Being a Muslim anywhere in Asia is no passport to a bed of roses. Not even in the continent’s Muslim-majority lands. Thus, in mostly Shia Iran, twenty-three-year-old Mohsen Shekari was hanged in Tehran in December for allegedly injuring a member of the official militia while protesting the death in September of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, who had objected to the regime’s stern dress code for women. Amini and Shekari are only two among the many Iranians who’ve paid a heavy price for little more than expressing their opinion.
In Iran’s Sunni-majority neighbour Afghanistan, a recently imposed ban on university education for women drove a young university lecturer identified as Ismail Mashal to rip his certificates into pieces before a TV audience. “If my mother and sister cannot study,” declared the lecturer, “then I do not accept this education.” How Taliban-ruled Afghanistan can rejoin the world community and begin to lighten its citizens’ burdens is hard to picture at this point.
In fact, it is hard today to identify many Asian nations where the average Muslim feels proud and secure. While Bangladesh, which holds the fourth-largest Muslim population in the world, has seen impressive progress in literacy, health, and per capita income, there are solid questions about that country’s democracy.
Containing more Muslims at this point than any other country, Indonesia headed the G20 assemblage until the end of last year, when the baton was handed to India. Holding national elections regularly from 1999, and possessing significant, though depleting, reserves of oil, Indonesia is ranked 52 in the Democracy Index maintained by an organisation linked to the British journal of historic standing, The Economist. While recognising that an index of this kind must have imperfections, we may nonetheless note that this Democracy Index places Malaysia 39th in the world. India is ranked at 46, Singapore at 66, Sri Lanka at 67, Bangladesh at 75, Bhutan at 81, Nepal at 101, Pakistan at 104, and China at 148. (Norway is placed first.)
Two Buddhist countries that lie very close to India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, have, in recent years, witnessed the promotion of anti-Muslim drives, while Myanmar has, in addition, seen merciless attacks on dissenters of every kind. As for our own land, the deepening anxieties of India’s Muslims are known to many of their non-Muslim compatriots, who, of course, form the great majority. Most Muslims in India remain prudently silent about their worries, but on occasion a frank remark escapes their lips.
“Find jobs abroad and, if possible, take citizenships there.” This is what the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Abdul Bari Siddiqui, a former Bihar minister, is reported to have told his son studying in the United States of America as also his daughter studying in London. In a widely seen video, Siddiqui adds that his son and daughter “would not be able to cope in today’s India”. Siddiqui’s unmistakable allusion was to the hostility that many of India’s Muslims appear to confront at this time.
Some found his words unpalatable and provocative. Nikhil Anand, a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman in Bihar, commented: “Siddiqui’s remarks are anti-India. If he is feeling so stifled, he should… move to Pakistan. Nobody will stop him.” Several TV channels aired the Siddiqui video and the BJP’s response.
Was Siddiqui’s remark really that outrageous? Haven’t millions of Hindu fathers and mothers in India also said to a son or daughter, ‘Find a job abroad and, if possible, take citizenship there?’ Doesn’t the government of India proudly advertise its efforts to enlarge the quotas that rich countries set for visas for young Indians for study and also for long-term employment?
Moreover, why would Siddiqui or any Indian Muslim wish to go to Pakistan? The economy there seems to be sinking. Politicians are at war with one another and, at this point, the Pakistan army doesn’t seem to know whether or when to assume direct control, something it has periodically done. Top military leaders have been accused of amassing vast fortunes. The province of Balochistan is home to insurgency and repression. Inside Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or KPK (the former ‘Frontier Province’), the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has strengthened extremist groups. And Pakistan’s Christian and Hindu minorities, the latter concentrated in Sindh Province, seem as insecure as ever.
It is, in fact, an open secret that countries like the US, the United Kingdom, Germany, a few other European nations, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand offer greater personal security and liberty to Muslims than most Muslimmajority lands. It wasn’t very long ago that India too could claim itself as a place where Muslims felt safe, but the picture has changed quite dramatically.
At this time, when China’s drive to become the next superpower has run into serious hurdles, India still has the opportunity to return in the world’s mind as democracy’s hope. However, that challenge does not attract our energy and passion today. We want, above all, to persuade ourselves, with scant evidence, that ‘the world is finally recognising India’s greatness’. Acknowledging the anxieties of our Muslim brothers and sisters is the last thing on the minds of our land’s most influential men and women.
This means that the responsibility cast on the shoulders of India’s Muslims is immense. With much of the Muslim world in ugly disarray, with their Hindu compatriots focused elsewhere and indifferent when they are not antagonistic, what can India’s Muslims do? Going abroad is an option for only a handful of them.
In a dream scenario, India’s Muslims would fight their way back to real equality with their Hindu compatriots, and they would do so with fraternity, courage, and wisdom. By doing this, they would also offer hope to India’s neighbours and to the entire Muslim world.
However, we live not in a dateless dream world but in the India that exists at the start of 2023. Moreover, even in a dream, it would be unfair to ask an apprehensive minority to lead a journey towards trust and partnership.
Yet one thing is certain. It is the inalienable right of any and every Indian to fight for dignity, equality, and liberty, and, simultaneously, offer fraternity to his or her compatriots. A Muslim Indian’s right to do this is not less than that of a Hindu. Not one nanogram less.
Rajmohan Gandhi’s latest book is India After 1947: Reflections and Recollections