India is home to roughly 172 million Muslims – the third-largest Muslim population in the world. Since 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, tensions between Muslims and Hindus have increased in large parts of the country.
According to some, the perception of Muslim is restricted to wearing skull cap, praying five times a day and so on and so forth.
The political situation in the country and increased anti-Muslim prejudice forced Neyaz Farooquee, a young Muslim scholar and journalist, to write his first book, An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism: Growing up Muslim in India.
The memoir, Farooquee says, tries to clear the many myths and stereotypes about the community and highlights the diversity within the community and their lived reality.
Incidents like the demolition of the medieval era Babri mosque in 1992 by Hindu nationalist mobs and the 2008 police encounter in a Muslim ghetto in India’s capital, New Delhi – that the book mentions has changed the relations of Muslims with the Indian state.
The demolition of Babri mosque – a watershed event that mainstreamed India’s Hindu far-right groups – deeply affected the psyche of Indian Muslims leading to their distrust of the state institutions.
Published exactly 10 years after the 2008 New Delhi encounter, this work provides its readers with a transparent view of the making and unmaking of the controversial encounter, after which the generalisation of Muslims of the area as “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathisers” continues to haunt them.
The memoir evocatively depicts the atmosphere he grew up in a remote village in eastern Bihar state. His grandfather taught him about writings of Kabir, Allama Iqbal, Amir Khusru, Guru Nanak, Chanakya and many more, highlighting the plurality of knowledge sources.
“At 20, you don’t understand the complexities of identity and citizenship. The work in a way focuses on how the 2008 encounter shook my trust in the state. I am sure it’s true for many people in the locality,” Farooquee told Al Jazeera.
Al Jazeera spoke to author Farooquee in New Delhi.
Al Jazeera: What is it like growing up as a Muslim in India?
Neyaz Farooquee: It is a very difficult question to answer in merely few words. There is something that forces you to write about discrimination or exclusion of Muslim and their identity in the society.
Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s India was peculiar in many ways – the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power for the first time. Though my generation is more confident about their identity, a discourse driven by the right-wing doesn’t go beyond stereotypes of Muslims.
It bogs down young Muslims like us – where to draw a line between the assertion of your identity and defence of your identity.
Al Jazeera: Why do you think Muslims are under attack from Hindu far-right groups?
Farooquee: Anti-Muslim bigotry has been normalised in the democratic process of the country under Modi. It is an attack on the Constitution, not merely on the Muslim community. Muslims are not asking any special favour, they are merely asking what is provided by the Constitution.
Hindutva (the Hindu supremacist ideology professed by the ruling party) needs an enemy to survive, and hence, Muslims are their prime enemy.
Al Jazeera: What do you mean by the word “radical” as you mentioned in your book?
Farooquee: There are many reasons why I used radicalism in the title. One was that after the 2008 police shoot-out in my locality, the media reporting had no nuance. They painted a picture of the locality as if it was a hotbed of radicalism [a euphemism for] “terror activity”, and residents as radicals and terror sympathisers.
So, my point is that if you are going to call me a radical, I will also call myself a radical – now go and deal with it, because I am tired of explaining my innocence and proclaiming patriotism.
But that was an angry reaction.
Muslims are usually slapped with terms like ‘anti-national’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘terrorist’, which I have rebutted in my book
Neyaz Farooquee, author
On one level, I am trying to warn that if you ghettoise people, it will create a homogenous set of ideas and mindset. And this is true for every form of ghetto, be it of disadvantaged sections like Muslims and Dalits or of dominant castes like Brahmins. That’s not healthy for any society, that’s a warning sign.
On another level, the title is more of a satirical take on the understanding of Muslims by society at large. What do you first assume when you see “Muslim” and “Radicalism” in one sentence? Why do you not assume it’s a satire and not really a guide to radicalism?
Al Jazeera: You have mentioned demolition of the Babri Mosque and controversial Batla House encounter. Why did you choose to talk about these two incidents?
Farooquee: The [Babri mosque] incident of 1992 was unfortunate and a landmark incident in India’s recent history. It was basically a betrayal of trust by the democracy and our constitution that guaranteed us (Muslims) safety and equality. Inherent in this guarantee was our dignity and safeguard of our culture and religious spaces. Babri’s demolition was a betrayal of that fragile trust.
As a byproduct of the incident, few positives things came out, too. Enrolment rate of Muslims improved, they started demanding their rights, and began to question their leaders. It was in some sense politicisation of the community, which became aware of its place in the society.
When the Babri mosque was demolished, we were too young to understand what was going on. Cases like the shoot-out in my locality, on a personal level, were a big reason for my politicisation, and I am sure it’s true for a lot of Muslims.
Al Jazeera: You refer to Jamia Nagar, a sprawling ghetto of Muslims in New Delhi, as “The Hideout”. Please elaborate.
Farooquee: I have used similar names for chapters for satirical reasons. As often is the case while reporting on terrorism – and I was a close witness to that in the 2008 police shoot-out – police and media used words like “terrorists”, “hideout”, “cache of arms”, “sleeper cells”, etc. When they used similar terms for my area, it was so hard for me to digest.
The area where I was living for more than a decade started looking scary overnight. I thought let’s use that memory and connotation in my book. So, to describe my house, I am using “hideout”, to describe my memory of childhood when I was taught patriotism and jingoism by my grandfather, I am calling it “cache of memory”, and likewise.
I came to Jamia Nagar in 1997 and saw this place growing up with me. The Gujarat riot of 2002 brought demographic change in this area. Earlier, Jamia Nagar was full of lower middle class and was a populated with small-scale industries, but 2002 compelled the affluent Muslims, who lived in mixed colonies in other parts of Delhi to shift to the area, strengthening the ghettoisation process. It completed what had started after the Babri mosque’s demolition in 1992.
Al Jazeera: How have the last four years of Narendra Modi government been for minorities?
Farooquee: Cabinet ministers and other leaders from the BJP have been targeting the minority community, accusing them of being anti-nationals and terrorists. Muslims have been lynched over rumours of beef eating. Anti-Muslim bigotry has been normalised in the democratic process of the country under Modi.
Muslims are stereotyped as a dirty, uneducated, violent mass of people
Neyaz farooquee, author
The saddest part is that the marginalisation of Muslims is happening through the democratic processes – the Modi-led lower house of the parliament has the least number of Muslim MPs since independence, and there is not a single Muslim representative from Uttar Pradesh, where the largest number of Muslims live. Democracy was not supposed to alienate, it was supposed to empower every individual.
It’s not news any more that Muslims are being pushed to the margins. Even big Bollywood stars such as Aamir Khan or Shah Rukh Khan are attacked and trolled and dubbed anti-development after they question bigotry.
Al Jazeera: How do you think your book will help in dispelling myths and stereotypes about the Muslim community?
Farooquee: Though the book is about my experience, many Muslim youths will be able to connect with it. I have got feedback from many young readers and almost all of them said they could see themselves in my story.
As a Muslim, my upbringing was influenced by Kabir, Chanakya, Guru Nanak, Prophet Muhammad, Ram, Iqbal and so on. But according to some, the idea and perception of Muslims are restricted to wearing a skull cap, praying five times a day and so on and so forth.
In reality, Muslim children are taught “Sare Jahan se Acha” (The Most Beautiful Place on the Earth is India), “Is khaak se uthe hai is khaak me mileng” (Have Risen From This Soil, Will Mingle in This Soil) [written in Urdu language], but society does not recognise it, or is hardly aware of it. Muslims are usually slapped with terms like “anti-national”, “Pakistani”, “terrorist”, which I have rebutted in my book.
Al Jazeera: What is the message in your book?
Farooquee: Muslims are not seen as normal people who are in search of livelihood, education and dignity like millions of other Indians. They are stereotyped as a dirty, uneducated, violent mass of people. The whole point of the book is to treat an individual as an individual. Muslims are not playing victim, they are the victim.
I hope readers will empathise with the arguments that am making in the book.