The normalisation of Islamophobia in India

Mary Hunter
Saturday, Oct 30, 2021

After Pakistan’s decisive victory against India in the cricket, India witnessed a spate of Islamophobic verbal and physical attacks. One of the targets of this abuse was Mohammed Shami, a Muslim who plays for the Indian national cricket team.

Across social media, Indian fans made discriminatory allegations against Shami, questioning his nationality and calling on him to return to Pakistan. These are typical examples of abuse targeted against prominent Indian Muslims. One Instagram user said, “Muslim ne Pakistan ka sath de diya... Kitna paisa mila...”

Many have responded to India’s decision to ‘take a knee’ in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement as hypocritical, given that the Islamophobic abuse against Shami is a symptom of a bigger phenomenon that exists across India and beyond. In 2020, Human Rights Watch had warned that, since the Modi-led BJP has come to power, Muslims have been more at risk of violent abuse in India.

While Shami was subjected to verbal online abuse, a group of Kashmiri students in the Indian state of Punjab were attacked after they had supported Pakistan in their victorious game of cricket. The outcome of a sports game can never be grounds for assault and should be called out by the country’s leadership and every community therein, regardless of which religion the community belongs to.

After Indonesia and Pakistan, India has the world’s largest Muslim population. The failure of India to condemn and address Islamophobia thus represents an injustice towards Indians themselves. For the strength of a diverse nation is often defined by how it comes together in times of disappointment or loss. The verbal and physical violence represents a far more significant moral defeat than losing a sports match.

Such attacks are not only the product of misplaced anger, after the loss of the Indian team, but they represent a normalisation of anti-Muslim sentiment and hate. If Narendra Modi does not condemn these Islamophobic hate crimes, the vicious cycle of loss followed by discrimination will not end. History has taught us many lessons about how being a passive bystander to religious intolerance can lead to human rights abuses or even crimes against humanity.

Communal animosity will never be healed if communities condemn hate crimes against themselves but support them against others. On the 26th October, it was reported across multiple Indian news outlets that a mosque had been vandalised and that two shops had been set on fire in the district of North Tripura during a rally organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. These acts undermined the very point of the rally, which was to protest abuse against Hindus in Bangladesh. Abuse against any person on account of their faith is not more wrong if it is perpetrated by a Muslim than when it is perpetrated by a Hindu.

It has also been alleged that Islamophobia exists within India’s justice system. Rana Ayyub wrote a compelling opinion piece in The Washington Post about the disparity between the treatment of Junior Home Minister Ajay Mishra’s son and Shah Rukh Khan’s son in the eyes of the law.

Ayyub stated: “Two sons of prominent figures are behind bars, but the way their cases have been handled shows political affiliation now determines who gets justice - and who faces brutal intimidation.”

Ashish Mishra was in a car that ran over and killed four farmers who had been protesting for their rights, but his father is a member of Modi’s cabinet. On the other hand, Aryan Khan was caught up in a drugs bust on a cruise ship. Though his father is an iconic Indian actor, “The King of Bollywood,” who personally contributed to India’s COVID-19 relief programme, Khan is a Muslim who represents religious harmony, as his wife is a Hindu and they have brought up their children to respect both Islam and Hinduism. This is not exactly in keeping with the spirit of Modi’s divisive Citizenship Amendment Bill.

It is important to note that it is not only Muslims, as a minority, who continue to suffer disproportionately in India. This is in part the result of perceptions about purity propagated within the Hindu caste system, where peoples’ lives are defined by their place in a hierarchy. Dalits, or the ‘untouchables,’ who fall at the bottom of this hierarchy, have historically had more menial jobs and are often marginalised or even targeted by ‘higher’ Hindu castes in Indian society. According to Minority Rights Group International, “Dalits continue to remain the most underprivileged class of Indian society...”

While India should not be characterised as inherently Islamophobic, because not all Indians entertain anti-Muslim sentiments, it is undeniable that Islamophobia is a significant problem. Not only because verbal and physical violence against Muslims is common, but also because politicians and public figures are not prepared to condemn it when it stares them directly in the face. Change requires not only words but a desire to make things better through positive action. In the modern age, particularly since 9/11, Islamophobia has been rife and a scourge on humanity. It has been normalised across the world within institutions from France to India and, if allowed to continue, has the potential to lead to monumental discrimination, persecution and murder of Muslims.

The writer is a researcher and is currently undertaking a PhD. She tweets @MaryFloraHunter.