Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Aug 22, 2020
Manufacturing Conflict: Indian Muslims and the Shift from Marginalisation to Exclusion

Since 9/11, an entire industry has taken root within academia and policy circles to study Muslims’ relationship to violent extremism. One dominant point of view that has emerged argues that Islam, and Salafism (referred to as ‘Islam’s unstable isotope’ by Cambridge academic Tim Winter), <1> is fundamentally prone to violence. While Winter argues that Salafis and their interpretation of the Quran and the hadith, the corpus of the Prophet’s sayings, goes completely against traditional Islam, others argue that it is precisely this literalist and extremist Salafi interpretation that faithfully reflects true Islam while everything else is a ‘cotton candy’ version. <2> Notwithstanding the merits or demerits of this claim, one of the most important aspects about ‘Islamic terrorism’—a misnomer in itself—is the lack of analysis of non-religious factors in the creation of Muslim militarised extremists. Identifying religion as the root cause of terrorism makes it much easier to gloss over, even justify, sacrificing civil liberties and human rights at the altar of national security. For instance, China seeks to hide its agenda of Han ethnic chauvinism and justify the persecution of Turkic Uighur Muslims as potential jihadis. Blaming Islam is useful as it deflects from broader uncomfortable questions about the manner in which governments create conditions under which people turn to violent extremism.

It is important to note that many people often think that seeking to understand the root causes of violent extremism conflates explanation with justification. Writing about the Holocaust, historian Inga Clendinnen calls this “moral sensitivity exclusion,” wherein to even begin to understand why someone does something ‘evil’ is to start the process of rationalising their actions<3>. Perhaps it is impossible to comprehend what goes through the mind of a suicide bomber at the time of the attack or even when they decide this is the only course of action open to them. However, the factors that lead up to this must be acknowledged and understood to prevent people from crossing the point of no return. Violence and terrorism must be seen as products of a set of mitigating factors and not simply the result of a blind belief in ideology.

Muslims and the BJP

In analyses of terrorism and Islam, Indian Muslims are often heralded as an example of a community that has largely avoided radicalisation. Theories abound about the absence of radicalisation but one of the arguments made by the government and policy officials and members of the ‘ulama (religious clergy) is that there is something exceptional about Indian Islam. This homogenisation is in itself problematic as it overlooks the huge cultural, linguistic, regional and sectarian diversity amongst Muslims in India. It fails to take into account that this very diversity and some degree of political, social and economic stability has meant that political discourse amongst Muslims is rooted in the belief of an inclusive and secular India. For instance, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were grounded in the language of the Constitution. This is despite the woeful disparities that the Sachar Committee report highlighted in terms of the economic ‘backwardness’ of Indian Muslims<4>. Notably, the handful of Indian ISIS followers have come from the same region in Kerala<5>, where the Muslim community is relatively more prosperous and does not carry the burden of partition that their North Indian cousins do.

Importantly, the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) initially sought to project some Muslims—Sufis and Shias—as more Indian while implicitly damning others<6>. This not only fit in neatly with global narratives on the ‘war on terror’ but also amplified sectarianism domestically, which in turn exacerbated intra-Muslim polemics. During the 2016 World Sufi Forum in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi equated Islam in India with Sufism, implicitly signaling that Sufis are seen to be ‘acceptable’ Muslims. Similarly, the BJP has tried to create the perception that Shia Muslims, because of their heterodox practices, are naturally Indian. Both these perceptions have been at odds with the statements of several BJP politicians who view all Muslims as anathema to their vision of India. This latter position, as illustrated by the ghar wapsi (reconversion to Hinduism) programme, is indicative of the various constituencies that the BJP seeks to appeal to. The top brass wants to project an image of inclusivity in the international community, but the lower levels of leadership use anti-Muslim sentiment to garner votes. The other perception that the BJP sought to create was that it was concerned with the upliftment of Muslim women<7> <8>, which won it plaudits from its own supporters and from people across the political aisle who hold the patronising opinion that Muslim women need saving. Interestingly, the striking aspect of the mostly women-led CAA protests was that they served to consolidate and emphasise Muslim identity over sectarian identities and thus unraveled the politics of division being propagated by the BJP.

The BJP and the New Centre of Indian Politics

One of the consequences of the rise of the BJP has been that it has shifted the centre of Indian politics further to the right. This shift of the centre has also meant an implicit shift in the politics of most of the so-called secular opposition parties. An unpublished survey of under-35 youth voting patterns in four states—Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh—offers some interesting insights on issues that the BJP links to its Hindu nationalist agenda<9>. For instance, 84.7 percent voters intending to vote for the BJP support the introduction of the Uniform Civil Code, while 74.29 percent of voters who do not intend to vote for the BJP support it on this issue. Significantly, a number of young people who did not plan to vote for the BJP gave it issue-based support on issues like CAA, triple talaq and cow protection.

It was noteworthy that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was silent as anti-Muslim violence broke out in the city earlier this year. Predictably, the anti-CAA protestors and the people who were targets of the mob violence continue to be labeled as ‘jihadis’ and terrorists by the BJP for defending themselves<10>. Many of the people who participated in these protests were subjected to a witch-hunt by the authorities during the COVID-19 lockdown<11>, and several student leaders, activists, journalists and others were arrested for exercising their constitutional right to protest. The BJP’s clarity about not wanting Muslim votes combined with the relative silence of the opposition has sent a clear signal to Muslims about their political untouchability<12>. In February 2020, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said that “Muslims did no favour to India by staying here” after Partition<13>.  Additionally, the partisan way the police and judiciary have behaved in Delhi and other BJP-ruled states has also sent a clear signal of institutional exclusion. To date the brazen provocations to violence by various BJP members, including Anurag Thakur and Kapil Mishra, have not been met with any charges. On the other hand Muslims, and indeed a number of their non-Muslims supporters, who were protesting against the CAA have been imprisoned under stringent national security laws and in many cases also denied bail. Apart from political and institutional exclusion Muslims have also had to face legal, economic and now social exclusion.

Over the last year, a whole raft of legislation has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as specifically targeting Muslims. The Triple Talaq bill, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act amendments, the revocation of Article 370, the Babri Masjid decision, the CAA combined and the announcement of a National Register of Citizens all consolidated the perception that the BJP is intent on disenfranchising Muslims. The lynching of Muslim cattle farmers, the closure of abattoirs, the inability to find accommodation in cities except in Muslim areas, the rewriting of textbooks, the constant call to be accountable for the crimes (real or imaginary) of Muslims rulers from the past 1000 years and the accusations of love jihad have made Muslims feel politically and socially cornered and humiliated.

Even during the COVID-19 lockdown, the misdemeanors of the Tablighi Jamaat were used to vilify the entire community with hashtags like #IslamicVirus and #CoronaJihad trending on Twitter<14>. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the sole unelected Muslim in the BJP’s cabinet, likened the meeting of the Tablighis to a “Talibani crime”<15>. Fake videos of Muslim men urinating or spitting on food were propagated on social media and even on mainstream news channels, which were in turn used to demand the social and economic boycott of Muslims. However, despite deep theological differences and indeed outright hostility, Muslims from across the social sectarian spectrum came forward to defend the attacks on the Tablighis<16>.

Muslims: Marginalisation to Exclusion

This lethal combination of political, institutional, legal, economic and social exclusion promises to sow the seeds for a conflict that will destabilise India in the years to come. The use of conflict to sustain political narratives is not only unpredictable but the demons that are created often come back to haunt those that gave birth to them. Today, close to 50 percent of India’s Muslims are below 19 years old. These are young people who are growing up in an atmosphere of hate and intolerance. This is a generation that has grown up experiencing exclusion and alienation. Due to the shift in the political centre of Indian politics, young Muslims are increasingly frustrated with the secular opposition as much as with the BJP.

For instance, JNU student activist Sharjeel Imam was arrested in January 2020 for making an ‘anti-national’ speech, but rather than being seditious, his speech actually mostly echoed the BJP’s criticisms of the opposition and India’s post-partition politics<17>. Imam’s views found support amongst a large number of younger Muslims who are increasingly unapologetic about asserting their religious identity. However, with this increasing discontent and the shift from marginalisation to outright exclusion, it is likely that sooner or later some people might turn to what they think is the only way to assert their voices—violence. Inevitably this violence will be projected as the result of Islamic extremism and not the result of the structural and systemic inequities and inequalities they face. This is precisely the narrative that was gradually built in Kashmir, and which will manufacture a conflict that will sustain the politics of the BJP for years to come. Abdul Radheed Abdullah, a preacher of ISIS ideology in Kerala, sees the advent of the BJP is a “blessing in disguise”<18>.

ISIS launched a ten-page magazine as a wake-up call to Indian Muslims a day after the Delhi violence<19>. While terming nationalism as a disease, one article castigated Muslims for having strayed from the path of Islam as the main cause of their humiliations. This desire to equate the lack of personal piety as the main cause for decline is something that finds echoes in the writings of various Muslim reformists from the 18th and 19th centuries. The article damned the BJP, but it also labeled Maulana Arshad Madani and his nephew Mahmud Madani, important voices of the Deoband seminary, as the “wicked scholars of Islam”. Incidentally both men have faced much criticism from young Muslims for their détente with the RSS and BJP in recent months. The article also published pictures of Asaduddin Owaisi and Kanhaiya Kumar, identifying them as those who “mislead Muslim youth”. The article ends with an exhortation to “fight in the name of Allah… for the pen has been lifted and the scrolls have dried”.

There may be hardly any takers for this narrative as Muslims have sought to establish themselves as champions of India’s secular Constitution. However, it will only take a handful of disenchanted, frustrated and angry young people to take up arms and further the BJP’s narrative that ultimately Indian Muslims are all crypto-jihadis. This will be further exacerbated by the frustration amongst young non-Muslims due to political and social destablisation brought about by the collapse of the economy. The BJP will seek to channel this anger and direct it towards Muslims as the main culprits of their woes, as it has done for the past six years. This is precisely the narrative that has justified the lockdown of Kashmir and is a clear example of what the BJP will willingly do in order to further its agenda. Until now, Kashmiri militancy has been largely confined within the state but in the years to come, as the BJP manufactures its own Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it remains to be seen what direction Indian politics will take. Across the world people have turned to violence when they find that they no longer have a stake in politics or in society. In India the shift from marginalisation to exclusion combined with a sense of humiliation amongst Muslims, which is in turn amplified by media and social media, does not portend well for India’s future. There is still time to halt this march towards a political and moral abyss. However once the cycle of violence begins, there is no predicting where it will take us.


<1> Paul Vallely, “Wahhabism: a deadly scripture,The Independent, November 1, 2007.

<2> Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,The Atlantic, March 2015.

<3> Inga Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 88.

<4> Rajindar Sachar, "Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community in India," November 2006.

<5> Kabir Taneja and Mohammed Sinan Siyech, “The Islamic State in India’s Kerala: a primer,” ORF Occasional Paper No. 216, October 2019.

<6> Ali Khan Mahmudabad, “War on Terror and the Quest for The Acceptable Muslim,News18, March 11, 2018.

<7> Poulomi Saha, “BJP to mark one year since abolition of Triple Talaq as “Muslim Mahila Adhikar Diwas””, India Today, July 30, 2020.

<8> Manish Chandra Pandey, “Muslim Women key to BJP’s Minority Outreach program in UP,Hindustan Times, July 19, 2019.

<9> S. Bhupathiraju, N. Hussain, A. U. Khan and N. M. Matthews, Voting Behaviour Among Young Urban Indian Voters: A study from across three states, Centre for Development of Policy and Practice, 2020.

<10>Kapil Mishra holds rally against Jihadi violence”, New Indian Express, February 28, 2020.

<11> Staff Report, “Unending Witch-hunt of Muslims: Eminent Citizens Condemn Targeted Arrests of Anti-CAA Protestors,The Wire, April 18, 2020.

<12> Following the 2019 parliamentary elections only 27 Muslims were elected out of which none were from the BJP. This was four more than the number elected in 2014.

<13>Yogi Adityanath: Muslims did no favour to India by staying here,BBC Online, February 5, 2020.

<14> Jayshree Bajoria, “Corona Jihad is only the latest Manifestation, Islamophobia in India has been years in the making,” Polis Project, May 1, 2020.

<15> Vasudha Venugopal, “Tablighi Jamaat is a Talibani Crime, not negligence: Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi,Economic Times, April 2, 2020.

<16> Fahad Zuberi, “A Wine Drinking ex-Muslim’s Defence of the Tablighi Jamaat,Outlook, April 7, 2020.

<17> Mohammad Asim, “What Sharjeel Imam’s seditious speech has in common with the BJP,The Wire, January 28, 2020.

<18> Kabir Taneja, “God’s own Khilafat. Why Kerala is a hotspot for ISIS in India?,The Print, November 21, 2019.

<19> Voice of Hind, vol. 1, Al Qitaal Media Centre, February 24, 2020.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Ali Khan Mahmudabad

Ali Khan Mahmudabad

Ali Khan Mahmudabad is currently an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University (India) where he teaches political science and history. He obtained his PhD from the ...

Read More +