With the dispossession of Muslims in India being normalized and actively celebrated by the majoritarian communities, Afreen Fatima meditates on the critical question of home and belonging for 207 million Muslims, who find their present and futures rendered uncertain.
In the early morning hours of June 12, 2022, JK Ashiyana—a Muslim locality in Allahabad, a town in Uttar Pradesh where my home used to stand—fell dead and silent. The streets and alleys were suddenly filled with the rumblings of three big bulldozers as they moved into the densely populated Muslim neighborhood. The residents of JK Ashiyana felt the rumbling inside their hearts, fearing police action if they walked out. Police personnel who oversaw the demolishing of my home, laughed at and intimidated the silhouettes of people peeping from their windows. “Kashana-e-Fatima” (House of Fatima), read a stone on the outer wall of my house. Workers of the municipal corporation broke its doors open and threw out everything that made the house a home for us. The first hit of the bulldozer came, and the stone fell flat, followed by the entire two-story building. Nothing was left of Kashana-e-Fatima, except for the people who lived there for over twenty years.
Since that dreadful day, we, the people of Kashana-e-Fatima, have been wondering if the houses we have inhabited lately could be called our home. And for innumerable days, probably since the inception of the Indian state, the Muslims of India have been forced to wonder whether they will ever be able to freely call India their home. For many years now, the socio-political footing of Muslims of India has been under the inquiry of researchers and academics, who have raised and answered several important questions. A sizable number of reports, research projects, and books detail the persecution and marginalization of Muslim Indians, Indian Muslims, and Muslims in India. To say “Muslims of India” is intentional on my part, where “of” offers a semantic pathway, so that Muslims and India are related to one another and belong together. But in no way does creating this little semantic change modify the concern raised by rights organizations across the globe and ours, locally. Who belongs to India? Or does India belong to someone? How does one understand the semantics of being and belonging?
This kind of perception is rooted in a specific ideological ecosystem within India, which reigns over the legislative, governs the executive, controls the judiciary, and holds the media in its grip. It has made possible a deepening radicalization in Hindu society, which has criminalized all aspects of Islamic faith in India. This society continues to celebrate its hatred of Muslims, which has normalized apathy towards their predicament. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant right-wing Hindu organization, inspired by fascist movements in Europe, along with its political wing and the ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have long popularized a brand of Hinduism that believes India to be primarily of Hindus and that all others should either assimilate into Hinduism or accept a second-class citizenship. The only idea of family that they cherish is one which abides by the Sangh Parivar, a conglomeration of over fifty Hindu nationalist organizations and the RSS. This is where even “the world’s largest democracy” has to perform its role as a member of this family. But what happens to my small and simple family? What happens to those who do not want to be forced into being a part of this family?
In his 2019 book, Majoritarian State, Christophe Jaffrelot writes that the RSS has become “India’s deep state.” Simply put, it is a machinery of Hindu supremacism that largely controls all state apparatus and institutions. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal carried out an investigation that exposed the close ties between Facebook and the BJP, thereby highlighting the complicity of tech giants as well as massive corporate funding in actualizing the nightmare of “Hindu Rashtra” (“Hindu Nation”). This is no longer a warning for us; it is now slowly turning into a reality that Muslims of India are confronted with. It is not my intention to render “secular” political parties blameless but, at least, they have perfected how to render their crimes invisible.
The Indian parliamentary process, on the other hand, has been reduced to a mere formality. Parliamentarians openly propagate hate; they attend conferences that champion the scenario of a Muslim genocide and what they call a “Rohingya-like solution” for Muslims, in reference to the Myanmar state’s genocidal politics towards Burmese Muslims. The present batch of its RSS leaders are implementing the blueprints of fascism as they build a grand Ram Temple over the graveyard of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, demolished by Hindu organizations in 1992. Adding to that, the constant undermining of human rights by Hindu militias across all Indian towns and cities has made negotiating the everyday difficult for the Muslims of India. State and non-state actors indulge in brutal forms of vigilantism and censorship, orchestrating pogroms and lynch mobs. They torture our bodies and our senses, carry out unlawful and ambiguous arrests, demolish our houses and vandalize our sacred spaces. When they do more that I cannot name, defining “home” becomes uncertain. Did Akbari Begum, an 85-year-old woman who was burnt alive in her home during the 2020 North-East Delhi pogrom, not belong to India? Did Junaid Khan, or Pehlu Khan, or Tabrez Ansari, or Asif Khan, who were lynched, not belong to India? Did Hashimpura and Naroda Patiya not belong to India? Did Babri or Kashana-e-Fatima not belong to India?
Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification banning the Popular Front of India, a socio-political organization predominantly led by Muslims. Most were not shocked; many rights activists had seen it coming. The organization was committed to “socio-economic, cultural, and political empowerment of the deprived and the downtrodden,” as it said on their website before it was taken down. It is unimaginable for Muslims to even assemble for a peaceful protest such as the 2019 anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests in the Delhi neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh, let alone organize themselves politically. Shaheen Bagh is a place that has allowed us a form of belonging where we could reclaim space that has been denied to us.
Last month, the Gujarat High Court ordered the release of eleven men convicted of rape and murder during the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002, approved by Narendra Modi’s government, who was the Gujarat Chief Minister at the time. How can Bilkis Bano, a survivor who lost fourteen family members in the pogrom, be forced to live knowing that the men who raped her and killed her family are free? Victims of mass violence, especially those who have lost family and/or lost homes, are forced to move away from their homes and cities, forced to navigate this state-imposed exile, forced to dwell in not knowing what and where home is anymore. Justice, too, begins to take the shape of a home stolen from them.
I often think of those who have experienced similar losses: family members who are forced to live in a jail cell or away from the comfort of a home brought down by a bulldozer or burnt apart by a fire during a pogrom. When I first read about the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, the horrific stories of fire and blood taking over the streets, of Muslims fleeing their homes and hoping to escape their own neighbors, I felt achingly disturbed. In 2020, I visited the neighborhoods of North-East Delhi that survived a similar pogrom, right after the blood stains had begun to fade and the fire had turned everything to ash. I saw tear marks dry up on quiet faces. Maybe, if I trace these marks back to the eyes that couldn’t hold them in, I can tell a story of belonging and betrayal.
Every judicial and administerial process is designed to punish those seeking justice or redress. For instance, a political prisoner’s punishment begins the day their names are flagged by the media, for the state to devour and base its internal threat theory on. There are dissenters who are being beaten down with the might of state power, who still refuse to stay quiet even as they are forced to belong inside jail walls. While Abbu is currently lodged at Jila Karagar, Deoria (District Jail, Deoria), his grandson, 4-year-old Ibrahim, has promised to build a new house made of steel when he comes back during a mulakat in jail. How many days and years should little children learn to count? How should the families of Sharjeel Imam, Hany Babu, Shahrukh Pathan, Tahir Husain, and Javed Mohammed measure their absence?
It takes nothing on the part of the Muslims of India to offend the gods of this Hindu state—we must look down and make no noise, and we might be able to stall the countless punishments waiting to claim us. The Muslims of India simply cannot belong, not to this country, not to their homes. As I write these words, five months after the destruction of our home, the people of Kashana-e-Fatima are ghosts. I don’t see the same brown in their eyes or hear the same pitch in their voice anymore. Abbu saw our home come down on a television from a hospital bed in jail. Ammi sat on the janamaz praying as Sumaiya and I huddled around an Android phone, watching a live stream of the demolition on YouTube. The Muslims of India are tortured to submit, and the fallen walls of Kashana-e-Fatima are one and the same as others—broken, but present and persistent. Where or to whom does Kashana-e-Fatima belong to, and will it ever matter? ■