Echoes of racism in the treatment of Muslims in India

Faheem Haider

This year on Nelson Mandela International Day, historic speeches were made warning of an unprecedented attack on our democracy. However, they were missing something, something big.

In just a few weeks, India will complete 75 years of independence. British India faced a terrible gulf between the talk of independence and the reality of imperialism. Under the leadership of leaders from different religions, for example Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Azad, India began its journey to become a nation of people with diverse ideologies and a secular democracy. But what will India be like 75 years from now?

Mandela Day encourages us to remember Nelson Mandela and the world's efforts to end apartheid and promote peace, and I remember all that India did for South Africa.

When the West turned a blind eye to my country for decades, India stood by us. Supported us and raised our voice.

We got our Gandhi in the form of my grandfather Nelson Mandela. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi's thinking was shaped by his experience in South Africa. Their conscience was shaken by the racism and supremacy that once existed in my country.

Mandela himself once praised Gandhi's role in creating 'the first democratic political institution in Africa' in 1991 with the help of South Africa's Hindu community. Indeed, Mandela and many in the African National Congress were strongly opposed to the apartheid government's various attempts to deport the country's large South Asian population.

But I have a concern. I am concerned that the world's largest democracy, long a hope for the global South, is increasingly in danger of becoming what it once stood for in selflessness.

Demolition of houses, systematic discrimination and mob violence with the help and encouragement of the police. Even the ban on marriages. If this sounds like South Africa 75 years ago, you wouldn't be wrong. But I am talking about today's India where Islamophobia has been mainstreamed and institutionalized to the point that India is vulnerable to a system that is as unequal as apartheid.

Only last week, the last Muslim legislator of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) resigned, leaving not a single Muslim MP in the ruling party. In this context, there are about 200 million Muslims in India, one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, and now all of them lack even basic representation. Many Christians also face discrimination with great activity.

More recently, BJP leaders used insulting words for the Prophet of Islam, jeopardizing the country's important diplomatic ties. India took a belated step after retaliating on the economic front from neighboring countries such as Iran, Qatar and Kuwait.

This does not mean that there were no cases of prejudice or violence against Hindus. A recent report by Rutgers University in the US noted the rise of Hindu phobia on social media, and India's ambassador to the United Nations, TS Tirumurthy, recently noted that contemporary forms of religious phobia, particularly Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh Condemned the emergence of opposing sentiments.

As seen in India but also in France and the US, Islamophobic views are no longer limited in society. They have become normal and mainstream and have increasingly become part of the narratives of major political parties and governments around the world. Outright Islamophobic sentiments leading to collective stigma for Muslims have led to an increasing number of hate crimes.

The international community seems to have forgotten that small incidents of discrimination can eventually lead to world-changing events. And neglecting such actions in times of great economic, geopolitical and political instability can have dire consequences.

Apart from political and economic intervention, we also need the power of moral leadership. And as we saw in the case of Gandhi and Desmond Tutu and the great religious figures who initiated the peace-building process that had an impact for generations. This should probably be done by the religious leaders themselves.

Recently, Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest sites, hosted an interfaith summit led by Dr. Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Al Isa, head of the Muslim World League, the world's largest Islamic non-governmental organization.

By inviting religious leaders from around the world, including South Asian Muslims and Hindus, to discuss common values, Saudi Arabia was able to make a strong call for cooperation. India should have been at the forefront of this effort and could have adopted these efforts and expanded their reach.

Actually my grandfather had great faith in the power of true Hindu ideals to fight injustice. He drew on Hindu traditions in his resistance to apartheid. Especially by celebrating Diwali when he was in prison on Robben Island.

They celebrated Diwali going against the norm. In 1992, when a Hindu propagandist compared Mandela to the South African god Rama, he refused to accept the act in a dignified manner.

Furthermore, Mandela often pointed to India's bold stand against colonialism as proof that our struggle could succeed because we had friends and allies all over the world and that our cause was truly universal.

He worked to make our country a multi-ideological democracy like India where people of all religions and backgrounds have interest and voice. So as we reflect on Mandela Day, I hope that Indian citizens will remember the date and ask what it was. Our country travelled from the worst of racism to an incomplete democracy but I fear that India is taking the opposite path.

When India fought for freedom, there were very few examples of real democracy anywhere in the world. But 75 years ago, in the era of hideous religious segregation, bitter ethnic factionalism and brutal imperialism, India made better choices. And the world was better for it. So today I ask, who will India choose now?