution to Hindus: “You decide that you will not buy anything from a Muslim. If you destroy them socially, politically and economically, they will begin converting to Hinduism from Islam.”
In 1821, the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings,” predicting the mass slaughter of human beings as the end point of attacks on cultural heritage. A century later, his books were among those that were burned on Berlin’s Opernplatz.
One of the important lessons from the history of the holocaust is that a cultural genocide often precedes a physical one. Nazi Germany attacked the religious rituals of the Jews, demonised their appearance and food habits, attacked synagogues and erased their livelihoods before the death camps came into existence
The position of progressives on all other acts of Muslim violence is more or less clear: They condemn it. But some progressives want to ignore the violence against hijabi women because this time around a supposedly feminist argument is being made by the perpetually aggrieved mob of aggressors.
Why do some progressive commentators find it difficult to view the attack on the right of women to wear the hijab as a part of the aforementioned series of attacks? Surely, secularism has to be understood not as the erasure of cultural symbols but as the presence of choice to either embrace or reject them as one wills. In other words, liberals don’t have the option of choosing which form of humiliation is acceptable and which one is not.
Can a school whose foundation was laid with bhoomi puja and coconut breaking ever be free of religion? Or is it just one religion which does not fit in? Rather than seeing the Muslim assertion of identity as something that is growing in response to the repeated attacks of humiliation that are becoming a part of their daily lives, the anti-hijab progressives find it more convenient to explain the problem as something arising from fanatical or irrational beliefs; in this instance, the culprit is apparently the PFI. If practising Muslims are imagined to be pre-programmed for rigidity and fanaticism by the right wing, it is also the case that a sizeable section of liberals also subscribe to the same stereotype.
There are concerted efforts to ideologically displace the nature of conflicts and to present them as problems emerging from a two-sided cultural war. The repeated narrative of “both sides feed into each other” distorts the picture of the overall balance of power which places a besieged minority on the same footing as the belligerent mob. What essentially gets erased in these “debates”, is the systematic Islamophobia that has traversed through bodies of law and entered into the “common sense” of the Indian psyche. While some progressives squirmed at the natural and reflexive response of Muskan Khan – who shouted Allahu Akbar in the face of a belligerent mob of men in saffron shawls – their firm focus surely ought to be on the mob and its intent to humiliate the young hijabi woman. To do otherwise is to reduce themselves to the same level of those on the right-wing who sought to turn the debate on Akhlaq from the intolerance which led to his brutal murder to the supposed contents of his refrigerator.
Repeatedly, it is the culture of the marginalised that has to pass all the standards of ‘rationality’ to qualify for their basic right to life. While an elite section of Muslims keeps giving loyalty tests by signing statements against the Taliban at regular intervals, the more vulnerable section lives in fear of being hounded on the roads by mobs of “nationalist” men and forced to chant this slogan or that as an act of public humiliation – perhaps followed by a broad-day lynching. An extraordinary show of cruelty was circulated as a viral video during the Delhi riots of February 2020 when three Muslims lying on the road – all of whom appear to have been badly beaten – were forced to sing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ by a police officer. One of them, Faizan, succumbed to his injuries a few days later.
Many Muslim men chased by mobs were spared their lives after chanting “Jai Sri Ram” or “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Similarly, following court orders in Karnataka, Muslim women were allowed to enter classrooms but were coerced and humiliated into removing their hijabs outside the school gates. Forgotten in the process is the inseparability of the right to life and the right to dignity.
Those Hindu priests who called for a genocide of Muslims at the Dharma Sansad at Haridwar know that the ground is being prepared. That the police filed light charges and the courts granted bail only testifies to the unwillingness of our institutions to stop the casual yet alarming spread of these early warnings. The humiliation of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab is another one of those early warnings. Why then is a section of the liberal commentariat choosing to look the other way?
Alishan Jafri is an independent journalist covering hate crimes and hate speech. Sara Ather is an architect based in Germany and India.