Kanpur: When Farah Khalid heard the call to prayer on a Sunday afternoon on a pleasant March day and thought of retiring to a quiet corner of a popular tourist spot in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, Khalid’s husband forbade her from doing so.
A devout Muslim, the 36-year-old homemaker pleaded with her husband, a stockbroker, but he did not relent.
“I told my husband that I would not be disturbing or causing inconvenience to anybody. Chaman Mahal is so big that nobody would have noticed me offering namaz,” said Khalid, speaking of a 300-year-old palace surrounded by greenery on the city's outskirts.
“My husband was wary as smartphones are common nowadays," she said. "He feared somebody might shoot my video while praying and denounce me to the police."
Required to pray five times daily, Muslims offering namaz in public places like trains, railway stations and hospitals have always been part of India’s religiously and culturally vibrant landscape.
But with sustained attacks on the country’s largest minority and a decline in civil liberties in the eight years since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, the few civilities Muslims were extended have disappeared.
To survive the descent into Hindu majoritarianism, Indian Muslims have had to change or be extremely guarded about what they eat, where they pray, and what they say, especially in a public place.
Starting with the 52-year-old ironsmith, Mohammad Akhlaq, who, in September 2015, a little over a year after the BJP came to power in May 2014, was beaten to death by a Hindu mob on suspicion of eating cow meat, the lynching of Muslims in the name of cow protection has become routine.
Muslims have been attacked for offering namaz in a public place (here, here, and here) and on the suspicion of carrying or consuming beef (here, here, and here).
In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is in power, seven men were arrested in July 2022 after a video of 11 Muslim men offering namaz at the Lulu Mall in Lucknow and a member of the right-wing organisation, Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, made a complaint.
They were booked under the Indian Penal Code, 1869: section 153 A (promoting enmity by words, either spoken or written or by signs or by visible representations on the grounds of religion), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting religion or religious beliefs), 341 (wrongfully restraining any person) and 505 (statements conducing to public mischief).
“Perhaps, the incident at the mall in Lucknow triggered fear in my husband’s mind, and he stopped me from praying at a public place,” said Khalid.
In the same week that Khalid went to Chaman Mahal, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh renamed the neighbourhood it was located, Islam Nagar, to Jagdishpur.
Keema Parathas Or Your Life
Shariq Khan, a 52-year-old executive of a media company in Bhopal, said that keema-paratha was his favourite dish while travelling, but now he plays it safe with potato curry.
“Non-vegetarian dishes are prepared with a lot of spices, and hence they are aromatic. You open the lunch box, and the smell explodes,” he said. “People around you get to know you have mutton or chicken. The smell is too prominent in the air if you are in an air-conditioned coach.”
In January 2016, cow vigilantes in the Harda district of Madhya Pradesh accused a Muslim couple of carrying beef on a train and attacked them. Two Muslim women travelling by train in July 2016 were accused of having beef in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh and beaten by a mob. In July 2022, the police in the Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh arrested Talib Hussain, an eatery owner, for selling chicken wrapped in a newspaper that happened to have images of Hindu deities.
“You are having keema-paratha on the train. One of your co-passengers may quietly inform a cow vigilante group that you have beef,” said Khan. “A mob could be waiting for you at the next station.”
“Life is more valuable than eating keema paratha,” he said.
Irfan Khan, a 42-year-old businessman who deals in animal hides in Kanpur, recalled a time when dhabas owned by Hindus along the highway in UP had arrangements where Muslim travellers could offer namaz and they ate meat without fear.
“Isn’t it strange that you can buy meat or egg dishes at railway stations, but Muslims can’t eat home-cooked non-vegetarian food while travelling?” he said.
A*, a Christian journalist in Lucknow, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that he and his family no longer ate meat while travelling.
“Will the mob listen if I tell them I am Christian and not a Muslim?" he said. "Will they bother if I tell them I am having mutton and not beef?”
Worst Time To Be An Interfaith Couple
B*, a 46-year-old Muslim software engineer in Delhi, who is married to a Hindu woman, said it was the worst time to be an interfaith couple in India, where they had to examine the risks of routine interactions like attending a party or meeting new people.
“Given the circumstances prevailing in India today, I will say that I would not have gone for an interfaith marriage,” said B, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Today, I would be accused of ‘love jihad’.”
“Nobody in my office knows my wife is from a different faith,” he said.
While the Hindu right wing has popularised the conspiracy theory about Muslim men luring Hindu women into marriage under false pretences, BJP-run states have wielded anti-conversion laws to make it more difficult for people of different faiths to get married.
When asked about the need for such abject silence about his relationship, given that he lives in the national capital, A said, “So much venom is being spewed against Muslims. I fear that if my seniors get to know I married a Hindu woman, my promotions and salary hike may stop. You can check the social media posts of the vice presidents of multinational companies, and you will see how vicious they are.”
C, a journalist with a Hindi daily in Kanpur, said that his newspaper headlines use the term “love jihad” as a matter of fact when a Muslim man marries a Hindu woman. But when a Hindu man marries a Muslim woman, the narrative is about love prevailing against all odds.
Khalid, the homemaker in Bhopal, said that her husband discourages their two Muslim boys from interacting with Hindu girls, and even as he masks these concerns behind a laugh and chuckle, his fear is palpable.
“My sons are 12 and eight. What do they know about love or marriage at this age? But my husband keeps telling them that marrying outside their faith should never come to their mind. He tells them that they should maintain a distance from Hindu girls. Though he says this in jest and chuckles to show he is not serious, his message is clear. He is hammering in the idea.”
D, a Muslim journalist in Indore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explained his dilemma when he was told to report about the Hindu spiritual leader and preacher Dhirendra Shastri, who heads a temple in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh, and was accused of spreading superstitions.
Although he wanted to do the story, D said he politely refused to do the assignment.
“Had I done a story against Shastri’s claims, I would have been accused of attacking Hindus and Hinduism because I am Muslim,” he said.
D added that he had stopped reporting stories where a person’s religious identity was important to the piece.
“Supposing a Hindu bridegroom is not allowed to ride a mare by high-caste Hindus. If I write about it, I will be trolled. I will be accused of writing against the Hindu caste system because I am Muslim. If I report about a Muslim vendor being thrashed and asked to show his identity papers, the trolls will say I am writing in favour of Muslims,” said D.
While acknowledging that Hindu journalists report hate crimes against minorities and the crackdown on dissent and free speech by the authorities, D said Muslim journalists were more vulnerable.
“The risk of getting arrested is more if you are Muslim. If you are Muslim, the government tries its best to see that you do not get bail. The moment you get bail, more charges are levelled against you,” said D. “You can consider the example of Siddique Kappan.”
A Muslim journalist from Kerala, Kappan, was on his way from Delhi to UP on 5 October 2020 to cover the alleged gang rape of a Dalit girl when he was arrested, accused of working with Popular Front of India (PFI) to incite violence, and slapped with terror charges. The 43 -year-old journalist was released on bail on 2 February 2023, 846, days after he was arrested.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in its annual report released on 14 December that seven journalists were behind bars in India as of 1 December 2022. Out of the seven, five—Asif Sultan, Manan Dar, Sajad Gul, Fahad Shah and Siddique Kappan—were Muslim.
The Sense Of Fear
Irshad Imli, the editor and owner of a 75-year-old Urdu daily published from Kanpur, Siyasat, said that while some court orders gave relief to people facing arbitrary arrests, these were a dent compared to the damage being done by the mainstream media to the social fabric of the country.
“It can’t be denied that there is a sense of fear among Muslims,” said Imli. “I think the mainstream media and especially the television media are playing a big role.”
B, the software engineer in Delhi, said he sometimes saw a bearded man in a skullcap and pathani suit pushing his cart of vegetables on a lonely stretch of road in the night close to his neighbourhood.
“I feel like telling him, ‘You are too vulnerable. Shave off your beard, give up wearing a skullcap and pathani suit and start wearing shirts and pants,” he said.
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(Rohit Ghosh has been a journalist for 25 years and lives in Uttar Pradesh.)