(Following is a reproduction of an article ‘The Pain of Being A Muslim in India’ written by Victoria Britten. It was published in The Times, London in the wake of anti-Muslim violence in different districts of Maharashtra in 1970. The violence took hundreds of Muslim lives and damage to economy.)
RASHID ALI is a beautiful, highly precocious five-year-old who talks readily to adults. But in the street where he -lives in New Delhi the gang of children play on the dusty grass under the laburnum trees without him. On Rashid’s first day at school the other boys took down his trousers to see if he was circumcised and ever since no one has played with him . . . “you’re a Muslim”. Fifteen minutes’ drive away by the steps of the great mosque in Muslim old Delhi another Ali, a wrestler, explained that for a Hindu to “win” against a Muslim in a wrestling match the Hindu had only to prevent himself being completely pinned to the ground. For both Alis the inescapable fact of being Muslim governs every facet of their life in India today.
Communal riots earlier this summer destroyed hundreds of homes, thousands of livelihoods, and killed 150 or more people in towns and hamlets over an area of 500 square miles near Bombay. This explosion of hatred in Maharashtra showed how far India is from solving the problem of her 60 million Muslims. In the 23 years since partition the Muslims have completely failed to integrate with the Hindus and now show every sign of becoming increasingly alienated from the Indian mainstream. This isolation is both a result of communal riots and their cause.
Incidents between Hindus and Muslims are nothing new in India. But the riots in Maharashtra were better planned and more violent than the last outbreak — the Gujarat riots of 1969 — and took place against a “background of a weak central Government and local break-downs of law and order. They have left the way open for an authoritarian backlash.
As usual with communal riots a religious procession was the scene of the start of the riot, but it was an excuse rather than the cause of it. Placards, handbills, and Molotov cocktails appeared at the beginning of the riot, showing that at least part of the crowd had been prepared for trouble. As at Ahmedabad last year houses were distinctively marked before the riots. Houses owned by a Muslim and rented by a Muslim were burnt with all contents, but where a Hindu rented a Muslim – owned house his furniture was brought out into the road before the house was set on fire.
INCIDENTS such as these are well vouched for, though many inaccurate stories serve to poison the atmosphere between the two communities. At Ahmedabad the spreading of false rumours about Muslims raping women and poisoning milk supplies enflamed the riots.
Even after the heat of the moment the most rational of men believe outrageous atrocities of the other side. For example one intelligent leader of the Jan Singh (right wing Hindu party) told me that every single Hindu woman in the camps for refugees from East Pakistan had been raped by the Muslims. “We Hindus might kill but you will never hear of us raping Muslim women — it is impossible”.
In Maharashtra as in every other communal riot the police were slow to intervene although they had ample warning that violence was impending.
Muslim policemen are rare. “Go out and see whether you can find one Muslim policeman within 10 minutes walk of the mosque — there are none”, said one Muslim resident of old Delhi. Even a moderate Hindu such as Mr S. N. Dwivedi, leader of the Peoples’ Socialist Party in Parliament, says “there are communal feelings among the police”.
Hindu communal feelings can be traced to childhood and slanted school history books. In 1966 a Government-appointed committee recommended that a number of primary and secondary school textbooks should be withdrawn as they were offensive to Muslims and sowed the seed of militant Hinduism in the minds of Hindu children.
A more sinister childhood influence on some Hindu boys is the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) a paramilitary organisation of volunteers which was banned for a time after 1948 for its part in the communal atrocities which followed partition. Today RSS has again grown powerful and communal incidents have grown worse in parallel. RSS volunteers are trained to fight with knives and lathis in camps which in New Delhi (where the mayor is also the local RSS chief) are held in public institutions such as schools.
OFFICIALLY the RSS is a ‘cultural’ organisation which instills discipline and patriotism in its members. But it is open only to Hindus, and ex-members testify that it is overtly anti-Muslim. The RSS is non-political but it has political influence through the Jan Sangh Party as their memberships are overlapping. The Jan Sangh leadership are mostly bachelors, intellectual men who argue that India can only be saved from chaos by a disciplined elite. The Jan Sangh runs local politics in New Delhi, is strong in the Hindi-speaking belt of north India and is beginning to reach out “by propaganda” (as the Jan Sangh themselves put it) to non-Hindi speaking Hindus in south India. Jan Sangh’s goals of “Indianising” Muslims, economic nationalism and “big India” foreign policy echo the themes of fascist Germany. It is a parallel which Muslim intellectuals draw today and one which Mrs Gandhi has herself drawn in Parliament.
At the root of the Indian communal problem and, like, the Muslims’ isolation, both a cause and a result of the’, tension, is the hostility to Pakistan. After Maharashtra Indian Hindus claimed that, Hindu refugees were fleeing from Pakistan at the rate of between 700 and 2,000 a day. The figures are impossible to verify, but they are undoubtedly exaggerated by Hindu extremists trying to whip up Hindu communal feelings.
There is no evidence today of Pakistanis revenging Muslim deaths in India by reprisals on their tiny Hindu minority. Hostility between the two countries has been increased, by the threat that India is developing nuclear weapons. And a third cause of tension is still Kashmir.
As relations with Pakistan worsen the Muslims in India are automatically suspected of being a fifth column for Pakistan. While no Pakistani agents have been caught preaching disloyalty in India, Muslims do feel divided loyalties. “Do you want to put me in gaol . . . you must know how one must answer that question …” said an elderly Muslim teacher in old Delhi when asked how he would feel if there was a jehad (holy war) by Pakistan against India. He got up abruptly to go and pray.
SUCH people who should be the leaders of their backward religious community have no links with it. The Muslim elite who work, say, in Delhi University or a Hindu-owned newspaper are the fortunate few for whom discrimination is not an inevitable fact of life. For the old teacher’s seven children and most of their coreligionists discrimination starts in school with the ban on the Urdu language putting them at an initial disadvantage to Hindu children. Their lives thereafter are built on a job in their Muslim ghetto whether it be Aligarh Muslim University or a book binder’s cave-like shop off the bazaar in old Delhi. In this inbred atmosphere in the wake of Gujarat and Maharashtra it is not surprising that Muslim extremists are beginning to gather caches of arms. Their tragedy is that their every move threatens the future of their community as their increasing violence will be more than matched by the RSS and, more important in terms of politics, by the increasing power of the Jan Sangh.