Mumbai violence: Reinventing the Muslim victimhood stance

Muslims in India and elsewhere have a right to feel concerned for their co-religionists anywhere in the world if they are targeted and discriminated against – whether in Myanmar or Assam is immaterial. But the violence in Mumbai last Saturday, where the media and the police were at the receiving end, shows that they are being taken up the garden path once again. Their leaders are creating in them a new sense of victimhood and anger that does not square with the facts.

It is easy to blame the police for being unprepared for the huge crowd that turned out, but it is the leadership of the protest organisers who must be blamed more, since they would have been even more aware of what was really going on in their mosques and bylanes in the run-up to the protest.

According to The Indian Express, a confidential report had been sent to the Mumbai Police Commissioner that he should expect “law and order problems,” especially because Muslims were being told in their mosques during Friday prayers to attend the Saturday protests. They were being pumped up on stories of atrocities on Muslims in Myanmar and Assam.

Of course, the police must be blamed for assuming that the permission given to an unregistered group to hold a prayer meeting at Azad Maidan would be a placid affair. But given the context in which the protest was being held, they were clearly underprepared. However, given also that 45 of the 50-and-odd injured in the violence were policemen, it is their extraordinary restraint that must be commended rather than just being apportioned the blame for not being adequately prepared.

Rather, it is time to throw the spotlight on the Muslim leadership for building up the anger and not doing anything to rein it in.

More than the police, no one in the Muslim community could have failed to note the misleading SMSes and MMSes doing the rounds in the run-up to the protest day.

One SMS was designed to make very Muslim in India feel like a hunted animal and angry and victimised. According to The Times of India, the SMS read thus: “Burma, Assam, Gujarat, Kashmir ke bad na jane kahan? Burma mein Musalmano ke qatl-e-aam or zulm ke khilaf Azad Maidan me Sunday ko rally hai. America me 5 Sikho ka katal hua to media or sarkar me hadkam hai, or lakhon Musalmanon ki zindagi ki koi keemat nahi. Sab ki ankhen band hai. Is SMS to Sunday se pehle Hindustan ki har Musalman or mantriyo or media tak pohchao..”.

The bashing of the media and destruction of television OB vans can be traced to this SMS message.

Look at the number of deliberate truth distortions here. The Indian media has been more than fair in reporting the Bodo-Muslim violence in Kokrajhar – in fact, it has been balanced, and did not overtly take the Bodo side even though the Bodos have as much reason to be angry as the Muslims, thanks to the influx from Bangladesh, some of them illegal immigrants. The fact that many people are infiltrators from Bangladesh is not even mentioned. Every word in the SMS is designed to feed a sense of victimhood without context.

It is easy to blame the police for being unprepared for the huge crowd that turned out, but it is the leadership of the protest organisers who must be blamed more. Reuters

As for the Myanmarese violence against the Rohingyas of the Arakan, the SMS assumes that it is somehow India’s job to take up the issue. This is why the murder in the US Gurdwara is mentioned – to show that if India can take up that issue, why not the riots in Myanmar? That many of the Rohingyas are taking shelter on the India side (some have even shifted to Hyderabad) is not seen as a reason to be grateful to this nation which has not so far discriminated against the flood of migrants from Bangladesh and even Myanmar. Would Indian Muslims be so angry if told that we are providing shelter to these victims of violence?

Then, there were the fake MMSes doing the rounds – many of them put up on social media - showing pictures that purport to show that Muslims were being slaughtered by the hundred. A Pakistani journalist-blogger – Faraz Ahmed - who is no friend of the Myanmarese, investigated these pictures and found that many of them were bogus, and possibly morphed by mischief-monger to enrage Muslims everywhere (Read Ahmed's article, ‘Social media is lying about Burma’s Muslim cleansing,” here, and another related report here).

Ahmed’s conclusion: pictures taken during the 2010 earthquake in China, protests in Thailand and Tibetans setting themselves on fire against the Chinese atrocities in Tibet are captioned as cases of Muslims being victimised and killed. A Thai picture of teargassed protestors in 2004 is captioned “More than 1,000 people killed in Burma”


Writes Ahmed: “I do not deny the killings of Muslims in Burma – not even for a minute. I think it is horrific and I am sympathetic towards the immense loss being suffered by my Muslim brothers and sisters abroad. What I am against is being lied to. Imagine the amount of lies we are being fed through these pictures.”

The Muslim protestors who went on the rampage in Mumbai were also fed lies and half-truths by the circulation of these mischievous pictures and by their leaders.

The incendiary statement of Asaduddin Owaisi in parliament the other day, where he “warned the central government…” about a “third wave of radicalisation among Muslim youth” (read his full statement here), and another one right at the protest venue (where one speaker talked about biased media coverage) are clear examples of Muslim leaders trying to engender feelings of victimisation among Muslims.

When Owaisi said he was warning the central government about the radicalisation, he was forgetting one thing: was it not his duty to combat this radicalisation, to tell Muslims the whole truth rather than just the one he wants to convey?

It is no one’s case that Muslims are not discriminated against in India, or that they are not targeted occasionally in communal violence, but balance requires that Muslim leaders should speak the whole truth – that this is not a one-way street.

No Muslim in India is even told that Hindus in Pakistan are now being forced to consider seeking asylum in India. Owaisi, in fact, seemed to spread disinformation on the influx from Bangladesh. He told parliament: “I would say that the population of Bangladesh, when Bangladesh was created, Muslims were three crore; Hindus were three crore. As of now, Muslims in Bangladesh are 13 crore; and Hindus in Bangladesh are 1.5 crore. Sea cannot swallow so many Hindus of Bangladesh! Where have they gone? This is the question I leave it to the wisdom of Mr Advani.”

The facts: the population of Bangladesh in 1971 wasn’t divided 50:50 between Hindus and Muslims. The first census in East Pakistan after partition put the Hindu population at around 22 percent. It is now less than half the figure – below 10 percent (Read here).

So when Owaisi asks where did these Hindus go, he has a point. It is more than likely that they were among the early migrants to the north-east after 1971 along with many Muslims who entered illegally seeking better economic prospects.

But this nuance is lost, and Owaisi doesn’t even pause to reflect on the implications of what he said: why did so many more Hindus than Muslims leave Bangladesh, assuming that is the case?

He should also read Derek O Brien’s piece in India Today. He tells a tale where his extended Anglo-Indian family was split asunder after partition: one wing was in Pakistan, and another in Kolkata. In 1984, his brother visited the Pakistani branch of the family and found that most of them had converted to Islam.

His conclusion: “Most of my father’s generation and all of the next generation – my second cousins – had converted to Islam. The pressure had been too much. Being a minority in Pakistan was tough business.”

Then he reflects on being an Anglo-Indian in this country. “I thought of our life in India, the freedom to go to church, the freedom to practice my faith, the freedom that my country gave its minorities. I’ve never felt prouder of being an Indian.”

India’s Muslim leadership has a responsibility to highlight the grievances of their community, but it has an even greater responsibility to speak the truth about how much better it is to live in a secular state, despite the warts.