Anxious, leaderless and scared to voice their views – the Muslim youth in today’s India are facing an existential crisis
“If I get an opportunity, and as soon as I get one, I will leave this country for good. Such is the level of anxiety I feel under the current regime, I am worried about my safety and my family’s safety,” says Fatima, an ex-journalist, now working with a startup in Mumbai.
In contrast, Amir, a student at IIM says, “Given the chance and if I ever want to leave Kashmir, I would want to settle down in Delhi. I really like the beauty of the city and I feel the recent riots were not an exact depiction of the mindset of the people in the city. They have been moved by certain narratives but those narratives cannot last forever.”
These are the two of ends of the spectrum that one comes across while talking to Indian Muslim youth, giving an insight into their mindset and how they feel in the current times. And the more we talk to them and hear their stories, it becomes clear that these statements have not been made without due cause.
‘Can’t have an opinion’
Muslims account for 14.9% of the population in India and are represented by 27 MPs in the current Lok Sabha. Despite this, a large part of the Muslim youth chooses not to express their political opinions in social gatherings and on social media. What do they fear? It’s the repercussions that follows, that too from their peers, not the older generation.
The desire to not be painted with the ‘terror-sympathizer brush’ and being called an ‘anti-national’ is so strong that most maintain a minimal presence on social media, going to the extent of not even liking or commenting on posts.
“When the triple talaq debate was raging across social media platforms, I chose to express my views from the legal perspective. Coming from a legal background, I was under the impression that many, if not most people on my social media list would be open to having a discussion on it. However, I was soon proven wrong. My argument that criminal proceedings should not be initiated on a civil matter made me the target of ridicule and I was branded as sexist.
“Beyond that, the language used by my own peers studying in some of the country’s best law schools was so reprehensible that since then I have unfriended many of them. Now I post only about work, nothing else — no politics,” says Anwar, a PhD scholar pursuing International Law at one of the country’s finest law schools.
Fatima and Amir also echo Anwar’s thoughts, and they too, have had to unfriend people on Facebook because of the consistent trolling, and eventually stopped using the social media platform to express their political views. However, some people chose a different approach. Zain, a lawyer practising lawyer in the Supreme Court, who is vocal about his political opinions, started using more of Twitter and Instagram than Facebook, where trolling became unbearable. He, too, had to cut off many people from his social media who either indulged in uncivil language or would outright use words like “anti-national” and ‘jihadi’ to discredit his opinions.
Unfriending people, even blocking them and choosing not to express political and social opinions are some of the steps that the people we talked to expressed, but it is in no way the end of it.
‘Made aware of my Muslim identity’
“Earlier everyone used to greet me on Eid, but now most make it a point not to wish me on Eid-ul-Zuha. Why? Because they do not agree with the way we celebrate it — performing the mandatory sacrifice. And I see no sense in it. If everyone were to do this soon only people of that religion who believe in the rituals being performed will be wishing each other– that I believe is not the culture of India,” says Anwar.
Echoing his thoughts, most people expressed how they had either been ridiculed for following their customs or were blatantly ignored by people from other communities they grew up with.
The more these youngsters talk about their experiences, the more evident it becomes that they had all at some point, some more than others, faced the problem of religious profiling or had to find ways to circumvent hurdles they faced due to their Muslim identity.
“I live with two flatmates, both of whom are Hindu, but my name is not in the apartment’s lease. The broker informed us that my name would potentially make it very difficult for us to find a place in a good area of the Mumbai city. Even while looking for apartments, my flatmates would go to look at places, while I stayed back”, informs Fatima.
“And this is not just in this situation that I have been made aware of my Muslim identity… At the passport office, while most of the officials were very professional, a lady conducting the final interview, smiled, and said, “Muslim ho, ab kya hoga (You’re a Muslim? What will happen now)”, while referring to CAA. I didn’t know what to say. Also, I did not want any problems in the process so I just smiled back and responded: ‘Will wait and see’.”
This unabashed profiling on religious grounds is not something new, and its effect on the mindset of Muslim youth cannot be ignored. Being made aware and constantly reminded of their Muslim identity, something not many were so acutely aware of prior the coming to the power of the current regime, has succeeded in creating the divide between ‘us’ vs ‘them’. And “Despite there being a lot of people who go out of their way to ensure that these narratives do not get to us by telling us that this is your country too and we are with you”, as put by Fatima, one cannot help wonder why such situations are even allowed to even arise.
‘Us vs Them’
This profiling has also led to is the over sensitisation of the Muslim youth. Controversial topics they were earlier unaware of or had no interest in, like the Ram Mandir/Babri Masjid dispute are now something they feel strongly about, yet choose to avoid talking about to avoid a clash of opinions with peers, friends, and even colleagues.
“I was in the Supreme Court premises the day the verdict of the Ayodhya dispute was pronounced. After the judgement, there were loud chants of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Mandir wahi banaenge’ within the building’s compound. I thought this was something that should not have been allowed within the land’s highest court’s compound, but I chose not to say anything about it because I knew that reactions to my raising the issue would be hostile, to say the least,” says Zain.
These things do not stop within the confines of social, political or even ideological debates anymore. A large section of the working Muslim youth now feels that they have to be hyper objective in their workplaces. Comments like “Arey aap jaante nahi inhe, ye log apne ghar ki chato pe ladai ka samaan rakhte hai (You don’t know, these people are prepared to fight)”, made in reference to the Delhi riots have to be swept under the carpet.
While talking about being hyper-objective, she says that a big reason behind her wanting to move to another country is because she doesn’t feel she has the liberty to express herself in any way. “Working in media, I am constantly helping in content development, and when I do, I always have this nagging feeling that I have to be careful about the content I create because my name opens my work to a lot more rigorous scrutiny than I feel is necessary.”
The situation gets even worse, the more the “us vs them” narrative is peddled the more one witnesses the ghettoisation of social circles and the more we witness the adoption of a hardline approach to religion and politics in Muslim families and the Muslim youth.
‘Soft Islamophobia is okay’
When it comes to avoiding confrontations, Amir says, “During my undergraduate years in Delhi, I was in a situation where I was asked to touch the feet of a senior administrative staff’s feet (as in the norm in Hindu culture) while apologising for a mistake I had made, which I did. But, because I was uncomfortable doing so, I told the official’s peon that I want to apologise, but I can’t touch his feet. To which he replied “Tum saale k***e aise hi hote ho” (You people are like this only), knowing fully well that I should not have tolerated such language, I let my Kashmiri Muslim identity get the better of me and did not respond”.
This approach to avoiding all confrontations at all costs has been detrimental to the mental state of today’s youth, where they feel they cannot express themself and at times, have to tolerate abusive language and behaviour. This has also given rise to the idea that soft Islamophobia is okay. Comments ranging from “Most of you guys marry four times”, to girls posing questions like “Will I be the only one or will you marry another after some time, second wife?”, and “Love jehad to nahi kar rahe? (You are not doing Love Jihad, right)” are allowed to slide.
“One thing that I have experienced that we, Muslims, have been apologists, and have in the past swept these soft Islamophobic comments under the carpet,” Fatima says.
“Leaderless but hopeful”
The avoidance to speak up against what they feel is wrong has also led to a larger issue – the issue of representation in the country’s government. Currently, there are 27 Muslim MPs in the Lok Sabha. However, when asked about who they see as a leader willing to forward their views and can represent their ideals, Muslim youngsters do not have any clear answers. Some, after careful deliberation, say that maybe Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress or Asaduddin Owaisi of the AIMIM could be leaders they can get behind.
But even here, they have their apprehensions. They say, “With Mamata Banerjee, appeasement politics is a big issue and it is something that should not be allowed to sway voters anymore. Similarly, though they feel that while speeches by Asaduddin Owaisi in Parliament, invoking the Constitution to validate his points are appealing, his Muslim-centric approach won’t do much good.”
As such, it won’t be wrong to say that the Muslim youth is lacking a leader, they feel can represent their views and address their problems.
Even as the problems these youngsters are facing compound, a ray of hope still shines. Narrating an incident, Amir recalls his time in Jasola amid the anti-CAA protests. “I chanced upon a mob of saffron bandana-wearing and lathi brandishing mob headed towards the Shaheen Bagh protest site. It was pretty evident that I am a Muslim, sporting a long beard and my Kashmiri features could not be hidden by my facial hair. Even then, when I asked a man from the mob to help me locate an address, he happily asked a vendor close by to escort me to to the said address. That made me realise that people often target their hate towards one another because they fall prey to narratives built to fulfil political aims and that people, in general, are not inherently hateful”.
While there is despondency in the will to express social and political opinions, there are still some things that if preserved can ensure the survival of the secular and tolerant fabric of the country. However, if the youth from the Muslim community continues to feel the way it does today, the situation might become too broken to be salvaged.
All names have been changed on request.
(Cover: Muslim youth in India today is anxious about its future and the current socio-political scenario in the country // Photo: Getty Images)