In my last few columns on the problems that the minorities face in India and Goa, I had an occasion to reflect on how Muslims become the victims of Islamophobia in the manner in which they are perceived by Christians. I had also talked about how the predicament that the Indian Muslims face has many similarities with the problems that the Goan Catholics have to deal with. Such problems, I suggested, were not isolated from the relation that the Muslims and Christians (and their history in the subcontinent) have with the Indian nation. To explore this predicament further, I would like to narrate a personal incident.
I found myself on a very early morning flight from Goa to Sharjah a few weeks ago. Since the flight was to depart at around four in the morning, and since I had a deadline to meet, I was working on my laptop till I heard the boarding announcement. Exhausted by doing many things, the least of which was packing, I decided that I would doze off as soon as I took my seat in the plane.
The Air Arabia flight has screens that drop down from the overhead baggage compartment wherein the necessary safety information is projected for the passengers. As the plane was taxiing to the runway and the whir of the engines was lulling me to sleep, I was suddenly woken up by something that I had never heard in a plane: “Allahu Akbar…”, the drop-down screen said. For two seconds I was wide awake and astounded. It was only when I rubbed the sleep off my eyes that I realized that it was the beginning to a meaningful prayer, asking God’s protection from the travails of travel. The prayer was in Arabic, with English subtitles for the benefit of those unschooled in that language. Sure at that moment I smiled at myself sheepishly. It was mildly embarrassing for me. Now clearly, despite knowing better, Islamophobia had caught me unawares.
But thinking more about the incident, I realized why I sat wide awake, even if for two brief seconds. I also recalled when, years ago, I had read about a Muslim, woman journalist writing for the Indian Express, who when about to board a flight and speaking on the phone and trying to assure the person on the other end of the line that her flight will be a safe one, had said something to the effect of, Inshallah plane uddega, only to get nervous stares from the person standing next to her. We can either laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of such incidents, or we can (and I would rather prefer such an alternative) think about such incidents in a sympathetic manner.
The reason why I am narrating this incident, indeed confessing almost, is because it is not isolated from what I have talked previously in this very space. What I would like to stress is that one needs to be not only cautious of the overt manifestations of Islamophobic and anti-Muslim worldviews, but also such subtle and covert instances that, one can argue, feed the violence against minorities. The advantage of dealing critically with such covert and subtle instances is that racism, casteism, and other injustices that the minorities (or ‘minoritized groups’, for communities become minorities owing to the injustices of race and caste, for instance) have to face on a daily basis can be dealt with greater efficiency. The injustices that happen on a daily basis are much more pervasive and can kill the soul of a person much more effectively than physical violence. As Dr. B. R. Ambedkar suggested, “Most people do not realize that society can practise tyranny and oppression against an individual in a far greater degree than a Government can. The means and scope that are open to society for oppression are more extensive than those that are open to Government, also they are far more effective. What punishment in the penal code is comparable in its magnitude and its severity to excommunication?”
So what has the everyday (almost banal) Islamophobia to do with the Catholics in Goa? I can concede that it may not directly relate to the life of Goan Catholics. But a sympathetic recognition of Islamophobia’s overt and covert manifestations can allow the Goan Catholics to think about their own position in Goan society in new and different ways. Should not the Goan Catholics ask themselves whether they are responsible for the ills of Portuguese colonialism and Inquisition, when the Muslims are expected to bear the burden of a history of ‘invasions’? The Goan Catholics can ask why they are stereotyped the way they are, like the Muslims, in popular culture? The Goan Catholics can ask whether Christianity and Islam are really ‘foreign’ to India. The Goan Catholics can also ask whether demanding rights and justice is ‘minority appeasement’. These are some of the many similarities that can be summoned up in the context of what has been just discussed.
If one is convinced that Islamophobia is a real and a serious problem, I think being caught unawares by it can be a blessing in disguise. Being caught unawares is not the same as being consciously Islamophobic, but such an incident – as the one described at the beginning of this column – can enable us to search for answers to the problems that are plaguing the minorities in this country. Not recognizing Islamophobia as a serious problem, however, can compound the problems that the minorities in India face. It can further bolster those ideas and ideologies that legitimize the exclusion of minorities from mainstream politics.
(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 17 September, 2014)