AAS and the “Problem” of Muslims in India

Posted by patwari on July 19, 2018 · 18 mins read

By Mariam Durrani

Mariam Durrani is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Hamilton College. Her research focuses on the category of "Muslim" in contemporary politics and media, the lives of Muslim youth in higher education, and using multimodal methods to understand mobility and migration.

[The following essay is an edited and revised version of a talk written by Mariam Durrani and delivered by Professor Katy Hardy at the Association of Asian Studies-in-Asia conference held at Ashoka University in New Delhi (July 4-8, 2018). The panel titled “Media in Motion: Mobile Bodies and Mobile Technologies in South Asia” was organized by Katy Hardy.]


I had planned on presenting my research that interrogates racializing narratives about migrant, Pakistani-origin youth. On the one hand, the state may see them as 'foreign' or 'threatening' and, on the other, these young people respond to these stereotypic narratives by reformulating the category of 'desi' and Muslim through an emergent idea of what it means to be marked as “brown” in the 21st century. But given the Feb 19th policy that explicitly banned Pakistani and Pakistani-origin scholars from attending AAS, it seems incumbent to consider how the theoretical frameworks my research explores, namely how a theory of racial formation, might illuminate the racial logics undergirding this migration policy, which is of particular significance on this panel, focusing on mobility and immobility in South Asia.

When I agreed to participate on this panel organized by my colleague, Katy Hardy, I was well aware of how my position as a Pakistani-born scholar would most likely not allow me to present my work in person. In fact, the racialization of the Pakistani-origin individuals is evident for anyone who has had to fill out an Indian visa application. There is a question that asks “Were your Grandfather/Grandmother (paternal/maternal) Pakistan Nationals or belong to Pakistan held area?” Notably the question doesn't ask about parents but grandparents. It's an odd question and one that I've known about for at least the last 8 years, which I'm sure the AAS organizers knew about long before they planned to have the conference in Delhi.

I want to push the reader to consider how this question has some odd similarities to the Nuremburg Laws, which, to refresh our memory, did not define a “Jew” as someone with specific religious beliefs. Instead it meant that anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents was defined as a Jew, regardless of whether that individual identified himself or herself as a Jew or belonged to the Jewish religious community. In the Indian visa application case, if one has grandparents who came from Pakistan, even if the next two generations have had no relationship to the territory, she would still be categorized as a “Pakistani”. From there it's easy to think how this is not really an immigration policy issue. After all, if two generations of a family have not lived in Pakistan, the policy is not to deter people traveling from Pakistan. Rather what relation do we have with our biological grandparents after migration away from Pakistan? It remains primarily a blood relation. And from there, it's rather obvious how the Indian government sees Pakistani heritage, by linking the ancestry of blood kin to a specific geographic territory, as an indictment of some inherent, primordial identity. Thus, the Indian visa application has a question that might be articulated as a nationality and ancestry question, but is actually an unmarked question that points to some kind of primordial identity linked to the territory which is now Pakistan, an absurd notion of primordial identity that originates all the way back to 1947 or only 72 years ago.

For matters of transparency and since this is addressed to an audience at an Indian university, I also looked up what Indian nationals might need to do when applying to visit Pakistan. There is a separate visa application for Indian nationals versus non-Indian nationals, but there are no questions about the birth of one's grandparents or parents on the general application. For people with Indian origin traveling to Pakistan, the official policy is that those with Indian nationality are put through extra steps but not questions about their grandparents' Indian origin. After all, many Pakistanis, including myself, had family with migration stories that start in the territory now known as India.

While the specificity of Pakistan-Indian tensions, which is a kind of code for Muslim-Hindu hostility, has particular sociohistorical contexts that other scholars have discussed extensively, I would first point out that the fact that the Indian government has created a special category for those with Pakistani ancestry has been public knowledge for decades, which AAS should have known before the February 19th ministry statement that specifically objected to Pakistani scholars. I bring this up because the joint statement from AAS and Ashoka states that, “Unfortunately, by the time we learned of the Government of India's decision, the planning for the conference had been underway for a number of years.” I heard this sentiment echoed in the follow-up AAS statement. I might find this believable if there had been not been public knowledge of these discriminatory anti-Pakistan visa policies, that arguably mark Pakistani ancestry as a race. Moreover as a Pakistani-American living in the US, I've been well aware of the institutionalized marginalization of Pakistani-origin visa applicants. To suggest that the government's policies that categorize Pakistanis and those with Pakistani ancestry as potential enemies of the state was not widely known information seems incredibly disingenuous and perhaps even deceitful.

As I read many of the statements written by AAS members and non-members about this incident, a recurring theme emerged that focuses on academic freedom. And while I understand that the pointed-ness of the Feb 19th statement addressed to Ashoka and referencing foreign participants at this particular conference is anti-intellectual and a violation of academic freedom, I ask: is this really an issue of academic freedom? Or is that a myopic view that obfuscates some larger political and social issues? Specifically, I argue that there is actually a larger racist policy that needs to be explicitly addressed and acknowledged as such.

Many of the statements also brought up the Muslim ban in the US. As readers might know that the US Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Trump's executive order banning travel to the US by citizens from Muslim-majority countries and claim that it does not discriminate against Muslims. Activists and scholars have since written about how this travel ban is very much a Muslim ban and that calling it a “travel ban” is a euphemism that distracts from the underlying anti-Muslim bigotry driving such policies. The first Muslim ban specifically affected people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen and adding North Korea and Venezuela did little to detract from the specificity of Trump and his administration that constantly position Muslims as the enemy, i.e. “Islam hates us”, the idea of a Muslim registry, etc. In other words, this travel ban remains very much a Muslim ban.

As an anthropologist whose research focuses on Muslim youth, the culture behind this Muslim ban goes far beyond the people who have been directly impacted. Muslim American families are experiencing higher rates of discrimination and hostility in their everyday lives. We have seen an exponential increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes and the harassment and bullying of Muslim and Sikh children, often mistaken as Muslim, in schools. While some Americans continue to hide behind euphemisms and technicalities, scholars of Islamophobia, or anti-Muslim racism, illuminate on the ways that people's everyday lives are impacted by the structural inequalities created by such policies and reinforced through the media and other social institutions, including schools and universities.

In Khaled Beydoun's book American Islamophobia, he writes about how we need to examine Islamophobia at both the structural level, by looking at state and institutional policies, and at the private level, by looking at anti-Muslim hate crimes and discrimination occur in the public sphere. He expounds on this by arguing that Islamophobia is a dialectic between the structural and private levels, such that individual prejudices are reinforced when the government creates discriminatory policies which then are believed to be democratically constructed. We all understand that the Feb 19th policy directly impacts those of us who are Pakistani or have Pakistani ancestry presenting at AAS, but I'd argue that it's rather short-sighted to not see how anti-Muslim bias and policies have been central to Modi's regime and the larger anti-Muslim climate in India.

While I acknowledge that Islamophobia in the US is contextually specific given American history and earlier anti-immigrant policies, slavery, the Cold War, and 9/11, I challenge us to consider how Beydoun's framework might be useful in the Indian context. In October 2017, a wheelchair-bound disability activist was heckled and called a “Pakistani” for not standing up during the national anthem at a movie theater in Guwahati. In his account, he explained that he had hidden his Muslim identity in order to be safer otherwise the crowd might have really lost control. This is an example of Beydoun's private Islamophobia, or rather private anti-Muslim/anti-Pakistani racism since any action that might be construed as anti-nationalist could also be a marker of potential Pakistani-ness and thus, Muslim-ness. The violence against Muslims by Hindu vigilante mobs has seen an increase in the last few years and at the state level, many activists have lamented about how little is being done to address it. Rather it appears that through official policies, such as this explicitly Pakistani scholar travel ban, the Pakistani grandparent question on the visa application, and other official statements, the Indian state actually condones and maybe even supports anti-Muslim/anti-Pakistani discrimination and violence.

To further complicate this story, we have official statements such as when Eenam Gambhir, Indian representative at the UN, stated that “Pakistan is now 'Terroristan,' with a flourishing industry producing and exporting global terrorism.” Thus while I understand the many references to the 70+-year history of conflict and tension between India and Pakistan, we must also consider how the global “War on Terror” has reformulated the anti-Pakistani racism at this moment. To do this, we must attend to how methodological nationalism, coming from the work of Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller, blinds our ability to see that the singling out of Pakistan as a place that produces and exports terrorism is directly linked to how the Trump administration singles out Iran and certain other Muslims nations as producers of terrorism. This narrow definition fictionalizes terrorism as a uniquely Muslim phenomena and hides the ways that terrorism looks otherwise, such as the organized attacks on Muslims in India, Rohingya in Burma, or racial minorities in the US by white supremacists. This is also in contrast to how other Muslim-majority countries like Saudi Arabia or Jordan are not the target of such nation-specific bans. While I don't have the space to address it right now, it is interesting that India and the US both have friendly and significant economic relations with Saudi Arabia, including investments in the military-industrial complex—a state that arguably funds terrorism worldwide.

The specificity of certain Muslim nations being described as “terrorist nations” points to how the category “Muslim” has been reduced and criminalized as “potential terrorist” whether in the US, France, India, or China. Again, the fact that not “all” Muslim countries are seen as such is not the point. This is why the Indian government's anti-Pakistan travel ban is also not just about academic freedom, although obviously it does impact academic collaboration and exchange. Rather this is about how certain Muslims are seen as posing an existential, racially-specific threat in non-Muslim countries in both the global North and the global South.

In an email with one of the organizers, she wrote that they “read the Indian government's move from covert exclusionary practices, visa denials and obfuscations in the past, to an explicit directive from the Ministry of External Affairs as both Islamophobic and revelatory of right wing anti-intellectualism and disregard for liberal education and public knowledge.” And while this is true, I have two responses to close.

First any kind of racism, including Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, is deeply anti-intellectual. Focusing on how this policy talks about Pakistanis specifically is a kind of methodological nationalism. We need more expansive understandings of how governments and institutions that create exclusionary policies technically targeting a specific nationality are about much more than a conflict between nation-states. The relatively short history of the nation-state in South Asia has been premised on the Herderian principle of a single language as key to national identity. Language has been an organizing principle in both Indian and Pakistan independence and nationalist movements, where Hindi is marked as a Hindu language and Urdu marked as a Muslim language. The fact that these are all social constructed is well-accepted in linguistics, but that doesn't remove how racial formations in South Asia often rely on these ethno-linguistic, political, and other identity constructions as some kind of primordial identity. Because according to the visa application, it is not just about whether you are a Pakistani national today, but about whether your grandparents were Pakistani. Additionally the desire to create a blood-based, racialized understanding of national identity is wholly constructed given the short history of these two nation-states.

This brings me to my second point. In our critique and protest, I hope that people consider what is not being said when the focus remains on the anti-intellectual nature of the policy. What is not being said is that Pakistanis, and arguably other Muslims of the subcontinent, are racially inferior and undesirable according to the government. Muslims are dehumanized, which I believe is a more important moral imperative than the question of academic freedom alone. Scholars have discussed questions of religious difference, resource allocation across the border, land disputes, colonial influences, and many other reasons for the animosity between the two nations. However in the 21st century we must pay attention to how the category of “Muslim” has been reformulated and racialized globally as potential terrorists and as threats to the liberal, democratic nation-state. This construction of “Muslim” is being reified by such policies that are certainly anti-intellectual but more importantly they are dehumanizing to a large segment of Indian and the world population.

Our panel was aptly titled “Media in Motion: Mobile Bodies and Mobile Technologies in South Asia.” As a Pakistani-origin scholar in the territory currently known as New York State, I am typing my comments on my mobile device and hoping my disembodied words can travel to Delhi and reach you all, in spite of the immobility imposed upon me by the Indian state. And if you remember one thing from my comments, it is that while academic freedom is certainly one sphere of social life that such policies impact, we must use our voices and platforms to condemn the racist logics undergirding these anti-Muslim/anti-Pakistani policies. My mother's side was originally from Bihar and in 70 years, no one has ever been able visit our family in India. To be legally unable to visit one's family leaves a permanent trauma and dislocation on all those who experienced Partition and continue to experience Partition everyday since 1947. These policies go far beyond the reach of the conference and I hope that remains a central concern to the dialogue.



Anup Kumar | July 19, 2018

What is happening in India with regards to minorities is troubling. However, the question on grandparents in visa application from people of erstwhile territory of British India is an old one as Dr. Durrani writes. It is a consequence of the right to claim citizenship by descent in Indian constitution if one's parents and grandparents came from territory that was India on August 15 1947.