Minority Spaces, Majority Anger: Babri and Beyond in India

While we must seek legal, political and societal solutions to the issue of the precarity and vulnerability of Muslim religious spaces, we must also open routes of communication between minorities and historically oppressed groups to find a way to establish the safety of all religious spaces, symbols and presence in the Indian public sphere, suggests…

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While we must seek legal, political and societal solutions to the issue of the precarity and vulnerability of Muslim religious spaces, we must also open routes of communication between minorities and historically oppressed groups to find a way to establish the safety of all religious spaces, symbols and presence in the Indian public sphere, suggests Shayma S.


The Constitution of India, like all other constitutional documents, is a promise. During the anti-CAA protests, poet and activist Aamir Aziz, in an interview to a news outlet, called the Idea of India a ‘khwaab’ – a dream, he said, repeatedly invoked by his grandfather. Dreams are strange things, where disjointed groups of people can come together, much like India. At the time of the framing of the Constitution, India was both promise and dream – albeit mired in a murky socio-political reality, what Dr. Ambedkar in his last speeches to the Constituent Assembly called “a great delusion”, even. He continued, quoting Abraham Lincoln, that “a House divided against itself cannot stand for very long.” Dr. Ambedkar, like the many other foresighted leaders of his generation, knew that the Indian promise, as enshrined in the Constitution, was on a very shaky ground if not addressed quickly at the most basic, social level. And true to his words, the successive governments and leaders have led the nation to a point where the Constitution has been moulded and bent into nothing more than a mild suggestion (oft-ignored), a paper fluttering in the stormy reality of the present.



The anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition has come around again. Two years ago, the Supreme Court simultaneously recognised the demolition to be in the violation of law and also decided the title suit in favour of a trust to be set up to create a temple on the erstwhile disputed site. The response was muted from two scarred generations having witnessed and borne the worst consequences of the demolition, and a generation coming to life on the cusp of it, growing up in the shadow of the Gujarat pogrom, increased surveillance in the era of UAPA, and widespread hate crime.

But soon after, CAA and NRC opened the floodgates of denied justice and actively silenced claims to equal citizenship. A community seen as indifferent and self-victimising, blamed for its own woes, demonised for its ghettoes and being steadily pushed into second-class citizenship offered a blossoming perspective on the concept of citizenship that could put the ivory tower theorisations of it to shame. All it took for the old women of many Muslim localities to put their vulnerable bodies on the line in front of the famed ‘Dil ki Police’ was the disturbing vision of seeing young students attacked and beaten in their libraries, forced to walk with their hands in the air as the men of Hashimpura were forced to do in 1987.



Spaces are shaped by many factors – migration, movement, displacement, et al. Delhi, for instance, has localities that were first emptied of their Muslim residents during the Partition, then of its Sikh residents during 1984, and now being made increasingly inaccessible by eviction, lynching and economic boycotts of the working-class poor. As the academic Ghazala Jamil has noted in her study Accumulation by Segregation, precarity and vulnerability of communities, as well as the exclusion on behalf of the state creates ‘ghettoes’, but Muslims are accused of insisting on living in them because they wish to do no better. Similarly, Muslim students (and their parents) are often accused of having no ‘interest’ in education or being bound by ‘orthodoxy’ not to study further. Muslim girls are assumed to drop out. None of these claims require any backup or evidence.



Structural realities and harsh truths are forgotten in the rush to blame the already marginalised for their own exclusion. If the Muslims of Gurgaon wish not to be attacked and have cow-dung thrown at their namaz spot, well, they just ought not to pray in parks. The absent questions – where are the masjids? Who occupied the waqf lands? (Out of the 22 mosques in Gurgaon, the 19 under waqf control are either in shambles or encroached.) Why would someone choose to pray in a park if they could have a roof over their heads? If they do pray in a park, how does it disturb ‘public order, morality and health’, the three constitutional conditions laid down on the right to freely profess, propagate and practise religion? If the local administration has granted permission for an activity that takes place once a week, how is it permitted for vigilante groups to take action? But Gurgaon is no exception.

This rolling juggernaut of physical exclusion and targeting has seen an uptick in violence across the country. Even as attacks on individuals for their religion continues, there has been an increase in the targeting of physical spaces that symbolise minority presence, distinctly marked out as ‘Others’ in the fantasy of geographical sameness.

The Constitution promises the right to religious freedom, and mandates this right as fundamental in every sense. The restrictions on it with regards to public order, morality and health are very clear. But they have been misused wilfully in many cases. Conversion is the prime example. It has been argued, such as in the case of Hadiya, a Homeopathy student in Kerala who embraced Islam of her free will and later married a Muslim man of her choice, that such conversion not only is coerced but also affects public order. When more than half of Meenakshipuram, a village in Tamil Nadu, embraced Islam in 1981, it was seen as an issue of national public order. Dargahs, long seen by the liberal intelligentsia and civil society as the avenues of ‘syncretism’ and places that are well-populated even by Hindu devotees, are now being attacked such as in Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh. Right-wing elements sung bhajans at Sunday church in Hubbali and Belgaum in Karnataka, police has explicitly told Christians to avoid mass if they wish to avoid attacks (yet again, minorities are responsible for all ill that befalls them).

So – a diversity of issues (a person, an event, or a place) are seen to provoke ‘public order’ and attacked in various ways. What connects these places and events? A few years ago, a video of a Christian woman in Karnataka doing missionary work went viral for all the ‘wrong’ reasons. A single woman with a bunch of pamphlets in physical terms, occupies very little physical space, but she was harassed and sent away. It begs the question – does the mere invocation of alternate religious paradigms and their beliefs in the public sphere create disturbance? Does it demand the need for a law to enable the ‘government surveys of missionaries’ (as has been recently proposed in Karnataka) and at the same time, to permit extra-legal violence on minority spaces (of which there is too much to keep count)?

What disturbs public order? Does targeting young children going to church, or blocking access to prayer spots not disturb public order? When provocative, even violent speeches during the CAA protests, inciting mobs to attack Muslims did not provoke public order, how does the mere existence of minority religious spaces disturb the social fabric of a nation?



More curiously – how does such blatant aversion to certain religiosity co-exist with the protection of religious freedom in a constitutional republic? The Constitution does not disavow the space of religion. Rejecting the European secularism model, it affirmed a unique experiment which would treat all religions and their constituents equally, making adjustment for the prominent place of religion in the Indian society.

The Constituent Assembly debates reveal deep-seated anxieties over issues such as religious conversion, cow protection and the rights of minorities, which were not addressed by a sense of justice, but more from a benevolent allowing of practices that were nevertheless deemed problematic. Many Muslim and Christian leaders attempted to elucidate their anxieties, but the over-arching sentiments of the time were that of unity in crisis and a strong national identity, which would eventually prevail over any true sense of federalism or religious representation.

As Pritam Singh in his study of the Constitution and subsequent major laws’ ‘Hindu bias’ argues, the genesis of an overarching Hindu identity at the cost of others is seeped into the Constitution despite the struggles of Muslim and Christian leaders as well as stalwarts like Dr Ambedkar – whether it is the use of Union over federation (the latter would have allowed for many of the demands of Muslim groups to be addressed), the lumping together of Sikhism and Jainism into Hinduism under Article 25 against the will of the communities and despite constant protest, the emphasis on cow protection and Hindi, and the subsequent Hindu Code Bills, which explicitly treat Islam and Christianity as ‘non-Indic’ religions, with conversion to these religions by one’s spouse declared as fair grounds for divorce or loss of inheritance in some cases.

Nevertheless, the Constitution is a bulwark of minority rights in India. But violating the spirit of Constitution, lawmakers and political outfits have seized upon some of the cracks that are in-built in the framing of the Constitution. The most visible manifestation of this is being seen today in the spread of vigilante action against minorities, particularly Muslims, who are seen as eternally disloyal and invaders. Simultaneously, exclusion is being legalised in the form of laws that reshape the concepts of citizenship, spread the bogeys of love jihad and population growth, and deny rightful citizens their most basic economic, social and political rights.



Recently, many gurudwaras of Gurgaon offered their space for Muslims to offer namaz. There were two reactions to this, primarily – one of appreciation and gratitude, and the other, to reject this as something that was not a real or long-term solution, because Muslims ought to focus on securing mosques and waqf land of their own. However, despite the undeniable validity of the latter argument and despite the fact that under pressure, the offer was rescinded, the offer itself marks a moment of solidarity.

The repurposing of the colonial divide and rule policy in today’s terms has meant that while minorities are lumped together for the purpose of government schemes and fellowships (with little attention to their different needs), they are being actively turned against each other. Rising cases of miscommunication and outright violence, as well as active spread of Islamophobia among non-Muslim minorities has meant that despite widespread movements, there is little solidarity or true comprehension of each other’s needs on the ground level. Producing ‘good’ minorities and ‘bad’ minorities is an undeniable skill of the current dispensation and those that preceded them. So while we must seek legal, political and societal solutions to the issue of the precarity and vulnerability of Muslim religious spaces, we must also open routes of communication between minorities and historically oppressed groups to find a way to establish the safety of all religious spaces, symbols and presence in the Indian public sphere.

[The writer is Sub-Editor of Aura e-magazine]