Nothing is more contested in the public imagination than the word “Jihad”, which linguistically means “to struggle”. For Muslims, it is an ethical ideal exemplified by the Prophet. Jihad means the perpetual struggle to seek the pleasure of God in one’s life and actions. The Prophet Muhammad epitomized it by explaining that the most excellent Jihad is against the evil inclinations of oneself or a word of truth to a tyrant king. For some extremists, Jihad means any war fought by any Muslim for any reason against anyone. However, for the Islamophobic right-wing in India, Jihad represents the encroachment of Muslims (or perceived Muslimness) in any place where Muslims don’t belong.
One of the first such narratives which captured public attention was the Hadiya ‘Love Jihad’ case. In 2016, a Hindu woman from Kerala converted to Islam and married a man of her choice. She took the name ‘Hadiya’, which means ‘a gift’. The only gift Hadiya received from the state was the annulment of her marriage by the Kerala High Court. Eventually, the Supreme Court had to intervene to restore the woman’s agency, and her marriage was validated.
Throughout the incident, the allegations of ‘love jihad’ came to light. The right-wing nationalists argued that ‘love jihad’ was a conspiracy by Muslim men to convert young and naive Hindu women to Islam through marriages by trickery and deceit. Through this Jihad, as argued by the right-wing nationalists, Muslims aspired to increase their demographic numbers against a Hindu majority which was “under siege”.
Earlier in 2015, a Cobrapost sting had exposed how RSS–VHP–BJP were combining their forces to intimidate and inflict violence on inter-faith couples in an effort to counter ‘love jihad’. Love Jihad became another excuse to target and kill Muslims who were suspected of aiding such inter-faith couples. Jihad, for the right-wing, represented an encroachment of Muslims to spaces where they didn’t belong, which in this case were Hindu women.
In May 2020 the prominent Zee News anchor Sudhir Choudhary presented the nation with a made-up Jihad chart. The chart was plagiarized from an older Islamophobic Facebook post. The journalist claimed that Muslims were using various kinds of deceitful strategies to spread Islam to an unsuspecting citizenry. Love jihad became only one of such eleven deceitful Jihads. It included many imaginary terms such as, Secularism jihad (taking the support of leftists, communists and liberals), and Population jihad (marrying four wives to increase Muslim population). It invented terms like Land jihad (encroaching on land to make mosques, graveyards and madrasas), and Education jihad (building madrasas and promoting Arabic). It cast aspersions on any regular activities of Muslims such as seeking education.
More recently, the TV channel Sudarshan News aired a promo of a show on “UPSC Jihad”. It claimed that Muslims were “infiltrating” Civil Services in very high numbers. While Muslims have been consistently under-represented in the Civil Services, the narrative pushed seemed to convey that soon there will be Muslim IAS officers governing throughout India! While problematic in various ways, at its heart, the narrative of UPSC Jihad identifies another domain in which Muslims are encroaching, i.e. the Civil Services!
But what if there is indeed an aspiration among the Muslims to get into Civil Services? Wouldn’t it be a matter of a national celebration if one of the most under-represented communities in India with the highest poverty levels and school dropout rates manages to get a handful of people qualify for Civil Services? Why should Indian Muslims be criminals and objects of suspicion for aspiring the Indian dream of cracking Civil Services?
It is not surprising when the repeated usage of such language results in a socio-politico-economic boycott of Muslims in India. In the aftermath of “Corona Jihad”, BJP legislator Suresh Tiwari openly called for an economic boycott of Muslims. Many government ministers follow twitter accounts that openly call for boycotting Muslims. Muslims are discriminated frequently in housing in metropolitan areas. The different kinds of Jihad, identified by the right-wing, only make it simpler for Non-Muslims to locate the domains from which Muslims should be further excluded. This “Jihad” for the exclusion of Muslims from all forms of public life is a well-crafted project of the right-wing.
The right-wing and its Jihad narrative portray Muslims as encroachers. In the imagination of the right-wing Islamophobes, Muslims’ citizenship is an encroachment on a Hindu nation. Muslims’ history is an incursion on the golden age of Hindus. Muslims’ personal law is an infringement on the equality of citizens. Urdu is an encroachment against a unified Hindi speaking nation. Similarly, for the right-wing, Muslims’ culture is an intrusion on public spaces which should be rightfully Hindu, while it retains the right to define “Hindu” as it pleases. If such ideas are normalized, they pave the way for an unprecedented social exclusion of an already marginalized Muslim community in India.
One doesn’t have to look far to see nations comfortable with deep social inequalities. The experiences of Dalits in India show the extent to which societies can go to exclude communities deemed unworthy. While the struggle to reclaim the Islamic ethical spirit of Jihad continues, for the right-wing, it is a powerful tool to hijack the minds of a paranoid Hindu community. It prevents any honest and empathetic conversation about the woes of Indian Muslims. Therefore, the languages invoked to caricature Islam and Muslims should be urgently checked by all concerned citizens.