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The Vilification of the Tablighi Jamaat Interview with Dr. Ambreen Agha by Sahil Philip

Q- In your recent article on The Hindu, you had interestingly written that the Tablighi Jamaat group was “apolitical” in nature. Could you bring more context into this?

A.A – I believe that there is nothing apolitical per say. Everything is very, very political. There is a special meaning to the ‘apolitical’, defined by single quotes that I mentioned in the article that you are referring to. Even Tabligh has its own politics. There exists a politics of silence and distancing over critical issues of politics. Tabligh may not take various stance on politics which concern Muslims, but it has its politics and that can be seen in its gender ideology and cultural separatism that they practice. But they claim to be apolitical – distancing themselves from issues that are directly political or that have direct political implications. What happened with the Tabligh group needs to be seen in the larger spectrum of communal politics happening in India today. This has been the framework of governance of India today; or rather the misgovernance practiced by the right-wing. So communal politics acts as the framework of governance today. This poison of communal polarisation has been gradually and systematically injected into society. In fact, the second victory of Modi in 2019, can be seen as a consolidation of Hindu votes. This very movement of politics in India, the way I see it, is Hindu revivalism. We see it today coming in the social and political landscape of India and the Tablighi Jamaat incident fits into the larger politics of communal vilification of a community. 

Q- You mentioned the cropping up of our current prime minister as a “consolidation of Hindu votes.” Can we say that prior to 2014 there was an existing prejudice against the Muslim community but that was limited to the confines of one’s private sphere?

A.A – Yes, I agree with you. This is not something new. There have been undercurrents; subtle indications of Muslims being the “other”, being the “outsider”. If you go to middle-class households, you see Muslims being discussed as the “other” subject. Here the class factor comes to play. So you have the elite Muslims who are part of the rhetoric; how they have been patronised by the elite sensibilities of Hindu upper class or the elites. Thus it’s the lower or middle class Muslims who usually tend to bear the brunt of this communal politics. And now there has been a deliberate political design. If you scratch the surface, you can see this festering wound. It was easy for Mr. Modi. So can we actually blame him for this? It was always there in the nature of our society and Modi knew the Indian sensibilities more than the liberals in Congress. And I think that is where the liberal politics failed in India. Modi knew the pulse of the nation. What is happening today is a well calculated political move; to diminish the Muslim subject and have a renewed idea of India. Even if hate existed before 2014, it was never there on your face, it was confined to your homes. But the treatment meted out today by the government and the foot soldiers are largely about making the Muslims feel like second class citizens. Today we see that Muslims live in fear across classes. The fear of persecution is palpable and runs across classes. 

The 2015 lynching of Mohommad Akhlaq on the suspicion of eating beef was the first template that was designed by the Hindutva government. And this was the first incident where a Muslim was lynched in his own neighbourhood. Today we see an outpour of voices of resistance in context to the discriminatory citizenship act, the CAA, which I see as important. But what I want to say is we, and by we, I mean the liberals, we left leaning socially conscious citizens of India, are late in voicing our resistance. Had we protested then and put our lives on hold then, we could have actually acted as a deterrent to what we saw culminating into the Delhi Pogroms. It took citizenship to be at stake for us to come out of our houses. It did not matter; Akhlaq’s life didn’t matter. There is, of course, criticism for the government but now it is late. Well, better late than never. 

Q- You spoke of a political design being carried out by the state post 2014. Do you think that the government has acted on a sense of impunity being granted to itself?

A.A – Yes definitely! There is full impunity. Usually, majoritarian governments function on this culture of impunity. Akhlaq’s lynching was in 2015 and ever since we have seen this circle of hate politics being close to completion. This completion we can see through a culmination of state supported pogrom in the national capital. The police, which is the state’s repressive arm, has been wreaking havoc on the lives of Muslims. You see in UP, where there have been targeted attacks by the police on the lives of Muslims and their property. But we have to think about how does this hate continues to operate on the ground? Your question basically would serve as the answer. It is this culture of impunity that has been deeply entrenched in our system of justice and I think the judiciary is in complete paralysis. There is a complete loss of independence on the part of the judiciary. Kashmir and Ayodhya were the very first cases to come up since Modi’s victory in 2019 and I am mentioning this only to point out that under an authoritarian government, freedom, be it of any kind – individual or institutional – is a myth, it is a mirage. 

Q- On the same note, how much culture of impunity is being spread over social media and the TV? Because I see a lot of explicit anti-Muslim sentiment being spewed over social media acting on a layer of impunity. 

A.A – What we’re seeing on social media is an actual reflection of what is happening on ground. So when the Delhi pogroms happened, I went to Shiv Vihar and Mustafabad and saw something very appalling. Specifically, the residents of Shiv Vihar had drawn a Lakshman Rekha with a heap of garbage dump and this was done to demarcate the Hindu Muslim neighbourhood. This is a neighbourhood that has lived and resided with each other for generations and today, after the pogrom there was no remorse. The majoritarian group is acting out against the minority and we have reached this point through the spread of fake news, via social media. This culture of misinformation and disinformation that the Indian masses are thriving upon is being consumed on a daily basis. The WhatsApp forwards have started to poison family groups and which is later discussed in family tables. There is no sense of inquiry to know the source of information. I feel all of this is happening with the state’s complicity. These forces spreading fake news are helping the government and serving their political ends and thus it becomes a mutual relationship. In the end, it’s the government who is benefiting from this sense of polarisation and that’s why it’s not even interested in addressing the poison being spewed on social media. This is a calculated move. 

Q- Could one argue that the Tablighi incident was deliberate targeting of the Muslims? Because there were many religious festivals that were held after the lockdown was initiated across various states such as UP, Madhya Pradesh. Yet they don’t make much of the news headlines. Could there be a sense of selective testing?

A.A – Yes it has a lot to do with the targeting of the community. And that is what is called systemic and systematic persecution. There is a cycle to be observed since 2014-2015 and we discussed this in the course of our conversation. We started with the lynching, then came vilification, dressing, and then we had the CAA, the Delhi Pogroms, and now finally the Tablighi incident. So I see that there is a mix of things happening but the motive and pattern is the same; which is the vilification of one particular community.

Q- How does this new form of Islamophobia that originated in the middle of the pandemic affect India’s relations with the Gulf nations?

A.A- Recently, there has been a sort of reaction from the Gulf nations with regards to ‘Indian Islamophobia’. I feel this would have a price to pay. Our Prime Minister came out when the UAE Princess Al Qassimi expressed her dissatisfaction meted out against the Muslims of India and she recalled how she missed the “peaceful India”. It is only then that the Ministry of External Affairs took notice because we have a lot at stake there. I see Qassimi’s statement as a warning sign; it could mean the undoing of all the gains he has made with the Gulf nations over the past 5 years. The reaction by the West Asian countries must be taken seriously. It is ironic that countries that have had the worst human rights record are telling India to reign in their forces of terror. Today, India stands to have an abysmal human rights record of its own. I think the important thing is that the Gulf has noticed and this is a region where more than about 6 million Indians are working and sending back remittances which amount to more than $25 billion. So, if you see the UAE particularly, around 3 million Indian diaspora live there and they send back around $13 billion in remittances. There are a lot of things at stake for us. The challenge now lies in how to control the dogs of terror that have been unleashed or India risks hurting its own interest in the Muslim world. 

Q- Do you see any silver lining between the Muslims and the “hyphenated” Hindus happening anytime soon?

A.A – Yes, I do. I hope after the incidents that happened in the country which is the police brutality in Jamia and the police wreaking havoc in JNU, one could see the liberals coming in support of JNU but there was somewhat complete silence when it came to Jamia. Because it is seen as a Muslim majority University. So I feel, liberal sensibilities hurt when the attack is closer to them; when it hurts their own image. I am not sure if they care about the Muslims in the lowest social hierarchy being beaten up. But when JNU, the heart of democratic and secular ethos of the country, was attacked, they came together. The same response was missing when the attack happened in Jamia. 

My faith and hope now runs with the youth that is being well educated and trained in questioning. Sadly, JNU is half dead but it is still resisting. And more liberal universities such as Jindal and Ashoka where critical thinking is fostered, that’s where I see a silver lining. The protests organised in Jindal against the Delhi pogroms were unprecedented. Another important avenue could be revolutionising inter-community interaction that must extend to everyday living and social relations. That’s where my hope lies!
Ambreen Agha is an Associate Professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P Jindal Global University. The views expressed are personal.

Sahil Philip is a second year student studying Global Affairs at the Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P Jindal Global University. 


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