There is a lot of anger and sadness in the community over the Babri Masjid demolition, but people are scared that “anything they say or do will only make things worse for them,” Ayyub told HuffPost India in a long phone interview.
“This silence is of fear, not happiness. It’s only when you are intimidated that you are silent. We have been asked to shut up. Muslims are numb right now. The community has gone into a cocoon. People are just going about their routines because they don’t want to think anymore. They don’t know what is going to happen next,” she said.
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Ayyub’s opinion was shared by other Muslim leaders and activists this reporter spoke to after a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Hindu parties last week, granting the disputed land in Ayodhya to a Hindu trust for the construction of a temple devoted to Ram, and offering an alternative five acres to the Muslim parties to build a mosque.
“Do you know what would have happened if we had condemned the judgement? ‘Unsatisfied’ is the strongest word we could use,’” said a young Muslim leader in Delhi, who was speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“Of course, we are deeply unhappy about the verdict but no one can say it openly because we fear the consequences would be worse for us, Muslims,” he said. “We don’t have any other choice but to keep quiet.”
The young man also recalled how the Amethi police threatened legal action against Ayyub for making a “political comment,” when she tweeted ahead of the verdict about how the demolition of the 16th century mosque in 1992 in Ayodhya had changed her life.
In the late 1980s, senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had started an aggressive campaign against the mosque, claiming it was on the spot where a Ram Temple had once stood. The ruling BJP had demanded the construction of a Ram Temple for three decades, but the property dispute goes back to 1949.
Interviews with Indian Muslims revealed how the minority community had preempted the verdict would favour the Hindu parties but agreed to a muted response, fearing a violent backlash in the hostile and menacing environment which has built up since the Narendra Modi-led BJP government came to power in 2014. Religious leaders decided that any statement expressing dissatisfaction had to make clear the community accepted the verdict. The youth leader quoted above said that almost 800 WhatsApp groups with predominantly Muslim members were turned off for public comment. Imams were told not to speak on the verdict when people gathered for Eid e Milad the next day.
This strange silence, which almost felt like an overreaction, also stems from the fact that mainstream parties, even the ones which have traditionally banked on the minority vote, did not question the verdict. The only non-minority politician to have spoken publicly against the verdict was Thol Thirumavalavan, a Dalit lawmaker from Tamil Nadu, who said, “The faith in Supreme Court is shattered.”
Among Muslims, with the exception of a very few voices, including Ayyub and Asaduddin Owaisi, a lawmaker from Hyderabad and chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), there has been almost no public critique of the verdict. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, Zafaryab Jilani, the lawyer for the “Muslim parties,’ said the Sunni Waqf Board was ’unsatisfied” and would ask the Supreme Court to review the verdict. Later in the day, a decision was taken not to go ahead with the review.
In a conversation with HuffPost India, Ayub, who is the author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, spoke about the tweet from the Amethi police, the silence of the Muslim community and what it means, and the eternal search for closure.
This silence is of fear, not happiness. It’s only when you are intimidated that you are silent. We have been asked to shut up. Muslims are numb right now.
There was hardly any pushback from Muslim leaders and people against the Ayodhya verdict.
To begin with, I don’t think India has a Muslim leadership. You have Muslim politicians in various political outfits. Everyone was shocked by the Congress Party’s response, I was not. It was during the Congress regime that the Babri Masjid was demolished. The Srikrishna report came after the Babri demolition but the Congress did not act on it. I’m not surprised that Muslim politicians in Congress are not talking about it. As far as Muslims are concerned, I think they anticipated this verdict because of the kind of atmosphere that has been building up for the past 5-6 years, whether it is lynching or the NRC (National Register of Citizens), or there is an assault on their religion and religious identity, every day, even if it is just talking about the Taj Mahal. So, Muslims have been getting used to it. There is also a lot of fear.
In my Washington Post article, I wrote that not just my brother, but my uncle called up and said ‘don’t make life difficult for us’. These are privileged families, well-to-do families, upper middle-class families, and these families are not talking out of fear. The WhatsApp group in our society was full of congratulatory and Jai Shri Ram messages. Muslims feel isolated. You see your friends and neighbours in a new light, but you do not express yourself out of fear. Muslims have accepted there is a new order which is Hindu majoritarian state, where the next issue might be the Uniform Civil Code. The Babri verdict is the beginning of the worst that India will see in the next five years.
Muslims have accepted there is a new order which is Hindu majoritarian state...
You talk about being in a privileged position that allows you to talk about grievances. What do you mean by privilege?
If you see the pattern of lynchings in India, they are from lower-to-middle-class backgrounds. They are not privileged Muslims who basically sit in their living rooms, watching television, cribbing about it and going about their routine life. The Muslims who actually protest are silent because they are afraid for their livelihood. They are afraid of getting highlighted by the mainstream media. I think Muslims today are resigned to their fate.
When Yakub Memon was hanged, Muslims galvanised on the streets and there were protests. That was anger being expressed against the state. Whatever the circumstances, there were people who came out on the streets. There was a march for the 22-year-old techie who was killed in Pune. There were “Not in my name” protests against the lynchings. But now, there are no voices. It started with anger, then shock, then despair, and then numbness. I don’t know what comes after this.
It started with anger, then shock, then despair, and then numbness.
What is the fear? Is it fear of neighbours complaining to the police, of being highlighted in the media, of getting beaten up by a mob?
I’ll give you an example. I was on the Bombay-Srinagar flight after Article 370 was abrogated. One passenger, who works with a very well-known IT company, said that when he had tried to tell his co-workers that what had happened was a “betrayal”, he was told not to discuss Kashmir or any of his issues in office. He was trying to explain his point of view to his coworkers and he was silenced.
Bigotry and communalism have always been there in India, but with this regime, the elements which are bigoted and communal have become emboldened. They feel that now they can speak without any filter. Muslims who are not used to such hostile conversations are really surprised at the tone of the conversations that are happening.
This year, my own younger brother and his wife were forced out of their apartment because they were the only Muslims living in that locality. He owns that apartment and he had to leave it. My sister-in-law had just started wearing a hijab because every Sunday they would go to the madrasa. That became a problem. This was one of the most elite societies in Navi Mumbai. This is not something that would happen earlier. Yes, Muslims would have a hard time finding apartments but someone who owned an apartment did not have to vacate. It wasn’t this bad. If all their friends in this society cannot come forward and speak for them, that is the culture now. Muslims live in fear of the state, in fear of their neighbours, in fear of their bosses, in fear of their colleagues and in fear for their children’s future. Not everyone can face intimidation, not everyone can afford to leave the country. They have to live in this country. If they have to live in this country, Muslims believe they have to conform to the language that is being spoken and to the decisions that are being taken on their behalf.
After the Babri verdict, I would have thought there would be at least some conversation among the congregations in the mosques, at least one protest in Aizad Maidan (in Mumbai), but there was nothing. That speaks volumes to where we are.
Muslims live in fear of the state, in fear of their neighbours, in fear of their bosses, in fear of their colleagues and in fear for their children’s future.
Could it just be that Muslims are okay with the verdict?
That’s not the case. If that was the case, there would not be this silence. If you are okay, you express your happiness or you contentment. You are not silent. This silence is of fear, not happiness. It’s only when you are intimidated that you are silent. We have been asked to shut up. Muslims are numb right now. The community has gone into a cocoon. They don’t want to speak with anyone. People are just going about their routines because they don’t want to think anymore. They don’t know what is going to happen next.
When I post something on Babri and Ayodhya on Instagram, my Instagram followers say “Ma’am, why are you making life difficult for us. Ma’am, why don’t you shut up.” I have never seen that before. If they were really happy then they would not ask me to shut up. They would not ask me to stay silent and stop making life difficult for them. I know the anger, how much anger there is, over the Babri Masjid in the Muslim community, the community I live in. It was sacrosanct for us. The verdict has not led to a public expression of outrage is because Muslims fear that anything they say or do will only make things worse for them.
The verdict has not led to a public expression of outrage is because Muslims fear that anything they say or do will only make things worse for them.
What worries you more: the verdict or Muslims not even being able to say they are unhappy about it?
I’m worried about the fact that the Supreme Court of India has taken a decision without being sensitive to the beliefs of Indian Muslims. As a Muslim citizen of this country, I want to know what was the need for the Chief Justice of India to take the entire bench to Taj Mansingh hotel for dinner that night of the verdict. How am I supposed to feel? What is the message that is being sent? Are Muslims in this country not supposed to have faith in the judiciary anymore? The Supreme Court verdict says the demolition was illegal, but if you still give a judgement in favour of Hindus, then something is deeply wrong.
The Ayodhya dispute is a title dispute that predates the demolition. The SC has called the demolition “illegal.” The judges invoked the findings of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). It feels like you are looking at the verdict only from the prism of the demolition.
The entire judgement does not make sense to me. Many have expressed concern about the contradictory nature of the order itself. What has the ASI pointed out? That there were murtis. You excavate anything in India and you will find murtis. We are a 1000-year-old civilisation. You will find statutes and idols. Are the ASI findings the only thing that can lead to a judgement like this? I don’t think so. The reason that I talk about the demolition is that you cannot see the verdict in isolation. Something very wrong happened in 1992 and the world was watching. Instead of rallying against that wrong, the court has validated what happened in 1992 and after it. 1992, as I recall, was called a ‘blot on the Indian democracy’. Then why does the judgement not reflect on that blot?
The judgement says what happened in 1992 was unlawful.
The Supreme Court chose not to go into the illegalities that led up to the demolition. There was the Rath Yatra. There was an order that the Babri Masjid would not be demolished, but karsevaks still demolished it. Then, the Supreme Court gives a verdict that a temple will be built on it. This is not a Muslim perspective but a logical one. If an act was illegal, then you have to atone for it, not be emboldened. Otherwise what message are you sending the country? The Supreme Court judgement has paved the way for many demolitions.
The Supreme Court has emphasised the Places of Worship Act, 1991, which says there will be no change to the religious character of a place as it existed since independence.
Since when have things been happening according to the law in this country? Is the NRC happening according to the law? Is horse trading not unconstitutional? But it happens. Even if you think my fears are an exaggeration, have the last five or six years been an exaggeration as well? The entire judgement is skewed in favour of the faith of the majority community. That’s the bottom line of this judgement. And if it was a question of faith, then there could have been a better decision.
Babri was a symbol of our faith. The judgement is not about one mosque getting replaced with a temple. The judgement is about a culture that prevailed after the destruction. Now, with this verdict, it amplifies the voices that should have been made silent. Anyone who has seen communal agendas being strengthened since the nineties, knows how important this judgement was. This judgement furthers the agenda of the BJP over communal harmony. If the judge felt that a judgement in favour of Muslims could have led to rioting, then it speaks volumes about where we are now.
This judgement furthers the agenda of the BJP over communal harmony.
Is the Supreme Court calling the demolition unlawful not enough?
Saying it’s unlawful is not enough. I didn’t see names in the judgement. There is not a single statement that criticises what (L.K.) Advani and (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee did. I didn’t see strong words in the judgement.
I’m not sure the Supreme Court could have named people given there are ongoing criminal proceedings against Advani and others accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case.
In the Best Bakery case (of the 2002 Gujarat riots), the Supreme Court said the modern day Neros in Gujarat did nothing while women and children were butchered. How do you not talk about who demolished the Babri Masjid? Should there not have been a more stern statement about the leadership that brought down the mosque? Why is that missing? Why did the judge not say the events of 1992 cannot be repeated to safeguard the secular nature of this country?
You talk about closure in your recent Washington Post article. What is closure for you?
As a nine-year-old, I see images of the symbol of my faith being demolished and the attitude of my neighbours changing overnight. If the Babri Masjid had not been demolished, there would have been no riots. I would not have lived through the circumstances that I did. I have this nightmare once a month. There are people knocking at the door and my father is running from the doors to the windows trying to shut everything. What about my closure? If the Supreme Court of India had condemned the BJP leadership at the time, it would have made it easier.
What about my closure?
What about the closure for millions of Hindus who either believe or have been pushed into believing a Ram Temple has to be built on that spot?
The verdict could have meant closure for both communities. Both a temple and mosque could have been accommodated in the same premises.
The BJP and its allies may be pushing religious polarisation and, to an extent, manufacturing resentment against Muslims, but this is also just tapping into existing resentments which have been festering since the Partition.
I have always maintained that whether we like it or not, India is a communal country. There have been communal sentiments on both sides. Neither side got closure after the Partition of India. There are Hindus who feel that Muslims were given a piece of land in Pakistan and if they chose to live here than they need to follow the diktats of the rightwing. This is stoked by the RSS, time and again. This is stoked by the BJP, time and again.
We talk a lot about BJP and its communal agenda, but there is a lot that can be traced back to the Congress—opening the locks of the Babri Masjid, the NRC, and even the laws against cow slaughter. Is the emphasis on the BJP warranted?
It’s not just the BJP that is responsible. The Congress has sowed the seeds of religious polarisation, whether it was Rajiv Gandhi or Indira Gandhi or Sanjay Gandhi. There was a genocide in 1984 (anti-Sikh riots). Kamal Nath is the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. The Congress sat on the Srikrishna report when it was in power. The misuse of anti-terror laws happened under the Congress regime. The BJP has only been emboldened by the Congress. But that does not justify what the BJP is doing now. Two wrongs do not make a right. But there is one thing. The injustices that we saw under the Congress regime were not so brazen as the ones we are seeing now. We did not see the kind of lynchings we have now. There was no minister in the Congress government who was welcoming and garlanding people accused of lynching. There is a minor difference. I think Congress is as communal as BJP, but with a thin veneer of secularism.
The Amethi police responded to your tweet ahead of the Ayodhya verdict by threatening action against you. Does it frighten you? Do you find it ridiculous?
There are two things. The ridiculousness of the Amethi police. When have political comments become a crime? We are all political people. First, I did not say anything that could stoke communal fire. I was saying something very personal about my childhood and my memories. Second, the tweet only came after right-wingers started tagging the UP and Amethi police to take action against me. There was a sea of trollers tagging the UP police. This is very scary. Today, they were forced by public outrage to delete their tweet. Tomorrow, what if they tweet and I find the cops waiting for me over something very trivial and innocuous? It is disturbing. Do I fear for my safety? Yes.
Do you feel reassured by the public outrage and backlash against the tweet put out by the Amethi police, which eventually forced them to delete it?
Yes, it is encouraging. But what if what happened today, happens again tomorrow? You cannot expect this support every time. People may outrage for a few days but then people forget. It makes me fear for my future and my journalism in the future.
The Amethi police tweet would have had an impact on Muslims on Twitter, many of whom may not be in the privileged position that I am in. If they see the Amethi police threatening to take action against me, they will think that if it can happen to her… Not everyone has the bandwidth to take this kind of threat. Not everyone has the support that I enjoy. I’m known, at least on Twitter. What if it happened to someone who was not? There would not have been so much outrage.
By targeting me, they sent out a message to other Muslims, well-meaning people, that you cannot comment on this. When we are talking of silence, it’s not just the absence of the rallies on the roads, but also the silence on social media. Instances like this make people live in fear. If that IT professional, for example, had tweeted what I had tweeted, he might have lost his job. There would not have been any one of us who would have bothered about it.
If that IT professional, for example, had tweeted what I had tweeted, he might have lost his job.
Is there too much of a chilling effect? Will people not count on frivolous cases getting thrown out?
For the case to be thrown out, you would first have to go to a police station, go to the court. No one wants to do that.
You are a prominent voice on social media. I was at an event to mark Maulana Azad’s birth anniversary, where a speaker said that change will not be induced from behind a keyboard. Why do you find social media useful?
Social media has made the world a closer smaller place. I know that people are suffering in Bolivia because there are tweets that I follow from journalists there. I think social media has helped amplify the voices of those who could not speak. Television channels, the mainstream media, have stopped calling sane voices. There are so many activists who have found a voice on social media. If we need to involve millennials, teenagers, in this battle against fascism then we need to use social media. It is important. You cannot dismiss it.
I think social media has helped amplify the voices of those who could not speak.
Social media may have amplified voices, but I’m not sure it has made the world a smaller or closer place. We are all shouting in our own silos.
Social media won’t do everything for us. Social media can galvanize people to come on the streets and do a ‘Not in my name’ protest. Social media can start a hashtag that can lead to an issue getting highlighted. Social media came in handy when the Amethi police threatened me with a case. Social media came in handy when Asifa was raped and her killers were being celebrated. Social media can help galvanize but it can’t do everything.
Do you think Muslims are going overboard with the silence?
I don’t know. I’m trying to understand. Muslims are not 10,000 people in a population of 1.2 billion. We are 220 million. Muslims cannot afford to stay silent if they intend to stay in this country. If they think their silence means they will not face any excessive mistreatment, they are mistaken. Silence only emboldens tormentors. This silence is only emboldening them. We have to break this cycle.