India’s demonisation of Muslims

Updated 07 Oct 2020

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The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE Modi administration has been at daggers drawn with Indian Muslims for years. Before the pandemic struck, a draconian citizenship law aimed at divesting millions of legitimate Indians of their citizenship based on their inability to produce certain documents. The days before the lockdown had seen astounded Indian Muslims and their non-Muslim allies take to the streets for prolonged sit-ins.

The pandemic provided just the interlude that the Modi administration needed to strategise what they needed to do against the unrest. In the past weeks, even as the pandemic rages on and India is about to become the world leader in Covid deaths, the Modi government has launched a crackdown aimed at arresting all the activists that dared stand up to their cruel architecture of exclusion.

Indian Muslim women who are active in resisting the oppressive injunctions of the Modi government are in particular danger. Gone are the days when Modi touted his intentions to ‘free’ Indian Muslim women by banning oral talaq in the country. The implication was that Indian Muslim women faced abuse only at the hands of their men. But Indian state power, once committed to non-interference in personal laws, now did just that. The ‘saving Muslim women’ pose was simply a way to extend the power of the increasingly draconian Indian state in yet another direction.

Today’s Modi government has given up all pretence of caring about Indian Muslims’ welfare. The case of a 21-year-old girl named Tania Parveen is an exa­mple. In September, Parveen, a thin girl in hijab, was arrested for participating in ‘online jihad activity’. The nature of the allegations against the slight and small-framed teenager depicts the pro-Modi media’s monstrous appetite for demonising young Muslims.

The nature of the allegations against the teenager depicts the pro-Modi media’s monstrous appetite for demonising young Muslims.

One news report alleges that ‘Tania Parween, a Kolkata girl’ wanted to become Indian jihad’s “wonder woman”. The article alleges that Parween, who had been enrolled in an Arabic degree programme in Moulana Azad College, underwent a religious awakening of sorts when communal riots broke out in her neighbourhood. In the days following, she began to listen to sermons and began to interact with communities of Muslims online.

India’s National Intelligence Agency (NIA) alleged that it was while mingling with various WhatsApp groups related to Islam that she was recruited by a man named Bilal Durrani who allegedly worked for the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The now ‘radicalised’ Tania Parween was equipped with a code name, Abu Jandal, for her communications with the group. The allegations become even more ridiculous at this point. According to the NIA, Parween started her own terrorist cell. This cell consisted of two of her friends and was codenamed Ghumnaam Tigers.

Then, the NIA alleges, Parween, steered by the group’s overlords, set about unravelling the Indian state. She supposedly did this by befriending an Indian Air Force Officer online. This, the Indians insist, was part of an orchestrated seduction scheme in which Parween set herself up as a honey trap that would beguile Indian military officers. Unfortunately, the ensuing scene is anti-climactic: when this artfully seduced IAF officer asked to have a video chat with her so they could see each other, she is said to have chickened out.

The fact that the diabolical seduction was so easily botched does not seem to matter to the Indian NIA, they arrested her anyway and heaped all sorts of charges related to online terror activity upon her.

Tania Parween is in prison today. The widespread Islamophobia that is characteristic of Modi’s India needs a victim to sate its appetite for hatred, and Parween is one victim. It does not matter that this may have been an entirely innocent attempt at a friendship; it has to be spun into a bizarre story that connects disparate online activity with some grand scheme set up to attack the Indian state. One cannot but wonder whether Indian military officers are actually so terrified of young Muslim women with numerous WhatsApp accounts to compromise their commitment to their country.

Whether or not they are, a young and likely innocent young Muslim girl is being forced to pay the price for India’s obsession with demonising Muslims. Depicting a young and poor girl from Kolkata who tried to reach into the online world for community and friendship into a diabolical seductress operating a full-fledged terrorist cell is fanciful and a garbage attempt at manufacturing a terror case where none is evident.

The charges brought against Tania Parween are likely false but the chances of a young Muslim girl getting justice in Modi’s India seem slim. Modi’s poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic makes his state machinery particularly hungry for distractions and prone to constructing Bollywood narratives implicating perceived terrorists across the border.

This is a pity for Parween but it is also a waste of resources that could actually be used to fight terrorism. Those wasted resources could be used to liaise with Pakistan in coming up with means to reduce the extent and reach of online terrorist recruiters.

In the Pakistani view, making young Indian Muslim girls into martyrs, is not the way to fight terror. As this case gets more publicity, it is likely to attract impressionable teenagers who may never have heard of LeT before but are now curious about what that or any other terror group has to offer.

In sum, making up such ridiculous stories and insisting that a poor and ordinary girl from Kolkata is a ‘jihadi wonder woman’ provides online terror groups the best kind of free publicity they can hope for. Charging and arresting Parween centres on a real injustice that can be used to get increased support for this or that group.

Tania Parween must be freed. The Modi administration’s inexhaustible drive for victimising Muslims must not be permitted to destroy a young woman’s life. The death and devastation caused by the virus are daunting indeed, but they should not permit a powerful state to simply swallow up a life just because they want to tell a particular story about the hidden powers of Muslim women.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2020