What is it like to grow up Muslim in modern India? A book by Nazia Erum attempts to answer that question.
A few days ago, I was at a backpackers’ hostel in Delhi, escaping the heat by reading Nazia Erum’s book Mothering A Muslim. Intrigued by the title, a man in the common room asked if he could borrow it for a few minutes. I was slightly irritated but did not refuse. He leafed through the introduction, and said, “This is so true! There are all these crazy people in our country going around calling Muslims ‘terrorists’ but they themselves are the real troublemakers. They spot a long beard, a kurta, and a skull cap, and off they go threatening our Muslim brothers and saying: Go to Pakistan!”
The man I was talking with was a cop in plain clothes. He was in Delhi on a special assignment, and was staying at the hostel to be in a fun environment where he could meet people from different cultures under one roof. I was surprised by his endorsement of the book. Too often, I have come across news reports about police brutality faced by innocent Muslim men on account of their appearance and attire. My prejudice was laid bare, and I wanted to hide my face in embarrassment.
Erum’s book is a collection of anecdotes from Muslim women in urban India narrating their experiences of motherhood in a political climate that is considered to be hostile towards Muslims. It dives into the fears they face, and the strategies they invent to keep their children safe from bullying, discrimination and violence in schools and on playgrounds. It is an important publication because it documents instances of fundamental freedoms being compromised and citizens being deprived of their rights on the grounds of religion.
Erum’s own daughter was born in 2014, the year that the Bharatiya Janata Party formed a government at the centre and gave India a Prime Minister who has been chastised by civil society and human rights organizations for supporting the mass murder of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Narendra Modi has not been pronounced guilty by any court of law, but Erum wanted to know how Muslim mothers like herself were coping with the aftermath of the election results. She reached out to 145 families over a year for the research, and interviewed mothers as well as children. Her data is gold because it tells stories that are mostly missing from school records as well as mainstream media due to under-reporting by victims. However, it does not seem representative enough to make a case for the whole of India. Her examples are largely from cities like Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Lucknow, Noida and Hyderabad.
She writes, “To begin with, I was clear I did not want to speak with women living in all-Muslim neighbourhoods. I wanted families, like mine, who have always lived in mixed localities and prefer to do so. Families that actively live the idea of India in their day-to-day lives.” When I read this, here are the questions that arose in my mind: Is an-all Muslim neighbourhood perceived to be a ghetto inhabited by the socio-economically backward and the overtly religious who have not fully integrated themselves into a secular state? Is living in a mixed locality a sign of intellectual and moral superiority? What does it mean to live the idea of India when you identify both as a Muslim and as a liberal? These questions are not explored in the book with the depth they deserve.
The strength of the book lies in advocacy, not analysis. It is built on the idea that Muslim children should not be made to feel unsafe because of their religious affiliation, and that it is unfair to label them as ‘terrorists’ or ask them to go to Pakistan. It outlines a number of measures that schools can adopt to protect Muslim children from hate speech and abuse, promote diversity, and encourage inter-faith interactions. However, the book is weakened by its lack of critical rigour. The entrenched hatred towards Muslims is attributed to the bigotry of parents, the propaganda of media channels, and the divisive rhetoric of vile politicians. While these are inarguably crucial points of concern, it would have been useful to investigate how school textbooks produced by state agencies and private publishers plant stereotypes in children’s minds.
Why is it that numerous Indian children grow up thinking of Pakistan as the place where Muslims belong? How is the two-nation theory taught in schools, and does it impact the way children think of nationality and citizenship in relation to religious identity today? What kind of oral histories do Partition survivors from Sikh, Hindu and Jain families narrate to their grandchildren, and do these narratives generate antagonism towards Muslims? These are obvious questions that the book appears to overlook. In engaging with these, it could have stumbled upon ways of understanding the mindset of aggressors who bully Muslim children in schools and playgrounds.
The author compares Islamophobia in India with Islamophobia in the United States of America, but does not place it in the context of violence against minorities in the South Asian region — for instance, Rohingyas in Bangladesh, or Tamils in Sri Lanka, or Christians, Hindus and Ahmedis in Pakistan. Not all of the violence is of recent origin. It has antecedents in colonial history. Religious divides seem to have deepened in India since 2014 but it would be incorrect to say that schools were untouched by the politics of religious identity before that. Accounts of survivors from the Partition of 1947 show that schools in that period were known to have separate pitchers of water for Muslim children and Hindu children.
The reasons or assumptions behind Erum’s selection of respondents become clear as one moves further into the book. It is important to examine them because they reveal prejudices that Indian Muslims hold towards each other. Erum speaks of the ‘haraam police’ — Muslims who are self-appointed guardians of the faith, determining whether fellow Muslims are living out their lives in accordance with scripture or the will of Allah. Contrast them with Muslims who establish their secular and liberal credentials by scoffing at fellow Muslims who wear burqas and beards, and do not eat in Hindu homes.
The book takes into account how the class factor shapes the ways in which Indian Muslims wear their identity. It expresses concern over how Muslim youth are being lured by extremist organizations such as the ISIS, and how Wahhabi influences are making Indian Muslims more dogmatic in their thinking. These are realities that Muslim mothers in India have to contend with, and Erum does a fine job of painting this broad canvas. However, she shies away from acknowledging the caste distinctions that permeate Muslim society in India, which do inform which occupations people take up, which neighbourhoods they live in, which schools they send their children to, and how they perform their Muslimness. Some of Erum’s respondents do speak patronizingly, even derisively, of fellow Muslims who go to the mosque for the early morning namaaz, fast for Ramzan, or make their living from jobs considered unclean.
It is also worth interrogating why the word ‘Pakistani’ is consider a slur. Is it only because Muslims are expected to continually prove their loyalty to India, and not be seen as sympathetic towards Pakistan? How do Muslims in India today look at Muslims who decided to migrate to the newly formed Pakistan in 1947? Despite the possibility of being branded as anti-national, what makes Muslim families in India continue to forge marital alliances with Muslim families in Pakistan? How do Indian Muslims relate to other minorities in India?
One of Erum’s respondents mentions how she regrets the fact that her community did not stand up for Sikhs who were massacred in Delhi, and Pandits who were exiled from Kashmir. This is an unexpected moment in a book that is otherwise exclusively invested in looking at the situation of Muslims in present day India. It is also a wake-up call for people who are silent now because their freedom and security are not under threat.