I’m an atheist but I’ve never felt more Muslim than in Modi’s India

Trigger warning: This story contains instances of Islamophobia, police brutality, and state-sponsored violence that readers may find disturbing.

“We would’ve never let you go there,” said one of my best friends, the most fearless of them all, who was now, however, forced to feel fiercely protective of me. She was trying to pull me out of the guilt that had engulfed me—because I wished I had done something. I wished I had mustered up the courage to help boys like me, and ammis (mothers) and abbus (fathers) like my own who were being mercilessly murdered. I was there, a few kilometers away, strutting between South and East Delhi tying up all the loose ends before a friend’s wedding day when violent riots erupted in North East Delhi. Barring a short visit to Shaheen Bagh, I was being mostly a “social media activist” in that fateful week earlier this year in February as Hindu mobs went about burning down Muslim homes and destroying their properties. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have been attacked. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have been one of those dozens of Muslims who were slashed or whose corpses were found in open drains. 

At first glance, you wouldn’t take me for a monochromatic monotonous Musalman (Muslim). I don’t look like any of the grotesque caricatures that Bollywood has peddled. I don’t have a beard (primarily because of genetics), nor do I wear surma (kohl) in my eyes or go around wearing a skullcap all day. But, of course, there is my second name, Mohammed, which is a dead give-away of my being Muslim. What if they’d asked me my name? Would I be here today realizing that some facets of my identity that were a matter of choice for me were no longer the same? That day, it was the Mohammed in my name that camouflaged and overpowered every other aspect of my being. But it was not the first time that the mirror of privilege to choose an identity had cracked, and certainly not the first time in my life that I felt very Muslim. 

It was September 2015; a little over a year since Narendra Modi came to power. Mohammed Akhlaq, a 55-year-old farmworker and his son Danish were dragged out of their homes in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, and brutally thrashed by a mob following an announcement at a temple that their family had consumed and stored beef. Akhlaq succumbed to his injuries. When the news broke, my family was dining at a sea-facing restaurant. My cousin and I were devouring a plate of beef sizzler, our staple order, as the optimist in me challenged that our fate would ever depend on what was on our plate. I was certain such a lynching would never happen as I marinated in my privilege floating in my liberal bubble in Chennai. However, two years and many Akhlaqs and lynchings later, the fear had hit closer to home. “Keep it low,” said my uncle with palpable trepidation as we prepared to order our regular favorite. This was the beginning of a new India, a new me.

Emboldened by the silence of their supreme leader juxtaposed with the cunning hate-mongering and incendiary speeches of Amit Shah and other members of the Sangh Parivar, cow vigilantes went about lynching and assaulting Muslims (and Dalits) across the country, predominantly in BJP-ruled states. While leaders like Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath openly threatened violence against Muslims, the perpetrators committed their crimes with absolute impunity. Meanwhile, I helplessly watched my country turn into Lynchistan with over 113 people losing their lives and several others injured in mob violence since 2015. I saw Muslims being reduced to a mere statistic and a great part of India being a mute spectator. Lynchings and mob violence were normalized. India as I knew it ceased to exist, and so did I. 

I encountered Islamophobia for the first time at the age of 14. The Pakistan cricket team was touring India where they played six ODIs and three Test matches. Pakistan won the ODI series 4–2. It was the first time I was asked to “go back to Pakistan” by a “friend”—all because I said they played well. Growing up in a liberal environment, I wasn’t exposed to these slurs. I didn’t understand the implications of it. But little did I think that years later I would have to get “used” to being called “Paki”, “jihadi”, “anti-national”, “non-patriotic”, accused of being part of ISIS, and constantly being threatened on public platforms like Twitter and Facebook, all of which had become commonplace in Modi’s India. 

While all this unfolded, the silence of a majority of those I grew up with and befriended enraged me the most. It was everywhere—lynchings, hate speech, and demonization of Muslims. But my “friends” remained unfazed. It was as though I grew up with a bunch of ignorant bigots who secretly had a prejudice against a part of my identity that I wasn’t vocal about. Over time, I started to debate less in public, deleted posts fearing hate comments, and refrained from posting anything remotely portraying Pakistan in a positive light. I was asked to maintain a low-profile on social media and not post “provocative” stories when I visited states like Rajasthan (then ruled by the BJP in 2017) and Gujarat (2019). This wasn’t me. I was different. But that wasn’t all that changed.

Since being elected to power, Modi and his men have pulled out all the stops to solidify their anti-Muslim stance. In their first term, the Sangh Parivar rejoiced as Muslims were lynched, saffronized institutions, peddled the narrative of ‘Love jihad’, silenced and unconstitutionally imprisoned voices of dissent, as it pandered to the needs of the pro-Hindutva groups in the hopes of building a Hindu Rashtra. Indian Muslims lived their worst nightmare as they woke up each morning to the threatening discourse blatantly championed by the BJP and its legislators. 

But I still had hope. I thought the BJP barely had anything to bring itself back to power in 2019. I was certain my country, my people, would not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the systemic torture their Muslim brothers and sisters had been subjected to. I didn’t imagine that I was setting myself up for a disappointment that hit me like a ton of bricks. Secularism was not just at the threat of being removed from India’s constitution, but also from the Indian conscience. India had made its choice!

After the re-election, the Modi government continued in its Hindu supremacist ways, and in a clear case of constitutional overreach, Article 370 was abrogated through a government order. The order was yet another manifestation of the Sangh Parivar’s historic aversion to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoying autonomy under the Constitution. The Indian majority cheered. I protested. But again, for most people, I was against it only because I was Muslim. Not because it was a gross human rights violation that has pushed an entire population into a barbaric blackout for 344 days and counting.   

Modi-Shah’s most savage strike on the dignity of Indian Muslims came with the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). For the first time, religion was introduced as a criterion for acquiring Indian citizenship and the Act specifically barred Muslim refugees, obliterating the country’s core values of liberty and equality. It sent out a clear political message that the BJP and its government regarded Indian Muslims as second-class citizens. Now, the 172-million strong Muslim population in India had to prove they were Indian, and that they belonged, failing to do which they would end up as prisoners in camps in a land they’ve always called home. Fear and uncertainty spread everywhere—even among my relatively privileged middle-class family and Muslim friends and acquaintances—many of whom scrambled to find avenues to move to other countries. “I don’t want my kids to grow up here,” said my cousin, a devout practicing Muslim, as my little one-year-old nephew crawled across the floor oblivious to the burden his religious identity carried and that in the eyes of many, he was the child of a lesser god. 

Speaking of god, I’m not a believer. Despite being from a god-fearing Muslim family, I grew up an avowed atheist. I’ve never prayed five times a day, nor have I fasted for Ramadan. The religious identity I was born into was never something I could relate to. But over time, I had to embrace the Muslim in me. As the CAA protests broke out, the obligation to express a part of my identity that I always shunned, grew stronger than ever. I affirmed, “My name is Mohammed and I’m an Indian,” as I joined scores of anti-CAA protesters or “traitors” whom the BJP politician Kapil Mishra wanted to be shot. Fueling further hate, Modi said, “Look at their clothes,” targeting Muslim protesters. Never one to conform to outward tokens, I wore a skullcap the following Ramadan as a sign of protest. I wanted to give Modi and his men the instant proof of my religious identity—the beef-smuggling, bomb-throwing, jehad-spouting, coronavirus-spreading (read: corona jihad) Muslim of his imagination. I was okay being one of “them.”

Times have changed. India has changed. I have changed. I’m an intersectional feminist, atheist, writer, editor, member of the LGBTQIA+ community, and more. But in the last six years, Modi’s India has actively shoved down my throat that I am Muslim, a Muslim alone, as the cloud of hate towards that identity hovered over my head wherever I went—including that fateful night in Delhi. So much so that as I scrolled through this article one last time before I hit submit, the unfair weight the Mohammed in my name, a mere 8 letters carry, did not escape me for one moment. What’s in a name after all? Well, for some of us, it’s all in the name!

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