Bilal Ahmad Tantray
On the 12th of June this year, on orders of the Uttar Pradesh state authorities, a bulldozer rolled into a house in an Allahabad neighborhood alleging that the 20-year-old structure was an illegal construction. Up until the 11th of June, that structure was housed by Student leader Afreen Fatima, her father Javed Ahmad, her mother, and her younger sister. It also was the abode of around 500 potted plants which were all destroyed in the demolition. Although this wasn’t the first time a house belonging to Muslims was punitively destroyed by the state and sadly doesn’t seem likely to be the last, Afreen’s popularity as a student activist merited a disturbing second-by-second coverage of the demolition on television and digital media. It also probably had a bigger impact on the collective psyche of the minorities in India than other such actions in the recent past. While the manner of the demolition and its legality are still being debated, the incident does once again put into light the difficult relationship that exists between India’s renewed right-wing and Muslim Indian women
The rise of the right wing in India, as is the case with the right-wing all over the world, is fuelled by otherisation and demonization of certain minority groups. In India, Muslims remain the primary enemies of the Hindutva (Hindu Majoritarianism) project. In the right wing’s narrative, Muslims are the progeny of those invaders who plundered the country during medieval times and were also later responsible for the partition of the subcontinent. The first five years of Bharatiya Janta Party’s rule (2014-2019) saw an unprecedented increase in incidents of violence like lynching, public beatings, and institutional torture against Muslims. All these were however mostly directed at Muslim men. But in their second stint at the center, a machismo was exhibited by the government which now engaged even the Muslim women directly. Buoyed by multiple electoral successes including the big win in the national election of 2019, the Indian right wing in both political and social domains, adopted a much more muscular policy.
The second term of the BJP government in 2019 started with the right-wingers championing the rights of Muslim women and ostensibly trying to liberate them from the clutches of abusive and patriarchal Muslim men. The Muslim Women Act of 2019 which was brought through an ordinance rather than parliamentary consensus criminalised the controversial instant divorce aka triple talaq. This seemingly progressive step by the conservative ranks of Indian politics was packaged and marketed as a strong resolve to work towards the betterment of the lives of Muslim women. Incidentally, at the same time, many leaders of the ruling BJP including a sitting Chief Minister made sly and sleazy remarks about Kashmiri women when they suggested that revocation of Article 370 (which gave an autonomous status to the northern border state) would make the ‘fair women’ of Kashmir accessible to Indian men. The diametric opposition of the political discourse around the Triple Talaq Bill and revocation of article 370 suggests that the intent of the former was never to improve the lives of oppressed Muslim women but just another avenue for criminalisation of Muslim men.
The eventful year of 2019 ended with the government bringing in the infamous Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which was vehemently opposed by many sections of Indian society, especially Muslims. A nationwide protest campaign was started and sit-ins were organised across the country that lasted for more than a hundred days. Ironically, the supposedly oppressed Muslim women lead the community in the hundred-day-long anti – CAA movement. Muslim women from all over India especially from Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia University and neighboring Shaheen Bagh locality grabbed patriarchy by its collar and spine-busted it to the ground, shattering all stereotypes of docility and lack of agency that are often associated with them. From that point onwards, vocal Muslim women joined the list of primary enemies of the Indian right wing.
Following the end of the anti-CAA campaign, came the government’s massive crackdown on the leaders of the movement. The women who had valiantly led the struggle against the discriminatory law faced all sorts of witch-hunting. They faced character assassination on social media, allegations of sedition from news media, and criminal charges from the administration and police. Many were lodged in jails for painfully long periods of time. The case of Safoora Zargar, a student leader from Jamia Milia Islamia who was imprisoned during her pregnancy, stood out as an episode of Orwellian dystopia. In spite of immense national and international pressure, Safoora was repeatedly denied bail even as the charges against her were far from being proven in court. Eventually, the case against her turned out to be too weak and the support for her too strong and the state thus had to allow Safoora to walk out of prison on bail. In hindsight, the progression in the right wing’s audacity from Safoora’s bail to the demolition of Afreen’s house was chilling and conspicuous. While a thin albeit porous veil of legality was maintained for Safoora’s incarceration, just two years down the line in Afreen’s case, even that veil was not required. For the demolition of her house, there was zero explanation coupled with haunting impunity.
In 2021, both Afreen Fatima and Safoora Zargar along with dozens of other outspoken activists, intellectuals, journalists, and artists featured in the next chapter of the Indian right wing’s relentless assault on Muslim women. A mobile app known as Sulli deals and its 2022 version Bulli Bai sourced pictures from social media handles of these women without permission and after doctoring these pictures inappropriately literally put the featured women on auction. These apps, designed by young and educated self-proclaimed foot soldiers of Hindutva marked an important point in recent history when it became evident that it wasn’t only the government and the BJP that were up in arms against Muslim women but also a great chunk of a radicalised society.
The confrontation between India’s right-wing and vocal Muslim women turned a new page later in 2022 when their focus shifted from the vocality of these women to their Muslimness. The state of Karnataka, which has recently taken the centre stage in majoritarian politics, banned female Muslim students from wearing the hijab (headscarf) in colleges. This was followed by protests and boycotts of classes by Muslim students and counter-protests by many Hindu students who favored the ban. Once again, state action saw massive backing from society and in this particular case, from the judiciary as well as High Court ordered in favor of the state’s right to impose the ban. The main target for the right-wing this time was a young woman named Muskan who in the face of a huge mob of boys charging towards her in a threatening manner, forcefully shouted, “Allah u Akbar”. Muskan’s response, rather than the action of her instigators, became a topic of television and popular debate for weeks. Not many in these debates seemed to have the courage to support her right to religious proclamation.
India’s first Prime Minister and freedom fighter Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women”. If that really is the case, then what does the image of a Muskan hounded by goons, or a pregnant Safoora lodged in Jail, or that of Afreen’s decimated house say about the fate of India today? While there is an obvious pessimistic way of looking at it, we can also squint and pretend that the glass is half full. With all its problematic tendencies, the very fact that India still has the ability to produce a forceful Muskan, a defiant Safoora, and an unapologetic Afreen is encouraging. All in all, this difficult relationship between the Indian right-wing and Muslim women can be summed up with the following line: While the Indian state conjures up new avenues trying to weaken Muslim women; Muslim women continue to find ways to strengthen the Indian nation.
Bilal Ahmad Tantray is a Ph.D. scholar based in New Delhi