India News

Does India Oppress Muslims? Not Now, Not Ever. Here’s Why.

In a 2023 piece for TomDispatch, Priti Gulati Cox and Stan Cox argued that India oppresses its large Muslim minority. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, India is a secular state that not only follows a policy of religious non-discrimination but also gives its religious communities, especially Muslims, considerable legal autonomy.

A picture of a young arabic woman showing to stop over black background © Kamil Macniak /

April 11, 2024 04:11 EDT

This piece is a response to “What Happens When Nationalists in Israel and India Team Up,” a piece from TomDispatch that Fair Observer republished on December 21, 2023. The authors of the piece made several allegations against the Indian state and society. Without providing any evidence, they asserted that the Indian state oppresses Muslims. The authors referred to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as “occupied Kashmir.” They alleged that India commits “atrocities” against Kashmiris, and claimed that “New Delhi has all but abandoned the Palestinians.” They fatuously compared Indian counterterrorism operations in J&K with Israeli actions in Palestine that the UN deemed a “genocide in the making.”

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The authors then delved into Indian society, claiming that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu organization formed in 1925, engages in violence against “unarmed, unsuspecting civilians … using batons, machetes, strangulation, sulfuric acid to the face and rape, among other horrors.” They drew an ill-considered comparison between Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and the actions of cow vigilante groups affiliated with the RSS.

The authors also referenced the horrors of the 2002 Gujarat riots but presented a biased account of the train compartment burning, an event that incinerated 58 Hindu sadhus. They labeled the communal riots as “state-sponsored terrorism.” The authors further alleged that the US has turned a blind eye to the “antidemocratic and all-too-violent national visions” of India and Israel.

As an Indian student, I’ve identified numerous inconsistencies in the article. I find many of these allegations baseless and inconsiderate. Therefore, I am presenting a point-by-point rebuttal of the article.

Muslims receive special treatment despite Islam’s violent past

India’s geographical landscape has a complex history shaped by over a millennium of military campaigns. During these, the Islamic invaders progressed relatively slowly compared to the rest of the world. For instance, the Arabs invaded Sindh multiple times starting in 636 AD, and finally seized the province in 711 AD. It took Islamic forces over 300 years to capture Kabul and nearly 500 years to conquer Delhi. Nonetheless, after a valiant resistance, the Brahman Shahi Sultanate of Kabul fell to the Ghaznavid Empire in 1026 AD.

After that, Islamic invasions in the Indian heartland became more brutal and frequent. After the Second Battle of Tarain in 1192 AD, Islamic rule was established in Delhi. It lasted until 1858 when the Mughal Empire was replaced by the British Empire. During these 650 years, it was the minority Muslims — mostly Turks, Central Asians and Persians — who ruled over the majority of Hindus. During this period, the official language of India was Persian and the religion was Sunni Islam. Muslim rulers desecrated and demolished countless Hindu temples. Surprisingly, this historical context is completely overlooked in contemporary debates of Hindu-Muslim relations.

From 1858, the British exhibited a preference for Muslims, recruiting them into civil and military positions in disproportionate numbers. This is evident in the Census of India, 1911 data: Muslims constituted only 21.24% of India’s total population but made up 41.94% of the “service of the state,” and 50.33% of the police force. Even in higher salary ranges, Muslims were disproportionately represented, with 37.9% earning more than ₹400 salaries compared to 41.3% for Hindus. According to Pakistani military historian Major Agha H Amin, this policy of preferential recruitment became a fundamental reason for the Partition of India.

The extraordinarily tolerant Republic of India

Driven by the demands of the Muslim League, the Partition of India resulted in the bifurcation of the ancient geography along communal lines. Post-partition India embraced Hindu values of inclusivity, tolerance and peace. This is reflected in Part III of the Constitution, containing four articles under fundamental rights to protect the freedom of religion. These articles serve as the foundation for India’s engagement with all religions, granting every religious group the right to manage their religious affairs without state interference.

Furthermore, the constitution safeguards the rights of minorities under Articles 29 and 30, with the latter specifically designed to protect the rights of religious and linguistic minorities. However, the world’s longest constitution does not define the term “minority.” This empowers the Muslim community to establish and manage religious and educational institutions such as madrasas — schools that specialize in Islamic teachings — with little or no oversight. These schools also receive funds from the secular government of India, yet the state is not empowered to decide their curriculum and recruitment patterns.

Additionally, madrasas also receive largely untraced foreign funding. India even allows establishments such as Darul Uloom Seminary, situated in Deoband, Uttar Pradesh. This madrasa is infamously known as the ideological origin of the Taliban. After independence, India disregarded any perceived animosity towards Muslims and granted them equal rights, if not more, in the newly established democratic republic.

Indian Muslims are governed under the Sharia

While independent India granted equal rights to all citizens, it faced challenges in reforming the Muslim society. The successive governments did not replace the British-era Shariat Application Act of 1937. Initially designed to create distinctions between Hindus and Muslims in the lead-up to the partition, this legislation granted numerous privileges to Muslims.

The act permits a Muslim man to have up to four wives, stipulates that Muslim men only need to pay alimony for three months, allows double inheritance for sons compared to daughters and includes several provisions that can never be permitted in other democracies. (Triple talaq, an Islamic form of divorce whereby a Muslim man can legally end a marriage by saying “talaq” — “divorce” in Arabic — three times, was allowed until the Indian Government repealed it in 2018.) The successive governments also viewed Muslim society as a vote bank. They continue viewing Muslims through the lens of maulvis, Muslim doctors of law. This meant abhorring any possibility of reforming the Muslim Personal Law. Hence, Muslims of the world’s largest democracy are still governed under Sharia.

In 1973, the Muslim society formed the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). This body acts as the highest religious and legal authority over Islamic laws in India. The AIMPLB’s stated objective is to “eradicate all non-Islamic rituals and customs in [the] Muslim community.”

This body is predominantly filled with ulemas, groups of Muslim scholars with special knowledge of Islamic theology and law. Their qualifications are generally shady. The AIMPLB has a checkered history: The organization has opposed yoga, the right to education, an increase in women’s marriage age and interfaith marriages. They support Taliban return to Kabul and desire to open sharia courts in a constitutional democracy, the latter of which would create a second judicial system that would diminish the value of the first. Most recently, the body called Hamas terror attacks a “natural reaction to Israeli atrocities.”

While AIMPLB lacks executive powers, their influence on Muslim voters makes them an extremely important part of Indian politics.

The Government of India also introduced a distinctive safeguard for Muslim religious bodies through the Waqf Act. First implemented in 1954, this globally unparalleled legislation grants governing rights over religious and charitable lands to Muslims. No other religious group in India has such a favorable regime for religious land management.

The necessity for this legislation arose in the aftermath of the Partition of India. Many Muslims migrated to Pakistan, leaving their properties in India behind. Consequently, the Indian Government decided that their properties should be allocated exclusively to Muslims. The Wakf Act, 1954 established waqf boards, Muslim committees that dedicate property permanently to religious or charitable ends, to oversee this process.

This act was later replaced by the Waqf Act, 1995. It granted expanded powers to the waqf boards. Under this act, waqf boards practically have the authority to claim any land in India as their own. Unsurprisingly, they rank as the third-largest landowners in India, following the army and railways. The shrewd nature of this act has drawn criticism from legal luminaries and scholars, with concerns about its constitutionality. Regardless, it is still in effect in India.

As a result, the Muslim society enjoys not just constitutional equality but also preferential treatment in the form of Sharia-driven laws, AIMPLB and the Waqf Act, from the Indian state. Considering this, writers who make exaggerated allegations about discrimination against Indian Muslims demonstrate a poor understanding of history and contemporary events. When the Indian Government decides to reform Muslim personal laws, regulate the obscure functioning of madrasas and form AIMPLB to ensure proper representation of Muslim society, it is blatantly ignorant and hypocritical to claim oppression.

Too many communities engage in hate speech but the Indian state does not discriminate

In recent years, India has witnessed several incidents of hate speech against Muslims. The judiciary and central government have understandably noticed such events and have enacted stringent legislation to address this menace.

Regrettably, acts of hate speech have been a facet of India’s ugly political landscape, given its multi-ethnic composition. In South India, social activist EV Ramaswamy was known in his heyday for making vociferous hate speeches against the Brahmins. A spokesperson from the DMK, the ruling party of the state of Tamil Nadu, recently made a speech calling for Brahmin genocide.

Radical Muslim groups are equally involved in several incidents of hate speech. Just two years ago, Muslim groups rioted, committed arson and openly called for the beheading of Nupur Sharma after she quoted Ḥadīth verses — statements of words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad — from Sahih Bukhari, a key Islamic text. In some parts of India, every few months, radicals call for “sar tan se juda.” This Islamic slogan means, “separate the head from the body,” and is a call for the decapitation of blasphemers.

Therefore, it is essential to understand that these incidents of hate speech do not necessarily reflect the larger policy of the state or a community. Many such incidents arise due to the politicization of local sentiments. Hence, these hate speeches should more appropriately be viewed as law and order issues rather than indicative of the national sentiment.

The status of Indian Muslims remains unchanged, resembling the situation before. Consequently, India is a unique place where all varieties of Muslims, including Shia, Sunni and Ahmadiyya coexist as equal citizens in the republic. They represent diverse ethnicities such as Pashtun, Punjabi, Bihari, Gujarati, Bengali, Kannada, Kashmiri, Tamil and more. They have equal opportunities for education, work, mobility and sustenance, like other religious groups. In fact, Indian Muslims have far greater rights than Ahmadis in Pakistan, Sunnis in Iran and Shias in Saudi Arabia. Critics of India in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the BBC, Al Jazeera and Fair Observer might do well to note that everyone in India, including Muslims of all denominations, are equal in the eyes of the law.

[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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