On Sunday, soon after India lost to Pakistan in the Twenty20 World Cup match, the only Muslim player in the Indian team, Mohammed Shami, faced a barrage of abuse and communal hatred online. He was termed a “bloody Pakistani in Team India” and asked to “Go to Pakistan”. However, it was heartening that a section of former cricketers and public personalities stood by him and expressed their solidarity. Given this gesture, one can argue that what happened with Shami was an exception and handiwork of the fringe element. But that is not the truth. He is not the first Muslim cricketer or noted personality to face such vilification. In recent years, Wasim Jaffer, APJ Abdul Kalam, Hamid Ansari and many others had to go through this ordeal.
For example, Kalam, whose contribution to the making of modern India is well known and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) considers him an “adarsh Muslim”, an ideal Indian Muslim, was recently called a “jihadi” by Yati Narsinghanad Saraswati. And Yati Narsinghanad is not a fringe element. Despite his constant hate-mongering and call for violence against religious minorities, especially Muslims, he was recently elevated to the status of “mahamandaleshwar” by the Juna Akhara, the largest recognised sect of Hindu seers in India. Earlier this year, cricketer Wasim Jaffer was accused by Uttarakhand Cricket Association secretary Mahim Verma and team manager Navneet Mishra of exerting religious bias in team selections and inviting maulvis (Muslim priests) to offer prayers in the dressing room, which was nothing but a distortion of facts.
Unfortunately, over the years, this kind of distortion has acquired the status of gospel truth against Muslims, and the majority of the Indian population have started believing in it. The best example is the unverified reports of Muslims busting crackers or celebrations in Muslim localities every time Pakistan secures a victory against India. These baseless claims and fake news have become so common and frequent that I “stopped” bothering about them. However, my not worrying counts for little as repercussions of these hate campaigns are real and severe against Muslims that one can hardly miss noticing.
On Sunday itself, Muslim Kashmiri students in Punjab Universities were reportedly attacked after India’s defeat. Meanwhile, a hate campaign started in other parts of the country that Muslims celebrated India’s defeat. It is nothing short of a burden being a Muslim and plying for India against Pakistan. Because while playing against Pakistan, it is not just the cricketing skills of Muslim players getting tested but also their patriotism and loyalty towards the country. In a sense, Shami was lucky to have received support and solitary support from his fraternity, but more worrying is that ordinary Indian Muslims don’t get such support.
To my understanding, this is possible not just because the likes of Yati Narsinghanads are hell-bent on ruining India’s communal harmony but also because a considerable number of highly influential people push a similar narrative. Let’s take one of the latest tweets by former Indian cricketer Virender Sehwag. On Monday, before he tweeted in solidarity with Shami, his tweet was: “Firecrackers are banned during Diwali, but yesterday in parts of India there were firecrackers to celebrate Pakistan’s victory. Achha, they must have been celebrating the victory of cricket. Toh, what’s the harm in fireworks on Diwali. Hypocrisy kyun, saara gyaan tab hi yaad aata hai.” Sehwag was not the only key cricketer who pushed this narrative. Gautam Gambhir, who is also a BJP MP, did the same.
The “they” in Sehwag’s tweet, needless to say, was a reference to Muslims. Notably, this is the same narrative often pushed by right-wing Hindutva forces in different parts of the country. After Pakistan’s victory, one such claim alleged that crackers were burst in a Muslim locality of Kishanganj (Bihar). The police investigation found crackers were indeed burst but as part of a wedding ceremony and not celebrating India’s defeat. One can give several examples like this. It’s sad that despite such claims time and again proven baseless, not just the so-called fringe elements but equally the mainstream peddles these happily and convincingly.
This can only end by doing two things. First and foremost, those pushing the anti-Muslim narrative and calling for violence against them need to be booked and punished for their hate crimes. Unfortunately, far from getting punished, they are being rewarded for their communal hatred. Sadly, forget administration and political dispensations, even the judiciary is not doing its bit to fix the problem. Unless purveyors of hate and communalism are punished, targeting of Shami and other Muslims is likely to continue.
Secondly, the country’s majority population must realise that as long as they keep believing in the right-wing narratives and pushing them, no amount of condemnation is going to stop the hate. Moreover, today it might be mainly affecting Muslims and other religious minority communities, but the day is not far away when it will affect and ruin the lives of the majority of the country. The sooner we wake up and start working against it, the better.
(The writer is a multilingual journalist and researcher)