Bebaak Collective’s New Report Underscores the Toll on Mental Health of Institutionalised Communalism on Muslims of India

By Gursimran Kaur Bakshi

Borrowing from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the report highlights that Indian Muslims are living in a ‘state of exception’, where they have been abandoned by legal and institutional frameworks, and vilified by an increasingly virulent communalism, with dark clouds of genocidal violence looming in the background. This has had a profound effect on the mental state of the community as a whole, as they struggle to adjust and react to the new normal.

BEBAAK Collective has released a damning new report on the petrifying mental health situation of Muslims in India. Titled, Social Suffering In A World Without Support, the report asserts that the rise of Hindu majoritarianism has assumed a “state of exception” for the largest minority community in India. It traces the manifestation of this state of exception in the mental health of Muslims in India.

State of exception and bare life 

The rule of law in a democratic setup guarantees that the inherent rights of dignity and equality of justice are ensured to individuals through legislation and the Constitution. However, when the law starts to systematically isolate and alienate a particular minority group,  the everyday life of ‘law and order’ assumes a state of exception.

‘State of exception’ can be understood from the works of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. He explains that the state of exception is meant to be provisional measures to deal with extraordinary situations but it became a regular course of action for governments in the twentieth century, often leading to a transformation of democracies to totalitarianism.

Modern-day totalitarianism, as defined by Agamben, allows for a permanent state of emergency that allows, among other things, the physical elimination of not only political adversaries but also of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system. 

Agamben’s book titled State of Exception is based on the example of the terrorist attack of 9/11 on the United States and how the government under the proclamation of the state of emergency authorised indefinite detention of individuals alleged to have been suspected of terrorist activities. They were tried by military commissions for offences that were not considered a violation of the law of war.

Also read: Muslim Women’s identity amidst religion and the State

The concept of the state of exception shares philosophical moorings with the Nazi theory of ‘state of necessity’. When Hilter came to power, he proclaimed a decree which suspended the articles of the Weimar Constitution concerning personal liberties. The decree, against which there were no appeals, lasted 12 years.

The state of exception in action in India

The report brings to light this state of exception through various aspects of marginalisation of and violence against Muslims in India. 

The state of exception in India has allowed the routine implementation of stringent laws meant for situations that threaten public order or national security, the report says. 

The National Crime Records Bureau data for 2019 shows an increase in the application of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, (UAPA) as compared to even 2016 (when the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance had already been in power for two years). According to the report, the law is infamously used to target dissidents, allowing prolonged detentions without a trial, and precluding the possibility of bail under the garb of a broad definition of ‘unlawful or terrorist activity’.

Modern-day totalitarianism, as defined by Agamben, allows for a permanent state of emergency that allows, among other things, the physical elimination of not only political adversaries but also of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system.

As per the report, the state of exception is also enforced through the introduction of laws that sustain and reinforce the idea that India is a ‘Hindu’ nation and Muslim Indians pose a threat to this majoritarian conception.

So far, many legislations prohibiting religious conversions such as the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act, 2020; the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018; the Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019; the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 and the Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021, have been enacted. Under these laws, an individual has to prove that they were not under duress when they converted.

Another Bill, premised on the anxieties of demographic takeover by Muslims, proposes the prohibition of people with more than two children from accessing government jobs and welfare schemes in Uttar Pradesh. The draft Uttar Pradesh Population (Control, Stabilisation and Welfare) Bill, 2021, was shared by the Uttar Pradesh State Law Commission. 

Similar policies have been advocated for other states like Assam, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand

The majoritarian ideology is also slowly materialised through the instrumentalisation of law as well as its ‘irregular functioning’, says the report. 

According to M. Mohsin Alam Bhat, associate professor of law at the Jindal Global Law School, there is a routine violation of existing laws such as the violation of the Municipal Act by the Delhi Municipal authorities to undertake demolition drives in Jahangirpuri, and its legitimation at the level of legal norms and popular consent through Hindutva mobilisation.

Muslim journalists such as Mohammed Zubair, who tried to expose the role of the ruling regime in abetting violence against Indian Muslims, have come under the scrutiny of the state, allegedly for disturbing peace and creating law and order problems. Zubair is the co-founder of fact-checking website ALT News and has worked in identifying fake news and debunking disinformation. However, Hindutva-inclined news media are allowed to have a field day spewing communal bile all day long without any scrutiny or consequences.

Agamben explains that in a state of exception, one has to prove oneself worthy before being granted citizenship. 

The Citizenship (Amendment Act),2019 (CAA) and National Register for Citizens (NRC) were the most explicit ways in which the citizenship and legal rights of Indian Muslims were endangered, the report says.

Further, the arrest of activists involved in the anti-CAA movement under the UAPA is one example of the blatant and indiscriminate use of the law, as thirteen out of the eighteen accused remain in jail, without the likelihood of bail or commencement of a fair trial, the report points out.

As per the report, the state of exception is also enforced through the introduction of laws that sustain and reinforce the idea that India is a ‘Hindu’ nation and Muslim Indians pose a threat to this majoritarian conception.

The report asserts that these actions and policies cumulative result in ‘subordinated citizenship’ for individuals of minority communities, as they are subjected to grave and constant vulnerability of rights violation without any meaningful recourse to institutional checks and the rule of law. 

Contrary to them having some rights, Agamben writes that the existence of such vulnerable communities in a state of exception is reduced to ‘bare life’. The term ‘bare life’ is derived from Agamben’s concept of homo sacer, which is a permanent yet invisible space of maximal political power. Homo sacer are persons legally reduced to the status of mere life, who can be subjected to any manner of violence with impunity. In simple terms, a person is legally and politically stripped of status and protection.

The report makes a strong case of Indian Muslims having been reduced to bare life, and examines the consequences of this reduction.

State of exception and genocide: India has passed through all the preparatory stages of genocidal massacres

According to Agamben, Jews were not exterminated in a big holocaust but they were reduced to bare life and completely abandoned by the law. 

Similar reasoning can be applied to the Rwanda genocide, where the minority Tutsi ethnic groups were called ‘cockroaches’ and were systematically eliminated by Hutus. 

Gregory Stanton, an expert on genocidal violence and a human rights activist alerted us about the imminence of genocide against Indian Muslims in January 2022.  He said that India has all the preparatory stages for more genocidal massacres and cited examples of discriminatory CAA, dehumanisation of Muslims through hate speech, and the non-prosecution of crimes of lynching committed by Hindus against Muslims.

He warned that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)–Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has played a role in instigating genocidal violence during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

The report also sheds light on how the concept of ‘jihad’, which in Islam means a righteous struggle against injustice, has been redefined to reflect an alleged desire among Muslims to project power and show dominance over the Hindus. It has been hackneyed beyond comprehension with the formulation of such terms as love jihad (the purported organised manipulation of Hindu women by Muslim men), corona jihad (supposedly the deliberate actions of Muslims to spread COVID in India) and UPSC jihad (the purported attempts by Muslims to qualify for the Civil Services exams) by Hindu-majoritarian groups.

This paranoia has been used to criminalise mundane and routine activities undertaken by Muslims such as offering namaz (prayer) in public spaces, selling meat and vegetables or putting up a WhatsApp statute congratulating Pakistan’s cricket team, the report argues.

The report also sheds light on how the concept of ‘jihad’, which in Islam means a righteous struggle against injustice, has been redefined to reflect an alleged desire among Muslims to project power and show dominance over the Hindus. 

Post-2014, the report goes on to state, the changes in the political architecture of the country have also included the extension of the right to exercise physical and symbolic violence on militia groups and organisations. For instance, cases of violence against Muslims in the form of cow vigilantism in Haryana

The report draws attention to the increase in the number of vigilante groups (such as Gau Raksha Dal, Yuva Hindu Vahini and Hindu Sena), which have been behind the spike in cases of individuals— mostly Muslim— being targeted on the basis of their religious identity. The cases include not just overt harm to persons and property but also forms of humiliation by forcing them to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’, removing garments of religious significance, and impeding their access to worship, employment and education

According to Christoffe Jaffrelot, there is a collaboration between local police, politicians and gau rakshaks (cow protectors) as well as formal government bodies in running cow-protection militias. This humiliation forms a part of institutionalised everyday communalism, according to the report.

Rapidly multiplying incidents of cow vigilantism have some common elements. For example, the crimes are mostly committed against Muslims and Dalits, the accused belong to politically-linked influential Hindu upper-caste families, and conviction rates for such crimes are constantly decreasing.

There are also calls for genocide of Muslims on social media, including through exhortations of taking up of arms; and circulation of videos, messages and memes painting a dehumanising image of Muslim men as excessively virile and women as submissive and the creation of applications auctioning off Muslim women, the report mentions.

According to the report, the ubiquity of anti-Muslim messaging on social and mainstream media, its repetition in political speeches, its entrenchment within legislation and the absence of accountability structures for perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence are indicators of the systematic dehumanisation of Indian Muslims. 

The contemporary debates on the precarious condition of Muslims in India have revealed religious discrimination vis-à-vis education and livelihood of the community.

Also read: Supreme Court seeks to know the status of cases challenging ‘love jihad’ laws in various high courts

Targeting women wearing hijab results in the denial of education and employment, the boycott of Muslim vendors contributes to the systematic marginalisation of the community, and the unequal treatment meted out to Muslim gig workers deepens inequality. 

Institutionalised everyday communalism and mental health 

The report is timely as it highlights how mental health can be a significant indicator for understanding social hatred and State persecution faced by Indian Muslims. It is a window into the reality of how communalism has changed the everyday life of Muslims. 

The restricted mobility of women due to the fear of violation of riots is quite apparent in the interviews. The report also highlights how this disrupted the relations of women with people who occupy a space in their everyday emotional and social lives.

The report underlines that the mental health of Indian Muslims has been severely neglected. It seeks to address this oversight through the frame of ‘social suffering’, which takes into account the wide range of devastating lived experience of injuries, pain and damage that social, political and institutional power inflicts. 

Bebaak Collective (Voices of the Fearless) was founded in 2013 as an informal association of grassroots activists advocating for the rights of Muslim women and community. With the intensifying onslaught against marginalised communities, the collective has evolved into an advocacy group that strongly adheres to constitutional values. 

This report is a culmination of longer work done by the collective on the question of health and communalism.

Previously, Bebaak Collective studied the impact of communalism of the COVID pandemic on Indian Muslims, with a focus on how access to healthcare was blocked and disrupted by communal violence during the first lockdown.

Social Suffering In A World Without Support builds its narrative on interviews with Muslims of different classes and castes, with differing levels of education, based in the states of Assam, Gujarat, New Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, from February to July 2022. 

It also includes data from activists who have been imprisoned, friends of activists, families of men who have been lynched, therapists who treat Muslim patients, families of riot victims, and family members of imprisoned men. 

According to Hasina Khan, founder of Bebaak Collective, this is a one-of-its-kind report because it has attempted to study the overall climate of communal violence against Muslims that has impacted their lives deeply. 

“The report focuses more on the testimonies of the survivors and their perspectives and shows how they have undergone irreparable loss and trauma that is going to have a chronic impact on their everyday lives,” she told The Leaflet

The report finds that Muslims in India are facing institutional betrayal as the application of the rule of law in BJP-ruled states is contingent upon one’s religion, which entails blocking access to legal recourse and accountability.

One of the many who have shared their experience is Bilal, a 21-year-old student from Northeast Delhi, who talks about how the legal system is unfair to Indian Muslims. His elder brother was arrested in a fraudulent case post the Delhi riots in February 2020.

His brother was video-recording the rioters burning down his shop, and the police alleged that he was part of the marauding gang and implicated him in 16 cases. As the youngest, Bilal had to take responsibility for his family while fighting the legal battle for his brother’s release. 

“How do I help another person; tell them to remain brave, tell them that we have to come out on the streets and fight back; how long do we keep telling people to be brave and give them solace; how long can I wait till things get better? Because nothing is getting better.”

Bilal’s room is covered with the details of his brother’s cases and the inner turmoil he has been through has impacted his mental health.

Speaking of his suffering, Bilal says in the report: “I am not able to sleep at night. I just keep on checking the court website.”

The pattern of riot victims being held criminally responsible also led to the sudden change in the familial dynamics in places like Khamaria, Raisent district in Madhya Pradesh.

In Khamaria, a riot took place in April 2022 between Advasis and Muslims, following an incident where a woman was harassed by a group of men. This devolved into a concerted attempt to loot, target and attack Muslims due to the mobilisation efforts of the BJP and the RSS. Sixteen men from the same family living in different households in the village have been arrested and booked by the police, underlining the specific targeting of Muslims by the police.

Muslims complained that they were denied a fair hearing. Muslim women described how their fathers, husbands and sons were taken away by the police under the garb of providing them medical help. Now they live in constant fear for the lives of the men in their life.

For the Muslim families in Khamaria, the threat of murder—“If you come here, we will break your legs and ensure that you won’t leave alive”— was used to intimidate them from taking their share of money and equipment from their land. 

Houses and two Muslim-owned shops were demolished by the state authorities after the riot in Khamaria, continuing a pattern of “bulldozer politics’’ wherein people’s homes, means of livelihood, and security are destroyed, through the public performance of punishment, before any formal indictment, the report explains.

In another case, a family recounted the repeated horror of facing violence from a mob as well as police and village authorities. The family’s son Aslam was targeted by Bajrang Dal members following a casteist remark, “Tum log baaste ho (you people smell)”. 

Aslam was accused of trying to remove the deity from the temple and was forced to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (a Hindu chant). 

The family from Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, ran from the forest to the police to file a complaint only for them to be beaten up by the police, the report says.

Aslam’s father said: “Our daughter-in-law was forced to run without her saree. We went on the motorcycle to the police station where they beat us up again. The police did not listen to us, and they did not file our report.”

The head of the village and the police told Aslam’s family to leave the village if they wanted to save their lives. The family continues to be displaced while being robbed of the right to be heard, the report says.

The experience of being a victim of communal violence led to the onset of chronic weakness, physical injury, impairment and death in many families. In fact, it is an ongoing crisis that consumes and affects people in various ways, the report asserts. 

Bilal’s father died six days after his brother’s arrest. His mother is now bedridden, unable to leave home. He said: “My father passed away due to the shock of my brother’s arrest.”

The report underlines how the never-ending trauma often changes the victims’ everyday lives and interactions. Many victims anticipate more violence and lose faith in the possibility of a return to normalcy. This leads to a heightened sense of alertness and anticipation of violence itself becoming the new normal. For instance, in Khamaria, women have become more careful about their travel plans. 

The restricted mobility of women due to the fear of violation of riots was quite apparent in the interviews. For instance, Sumaira, an activist from Aligarh Muslim University, argued that the ban on wearing hijab had led her parents to restrict her movement outside the house. 

The report finds that the experience of health in its physical and mental manifestation is politically mediated in India. Undergoing an episode of communal violence has fundamentally altered the quality of life of many Indian Muslims not just in terms of accepting some forms of violence as a new normal but also in terms of the lack of availability of legal recourse.

The report also highlights how this disrupted the relations of women with people who occupy a space in their everyday emotional and social lives. The experience of Muslim girls in Karnataka, wherein their right to education was restricted because of the ban on hijab in educational institutions, has been underlined by the report. Their friends and classmates also turned against them, participating in rallies wearing saffron scarves and mocked them for choosing to continue wearing hijab. 

This also inculcated the feeling of betrayal in how the majority community has become insensitive to the suffering of Muslims, said Sayeda Zainab, an activist who was imprisoned because of her role in organising the anti-CAA–NRC movement. 

According to her, as compared to the farmers’ movement, the anti-CAA–NRC movement did not receive the same kind of support. 

She spoke about how after her release, many people did not interact with her. Since she also had a UAPA case against her, any of her friends could be made a witness against her. She described the grave sense of fear among students in Jamia Millia Islamia as students were called for questioning, their families were harassed and they were pressured into making false statements. 

She also spoke about how her identity as Kashmiri enabled profiling of her, which led to the differential treatment based on identity.

Rehmat, a Baroda-based activist who works with Muslim women, spoke about her experiences in Gujarat since 2004, when she first became involved in community organising. She shared how communal violence occurring in other regions has instilled a sense of dread that it may occur in their community as well.

Tasleem, an activist from Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, described the political climate in her region. As she spoke to Bebaak Collective, arrests were taking place in different parts of Uttar Pradesh in response to a religious rally held on Friday after namaz in protest against Nupur Sharma’s remarks about Prophet Mohammed. She told the collective about the mass arrests of youth in her town, including those who had not taken part in the rally. In addition to arresting and physically torturing young Muslim men in Saharanpur, the police had also initiated a demolition drive.

Sumaira, an activist studying at the Aligarh Muslim University evaluating the situation wherein her friend’s childhood home was destroyed by the Uttar Pradesh government, spoke about a strong feeling of despair and helplessness.

She said: “We are reminded on a daily basis that our voice and existence are illegal; there is no one to go to for help. I don’t have words to express myself; I am not able to react. How do I tell you what is happening and what will happen in the future? I’ve lost the words to react.

“How do I help another person; tell them to remain brave, tell them that we have to come out on the streets and fight back; how long do we keep telling people to be brave and give them solace; how long can I wait till things get better? Because nothing is getting better.

Recommendations 

The report finds that the experience of health in its physical and mental manifestation is politically mediated in India. Undergoing an episode of communal violence has fundamentally altered the quality of life of many Indian Muslims not just in terms of accepting some forms of violence as a new normal but also in terms of the lack of availability of legal recourse. 

It changes their education and career-related priorities. The unfair judicial system has left Muslims with a sense of hopelessness. The loss of community severely affects the confidence and surety about navigating a difficult situation of legal cases or simply rebuilding one’s life after a violent incident.

The mental health problems identified in the report can be addressed by mitigating the harm caused by an increasingly hostile social, political and economic landscape. According to Hasina, a background of one’s social suffering must be included in mitigating harm induced in the state of exception.

The role of civil society is extremely crucial in ensuring that the legal system remains accountable for the hate crimes perpetrated against Indian Muslims. The role of the civil society is also crucial in providing emotional support and community strength to the victims. 

Similarly, the role of the National Human Rights Commission and the National and State Minority Commissions is also important in supplementing police investigations into cases of communal violence through their own mechanism of inquiry and investigation. 

An anti-discrimination law recognising multiple and intersecting forms of oppression is the need of the hour against the increasing hate crimes committed against minorities. State governments should also provide compensation to the victims of hate crimes.  

(This article appeared in The Leaflet on 31 May 2023)

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I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, said George Orwell. As a writer, I never kowtow to the whims and dictates of the sacred godmen or godwomen, the political bigots and hypocrites, dealers of laymen, the dishonest and self-serving intellectuals, traders of religions, the betrayers of ‘other’ Indians who eke out a living by their sweat, who are living in fear for being lynched for this and that.

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