Sinead O’Connor And The Muslim-Hindu Minefield In India

Sinead O’Connor, now known as Shuhada’ Davitt
Sinead O’Connor, now known as Shuhada’ Davitt
Asim Ali*

NEW DELHI — When Shehla Rashid, a student leader in India, tweeted to welcome Irish singer Sinead O'Connor into the Islamic fold, she could not have expected much of a controversy. Islam, like Christianity, is open to new converts, and it's not unusual to welcome new members.

The attacks were led not by the usual right-wing, however, but by liberals. Rashid was accused not just of being a hypocrite, but of being the "other side of the coin of ghar-wapsi , activities of converting followers to Hinduism. This charge was reiterated by Pawan Khera, a spokesman for the Congress Party:

He also claimed that statements like Rashid's "mainstream the narrative of otherness based on faith." (Apparently, the Congress's often pusillanimous responses to anti-Muslim violence — or the tactical temple-hopping of its president — do not further any narrative of ‘otherness').

Many others, including Rashid herself, pointed the blindingly obvious distinction between the voluntary conversion of a famous European celebrity, and organized conversions through coercion. But that was beside the point. What this controversy was really about was the readiness of many liberals to condemn any Muslim as a fundamentalist for a normal expression of their faith or identity. It grates against their expectations of a "good Muslim." The fundamental issue here then, is not about Rashid, but about these expectations. This eagerness to condemn Rashid was not really a reflection of Rashid's hypocrisy or extremism, but of their own latent prejudice.

The most fascinating aspect of prejudice is its invisibility. Most misogynists claim that they don't hate women, just a certain kind of women. Similarly, most racists plead that they have many black friends, they just despise a particular kind of black people.

Muslim identity is more than cultural markers.

Bigots define the parameters of appropriate behavior, and all those who behave contrary to these arbitrary expectations are then fit to be despised. It is the same with Islamophobes. When Rashid spoke out on one aspect of her faith, she violated the bounds of behavior expected of so-called "liberal Muslims' to keep their faith private and hidden.

Liberal Hindus are allowed to drone endlessly on the exceptional features of their faith without losing their claim to liberalism. Shashi Tharoor remains the standard-bearer of Indian liberalism despite writing a book-length expression of pride in his Hindu faith. But a tweet-length expression of her faith left Rashid relegated to the ranks of rioters and lynchers.

The Hindu Right, to give them credit, is crude and simplistic in their bigotry. The only Muslim acceptable to them is a "cultural Hindu," which leaves out, by design, the vast majority of Muslims actually living in the country. The archetype of their ‘good Muslim" model is Dr Kalam, a man versed in ancient Sanskrit texts, devoted to Carnatic music, and a follower of Swami Pramukh Maharaj. The missiles he helped develop no doubt cemented his nationalist credentials. For the Hindu Right, the atypical outlook of Dr Kalam is a foil against which the vast majority of Muslims can be painted as fundamentalists and separatists.

In contrast, the cohort of liberal Hindus allows Muslims a lot of leeway on culture and aesthetics. They often are eager participants themselves in what is seen as Muslim culture — they revel in Urdu poetry, swear by ghazals and qawwalis and relish "Muslim food." This, no doubt, makes them feel very cosmopolitan and self-satisfied about their open-mindedness. They often find themselves lecturing right-wing Hindus on the virtues of tolerance and secularism.

Shehla Rashid — Photo: Payasam

But Muslim identity is more than cultural markers; more than Urdu, Mughal architecture and Muslim food. Muslim identity also has an ideological part — a set of beliefs and worldviews. Some of these beliefs might be at odds with the beliefs of Hindu liberals, but being ‘tolerant" does not mean being tolerant of the construct of the acceptable Muslim in your head. It means being tolerant of actual Muslims out there, with all their diverse beliefs and lifestyles.

Particularly for liberal Hindus, being tolerant does not merely mean being comfortable with your upper-middle-class Muslim friends. It means being comfortable with the masses of "other" Muslims who live in slums and ghettoes, with their veils and beards and green flags, who provoke your discomfort, if not suspicion.

This is not an argument that Islam or Muslims should be especially shielded from criticism. (Nor is this a sweeping criticism of all Hindu liberals, many of whom readily came to Rashid's defense.) Any religion can legitimately be the subject of criticism, and of advocacy for the rights of marginalized sub-groups. What ought not to pass off as legitimate criticism, though, is reproducing the same prejudices and biases that drive horrific anti-Muslim violence.

Many liberal commentators believe that the way to counter Hindutva (a form of Hindu nationalism) is to "balance" their criticisms of Hindutva with criticism of Indian Muslims. They seem to believe that this embellishes their claim to objectivity. "Both sides are at fault," they say.

But the project of Hindutva necessitates the demonization of Muslims. In buying into the same right-wing assumptions on the essential extremism of Muslims, liberals don't counter Hindutva, they become complicit in it.

In the US, it would be unthinkable for a mainstream commentator to suggest that Jews are partly responsible for the rise of anti-Semitism. It would be a fireable offense to lecture Jews on how to assert their Jewish identity or how to celebrate their Jewish faith.

In this country, though, with its far more intense and systemic problem of violence against minorities, these opinions still pass off as legitimate criticism. Or even worse, as courageous contrarian takes.

*Asim Ali a research scholar in political science at Delhi University.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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