Misogyny, Islamophobia, fascism—these are words we use too often, perhaps out of desperation, in a social situation in which we can only wield accusations against the ever-charged superstructure of violence that is closing in on us, one that is re-orienting every fibre of the mainstream from which we are increasingly finding ourselves alienated. All we have is a frustrated, virtuous conviction in these words.
We might perhaps want to pause and mull the implications of this kind of straight-faced, unequivocal vocabulary. Because if, on the one hand, as George Orwell warned, there is a fear of euphemisms to mask violent thought, there is also, on the other hand, the fear of an overuse of vocabulary that will render the very intention and inflection of the word banal.
For example, what exactly do we mean when we call something Islamophobic?
I keep returning to the relief I felt when walking out of Hanu Man, the Sankranti Telugu superhero blockbuster that is built on the scaffolding of bhakti, or devotion, and whose antagonist is not an Islamist extremist, but a megalomaniac. We are so used to Hindu pride being built on the edifice of Muslim villainy, the way Indian pride is often built on the edifice of Pakistani villainy, that our language of love, of pride, actually emerges from acid. I suppose I was looking for answers to the questions—how to love? How to express faith in a time when your expression of it becomes indistinguishable from a provocation?
Director Rohit Shetty’s recent slow-motion, police-prop piece, Indian Police Force, is held together by a Muslim villain, a terrorist whose naive but sprightly Muslim wife is duped by his lies, and a Muslim hero, a police officer, in a strategic posture aimed at some warped moral balance—that you cannot raise a suspicious finger at a Muslim villain because the hero, his victims, are Muslim, too.
Inability to see beyond binaries
If you want to consider Islamophobia as the homogenising practice of reducing the Muslim to a “type” and villainising that type, then Indian Police Force does not fall under this bracket, since it offers alternative, virtuous visions of being Muslim in India. What it does, however, is more insidious. It traps its characters into corners where they are forced to theorise their existence, explain, convince us of their righteous intent, their right to exist in this nation. It burdens them with the indignity of reason: Tell me why you deserve to belong to this country. There is a deep inability to see a Muslim character beyond their capacity to express love or hate for the country. Ambivalence is, certainly, impossible.
It is also a kind of oppression arithmetic, one villain for one victim, one villain for one hero, LHS meets RHS, which completely denies Muslim-ness a capacity to be more than itself, to be searching, complicated, evasive, and, most importantly, indifferent. To be a Muslim in Rohit Shetty’s world is to be tied only to the demands the nation makes of you.
“To be a Muslim in Rohit Shetty’s world is to be tied only to the demands the nation makes of you. There is a deep inability to see a Muslim character beyond their capacity to express love or hate for the country.”
Pride is a fetishised object, gleaming with a rapacity, as though it were not a means but an end. Goodness, in this world, means aligning with the state, but no question is ever raised on what the state is actually doing to Muslims, and how it is systematically impoverishing them.
It is not that good Muslims and bad Muslims do not exist. They do, but their badness is rarely, if ever, so wholly tethered to their Muslimness. In Indian Police Force, the Muslim villain is linguistically (bhaijaan), aesthetically, and gastronomically (biryani) a condensate of what a particular imagination thinks a Muslim is.
The goodness of the good Muslim is, however, diffusely sourced. In the climactic monologue, he stresses their difference, “Islam tere baap ka hai? Tu thekedaar hai khuda ka? … Tum log sirf mazhab ki aad mein apni kamzori, nakaami, frustration, gussa nikaalne wale log ho (Does Islam belong to your father? Are you the contractor for it? You people only know to use religion to cloak your weakness and anger)” The good Muslim’s Islam is not apparent, not even in his name (Kabir Malik), house, not in his speech, not in his diet. It is almost an argument for Muslims to scrub themselves clean of immediate, visual markers in order to become acceptable, “good Muslims”.
What this Good Muslim/Bad Muslim narrative—which Shetty used even in Sooryavanshi (2020)—betrays is a superstructure of what Bruno Latour called “networked” facts, that is facts that are produced by a network of institutions and practices; and if these institutions and practices are broken down, the facts, too, would wither away.
A systemic bias
Leaning on Josy Joseph’s The Silent Coup: A History of India’s Deep State, I ask why we are so quick to make films on Islamic terror. It comes from a systemic bias against Muslims in the system, which is not helped by their paltry representation in the bureaucracy. For example, every year, the percentage of Muslims becoming IAS officers ranges between 1 and 5 per cent, disproportionate to their share in the Indian population, around 14 per cent.
Joseph writes, “Muslim informants are often nurtured so that they can be sacrificed in the future as alleged terrorists.” In the two decades that Joseph was on the security beat, he did not see a single Muslim in a senior position at R&AW, India’s intelligence agency. According to him, under pressure to solve cases, R&AW produces fake narratives and forces innocent men to plead guilty. Afzal Guru, he says, is possibly the most egregious example of this. Arrested and put on trial for the attack on Parliament in 2001, he was eventually hanged in 2013 in a shroud of secrecy.
On the other side are stories of how investigations into Hindu terror are often muzzled. Hemant Karkare, the chief of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), was investigating the nodes of Hindutva terror when he was shot dead in the 26/11 carnage. He arrested Pragya Thakur, who would go on to win a Lok Sabha seat, which caused a furore. When Karkare was alive, he was constantly undermined by the Hindutva political behemoth which was growing in popularity. L.K. Advani, the prime ministerial candidate then, demanded the ATS be disbanded. Modi, who accused Karkare of undermining the morale of the military with the arrests, showed up at Karkare’s house after his death despite being asked by the family not to visit them. He sat in their drawing room for a while, then left. He offered Rs.1 crore as compensation. They politely turned him down.
I suppose, then, to ask if a film is Islamophobic is not just to ask about the obvious narrative choices, but also to ask what the structures are that it is bowing down to. And if these structures are complicit in the marginalisation of the Muslim identity, then so is the film. It is not an overt hatred, but a more subtle surrender to a kind of thinking that erodes one’s sense of the secular, collective self. Is that not Islamophobia?
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.