In the wake of the suicide of IIT-Madras student Fathima Latheef, it is important to remember the story of Mohammed Akhlaq. The victim of the Dadri lynching does not anymore serve as a grim reminder of how things have come to be in a nation with a minority Muslim population. There is no element of surprise in such events around Muslims.
Comparing Akhlaq's lynching with Fathima's suicide might seem like a fallacy at first, but what connects them is the dearth and death of mainstream society's engagement with Muslims. The incident in Uttar Pradesh occurred thus: As part of the Eid-al-Adha celebrations in 2015, Mohammed Akhlaq invited his neighbours home. They came over and had a sumptuous meal. After they left, they spread the rumour that they had been served beef.
Following this, Akhlaq and his family " his wife, aged mother, and children " were beaten mercilessly. Akhlaq died and one of his sons was left with serious injuries. The family is traumatised for life. Sartaj, the elder son, was working for the Indian Air Force (IAF) in Chennai at the time.
Fast forward couple of years, and in Chennai, a young, bright and studious girl of nineteen committed suicide while she was enrolled in one of India's top institutes. Her father has alleged discrimination based on her religion as the cause of the suicide.
What connects Sartaj and Fathima are not just the cities that they migrated to, but also the idea that education can improve your conditions and life. One hailing from the UP, and the other from Kerala, both went through rigorous examinations, disciplined themselves to reach their goals and entered the nation's best institutions after proving their mettle.
However, things did not go as planned. Sartaj and his family were viewed with suspicion. After Sartaj joined the IAF as a corporal, the family underwent a gradual shift in terms of mobility. Belonging to the Saifi Muslim community, an OBC category, the shift from the traditional occupation of blacksmith to government service did not necessarily give Akhlaq's family the chance at being treated as equals by their neighbours. If anything, their newly purchased Maruti Alto and Akhlaq's increased visits to the nearby mosque were viewed with an air of incredulity and envy.
A few months ago, Dr Payal Tadvi, a postgraduate student working at the BYL Nair Hospital in Mumbai, committed suicide following "extreme harassment" at the hands of senior colleagues. She belonged to the Tadvi Muslim Bhil Scheduled Tribe community and was allegedly viewed with contempt by her seniors.
In an important recent work that makes use of "suppressed" NSSO reports, Christophe Jafferlot and Kalaiyarasan A compared the socio-economic status of Muslim youths to other social groups in India. The three variables made use of are: Percentage of those who have completed graduation, percentage of youth enrolled in educational institutions and percentage of youth who are neither employed nor enrolled in educational institutions.
The following are the statistics for the year 2017-18: Muslims 14 percent, SCs 18 percent, Hindu OBCs 25 percent, and Hindu upper castes 37 percent. While the gap between SCs and Muslims six years ago was one percentage point and that between Hindu OBCs and Muslims was seven percent, and nine percent between Hindu upper castes and Muslims, the trajectory shows a steep decline in education among this minority population. Based on the statistics, Muslims are extremely disadvantaged when it comes to educational mobility.
Merit, an upper-caste discourse
Fathima's background is not the same as that of Sartaj or Payal but it nevertheless points to larger irregularities the Muslim community is facing in India. Thanks to the 'Gulf boom' and foreign remittances, the family from Kollam district in Kerala faced a different predicament regarding mobility. Joining IIT-Madras under its department of Humanities and Social Sciences was more a matter of prestige than immediate financial enhancement.
Ajantha Subramanian in The Caste of Merit picks IIT-Madras to analyse meritocracy in relation to subaltern politics. She shows how lower caste assertion via politics and reservations are discarded by upper castes as backward claims and unfair to those who have earned their position through merit and hard work.
Acing the entrance and internal examinations, holding an impeccable and steady academic record throughout her educational graph, Fathima had been an ideal student and topper according to her teachers. Yet, all narratives and interviews around Fathima and her family point to the fact that being such a student was not enough.
Fathima's instance is then at once not only about responding to an upper-caste discourse of merit, but also one where the subaltern Muslim girl from South India attempts to assert herself. Fighting for her marks when she was wrongly graded, and going on to gain them portrays a resilient youth reading between the lines and recognising the inherent hierarchical structures of the institution. She would gradually feel hesitant and isolated in a pool of professors and colleagues allegedly undermining her.
Not a 'political' issue
The incidents mentioned above, along with the lynching and suicides that have taken place over the years across India, clearly show that it is no longer a 'political' issue. Saying so is merely limiting the heinous nature of such crimes. On the one side, we have a specific kind of psychologising and stressing on the individual of such issues. This can be seen, for instance, in the response to Fathima's suicide where the stress has been on unburdening pressure and talking about mental illness.
While these are highly important aspects, an attempt is being made to deliberately move away from issues of institutional murder and abetment on the part of the authorities. On the other side, there has been a small cry from Bahujan, Muslim, and Dalit organisations through conventional forms of protests and dissent. While such assertions are necessary in times of complete disregard of such discourse, one also wonders whether we have been knocking on the wrong door all this time.
The 2016 Rohith Vemula suicide, which brought a huge number of students and activists together was emblematic simply because people shared the deep sorrow and pain. They came out of their cocoons and joined hands. Protests and talks around the issue were also conducted at spaces like IIT-Madras. There was a sense of hope like never before. The only lesson that we are left within the Rohith issue is that engagement with one another was a possibility.
During fieldwork, for instance, a Muslim barber in Kerala quoted the Malayalam of Rohith Vemula's "My birth is my fatal accident." Even when the proposed Rohith bill and almost none of the demands were met, the potential to share pain and connect with one another opened up avenues across diverse sections of people.
The events surrounding the Fathima suicide have scarred friends and colleagues to the extent that it took more than five days for people within the campus to initiate any formal protest. One wonders how many friends we've had the opportunity to talk to and just didn't. Quite similar to the heightened emphasis on sending the meat in the refrigerator to the laboratory for testing in the Dadri event at the hands of the government officials, the priority has been around inquiring into the incident at IIT-Madras before alleging that harassment was involved.
The situation came to be so after few professors were named following a fake image that was circulated. It appears that some kind of internal hand has been at work in deploying such rumours. But beyond specific names and who is involved, weighing attention away from Fathima and Akhlaq is what sets these cases different. In the instance of seeking 'truth' regarding what the meat actually was, or which professors were allegedly involved, the underlying assumption is that the Muslim is always limited to a political subject in India. Their lives take backstage and we are left with abhorrent rumours and bounded politics to encounter.
But what is it that specifically touches a nerve in the Dadri lynching? What does it speak of Muslims and their lives in India? Akhlaq's actions are in tandem with his name. In the most severe cases of irony, Akhlaq means ethics. The forename 'Mohammed' is also not random here. To stretch the full name, he represents Mohammedan ethics in the best manner. The message of love and care for neighbours is heavily emphasised by the Prophet Mohammed to the extent that a person is not considered a believer if his or her neighbour were to go hungry.
An abstract principle or ideal is not realised by champions of Muslims in Parliament or the politically conscious Muslims, but by an ordinary Muslim in an everyday setting. In the act of serving and hosting his neighbours, irrespective of religion, he surpasses almost any contemporary inter-religious narrative or discourse. The act of sharing food and warmth speaks of possibilities, though short-lived, that modern day politics has not been able to engage with. We can only have posthumous conversations with Fathima now. The time for engagement looks bleak and shallow.
Akhlaq had no neighbours and Fathima no friends. Proof or no proof, these incidents are not 'political'. They are ethical in nature, where the majority is now being forced to describe its relationship with minorities than vice-versa. While Muslims across India have just celebrated Milad-u-nabi, the slaughter of Mohammedan ethics and his daughter Fathima poses the question to the carefree mainstream: Who is next?
The author is a senior researcher pursuing his Ph.D. in social anthropology at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Chennai. His dissertation focuses on a historical and anthropological understanding of Muslim barbers of South India by exploring the histories of contempt and ethics of possibilities. Amir was a Fulbright-Nehru doctoral research fellow at Columbia University, New York. He is currently at Krea University as a Research Associate for the World Humanities Report