Indian Muslims Want Dignity, Not Land

Muslims participate in a prayer to maintain peace and harmony across India ahead of the Supreme Court verdict on the disputed religious site of Ayodhya. Source SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty

By Farah Naqvi 21 November 2019

Why you should care

The world’s largest democracy has long stood for secularism. Its biggest minority now feels threatened like never before.

“If the judgment had gone in favor of ‘the Muslim’ party, our blood would have flowed on the streets! Right-wing hordes would have descended on the land.… That is the simple truth. Why is it that no one has the courage to just say that?” These angry words burst from a young Muslim student at Delhi University. He said it as only the young can — simply and directly, shorn of legal sophistry or academic qualifiers.

I knew he would burst if he didn’t speak, about how he felt, how humiliated, how small, how angry, how helpless. “Is this what Muslims are reduced to? You take our land, you destroy a historic mosque, burn our homes, lead riots against us and then you get rewarded. Muslims have to fight this. We have to lead this fight. Let secular Hindus join us.…”

In December 1992, a mob of right-wing activists affiliated with the now-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi destroyed the 16th-century Babri Masjid, claiming that it had been built on a temple at the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. On Nov. 9, India’s Supreme Court — which is hearing a separate case on the demolition itself — gave the entire area where the mosque once stood to a trust to construct a temple. In its place, the court offered 5 acres of land elsewhere for the construction of a mosque.

What has caused their seething is not just the patent injustice of the verdict but also but the enforced silence about it.

Lots of young educated Muslims I’ve spoken to in the past few days are echoing what the Delhi University student said. Some want to reject the land offered as compensation outright. Others speak of building a hospital or a school. Several young people imagine creating a memorial to the riot victims of 1992–93 — hundreds had died across the country in violence that followed the mosque demolition. Others want a memorial to all victims of the spree of lynching that preceded the judgment.

What has caused their seething is not just the patent injustice of the verdict but also the enforced silence about it.

(FILES) In this December 6, 1992 photogr
In this Dec. 6, 1992, photograph, Indian Hindu fundamentalists attack the wall of the Babri Mosque with iron rods at a disputed holy site in the city of Ayodhya. Source DOUGLAS E. CURRAN/AFP via Getty

The narrative of “peace at last,” “just resolution,” “let us move on,” “balanced judgment” has been aggressively pushed. Under the garb of “not vitiating communal harmony” the government has sought to intimidate voices less than welcoming of the judgment. Many Indians, many Muslims — and please remember their overall number stands at some 200 million — are feeling wounded. Can they not even show the depth of their cut, let alone seek balm, even in words?

Denial of pain leads to trauma. What these young people are asking for is not even close to justice. It is mere acknowledgment. They are asking others to bear witness. Healing can only come from listening to them speaking their truth, as they experience it, through their eyes, memories and hearts. Not from shutting them down and wiping out their voices from all public dialogue and expression.

Some, like Asaduddin Owaisi, an articulate politician from Hyderabad, are filling this gap for many young Muslims. Owaisi said that the Supreme Court is supreme, not infallible; that justice has not been done. And that the battle was for justice, so Muslims should not accept the 5 acres of land. He did not call for armed revolution or a boycott of goods. He just said something that occurred to many people. And this small act of sanity makes him a hero for many young Muslims. Because no one else is saying a thing.

Not the main opposition party, the Congress, whose liberal Muslim face, Salman Khurshid, says Muslims “now have a chance to show grace, generosity and reaching out to claim a place in contribution to true national integration and unity.” Reach out? Claim a place? Contribute to national unity? Was that place not theirs all this while?

Nor is the left saying anything. Even young liberal politicians such as Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar are quiet. An odd silence hangs in their Twitter timelines between Nov. 8 and Nov. 11. The judgment comes and goes. Not a tweet. Not a whisper. They’ve revealed themselves to be selectively vocal, selectively just.

This frightening blanket of liberal silence only makes stronger the majority certitude that the despair of the Muslim in contemporary India is a figment of the imagination, illegitimate and wholly unjustified. In truth, acknowledging this sentiment is just not worth the political risk for anyone.

Even as Owaisi plays the role of public truth-teller and psychological balm for many Muslims, he too resonates only with Muslims. That is how he wants it, and plays it. And ultimately, even a minority up against the wall wants a little door open into the mainstream.

This is not peace.

Reject the 5 acres. Or use it to build a world-standard law university. Call it IQRA, the first revealed word of the Quran. It means “read.” This would be a lasting reminder of the need to revisit and redeem the pledge of justice, and symbolically ground the idea of equal respect for all faiths as a marker of secular India. But the Supreme Court has granted land for a “compensation” mosque, and such mosque alone. Are our lordships — who have traveled through time, navigating brave new worlds of religion and myth — capable of entering that most fundamental of all realms, the human need for dignity, the foundational battle against erasure?