November 01, 2016

India: Break the myths - The tendency to stereotype communities alienates and fuels communal tensions (Sabir Ahamed)

The Telegraph - November 1, 2016

Break the myths
- The tendency to stereotype communities alienates and fuels communal tensions

The consequences of perpetuating stereotypes can be dangerous. This is especially so at a time when anything that does not fit in with the majoritarian imagination is branded the 'other' and pushed to the margins.
When stereotypes are propagated about a specific community, any locality where that community is in majority becomes typecast as well. A Bengali film that released recently is a perfect example of this. In it, the entire population living in Kidderpore and southeastern Metiabruz has been shown as belonging to a particular minority community. Contrary to popular perceptions, these areas are not merely Muslim mohallas; a considerable number of non-Muslims have been living and carrying on peacefully with their cultural practices in these places for generations.
The tendency to stereotype minority communities is not new. Among the host of images conjured up about Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods are those of burqa-clad women holding on to the hands of four to five children and the azan blaring five times a day from a mosque, which is usually decorated with Arabic calligraphy. At times, Muslim-dominated localities are informally referred to as 'mini Pakistans', suggesting that they are hubs of criminals, even of terrorists. These stereotypes have coalesced to form a theory of otherness. "They are different in every sphere of life; even the scripts of their languages (Arabic and Urdu) start from right," a field researcher noted during an interview.
The Muslim community is not new to India; attempts to brand Muslims as foreigners and invaders are fairly recent. Research shows that downtrodden people, attracted by the liberal ideals of Sufism, embraced Islam to escape from the oppressive caste system. Like other communities in India, the Muslims too have adopted a lot of local practices and are now an integral part of India's culture.
It is the same in West Bengal, where Muslims have lived in harmony with other communities for long. A large number of Muslims in Bengal speak in Bengali. In rural Bengal, hardly any distinction is made between Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods. Bolstering such conventional images of the community creates alienation, which, in turn, fuels communal tensions.
The complex socio-political history of India, combined with its uneven economic growth trajectory, have led to the reshaping of a private identity based on religious affiliation to that of a public idea of Muslims as being 'capability deprived'. These deprivations are perpetuated by the State and the ruling classes through their ignorance. Such inequalities also become political tools when there are discussions about the Muslim vote bank, the percentage of Muslims in the population and how their block will vote. Analyses of electoral results will show that it cannot be taken for granted that all members of a community will vote for a particular political outfit.
The chasm between communities is becoming deeper everyday because of ultra-nationalist propaganda. Therefore, it has become essential not only to break stereotypes but also to celebrate those who break them. Maulana Mohammad Ashraf Ali Qasmi, the 40-year-old imam of the Buri Masjid in Mominpore, has started an initiative, Mahad-e-Sumaiya, to promote female education. Qasmi thinks that investing in women's education can break the vicious cycle of poverty and capability deprivation. In the same neighbourhood, in Kidderpore and Ekbalpore, young Muslim girls are taking up boxing and challenging both gender and community stereotypes. In rural West Bengal, there are madrasas that have more Hindu than Muslim students. Why do these images and ideas not fascinate us?