If you happen to be a staunch secular Indian then it is but obvious that you happen to be wary of the growing tide of Islamophobia in the country. India as a civilization has always been synonymous to openness and multiculturalism. But another aspect of the Indian civilization which has been grossly under-represented is the fierce bigotry which Islam and Muslims have had to face in this land since the 19th century. Equating Islam with violence and barbarism is something which is not nascent. The late great Edward Said had stated in an interview to the Time Magazine in 1979 that some 60,000 books had been written so far disparaging Islam and Muslims. To many, Islam appears to be a religion of hate and what is baffling is that this is one prejudiced mindset which is not only shared by millions of educated Indians but also some iconic figures in our history who have now assumed a larger than life figure and have been placed above criticism. This has led to a natural inclination among Non Muslims to think that Islam essentially preaches hatred, Muslims are taught to kill Non Muslims in the Quran, they happen to extremely aggressive and Muhammad was a fanatic who spread his religion at the tip of the sword.
The great saffron saint, Vivekananda, stated in the World Parliament of Religions that he hails from a civilization which holds all religions as true but astonishingly, the same Vivekananda while answering a few questions of the Editor of Prabuddha Bharat said, “Every man going out of the Hindu pale is not only a man less, but an enemy the more.” Vivekananda did not even hold Prophet Muhammad in high regards. He said, “He (Muhammad) was not a trained yogi and did not know the reason of what he was doing. Think of what good Muhammad did to the world and think of the great evil which has been done through his fanaticism.” Vivekananda’s perception about Islam can be judged from his comments about the Quran. Vivekananda stated that the Quran advises Muslims to kill the Non Muslims if they did not become Muslims.
Rabindranath Tagore is a household name in India but he too had some extremely unfortunate notions about Islam (as well as Christianity) which earn him a place in this list of Islamophobic Indians. In a letter written to Sri Kalidas Nag, Tagore stated, “There are two religions on the Earth which have distinct enmity against all other religions. These two are Christianity and Islam. They are not satisfied with just observing their own religions but are determined to destroy all other religions. That’s why the only way to make peace with them is to embrace their religion.” Tagore’s flawed analogy if repeated by a political leader today would earn him the title of being ‘communal’.
Dr BR Ambedkar, the Father of the Indian Constitution, is generally remembered for his no holds barred attacks on Brahmanism but he also made some exceptionally negative comments about Islam in his book “Pakisan or the Partition of India”. He wrote, “To the Muslims, a Hindu (and any Non-Muslim) is a Kafir. A Kafir (Non-Believer in Islam) is not worthy of respect. He is a low born and without status. That is why a country ruled by the Kafir (Non-Muslim) is a ‘Dar ul Harb’ (i.e. the Land of War) to a Muslim, which must be conquered, by any means for the Muslims and turned into ‘Dar ul Islam’ (i.e., Land of Muslims alone). Given this, not further evidence seems necessary to prove that the Muslims will not obey a Hindu (or for that matter any Non-Muslim) government.” Dr Ambedkar also wrote, “Those who are outside the corporation (of Islam) there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” Unfortunately, Dr Ambedkar could not see through the most obvious stereotype about Islam and died in a state of Islamophobia.
Sardar Patel, the Iron Man of India, was a known Muslim basher and had a habit of making communally charged and insensitive comments. When the Direct Action Day led to the now infamous Calcutta killings, Sardar Patel wrote a letter to C Rajagopalachari in which he said, “A good lesson for the League because I hear that the proportion of Muslims who have suffered death is much larger (than the Hindus).” Mr Patel frequently questioned the patriotism of Muslims and during one of the debates in the Constituent Assembly, he advised those who were demanding reservations for Muslims to go and live in Pakistan.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was largely a secularist but he too cannot be absolved of Islamophobia. In his book, The Discovery of India, while discussing about Crusades, Nehru labeled Islam and Christianity as “aggressive religions”. He also stated that by the time the Turks and Mongols had taken over the mantle of Islam from the Arabs, “Islam had become a more rigid faith suited more to military conquests rather than the conquests of the mind.” Nehru held the opinion that, “The Muslims who came to India from outside brought no new technique or political or economic structure. Inspite of religious belief in the brotherhood of Islam, they were class bound and feudal in outlook.”
Mahatma Gandhi, The Father of the Nation and the one who raised the slogan of “Sarva Dharma Sambhava” was also a bit ill informed about Muslims. Although he consistently praised the Prophet but his writings do not indicate much fondness for the Muslim community. In an article titled, “What May Hindus do”, Gandhi wrote, “Though the majority of Musslamans of India and the Hindus belong to the same ‘stock’, the religious environment has made them different. I believe and I have noticed too that thought transforms man’s features as well as character. The Sikhs are the most recent illustration of this fact. The Mussalaman being generally in a minority has as a class developed in a bully. Moreover, being heir to fresh traditions he exhibits the virility of a comparatively new system of life. Though in my opinion non violence has a predominant place in the Quran, the thirteen hundred years of imperialistic expansion has made the Musslamans fighters as a body. They are therefore aggressive. Bullying is the natural excrescence of an aggressive spirit. The Hindu has an ages old civilization. He is essentially non violent. His civilization has passed through the experiences that the two recent ones are still passing through. If Hinduism was ever imperialistic in the modern sense of the term, it has outlived its imperialism and has either deliberately or as a matter of course given it up. Predominance of the non violent spirit has restricted the use of arms to a small minority which must always be subordinate to a civil power highly spiritual, learned and selfless. The Hindus as a body are therefore not equipped for fighting. But not having retained their spiritual training, they have forgotten the use of an effective substitute for arms and not knowing their use nor having an aptitude for them, they have become docile to the point of timidity and cowardice. This vice is therefore a natural excrescence of gentleness.” Gandhi’s words are indicative of his views. While on one hand he lays heavy praise and kind criticism on the Hindus, on the other hand, he labels the Muslims as having “an aggressive spirit”, accuses them of having “as a class developed into a bully” and says they are “fighters as a body”.
The objective behind bringing to light the bigoted opinions of such icons is to fuel introspection. There is a general tendency among people to hold Muslims responsible for each and everything which goes wrong be it partition or terrorism. And when the Muslims begin to defend themselves, they are accused of “self-ghettoization” and portraying themselves as “victims”. It’s time that the Indian society sheds silly stereotypes about Islam. The Quran does not sanction violence against Non Muslims. Instead it states that, “There is no compulsion in religion” and “To you, your religion; to me, mine.” It is in India’s self interest that it realizes the mistakes which it has committed in construing Islam and accepts Muslims as patriotic citizens of the land without any skepticism.