By Asim Ali  / Telegraph India

Let’s start with a thought experiment. What would Indian politics look like if the Muslims of the country were to disappear overnight? We need not strain our imagination too much. A rough approximation would be the pre-Emergency period when Muslims cast only a faint shadow on national politics. The politically animating issues of the time revolved around the distribution of power and resources in the political economy. Interest groups, such as caste aggregations or farmers groups, were mobilised by different political parties to fabricate a winning coalition. In other words, the usual stuff of politics.

The political system works differently now. The domains of social justice, economic redistribution and livelihood concerns are not quite irrelevant to politics but form only a side-show. At least in large parts of northern India, the politically dominant issues seem to be the ones revolving around the Hindu-Muslim axis.

If one surveys this year’s newspaper headlines or the banners of television channel debates, the words, hijab, masjid, prophet and namaz would beat any comparable jumble of socio-economic issues by a grotesque margin. There are inevitable costs to this extraordinary level of Islamophobia in the public culture, borne not just by Muslims. Anti-Muslim mobilisation is at the core of the country’s most serious democratic malaises — from the shrinking of the political space to the shredding of independent institutions.

There are two common fallacies prevalent even on the liberal side of the media that muddle our understanding of the nature of such anti-Muslim mobilisation.

Firstly, the framing of the anti-Muslim mobilisation as religious polarisation or religious conflict. In reality, Muslims have little role to play in the design, articulation, or propagation of these manufactured ‘conflicts’. Muslims are not making any specific demands or clamouring for a change in the political  status quo. They are not asking for temples to be converted into mosques, or for Hindus to be deprived of their religious clothing, or for the restriction of the religious practices of Hindus. This is the season of the kanwariyas in Uttar Pradesh, when devotees of Shiva throng public highways bearing pots of holy water. Alongside their route, meat shops and restaurants selling non-vegetarian food remain closed to protect the sensibilities of the pilgrims, and traffic is diverted to alternative avenues to ensure their safety. We do not see Muslims protesting against this display of public religiosity even when it impedes their livelihoods. At the same time, the biggest political controversy in the state is a bunch of Muslim men (now arrested) ‘caught’ on camera praying in a corner of a newly opened mall, sparking demonstrations from Hindu groups. To call this state of affairs religious polarisation is an assault on the common sense.

The second fallacy is the presentation of the anti-Muslim mobilisation as a ‘Muslim problem’. When the hijab ban in Karnataka became the focus of national debate, the focus of the media was on why the hijab was so important to Muslim women. The underlying assumption of such framing is the supposed intransigence of Muslims in conforming to certain behaviours expected of them. What remains unasked is the flipside of the question — why is the hijab so important to Hindu groups? Or, indeed, why are the beliefs and practices of Muslims a matter of such obsessive concern to the Hindu middle class, so much so that it has become a favourite topic of television news shows? A Newslaundry study analysed the debates on eight top television news channels in India and found that (barring NDTV) ‘communal issues’ comprised the top subject of discussion on every channel. The Editors Guild of India has described the hate peddled by these television channels as “seemingly inspired by the values of Radio Rwanda whose incendiary broadcast caused a genocide in the African nation”.

The editor, Shekhar Gupta, has come up with the term, “secular Islamophobia”, to denote the tendency of secular parties to not only avoid speaking on behalf of Muslims but also shun the visible presence of Muslims. Like most mainstream journalists, he refrains from extending his analysis to the fundamental cause of this hesitance on the part of secular parties: the Islamophobia that has been spread by the BJP-RSS ecosystem which has entrenched itself within the majority community, particularly the middle classes. Thus, what we have on our hands is not a ‘Muslim problem’ but a ‘Hindu problem’ — specifically the problem of the Hindu political identity.

This story was originally published in . Read the full story here