As Ram Mandir Euphoria Peaks, I, A Young Muslim Woman, Am Filled With Dread

In the public discourse around the Mandir, the Muslim voice has been absent. Here is why the community has chosen numbness over articulation

Minutes before I sat down to write this piece I heard someone ring the doorbell aggressively. Annoyed, I shouted: ‘Kaun hai (who is it)?’. A woman’s voice replied: ‘Ram Mandir se aaye hain (we have come from Ram Mandir).’ I had to ask thrice to be sure that I had heard right. 

On the other side of the gate to our home stood three women handing out a bunch of pamphlets along with akshat (sacred offering of rice). ‘It is for the Diwali puja on the 22nd,’ they explained, referring to the day Prime Minister Modi inaugurates the newly constructed Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. By then three men with saffron scarves draped around their necks had joined them. My visceral reaction was to refuse the package and tell them ‘I am a Muslim’, but instinctively, I took it and said, ‘Okay’. With the cry of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ they left, moving on to the neighbouring house. 

As I walked back inside, I wondered – what would have happened if I refused the package? Would I have put my family in harm’s way by declaring my religious identity? 

These anxieties are neither alien to me nor to the other young Muslims living in India. Over the past decade, the conscious choice to hide our religious identity when in public has become a survival tactic for many of us. From removing surnames on social networks and delivery apps to avoiding or whispering  the customary greeting, Assalamualaikum, when we take a phone call in a public space, Muslims like myself have to unwillingly negotiate and compromise with our Muslimness to survive the necropolitical regime run by the Modi-led, Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

In recent times, I have seen my father advising my brother against wearing a kurta- pyjama to the jummah (Friday) prayers so that he does not become  the target of a hate crime. Each time communal tensions simmer, I have found Muslim women, including my friends and myself, assuming the responsibility of protecting the men from brutality, inflicted by both the mobs (see here, and here) and the State (see here). My sister and I inevitably step out when someone in the family has to interact with State agencies, especially the police. This has been the case ever since we became cognisant of the history of the State’s role in targeting of Muslim men.

These fears are not unfounded. BJP leaders, including the PM, have made incendiary statements (see here, and here) othering Muslims based on their clothing and outward appearances. For example, in December 2019, when the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests were in full swing, PM Modi targeted the largely Muslim protesters at an election rally in Dumka, Jharkhand, and said ‘those igniting fire can be easily identified by their clothes.’  

The Ram Mandir inauguration must be seen within the context of an overtly Islamophobic atmosphere (see herehere, and here) that has come to prevail during the two successive terms of the BJP government. 

The BJP has now also fulfilled its electoral promise of exploring ‘all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya,’ mentioned in their 2014 and 2019 election manifestos. The construction of the Ram Mandir is the ‘the start of Ram Rajya (literally the kingdom of Ram) in India’, as stated by the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath. 

This juncture personally warranted an examination of what BJPs imagined Ram Rajya would look like. I began researching and recounting all that has transpired since PM Modi promised the creation of Ram Rajya in his speech as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. 

It comes as no surprise that cultural and religious heterogeneity would find no space in this imagination. Since the BJP came to power, it has undertaken the mammoth task of erasing Muslim history from textbooks. The State has also taken on the renaming of or destruction of Muslim heritage across the country. The ceremonial celebration of the construction of the temple seems like a grand celebration of the brazen erasure of the Muslim identity, a project modelled on Israel’s erasure of the Palestinian history. 

  Why should the construction and inauguration of the Ram Mandir sound warning bells for India’s Muslims? While the row over the land where the Babri Masjid once stood and the Ram Mandir has now been constructed dates back to the 1800s, it was not until the mosque’s illegal demolition by a mob of kar sevaks (or religious volunteers) in 1992 that the controversy became a watershed moment in modern India’s history. In the immediate aftermath of the demolition, Muslim houses and shops in Ayodhya were attacked, burnt and looted by right-wing Hindu mobs. This later resulted in large-scale communal violence across the country. More than 1,000 people were killed. Many claim that the law enforcement agencies did little to quell these communal attacks. 

In November 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the construction of the Ram Mandir despite having acknowledged that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was an ‘egregious violation of the rule of law’. For me, like many others, the verdict clarified that justice was secondary to appeasing majoritarian sentiments. While I felt anger and a sense of betrayal, some others felt hopeful about what they perceive as a resolution of a contentious issue.

I remember that as security arrangements were tightened in the buildup to the verdict, there was palpable tension across the country. 

Against the wishes of me and my siblings, my father had decided that it was best for the family to temporarily move to Jamia Nagar on the day of the judgement to avoid being targeted for being among the very few Muslim families in a predominantly  Hindu neighbourhood in Noida. It was distressing – the thought of having to forcibly leave behind a place we had called home for over two decades without knowing whether returning would be a possibility. While a part of me thought it ridiculous, another knew that history had proven on multiple occasions that the communal fires could be stoked at any moment. 

Since childhood, I have seen my parents grappling with this dilemma – should they live in a Muslim ghetto and compromise on civic amenities (see here and here) or to stay put as a minority in a part of the city that has a high concentration of Hindus and instances of bigotry? While my mother thought we would be safer in a locality like Jamia Nagar in case communal violence were to break out, my father believed it would always be easier for the State-sponsored right wing Hindu nationalist groups to persecute a “Muslim locality” entirely as was the case during the 2020 north-east Delhi pogrom (see hereherehere and here). 

In 2020, the CBI Special Court granted a clean chit to the 32 accused of conspiring the demolition. 

In the last 10 years, I have seen the fear of persecution take deep roots in the minds of young Muslims. Even today the fear among the community is palpable. Muslim journalists and activists are advising the community to refrain from engaging in any discussion or arguments over the Ram Temple construction even if provoked. Many of my friends have shared experiencing numbness in the wake of the dizzy celebrations. 

The demolition and its wounds have seeped into the psyche of even those who, like me, were born after the incident. Over the years, this has only embedded itself more deeply. 

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the National Register of Citizens (in Assam and the threat of extending to the entire country) despite public furore concretised these fears. More reasons? Here are some:  the crackdown on dissenting voices, especially Muslims; extrajudicial practices like “bulldozer” justice to penalise Muslims for protesting against persecution (see here and here); and repeated, flagrant communal speeches by senior leadership at election rallies (see herehere and here) in addition to the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of hate crimes (see here and here).

I find each facet of my identity as an Indian Muslim woman journalist threatened under the BJP-led regime. Right-wing Hindu groups have normalised the idea of violence, especially sexual, against Muslim women right from the 2002 Gujarat pogrom to the 2020 Delhi pogrom. We have most recently also witnessed the mirroring of offline hate campaigns against Muslim women fueled by State inaction manifest as cyber sexual violence on apps and platforms such as Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai, as I had reported earlier. 

While as a journalist I have almost always reported on issues through a gender lens, even during times of communal strife, this piece is an attempt at filling the growing absence of the Muslim voice from the popular discourse around Ram Mandir. This is at one level forced by the hypermasculine jingoist nationalism, but it is also a conscious choice made by most Muslims, an attempt at self preservation. We have had to decidedly choose numbness to ensure that we can go about our day-to-day lives.

  • Eisha Hussain is a multimedia reporter at Behanbox. Her work has covered issues around gender and sexuality, displaced communities from conflict zones, and protest cultures.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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