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Muslims in India – The politics of stereotyping

By Laiba Qamar

India had won the World Cup against Pakistan and one could sense the celebration around with
thousands of ecstatic fans coming out dancing and shouting “INDIA INDIA” on the screens and streets celebrating the country’s victory. Cricket has always got our patriotism best at play, especially when India is playing against the neighbouring country, Pakistan. Although being in third-grade, I vividly remember the 2011 World Cup owing to the event that followed the next day.

It was a random day at school and my classmates happened to talk about India’s victory the
previous night and out of the blue a classmate intervened saying to me “But you must be feeling
bad that Pakistan lost.” For some good seconds, I was blank but then later managed to pull off
a “No. Why should I feel bad?” Well truth be told, I did feel bad, to the extent of wanting to prove to her how happy I was that India, my country had won but somehow words failed me back then. I wondered why I should be proving my love for my own country. I could
comprehend enough that a lot of it had to do with my religious identity, a political and stereotypical image of which has been formed even in the head of a third-grade kid sadly.

Growing up I realised how the national hysteria generated by an India-Pakistan cricket match
fomented some Hindu nationalists to target Muslims, propagating an image where Muslims cheer for Pakistan. This not only alienates Muslims by putting to test their loyalty to the nation but also undermines the crucial role played by stellar cricketers like Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, Irfan Pathan, Mohammad Azharuddin and many others who contributed greatly to the game.

Stereotype reliance

Merriam-Webster explains the word stereotype as “something conforming to a fixed or general
pattern especially, a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group
and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.”

It makes uncorroborated generalities with little consideration to the individuality of the people
being stereotyped. Stereotypes dressed as jokes are frequently thrown at Muslims. For instance,
holding the Muslim community responsible for the population explosion in India, ’Pehle Bhaiyya, Phir Saiyyan’ jokes on the practice of cousin marriage in the community or the
mocking commentary on the redundancy of the phrase ‘Islamic Terrorism’. Among worse
comes ‘Go to Pakistan’, ‘Anti-national’ and ‘Jihadi’- a recent favourite of some media
channels. Women who choose to wear veils or hijab are considered regressive while those who
choose otherwise are not Muslim enough and these experiences stem from both outside and
inside the community. Shehla Rashid Shora, a political and civil rights activist, received
backlash from within the community for not wearing hijab while advocating for the rights of
the same community and off lately Khatija Rahman, daughter of musician A R Rahman was
trolled for her appearance.

Such stereotypes discourage critical thinking and reduce the worth of the ones who are being
stereotyped. In Psychology, there is a term that has been defined as “confirmation bias.” This
type of bias in humans makes them pay attention to evidence that conforms to the stereotypes
they hold and ignore evidence that contradicts their preferred stereotypes. This tends to prevent
us from the basic act of “thinking” and evaluating the existing evidence available to us.

A common stereotype against Muslims is the reluctance in the community towards the
education of girls. The Sachar Committee Report concluded that poverty and economic backwardness are more prevalent among Muslims than Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes.

Wherever efforts have been made to provide access to education to the underprivileged, there
the Muslim community has shown an interest in sending their girls to school. In fact, Muslim girls are less likely to drop out of higher-level education than boys.

The state of Kerala debunks most of the stereotypes framed against Muslim women, especially
in the field of education. This research paper shows the stand of Muslim women on education
and their role in society with special mention to the Kerala Educational Act 1958 has proved
to strengthen the education system in the state. Kerala is an exemplar for reducing the gender
divide and disparities in access to education for all. While the Indian society itself remains
largely patriarchal in nature, stereotypes targeting a particular community for not educating
girls is inappropriate and discriminatory.

Stereotypes stop us from looking at each person as a unique individual, limiting their potential
and creating inequality and discrimination in society. While striving to break such
compartmentalising stereotypes, it is equally important to understand why they are created and
put to use in the first place.

Stereotypes and Politics

Stereotypes and clichés are powerful political tools that have a profound impact on the voter
and the election process in India. In a country where Identity politics is excessively pervasive,
religion processes that identity divide through various claims centred around appeasement
politics, the hegemony of the majority, anti-Hindu translating into Anti-India narrative and
inadequate representation of minority groups. One party will claim India as a Hindu state
undermining the diverse social fabric and therefore another party would claim their
representation under the possibility of losing their right to practice their religion and culture under such homogenising discourse.

The Bhartiya Janta Party-led coalition government have over time made explicit appeals to
religion with a legacy of communalisation of Indian polity, demolition of Babri Masjid, the
anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 and even communalising national security and gender issues. One
such example is a video that had gone viral on social media ahead of Gujrat elections in 2017,
which propagated hate against Muslims, claiming that without BJP, Gujrat could see crimes by

While addressing a BJP rally at Dumka in Jharkhand ahead of elections, Prime Minister
Narendra Modi passed a statement that did not sit well with Muslims across India who were protesting peacefully in many states against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Modi said, “Jo aag laga rahe hain, TV pe unke jo drishya aa rahe hain, yeh aag lagaane vaale kaun hain, woh unke kapdon se hi pata chal jaata hai (Those setting fire, from the visuals on TV, can be
identified by their clothes).”

While speaking on the “hum do, hamare do” family planning programme, many leaders have
conveniently addressed minorities to come out of “hum do, hamare baees” mentality putting
the onus of population explosion on Muslims. In 2015, Pew Research Centre deduced that by
2050, India will have the world’s largest populations of Hindus and Muslims. This translated
into a narrative of Muslims outnumbering Hindus in their own land and citing it as a threat to

Even secular parties have played minority appeasement politics undermining the secular
principles of the society and country. A prominent example is the case of Shan Bano, a Muslim
woman who was refused alimony by her husband. The Supreme Court passed a judgement
ruled that Muslim divorce, especially the issue of alimony, could be covered by some of the secular laws of the country. The ruling Congress government saw potential to garner political
and electoral affections of Muslims and moved to overturn the court’s judgement with an
already existing majority in the parliament back then. As a result, with a huge majority, the
Supreme Court judgement was outlawed to deprive divorced Muslim women of their right to

Hence, identity politics play an important role in electoral outcomes and to keep it running,
political parties structure the narrative which mutually feeds off the stereotypes built and
nurtured in the society against a particular religion, caste, language or ethnicity. Such politics
asserts the same stereotypes that distinguish and differentiate are utilised to assert or undermine
their identity based on differences rather than equality.

Learning, Unlearning and Relearning

The pervasiveness of stereotypes can make it particularly difficult to identify, counter and
unlearn them. Moreover, our confirmation bias tends to look for evidence that supports our
attitudes and beliefs instead of actively challenging them. However, the elimination of
stereotypes is possible through several thoughtful practices.

Educating young students about stereotypes, bias, discrimination and inequality in all forms,
including religious bigotry and creating dialogues on easily accessible platforms on the
different forms of discrimination that takes place in personal interactions, school, community
and the larger society will go a long way in sensitising and countering the growing inequality
in the country.

Incorporating the experiences, perspective and words of Muslim people into the academic
curriculum through social studies and current events and giving more visibility to leaders like
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was also the first Education Minister of India and Dr. BR
Ambedkar the radical thinking in History books and public/media discourse will help gain
newer perspectives. In this Age of Digitalisation, young people should be progressive allies to
the people who are being stereotyped and discriminated against both, online and in person.

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