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Making Room For Dissent?: Reflections on Muslim Youth in India

India is one of the highest scorers in extensive social hostility against religious minorities[i]. In the current Indian context, the Muslim community continues to face increasing marginalization[ii],[iii]. Having lived through repeated communal riots in different parts of the country since the time of independence, the most recent being in 2020, their responses have been typically of silence or withdrawal. While other marginalised groups in India like Dalits have had a long history of activism, this has been almost absent among the Muslims. During the the Ayodhya-Babri verdict hearings in 2019, the Muslims living in Ayodhya had sent away their women and children to nearby villages fearing communal violence[iv]. Research studies that have captured narratives of Muslims have shown how they continue to live in fear of being attacked, and how past events in history have not only rewired communal identities by constructing the Muslims as the “external other” but also have caused the geographical transformation of localities and neighbourhoods[v],[vi],[vii].

Given this, it becomes worthwhile to note the activism seen in relation to the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was the first of its kind to have sustained participation from Muslims across the country in the recent past, overcoming barriers of gender, class and age. Surprisingly, children too were actively involved in the protests with the encouragement of parents and even from schools, which were now coming out of their usual character of keeping children out of political conflicts and debates.

My Ph.D research involves understanding Muslim youth, particularly adolescents, in India and how their identities come to be shaped. During my ethnographic stint at a minority-based school, I met a teacher’s daughter who was about 5 years old and had learnt the slogans of “Azadi..azadi” and “Inquilab Zindabad” when she went along with her mother and the school's children for a few protests. I wondered what went through the mind of this little girl who found sloganeering as amusing as play! More than anything, she has been introduced to something about the difference of being “Muslim” already and was expressing dissent.

Increased polarisation especially in the context of India, along with an overload of media information, means that adults in Muslim families are themselves grappling with a changed social world. The widening disparity between their current experiences and those they had lived through previously has now pushed them out of silence towards dissent and assertion. These shock waves spill into the lives of their children, as many Muslim children told me that they also learn about what is going on in the world when they overhear conversations between their parents. For children, this form of parental approval of dissent was never seen before.

Further, the school space also seemed to teach them a great deal about difference through their actual and hidden curriculum. Living harmoniously in diversity was often talked about at schools but there was a difference in the way it played out. In general, schools prefer not to discuss topics pertaining to minorities since it becomes difficult to remain neutral and moreover, they would not want to take a stance especially when sanctions from the state are involved. Until the anti-CAA protests these conversations were easily pushed to the background but now teachers were almost compelled to engage in a dialogue with students because these protests involved participation of people from all faiths. Minority-based educational spaces, though very few in number, have allowed for a congruence in experiences of Muslim children across home and school. In such spaces, open discussions about differences, political agendas and resistance were possible. The claim to the national identity was brought alive through these interactions. However, in other school spaces, harmony was encouraged to a great extent through conformity. It has been challenging for children to negotiate their identities at school through conformity while dissent was finally becoming acceptable in the wider community. Prior to this, there was a deliberate withdrawal of their religious identities in the school space and a need to remain politically correct for their own good. “Aur kya kar sakte hain, agar humko school mein padna hai toh inke rules manna padega”[viii] said Arifa (name changed), a student. This withdrawal was in the form of how they dressed, especially for girls, or even in how they expressed themselves within the school space. There was a clear awareness about being different from the majority and that this difference also made them a vulnerable group. Initially, during my observations at school, I felt that Muslim students shied away from asking questions even if they did not agree with the teachers’ explanations about diversity due to the authoritarian nature of the teacher-student relationship. As I interacted further with the students, I understood that they did not want to express disagreement or resist as they would rather retain their place in the school and get educated than take the trouble of debating or showing any behaviour that would mark them out again. Sometimes they also felt that such dissent was pointless while the wider negative sentiments and stereotypes held about the Muslim community has become a known thing.

Though family and school are primary sites of identity building, I found that children, across social class, learnt a lot from platforms, such as social media, including Whatsapp. This third force can be described as a ‘virtual playground’ where children are free from the clutches of adult monitoring for the most part, at least once they get access to a device. Just like the playground, this medium provides multiple ways for socialisation to happen; there are games played, online friendships developed, socio-political information shared, opinions formed and more. This enables children to learn what was necessarily not available to them through home, school or public spaces. The videos of mob lynching and other hate crimes were popular and they evoked emotions of anger and sadness. The various identity-related questions running in the minds of adolescents found answers on the internet. For some, bands like BTS enabled them to connect to problems faced by school children, journeys to selfhood and feel less ‘alone’ and for others it allowed a greater exploration of religion itself while developing a pan-Islamic identity globally and locally as the global discourse around Islam is also largely negative. It made me recognise that there is a need for more research on Muslim youth and social media and how much this space is used to assert and resist identities. At the same time I got the sense that children did not necessarily open up about their lives on social media, as if ‘guarding’ it from adult intrusion.

The way in which children socialise in today’s world is obviously a lot different from what it was even a few years ago. The new changing dynamic of the adult responses from Muslim families to the political climate of the state has spilt over to the youth. Discussions about polarisation or discrimination were earlier only restricted to closed circles or community spaces. However, with parental sanctions and overt discussions of these issues, I sense that youth are transitioning from silence to greater assertion. This being a new experience, expression of dissent is slowly expanding to physical and virtual spaces. The support from people belonging to other religious groups and social groups, like students, has perhaps given this expression of dissent a greater momentum. The current pandemic crisis situation may have diverted the focus, however, the assertion is being reiterated through online protests, for example to free Safoora Zargar or through general forwards on Whatsapp. Social media has much of a role to play in how this resistance gets enacted in the future.

[i] Latest Trends in Religious Restrictions and Hostilities [Internet]. Pew Research Center. 2015 [cited 8 July 2020]. Available from: [ii] Gayer L, Jaffrelot C. Muslims in Indian cities. Trajectories of Marginalisation. 2012. [iii] Kirmani N. How oppressed are muslims in india? [Internet]. 2016 [cited 8 July 2020]. Available from: [iv] Husain Y. Ayodhya's Muslims go on temporary migration [Internet]. https:// 2018 [cited 8 July 2020]. Available from: [v] Contractor Q. “Jab Babri Masjid Shaheed Huyi”: Memories of Violence and Its Spatial Remnants in Mumbai. InSocial Dynamics of the Urban 2017 (pp. 135-151). Springer, New Delhi. [vi] Kirmani, Nida. Questioning the ‘Muslim Woman’: Identity and Insecurity in an Urban Indian Locality. Vol. 244. Routledge, 2016. [vii] Khan Banerjee B, Stöber G. Living in Harmony? “Casteism”, Communalism, and Regionalism in Indian Social Science Textbooks. Journal of Educational Media, Memory, and Society. 2014 Sep 1;6(2):42-86. [viii] “What else can we do? If we want to study in school we have to follow their rules.”

Shaima Amatullah is a PhD scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. Her work explores questions of how social representations and dominant discourses around Islam/Muslims are received by the students of the Muslim community at a social and psychological level and what counter narratives may be produced in response.

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