How the Indian Muslim is being dehumanised: Lessons from history

When we read of unspeakable acts of cruelty in history, we often wonder how such a thing was possible. These were not individual acts of barbarism or aberrations in the system; these were commonplace and considered to be normal.
Muslim man in blue with back to camera
Muslim man in blue with back to camera
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In Nazi concentration camps, throwing Jewish babies into the air and shooting them for practice was a sport. During times of slavery, white mothers stood by casually and watched as black children were torn away from their mothers and sold to other slave owners.Closer home, the practice of considering a person ‘untouchable’, denying them basic human rights and brutally punishing them for transgressions, was considered to be par for the course. When we read of unspeakable acts of cruelty in history, we often wonder how such a thing was possible. These were not individual acts of barbarism or aberrations in the system; these were commonplace and considered to be normal. How is it that so many people could be convinced to think that it was alright to subject another human being to such violations?

The simple answer is that they didn't see them as human beings. The oppressors saw their victims as less-than human, who didn't have the same capacity to think and feel. They felt it was fine to subject them to medical trials, perform experimental surgeries without anesthesia, make products out of their skin and hair, use them as beasts of burden until the breath left their bodies. As a species, humans are convinced that there is us and then there are all other forms of life in the pyramid. By dehumanising an entire population, we rid ourselves of the guilt of subjecting them to any amount of cruelty because ‘it’s not the same’ as doing it to 'one of us.'

As the details of the Bulli Bai app case unfold, many are shocked that young people ranging from 18-21 years of age are allegedly behind holding online auctions of Muslim women. How could they be so full of hatred when they are so young, is the question being asked. But if you go through the hundreds of social media profiles of Hindutva proponents, you will arrive at a better word that describes what they harbour — contempt. In their minds, the people they’re targeting are not human. This may seem like an exaggeration, but it is important to understand that this did not happen overnight. The slow poison of othering the Indian Muslim has always existed in our social, cultural and political fabric; it received a boost with the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002, two instances of blatant Hindutva muscle power. Since 2014, when the rewards for these violations were reaped, it has become the lifeblood of this fabric.

Some say that Narendra Modi was elected for ‘development’ despite Gujarat. But the widespread polarisation, mainstreaming of communalism, and popularity of the leader in spite of failures on several economic fronts, says otherwise. It was not ‘despite’ Gujarat, it was ‘because of' Gujarat. Ardent supporters of the PM’s party, the BJP, do not bother to dress up this fact any more. While a few may parrot the line about the PM receiving a ‘clean chit’ for the Gujarat pogrom, many others openly call for violence on par with 2002 to teach the Muslims a “lesson”. In May last year, actor Kangana Ranaut tweeted that PM Modi must show his “virat roop from early 2000s” to “tame” West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee. Kangana’s Twitter account was permanently suspended shortly after this for hate speech, but she received her fourth National Award from Vice President Venkaiah Naidu in October the same year.

What used to be limited to RSS shakhas and VHP camps is loudly proclaimed on television, with anchors brazenly endorsing it, and amplified in political platforms across the country. This anti-Muslim rhetoric has consistently equated Muslims with animalistic behaviour. Derogatory references to what they eat, how they pray, who they fall in love with, what work they do, how they celebrate, how many children they have, how they treat women are commonly thrown around not only in WhatsApp university but are platformed by political leaders, including the PM and his trusted aide, the Home Minister. The strategy isn’t new. It is closely modeled on fascist principles, inflaming nationalism and providing an ‘other’ as a target to blame for anything and everything. From an elephant eating a pineapple laden with explosives to the spread of the coronavirus in the country, the right wing has found ways to fan Islamophobia in every possible situation. The trick, simultaneously, is to project the great leader, the representative of the majority, as the victim of the deviousness of the ‘other’.

The consequence is an ecosystem where crimes against Muslims are vocally justified, defended, celebrated openly. Even the gangrape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl. Calls for genocide are not universally condemned. FIRs are not filed automatically. Nobody is punished. The media sides with the perpetrators. Celebrities copy-paste tweets that protect the great leader. The great leader never condemns any of it. In fact, there are many within the right wing who feel Modi is “too soft”. The vitriol spewed by the ‘trads’ (or traditionals) within the right wing is so acidic that they face opposition from the Hindutva 'Lite' members in the community. For the ‘trads’, the dehumanisation of Muslims is complete and they tomtom it with pride. The rest have dehumanised the Muslims too, but are yet to accept it because they don’t want to believe that they’re Nazi followers, yet. At least publicly.

It’s not surprising at all that young people are indulging in crimes such as the Bulli Bai app when crimes against Muslims are not considered to be crimes anymore. It gives them a sense of power and identity that they may not derive from anywhere else. The narrative that they’re somehow contributing to nation-building gives the enterprise a noble air. The anonymity offered by the internet makes it all the more attractive.

The need for political leaders across the spectrum to constantly reaffirm their ‘Hindu’ identity, whether it’s Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee or Arvind Kejirwal, shows that they realise they will alienate the electorate if they don’t do this. Even in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where rationalist politics is still popular, leaders are careful not to hand a stick to the BJP to beat them with. They are in the Opposition but they cannot come up with a strategy that can stand up against the rabidness of the right wing. The people have been bitten and the infection has spread.

The 2019 film Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi, tells the story of Nazi Germany through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy who is a Hitler fan. When he finds a Jewish girl hidden in his home by his mother, he is astonished to discover, bit by bit, that she is actually human, just like him. The film isn’t an exaggeration. It’s how the Nazis thought about the Jews. It was reality, once upon a time. A reality that we look back to in horror and read about in school textbooks with our mouths wide open. It is the reality we are in today, but do not acknowledge.

We’re still busy asking if not him, who? When future generations look back at us, do you believe they will think we asked the right question? Should it not be — if we don’t stop now, then when?

Views expressed are author's own.

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