The conversation around India’s Muslim population is as old as India’s freedom movement.
The community receives unrelenting venom from Hindu right-wing groups and is left to justify its social and religious identity when individuals or groups indulge in any form of misdemeanour. Take, for instance, the social distancing norms purportedly flouted by the Islamic evangelical group, Tablighi Jamaat, which reportedly led to a rise in the number of coronavirus cases in India.
Several politicians, media houses, and citizens blamed India’s entire Muslim population for everything from poor hygiene to a complete disregard for the rule of law. Entrenched prejudice was also evident during the Delhi riots earlier this year.
This declining social capital of Muslims in the country spurred Bollywood veteran Sanjay Khan to write a book, Assalamualaikum Watan, about his community. The book was published in February.
In an interview with Quartz, he insisted repeatedly that India’s social fabric is not beyond repair.
What prompted you to write this book?
I have been observing the declining position of Indian Muslims for several decades, and their absence from mainstream India was an earnest concern to me. After some serious research, I came to a firm conclusion that to strengthen the Muslim position, they need to get a comprehensive education in all subjects, build their lives by joining mainstream India, and become contributing citizens to the national growth. An educated mass of almost 200 million Muslims can certainly strengthen India’s GDP and overall development like they have in the past.
The Mumbai film industry has been unique in its representation of Muslims. Do you feel that is changing?
Not at all. It’s not changing. The Indian Muslim film community has excelled and continues to rule the roost and hold on to their unique positions.
Given the recent Delhi riots, do you fear India’s social fabric is coming apart?
I can never subscribe to this view. The Indian nation and its people are highly intelligent. Even the ones who are uneducated understand this fact that the unity and fraternity within the multilingual, multi-religious society is the mantra that will keep the country united and prosperous. The communal flare-ups are purely political, like the one we saw in Delhi recently, engineered by vested interest and not by the communities living in the mohallas (neighbourhoods).
How do you feel the community copes with such violence?
Many innocent lives and property have been lost due to mindless riots…My message to my community is to believe in India’s constitution and promote fraternity and communal harmony…by celebrating all Hindu festivals and culture, as we are the sons and daughters of the same soil.
The protests against the new citizenship law have fueled Muslims’ insecurities. How can this be changed? Where has the government and the political class gone wrong?
Though the government has assured time and again that there is no covert discriminatory policy against Muslims, the question is the open-endedness of the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register. Seeking documentary evidence of citizenship through birth certificates of their ancestors could prove a major hurdle. The bureaucracy will burden the common man, disrupting lives and causing misery and pain.
You have praised prime minister Narendra Modi in your book for his economic policies. What are your views on his government’s social ideology?
I personally admire Mr Modi for his ambition to make India great… If the glue which is binding secularism of the largest democracy of the world is broken, the country will disintegrate, depriving itself of strength… As my good friend Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former prime minister of India, once told me quite emphatically, “The only way forward for India is the secular way. There is no other way.” I feel this is slowly dawning upon the current dispensation.
Within Bollywood, you are one of the rare voices to talk about Indian Muslims. Why do you think that is? Is there an inherent Islamophobia that actors and filmmakers are afraid of having to deal with?
Not in the least bit. There is no Islamophobia at all. The beating of drums by the right-wing extremists from time to time disturbs the perfumed air of India temporarily. This mighty nation has the will and the courage to protect the country from such elements. I am not alone in speaking the facts. There have been expressions of dissatisfaction from some of the leading personalities within Bollywood. The expressions of concern are in the interest of the nation. You have to look at it from this prism.