A season of brutal anti-Muslim violence has erupted in India. Shocking scenes of mob-inspired street carnage, police brutality and vandalism have swept through the largest democracy. The scale of the violence has shocked much of the world, but for those of us who have been observing the treatment of muslims in countries such as Myanmar, what has happened is not surprising. Least of all, that Islamophobia is not exclusively borne of white supremacy.
As this unfolds, Gambia has taken the state of Myanmar to the International Court of Justice for charges of war crimes and genocide against the Rohingya Muslims. The two are separate stories yet they share commonground; namely, the institutionalised violence against a Muslim minority through the concepts of ethno-nationalism and identity. They tell a tale of a persecution that, though leaning into white nationalism, doesn’t necessarily have origins in white far-right racism. As we look to confront western far-right movements with their incitement of violence against Muslims, it’s important that Islamophobia in other parts of the world is understood.
What has happened in India is a chilling reminder of the bloody relationship shared between India’s major religions, but media coverage has sometimes wrongly painted an idea of parity in violence between Muslims and Hindus. This violence, though garnering increasing amounts of attention, has been steadily rising for a number of years since the BJP assumed power in India.
With Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, a man many hold responsible for the bloody massacre of Muslims in Gujrat in 2002, anti-Muslim sentiments became normalised at a ferocious rate. Social media has shed light on what the Indian state might have wished to remain concealed, as has the bravery of countless dissident journalists and activists.
Comparing Myanmar and India in its violence is important both in trying to understand what could happen in India if left unchecked, but crucially, as an opportunity for prevention. Both countries have a powerful religious identity at their core that permeates their national identity and is deeply embedded within both countries’ respective traditions and customs. Buddhism and Hinduism are deeply tied to these lands and, as such, factions of extremist minorities within both faiths regard Islam as a threat.
In India, the Hindutva believe that India belongs to Hindus. After all, previously it was known as Hindustan, “Land of the Hindus”. Similarly, in Myanmar, there is a deeply chilling far-right Buddhist group called the 969 Movement who encourage violence towards Muslims partially by repeating the historical tropes of Muslims as outsiders.
A significant factor behind the violence towards Muslims in Myanmar owes itself to the perception that they are foreigners, Indians in origin, often specifically Bengalis. Extreme elements of the Myanmar society believed in ethnic and religious unity; Myanmar was for the ethnically indigenous who were Buddhists and therefore Muslims were unwelcome foreigners, imported by the British. This is an idea that Buddhist extremists and nationalists have returned to regularly through the bloodstained postcolonial history of Myanmar.
This was a prominent theme behind the ethno-religious tensions that existed under the British rule. Some of this was contributed to by the persecution of Buddhists by the Mughal Empire in India, and the job competition between Indian migrants, who were willing to unsatisfying jobs for low income, and the locals. This resulted in multiple anti-Muslim riots during the 1930s. In 1930 the Rangoon Riot was caused by a labour dispute at the Yangon port, where Indian workers were preferred over the local Burmese. This instigated a brutal riot across all of Myanmar with many Indian and Muslims targeted. The British authorities fired upon armed rioters and Indian families barricaded their homes as Burmese mobs hunted them in the streets. It is believed that around 200 Indian workers had been slaughtered, while around 2,000 were injured during the riots.
During this period, a nationalist campaign called the “Burma for Burmese” took place, culminating in a hostile demonstration in Surati Bazaar, a predominantly Muslim district. The attempts by the police to dismantle the demonstrations stirred further violence, simply from the fact that they were themselves ethnically Indian. Images of monks being injured by the ethnically Indian policemen created a social uproar that the British could not control. Nationalist, anti-Muslim sentiments were fanned heavily by newspapers, provoking riots as Muslim properties and 113 mosques were looted and destroyed. According to authorities, 204 Muslims were killed and over a thousand injured, whilst 113 mosques had been damaged.
We are seeing a similar rhetoric today in India, where politicians of the BJP party routinely smear and denigrate Muslims, fuelling violence and casting Hindus as the sole natives of India. The significance of Prime Minister Modi cannot be understated. He was the Chief Minister of Gujarat when violence against Muslims began in 2002, and his administration was widely believed to be complicit in it. His chief ally, Amit Shah, has described Muslim immigrants in Assam as “termites” who would be thrown into the Bay of Bengal, whilst other BJP politicians have spoken about Hindus raping Muslim women. When the Prime Minister of the country is a man who allowed Muslims to die in a region he was governing, and his second-in-command is talking about throwing Muslim immigrants into the sea, this will only serve to incite further violence.
Both Myanmar and India have sought to use the political apparatus to reinforce the notion that Muslims do not belong and are the cultural antithesis. In 1982, the Myanmar state further stoked social divisions by introducing the Myanmar Nationality Law that regulated Burmese citizenship and denied it to those who could not prove Burmese ancestry from before 1823. This legislation was decisive in furthering anti-Muslim violence in cities like Mandalay by creating legitimacy to the far-right argument that Muslims were not part of Burma and that the country belonged to the Buddhists. Understanding its importance in relation to what is happening in India is key.
A significant element of the heavy violence marring the country currently is over the dispute of the Citizenship Amendment Act bill whereby refugees from neighbouring Muslim countries are accepted. Now although this sounds like an ordinarily good thing, it excludes Muslim refugees and only accepts those of other religions. Meanwhile, a massive state-engineered programme called the National Registry for Citizens in Assam is undergoing to expel those of Bengali origins, regarding them to be foreigners, even if they had lived there for generations. Majority of them are Muslims who cannot apply for reconsideration while those of other faiths can.
In seeking to address the Islamophobia in India, the CAA bill must be fought relentlessly. If it succeeds, BJP’s supporters will see it as another step to marginalising Muslims within India. There are dangerous roads ahead if the BJP’s populism continues to grow. No-one thinks violence could happen in a democracy but what happened in 2017 in Myanmar came after it transitioned to one from a military junta. Once the state has politically disenfranchised a minority and effectively rendered them stateless, removal through violence becomes the next step. The world went to sleep when Myanmar went to war with its Muslim population. The same cannot happen here in India where the scales, simply by the size of the demographics, are even bigger.
If there is a morsel of hope, it is that in India there are countless brave students, journalists, activists, lawyer and ordinary Hindus rising like a counter-wave against the incoming tide of anti-Muslim bigotry. It will be fundamental to defeating the populist India that the BJP are seeking to create.