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India is Losing its Soul

The astonishing diversity of people and cultures in India is one of the defining characteristics of the nation. People with various cultural backgrounds, including language, customs, music, dance, food, and even religion, all coalesce together in big cities. They attend one another’s weddings, celebrate one another’s achievements, grieve with one another during funerals, and support one another through hardships. The fact that people from many different cultures live together creates a sense of appreciation for others and their stories. This, I believe, is the soul of India.

I relay this sentiment through the stories that my parents told me of their upbringing in Bombay. These stories greatly informed my own outlook, especially in light of the vitriolic rhetoric we face in both the U.S. and India. There are so many similarities between the two countries, and while certainly the two are not perfectly analogous, I think it is worthwhile to compare and contrast the two to gleam insight into how each grapples with the issues surrounding diversity and discrimination in all aspects of society.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, 2007

There are clearly a number of parallels between the two nations. Both were once British colonies that have since developed into secular, constitutional democracies. Although 170 years separate their independence, the histories of each were shaped by one another. The secular ideals of the U.S. Constitution heavily influenced its Indian counterpart. Civil disobedience and the non-violent protests first championed by Mahatma Gandhi were instrumental to Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the civil rights movement.

These shared ties originate because both nations are built from a mosaic of diverse cultural heritage, with significant minority populations. While today some celebrate this diversity, others use it to sow discord into society, magnifying the differences between people to turn them against one another. Catalyzing turmoil is a tactic is used by tyrants to advance their own agenda at the expense of society. Pitting friends against one another allows them to hide their true intent and act with impunity. Dehumanizing the “other side” lends them the necessary credence to act with impunity.

Whether through policies such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, or by revoking the statehood of Muslim-majority Kashmir and Jammu, it is increasingly clear that Modi and the BJP thrive on pitting Hindus and Muslims against one another to rally support for their own personal agendas.

However, the Hindu-Muslim rivalry was not always this fervent. For the majority of Indians, religion was not nearly as much a defining characteristic as other factors such as language, customs, music, and food. India was mosaic of “dizzyingly diverse” and multicultural communities. Completely ignoring this concept of an Indian identity, the British decided hastily to separate the country into two, sowing the seeds of discord for decades to come.

This brutal process, called the Partition, separated families and communities on the basis of religion, which had little to do with how people distinguished themselves. Two families from across the border may have more in common with one another—from language to customs to food—than one family from Eastern India and another from Western India. This is especially true between North India and South India, where languages and customs are markedly more important to identity.

Many Muslim families split over whether to leave for this imagined separate homeland or to remain in India, where, despite the brutality of partition, the ardently secular Nehru reassured them that they had a home. He articulated his ideal of a composite Indian citizen, who was enriched and shaped by all the heritages that flowed through the world’s most diverse society.

As a child of the neighboring Islamic republic (and a steady consumer of Indian popular culture), I grew up admiring that multilingual, kaleidoscopic country. Later, I pursued my education at American universities, in classrooms led by the children of Nehruvian India, and my professors’ stories of religious coexistence inspired me to want to visit that alternative version of South Asia. From afar, India always seemed to be a symphonic banquet of possibilities, in contrast with the monochromatic vision of Pakistan’s religious leaders.

Bilal Qureshi

This is the same vision of India that I grew up with. The stories that my parents told me of their own upbringing in Mumbai, where people of all different cultures, languages, and backgrounds mix were instrumental in shaping my own understanding of the “melting pot” culture of the United States. Looking at the U.S. through this lens, the role of multiculturalism and tolerance seemed to be a big component of American growth and rise to power. Importantly, it was fascinating to be at the intersection many different cultures, including living in a mostly-white and Protestant suburban town and going to public school, then going to Catholic school for two years, then a public STEM school, and having friends from throughout India and Pakistan.

This perspective was invaluable to my understanding of the world. It was important to me that I connect to people who are different from me and learn from them and their stories. Whether that difference was in culture, religion, or viewpoints on political issues, speaking with other people taught me the immense nuance that is required to effectively develop an opinion on any given topic.

Creating a society where people are tolerant of one another is an important part of this process. The history of India has shown just how successful a government that encourages multiculturalism and social discourse can be. Today, a secular government that protects the civil liberties of its people is absolutely critical.

[In] recent years Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have systematically dismantled Nehru’s vision for India. This month, India’s Parliament passed a new bill that enshrines in law a religiously inflected definition of who belongs in India. The Citizenship Amendment Bill provides a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan who are Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsees and Buddhists, but explicitly excludes Muslims.

[. . .]

The law is more than just the latest in a series of Hindu-nationalist and Islamophobic policies. In a nation that is home to the largest Muslim population outside Muslim-majority countries, the bill extends an ideological project that breaks the very promise of India.

Bilal Qureshi

The very promise of India is written in the preamble of its Constitution, just like the U.S., being a secular democratic republic. However, unlike the U.S., there are no explicit guarantees of a separation of “church and state.” Therefore, it is paramount that Indian citizens continue their fight against an oppressive government that insists on a religious basis of citizenship. Take examples of other religious states—Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, even Pakistan—and the serious flaws of state-sanctioned religion become obvious.

The Constitution is meant to be a protector of rights and a protector of people. When first introduced, the Indian Constitution was “regarded as some as an elite document drafted in an alien language.” While that was true, having been written in English and not comprehensible to the vast majority of Indians, its promise became a beacon of hope for countless Indians, looking for an escape from the brutality of the Partition and solidifying a multicultural and tolerant society.

Today, Modi is starting a siege on the constitution. Rohit De reminds us that “the Constitution was ‘not just dull, lifeless words . . . but living flames intended to give life to a great nation, . . . tongues of dynamic fire, potent to mold the future.'”

Modi’s sudden takeover in Kashmir is the fulfillment of a long ideological yearning to make a predominantly Muslim population surrender to his vision of a homogeneous Hindu nation. It is also a way of conveying to the rest of India — a union of dizzyingly diverse states — that no one is exempt from the Hindu-power paradise he wants to build on the subcontinent. Kashmir is both a warning and a template: Any state that deviates from this vision can be brought under Delhi’s thumb in the name of “unity.”

Those who believe that such a day will never come — that India’s democratic institutions and minority protections will assert themselves — also never thought that someone like Modi would one day lead the country. Modi once seemed destined to disappear into history as a fanatical curio. As the newly appointed chief minister of Gujarat, he presided over the worst communal bloodletting in India’s recent history in 2002, when 1,000 Muslims, by a conservative estimate, were slaughtered by sword-wielding Hindus in his state over several weeks. Some accused Modi of abetting the mobs; others said he turned a blind eye to them. The carnage made Modi a pariah: Liberal Indians likened him to Hitler, the United States denied him a visa, and Britain and the European Union boycotted him.

Kapil Komireddi

The erosion of norms by both Trump and Modi is a stark reminder that despite the protections afforded by the Constitution or by political norms, it is up to the people to maintain their own government.

Muslims in India “have faced lynchings, lethal riots, and social and political disenfranchisement,” especially in recent years. The response of both Black Americans during the civil rights movement and Muslims in India today have been similar: a strengthened commitment to the ideals held in the Constitution.

When minorities are pushed to such walls, they may retreat into a siege mentality that breeds radicalization. But India’s Muslims have not come up with calls for violent jihad, nor chants for Shariah law. Instead, they have embraced and emphasized the blessings of liberal democracy by placing their faith in the Constitution of India and insisting on their constitutional rights as citizens.

[. . .]

The B.J.P.’s propaganda machine depicted Muslim protesters as “traitors” and “anti-nationals,” but they were wearing headbands saying, “I love India.” waving Indian flags, and repeatedly singing the national anthem.

Mustafa Akyol and Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar

It is important that protesters not fall into the trap of violence. Relying on civil disobedience may not seem to work, especially in the face of tyrants that thrive on bigotry and division. But, the struggles, and victories, of both Gandhi and King showed that non-violence and unity create a force of good that simply cannot be reckoned with in the long term.

This is fundamentally why both the Indian independence movement and the U.S. civil rights movement were so successful.

BJP leaders, in addition to marginalizing religious minorities, are erasing Nehru’s secular vision. They have crafted an alternative national narrative that recasts the country’s Hindu majority as victims and its era of Muslim empires as one of loss and shame. In the words of historian Sunil Khilnani, they have “weaponized history,” rewriting a period of composite Muslim dynasties such as the Mughals, who built the Taj Mahal and governed with multicultural courts, as a time of conquest by outsiders.

Bilal Qureshi

The whole point of India is that it is a secular nation. I find it quite odd that the Hindu nationalist government is instituting religious ideals in their policies. Isn’t that what Pakistan is for? His policies and vision for India are turning a once secular democracy into a plutocratic, “ethno-religious state.”

India’s story could hold lessons for Muslims elsewhere. Across the border, Pakistan long ago established what India’s B.J.P. seeks: an ethno-religious state dominated by the majority. In Pakistan’s case, this means the hegemony of Sunni Muslims at the expense of minorities such as Shiite Muslims, Ahmadis or Christians.

Mustafa Akyol and Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar

If India continues on this trajectory, Modi will have devolved India into the equivalent of Pakistan. India will then have lost it’s soul.

Dossier

“Why India’s Muslims Reach for Liberalism,” by Mustafa Akyol and Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, October 30, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/30/opinion/india-muslims-liberalism.html

“India once welcomed Muslims like me. Under Modi, it rejects us as invaders.” by Bilal Qureshi, December 17, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/12/17/india-once-welcomed-muslims-like-me-under-modi-it-rejects-us-invaders/

“The Kashmir crisis isn’t about territory. It’s about a Hindu victory over Islam” by Kapil Komireddi, August 16, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-kashmir-crisis-isnt-about-territory-its-about-a-hindu-victory-over-islam/2019/08/16/ab84ffe2-bf79-11e9-a5c6-1e74f7ec4a93_story.html

“We are Witnessing a Rediscovery of India’s Republic,” by Rohin De and Surabhi Ranganathan, December 27, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/27/opinion/india-constitution-protests.html

“What is Article 370, and Why Does It Matter in Kashmir?” by Vindu Goel, August 5, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/world/asia/india-pakistan-crisis.html

“India’s Muslims: An Increasingly Marginalized Population,” by Lindsay Maizland, August 20, 2020. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/india-muslims-marginalized-population-bjp-modi

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2 Comments

  1. Al

    Beautifully stated “If India continues on this trajectory, Modi will have devolved India into the equivalent of Pakistan. India will then have lost it’s soul.”

  2. Idris Dahod

    Great read. Well surmised Sahil. Very proud to see you understand the issues facing Indian Muslims identifying them and also comparing them with the affected minorities in the US. May secularism get a chance at victory.

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