Read an excerpt from Born a Muslim: A critical approach towards locating the Islamic identity in contemporary India
Using interviews, histories, memoirs and scholarship, Wahab pieces together a narrative which is at once critical and sympathetic, to address the dogma within and the prejudice against the community in India.
The identity of an Indian Muslim in contemporary times is an amalgamation of cultures, customs and socio-political influences that have shaped the contours of the religion and its practice today. But what does it mean to be a Muslim geographically rooted in the cultural ethos of an alien land? And does an Indian Islam, a religion born in Arabia but nurtured in India, truly exist? It is to find answers to these questions and to study the identity of the Muslim in India that journalist and author Ghazala Wahab writes her latest book, Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India.
Her work of religious non-fiction traces the history of Islam to seventh century Arabia from whence it arrived in India over the course of 400 years with traders, invaders, rulers and mystics. She further approaches the religion with a gaze that attempts to locate Islam in the present context while touching upon the communal violence, rioting and religious discrimination that it has been embroiled in for so long. Her work is also an examination of the socio-economic factors that have stalled the growth of Indian Muslims and an analysis of whether the Islamic tradition is losing out on the spirit of its teachings. Using interviews, histories, memoirs and scholarship, Wahab pieces together a narrative which is at once critical and sympathetic, to address the dogma within and the prejudice against the community in India.
The excerpt that follows is the author's recounting of the 1980 Muslim massacre that occurred in Moradabad. The riots claimed more than 100 lives. It was also the first of many instances of Hindu-Muslim conflict that Wahab was to hear of, through the years.
The first incident of communal violence that I became aware of was Moradabad, 1980, though I learnt of it only in 1981. It was Eid day, at the end of July 1981. As was the family tradition, all of us kids had woken up early, bathed, and got dressed in our festival finery to accompany our fathers and uncles to Eidgah (a mosque with a large open ground where Eid prayers are offered) for the Eid namaz. However, instead of leaving for namaz, I noticed that all the adult males had collected in my grandfather’s room for a meeting. The women and children were kept out.
The meeting didn’t last long. They had discussed whether the children should be taken along for the Eid prayer. It was finally decided that the risk was too great. That the men were risking their lives was bad enough. One of my aunts pleaded with my uncle to offer the Eid prayer at home instead of going to Eidgah. But that would have been
too cowardly. ‘After all,’ my father declared, ‘we have to send out the message that everything is normal.’
The women of the family offered their Eid namaz in a huddle, praying for peace, and the safe return of their men, even as the other children and I sat in the central courtyard, aware of the sombreness of the occasion. It did not seem like Eid at all, more like a day of reckoning. The excitement of the festival began only after the men returned home safely.
Later in the day, I pestered my father to tell me about the source of the tension that had spoilt the festival for us and discovered the horror of Moradabad, 1980. Just as 6 December 1992, the day the Babri Masjid was demolished, is carved into the psyche of every Indian Muslim as the day their illusions were shattered, Moradabad, 1980, is
post-Independence India’s Jallianwala Bagh. The only difference is the victims were not freedom fighters but ordinary Muslim worshippers; the perpetrators were not colonial troopers, but independent India’s police force.
On 13 August 1980, thousands of Muslims, some say close to 40,000, had collected in the Eidgah for the annual Eid prayer. Just as the prayer concluded, a pig ran into the Eidgah. This naturally led to a commotion. The worshippers urged the personnel of the PAC deployed there for security to remove the pig. The PAC refused, saying it was not their job. An altercation ensued and the people started assaulting the PAC personnel.
Feeling threatened by the crowd, the PAC opened fire on the unarmed worshippers. And continued to fire. According to Engineer’s book, officially 119 people died that day. However, locals claim casualties of over 300. The tragedy gave rise to three questions.
One, given that Eid is the biggest Muslim festival worldwide, and that Muslims consider pig an unclean animal, even the touching of which requires purification, how could the animal enter a Muslim place of worship, on Eid day no less? This was even more perplexing given the security detailing and deployment of the armed PAC to prevent any untoward incident.
Two, once the pig managed to enter and it was brought to the notice of the PAC, how did they imagine they could maintain peace without immediately removing the object that was causing such distress to the worshippers? Worse, they told the devotees that removing the pig from the place of worship was not their job. Being a UP cadre force, how were they so oblivious to the sensitivities of the local Muslims?
Three, even one shot in the air is enough to deter unarmed civilians. Why didn’t the PAC stop after the first or second round of firing? What could have led them to continue firing, even when they could see a stampede unfolding before them?
The UP government, then led by VP Singh (who was briefly prime minister of India in 1989–90), had no answers. On the advice of the UP police, which believed that questioning their motives would demoralize the men, the government cast the cold-blooded massacre as a Hindu–Muslim riot, even when it was clear that
Men of the Provincial Armed Constabulary opened fire on about 40,000 Muslims while they were at Eid prayers. No one knows exactly how many people died. What is known is that the incident at Moradabad was not a Hindu–Muslim riot but a calculated coldblooded massacre of Muslims by a rabidly communal police force which tried to cover up its genocide by making it out to be a Hindu–Muslim riot.
Like the Jamshedpur killings, the Moradabad massacre also receded from public memory in time. But before that could happen, the ripples from this incident were seen across several cities of India for the next few months. Muslims held protests, some violent, in places as diverse as Jammu & Kashmir, Bihar, Gujarat, and Karnataka, in addition to several places in UP. The impact on my family was that our Eid prayers shifted from the Eidgah to the Taj Mahal, where slightly more privileged devotees gathered; moreover, it was perceived to be more insulated from prejudice than the Eidgah or Jama Masjid.
The above excerpt from Ghazala Wahab's Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India has been reproduced here with permission from Aleph Book Company
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