Christophe Jaffrelot: Muslims in India
On Thursday November 10th, 2011 French political scientist Chrisophe Jaffrelot presented a detailed description of what it means to be Muslim in today’s “secular” India state. Jaffrelot is a South Asian specialist and has written several books on the subject. Notable examples include “The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics” (1996) and “India’s Silent Revolution” (2003). The talk centred on the trajectory the minority Muslim community within India post-partition has travelled on. Before India was partitioned in 1947 the Muslim community was recognized as an important member of the secular Indian mosaic. However, since this landmark event Muslims have become increasingly marginalized within the democratic state. The Muslim community lost significant portions of its intelligentsia and economic elite through migration to the newly created Pakistani state. Despite this significant loss of community, Muslim heritage was preserved within India and the community (in contrast to other minorities) and was given the right to their own civil code (Shari’a). Jaffrelot argued that although they were given these privileges it was expected that one day they would reform to be incorporated into the secularized Indian state.
This Muslim exceptionality was both a gift and a curse. In the 1980s the preservation of Muslim heritage started to fracture and their exceptional status unravelled before their eyes. In 1984 Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was killed by Sikhs, during this time the mood was tense in India and there was a campaign being waged by the Hindu nationalists in favour of destroying the Barbri Mosque in Ayodhya to replace it with a temple for Hindu god Ram. The Muslims were outraged by the request and began to demonstrate against the move. Moreover, in 1984 the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began in India, the Hindu nationalist party sought to marginalize the Muslim population and assert Hindu dominance over the state’s affairs. By demanding the creation of a Temple in place of the Mosque, the BJP sought to polarize the electorate in India encouraging a vote in favour of the BJP. Between 1984 and 1994 Muslims in the Indian state felt extremely unsafe, there were several outbreaks of violence in Muslim areas in what has been coined the ‘Pan-India Riot Cycles’. Many Muslims point to 1992 as the pinnacle of this insecurity. In 1992, the Barbri Mosque was finally destroyed by the BJP and the demolition was seen as a direct attack on the Muslim community. Feelings of underrepresentation and marginality, which had become an underlying theme in Muslim Indians experience post-partition, was crystallized through this decisive act.
The long-standing tradition of Indian secularism and democracy was further questioned when the BJP entered office in 1998. The demolition of the Mosque precipitated numerous uprisings and riots within Muslim communities and some of the most horrific events took place during the Gujarat riots of 2002; over one thousand people were killed. The demolition of the Mosque had even graver implications; it propelled the Islamists within India to become increasingly radicalized. To this end, SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India) have claimed responsibility for four bomb blasts between 2007 and 2008.
With this background the future for Muslims in the supposedly democratic and secular Indian state seems bleak. Chrisophe Jaffrelot raised important questions regarding the secularism of India and the plight of the Muslim community. However, these pessimistic observations were not without hope. The day before Jaffrelot spoke, the first trial (one of nine) over the events in Gujarat was held. 31 people were acquitted and given life sentences; as such the Muslim community has felt some sort of recognition for what occurred and a sense of hope and vindication. Jaffrelot also commented on the Muslim community losing ground economically and expressed his belief in the solution possibly being the development of specialized state policies to tackle their specific economic issues. The Sachar Committee was appointed in 2005 to deal with social, economic and educational difficulties, specifically within Muslim communities. Despite recognition of the social issues that Muslims have been facing in India post-partition, according to Jaffrelot it appears as though the process of change has been stalled since 2005.
Jaffrelot’s talk was indeed informative and insightful with regards to the many trials and tribulations that several Muslims have faced in India post-partition, but Jaffrelot did end on a note of optimism. It can confidently be said that while efforts are being made to wholeheartedly involve the Muslim community in the successful operation of a secular India, more effective action needs to done to ensure that Indian secularism is saved sooner than later.
– Caitlin MacDonald