In the aftermath of the Assembly Election results in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, a particularly lazy but tempting conclusion has been tossed about. It implies that the latter state could wrench itself free of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) stranglehold because the state has ‘no Muslims’ to enable ‘polarisation’ that the BJP is said to use or at least, is known to benefit from electorally.
After all, Himachal Pradesh has just 2.18% Muslims, implying that the absence of Muslims has allowed for the play of politics as usual as hate or polarisation could not take place to crowd out the importance of performance for an incumbent government.
Post Himachal Pradesh polls, it's widely implied that the state could free itself from BJP strangehold because of lack of Muslims to enable polarisation.
In the state of Kerala where 26.56% of the population is Muslim, BJP is just not an electoral force and the presence of Muslims is not enough to usher the BJP into a position of power.
It isn't presence of Muslims that generates Islamophobia but that of a hate machine with an ideological and instrumental interest in keeping the separateness between the two communities going that can whip up anti-Muslim sentiment and use it to electoral advantage.
The dangerous myth of ‘Love Jihad’, of Muslim men deliberately marrying Hindu women, a propaganda point fed and kept alive, is again not grounded in facts.
‘No Muslims’ hence, normal politics is possible is a dangerous misconception, taking hold of even those who are Muslims, shrinking them further as they rue how their very presence may be lending a sense of eternalism to the BJP’s victories.
BJP’s Muslim Trope To Win Elections Is Delinked From Facts
This is the next stage down that very dangerous slope whose first stage was that Muslims should not be given tickets or spoken about if the BJP has to be defeated; the second stage being that they should not even be visible (as Muslims) on the election stage, in rallies or in voter lines, because their very presence is enough to enable a ‘Hindu consolidation’ leading to the BJP’s decided win.
How devious this logic is can be gauged from a casual glance at just two states. In the state of Kerala where 26.56% of the population is Muslim, BJP is just not an electoral force and the presence of Muslims is not enough to usher the BJP into a position of power.
Consider, as a contrast Gujarat, where the threat of Muslims and their presence is used in as naked a way as possible despite their complete absence from all perches of power or representation. Also, Muslims are a mere 9.67% of the population here. Still, it is their ghost that can ensure that the BJP makes it back, riding on the perception that it can, on the basis of its ‘track record’, certainly, in 2002, that it has done so, and can also teach Muslims ‘a lesson’ in future if required.
So, in Kerala, it is the absence of a party that wants to divide and polarise that seems to be a factor, as in Gujarat, the presence of a very effective, hegemonic machine that benefits from polarisation that has made the difference. Not the presence of Muslims.
Given the polarisation and ghettoisation that the 'Disturbed Areas Act' in large parts of the state of Gujarat has ensured, an entire generation has grown up hardly having Muslim acquaintances, friends, classmates, or role models, and little awareness of togetherness is there as Garba dances or festivals are used aggressively to separate the communities. Just the phantom of Muslims, what they are about and what they might do, is harvested effectively to yield electoral dividends, term after term.
It is not the presence of Muslims that generates Islamophobia but that of a hate machine, with an ideological and instrumental interest in keeping the separateness between the two communities going, that is able to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment and use it to electoral advantage.
Marginalisation Or Appeasement Politics: The Othering Of Minorities Persists
Consider the Rohingyas, used often to generate sentiment, anger, justify violence as they are alleged to suck up national resources. Human Rights Watch puts their figure in India at just about 40,000. That is way less than even the smallest constituency in India which has 54,000 odd voters.
But Home Minister Amit Shah left no stone unturned to project them as a demographic and security threat when he said on 12 February 2022 in the run-up to the Uttarakhand Assembly polls, that while the PM was building Char Dham, a Hindu pilgrim circuit, the Congress party had started ‘appeasement’ politics by helping Rohingya Muslims settle on the mountains of the state.
"Congress has started the politics of appeasement. Rohingya Muslims have begun to be seen in the mountains of Uttarakhand. It is being done under their leadership. I have come to promise you that if you make Dhami your Chief Minister, the BJP government would wipe Rohingya out of the state,” were his exact words. Never let the real numbers get in the way.
Globally too, it is clear that European Jews were a microscopic minority, but that was enough to generate massive waves of hate that eventually led to the Holocaust. It clearly was not about them being present in Germany in numbers that threatened anyone.
According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, in the census of 16 June 1933, the Jewish population of Germany was approximately 505,000 of a total population of 67 million, or somewhat less than 0.75 percent.
Bigotry as an excuse for murder is when extraordinary moments of political and social mobilisation are effected because there is an organised and powerful system that gains from the ‘otherness’ and the creation of a permanent line of division, which makes all other variables unimportant, making it easy to win social approval and power.
No doubt social biases and prejudice exist, but they can only turn into a sharp knife when egged on, encouraged and constantly kept on the boil. Often, keeping people separate, is essential for demonisation, as it is in the absence of lived experience of the other or of normal coexistence with pluralities, stereotypes, propaganda and hate campaigns have a much better chance of succeeding.
Anti-Muslim Laws & Strategies Add to the Rising Hate and Discrimination
The dangerous myth of ‘Love Jihad’, of Muslim men deliberately marrying Hindu women, a propaganda point fed and kept alive, is again not grounded in facts of a sudden surge of such associations. The courts have found the allegations of a conspiracy to force Hindu women to convert to be unfounded.
Also, inter-faith marriages have never crossed 2.5% of all marriages in the country. But facts have not been allowed to get in the way and the presence of an entire ecosystem is there, to generate hate and fear. As a result, 11 states have adopted draconian so-called "anti-Love jihad laws", thus, establishing a new norm which seems to accept the lie of ‘love jihad’ as fact.
Much like the Himachal Pradesh fallacy, the presence of Muslims is not required to generate hate against them or render it ‘understandable’ to conclude that there will be polarisation. Division, polarisation or breaks in the social fabric need the hate machine to work, the consistent reference by influential or powerful people, often with considerable cache of political or social power to term certain social groups as sub-human termites, deemaks (as the then BJP President referred to ‘illegal migrants’ in a dog whistle in West Bengal before the 2019 polls) or inyenzi (cockroach) like in the propaganda Rwandans were fed, the careful dehumanisation of the Tutsis that lead to 800,000 murders in a matter of months.
It is not about the presence of Muslims, Jews or Tutsis or any group you want to demonise and profit from but to frame it as if that provides material basis for or leads to BJP’s success is to be willfully blind to the hate machine that feeds hate and works in overdrive to ensure that there is no healing. It is where that machine is present, well-oiled and cranked up that polarisation takes place. Not Muslims.
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)