ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Naming the Muslim

The mob attack on a Muslim family and lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi at Dadri in December last year along with the Jawaharlal Nehru University sedition cases in early February have shifted the rhetoric and discourse of conceiving the Muslim in India. From the category of “religious minority,” which was passionately argued about throughout the periods of the Constituent Assembly debates, the Muslim question today is being increasingly constituted by “names” and food habit. The implications are far from merely rhetorical or symbolic.

In the context of current debates, verbal and physical abuses and outright mob violence in the country, there is an accompanying change in the discourse and the discursive imagination of the “Muslim” in India. The “Muslim” has never been a stable category in the “national” imagination, at least since the Morley–Minto Reforms that granted separate electorates to Muslims in British ruled India (1909), and perhaps even earlier, since the formation of the Muslim League in explicit opposition to the Indian National Congress (1906). But as more directly constitutive of postcolonial India, the Constituent Assembly debates on the questions of minority rights and of religious freedom highlighted majoritarian India’s problem with the Muslim, especially as a religious minority.

In the Constituent Assembly debates, the rights and safeguards that came with identifying a group as a “minority” were not easily conceded to the Muslim. It took several arguments on both sides and ultimately a division of the rights into “political” and “cultural,” for the Muslims to be granted the identity of a religious minority. The policy of separate electorates, which was prevalent since the early 20th century, was rejected for all constituencies; and the question of reservation, of central and provincial legislature seats, was rejected only for religious minorities. More than the final outcome of these debates, which appear more or less uniform for all minorities, it is the proceedings of the debates that highlight the various discomforts of the (Hindu) nation with its Muslim citizens. There is a palpable sense of the (Hindu majoritarian) nation having been wronged by the Muslim minority. “Rather than tyrannise the minorities, the fact was that in most places the minorities tyrannised the majority. The Muslims have almost everywhere enjoyed privileges far in excess of what may be called just or fair” (P S Deshmukh 1947).1

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