Through this episode of the podcast, we aim to unpack experiences of reporting acts of State violence against people of marginalised religious communities, especially by people of these communities. We also revisit the idea of State violence and reconstruct its scope to include the lived experiences of people who find themselves on religious margins and focus on the different agents that have led to normalisation of State violence. Our effervescent guest Fatima Khan also speaks to us about the personal impact of reporting incidents of State violence and what helps sustain the fight to hold the State accountable.
Fatima Khan is a senior correspondent at The Quint where she covers national politics, hate crimes and social justice. She is a recipient of the International Press Institute award for Covid reporting, a UNFPA Laadli award for gender reporting and the Human Rights Religious Freedom Journalism Awards, 2023 for her video series on the impact of the Hijab ban in Karnataka.
Content warning: mentions of riots, hate crimes, physical abuse, lynching, Islamophobia
Sanchi- Hello everyone and welcome to our podcast Uncuff India by One Future Collective. My name is Sanchi and my pronouns are she, her.
Uttanshi-My name is Uttanshi, and my pronouns are she and her. We are your hosts today, and it’s so good to have you all listening in. In this episode, we hope to understand and document the experiences of speaking up about State violence and what the individual cost of this could be, particularly for people at the intersections of multiple overlapping marginalizations.
Sanchi-Yes. And with this episode, we also aim to expand our scope of and reinterpret State violence itself by understanding what writing about State violence from the margins can mean, and what can be done for visibilizing these experiences at a time when erasure or dismissal has become normative.
Uttanshi- To discuss this and to share their insights on this particular theme with us, particularly about State violence against people with marginalized religious identities, we have with us Fatima Khan. Fatima Khan is a senior correspondent at The Quint, where she covers national politics, hate crimes and social justice issues. She is a recipient of the International Press Institute Award for COVID reporting and an UNFPA largely award for gender reporting. In the last few years, she has travelled through the length and breadth of India to bring essential ground reports and important investigations to the form. Thank you so much for taking the time out to be here and to share your insights with us. We really value and appreciate you. Thank you so much.
Fatima-Thank you. Thank you so much both of you. I’m really, really happy to be here. This is something that I’m really looking forward to because not many people actually take an initiative of the sort. Even if they do, it’s usually in really couched terms, you know, and not really saying things as it is. So, I really hope that today we can at least attempt to be our honest selves to the extent possible.
Sanchi-Yes. Thank you so much for saying that and a very warm welcome with that. Fatima, We are also really looking forward to talking to you about this extremely important theme. And so I will jump right in. And why don’t we start at the very basics, Fatima? Why don’t you tell our listeners first what your understanding of State violence is? And then what have been your experiences in reporting such acts of violence by the State against people of marginalized religious communities so closely as you do in your work?
Fatima-Wow. You know, I think when we go about reporting, say on the riots or the violence that took place during the anti-CAA protests or the violence that continues to take place day in and day out is probably taking place in a number of districts. Right now, as we are recording this, I don’t think we ever use the term State violence to describe it. Even in our reporting, even in our bravest reporting, we don’t use that term, right. That’s not the term you’ll use. You will use fringe. You will use anti-social elements. You will, if you’re being honest, you will say people from the neighborhood. If you’re actually willing to stick your neck out, you will say that these are people who in many cases, like I remember, we would lead during the 2020 Delhi riots. A lot of the victims that I met, they explicitly told me that we know our neighbor did that. We know that our neighbor pointed the mob towards our house. How is it that ours is the only house in this lane that is born? Of course we know our neighbor is responsible for that. But they also said we’ll never confront them. We’ll never ever confront them because we know this is where we have to continue to live. So for these people, the State violence isn’t necessarily the top layers of the government. The State violence is literally being perpetuated by their very neighbor, you know. So I think my understanding of State violence and violence in general and just marginalization, oppression, it’s kind of evolved over the years where I’ve realized very, very acutely that no amount of oppression of this extent, what we are witnessing in the country today, take we taking place against Muslims would be possible without the active and sometimes passive complicity of non-Muslims around us.
And I think that realization has been really jarring at a personal level. But at at a reporting level, I think I will say it has definitely enabled me to report with a keener eye, I suppose, where I have realized that things aren’t always black and white, things aren’t always, you know, as simple as being able to point out to your oppressors what they’re doing wrong. Because sometimes it’s your friend of three decades who’s your oppressor, Who gone and complained to the very recently was gone and complained to the principal that you know you’re wearing a hijab despite the hijab ban and it’s creating a ruckus in your class and you don’t like it. That happened during the Karnataka hijab ban and I remember meeting those girls, right, those young girls and I spoke to them on a number of issues about what the horrific, obnoxious stuff the politicians have said, the absolutely like damaging impact it’s had on their education and all of that they spoke through. And when I started asking them about their friends, their non-muslim friends, I think that’s when I realized that they’re absolutely heartbroken by what has happened. I remember one just said that you know this person I’ve shared my Tiffin with for several years since kindergarten we’ve been together and then I saw a byte of hers on TV, on social media and where she said that, look, this is, this is not okay. These girls shouldn’t be wearing hijab and she said I was absolutely shattered by that. Another girl said that this person went and complained to the principal about how you know because wearing we are wearing the hijab and that’s leading to counter protests. She’s really distracted by it. Another girl said that once she had left the college because she was no longer allowed to enter with the hijab and sit in the classes. Once you’re just gone to pick up some of her books that were left in her class and her very good friends didn’t let her enter. They were like, no, no, don’t enter. And I remember saying that. I felt like, what am I doing wrong? You know what? What is it that is so obnoxious, that’s so outrageous about me that you don’t even want me to enter the class? And I could see that she’s absolutely. That’s something you don’t recover from, right? That’s something you will never, ever recover from. For her sake. I do wish that she does. But my point being that these experiences really break you in a way that no regime change, no amounts of, like, progressive conversations can really, really balm this. But that said, that’s no reason why we shouldn’t continue to have these conversations. It’s just something that I’ve realized that State violence isn’t as straightforward as we make it sound. Oh, we’d like it to be, I guess.
Uttanshi-So thank you so much, Fatima, for those very important points. And I just want to also highlight a little bit about the fact that we’re speaking, even though the ambit is about religious minorities. I really value your own experience, you know, your own experience, your own identity as a Muslim woman in India and how you and so much of your work is relating to the Muslim community in India and the violence that they are at the receiving end of. And I think, drawing from that, I wanted to ask you and you’ve already started speaking about it in some sense. What are some of these far reaching long standing ramifications if any, right? What is the impact according to you of such violence? You already spoke about how this violence doesn’t always have to be physical beating and you know it’s very rarely that. I mean it may not be that a lot of the times, but do you think that there are long term ramifications of this violence and according to you, what are they and what could they potentially be?
Fatima- Yeah, so, you know, last year I remember during the Uttar Pradesh elections, I started this series called Everyday Communalism in Uttar Pradesh and the title was based of a book by Sudha Pai by the same name. And the crux of that series was a result of extensive travels that I had done through the state where I had found that you know the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister is routinely and repeatedly making these claims that last skill riots are no longer taking place in the State. Actually he said that there has been no riot in his five year tenure which is a lie. But even if you say that, okay, for the extent of for, for for the sake of argument, if you say that, look what had what we had experienced in the past in the 2013 was of Muzaffarnagar riots, or even before that in Meerut or wherever, something like that of that scale hasn’t happened in Uttar Pradesh. And for the sake of argument, if you agree with that, what you’ll realize when you’re travelling is that you don’t need that riot. You know that riot, every single riot requires extensive resources, right? It requires extensive ammunition. It requires loads and loads of people. It requires more than anything else, this state and the media to turn a blind eye. And the aftermath of it involves a lot of scrutiny, right? Where did the government fail? What lapses took place? Why was something of this sort allowed to happen? Whereas when you figure out, and its, this is really a masterstroke right to steal the language of a lot of the people who praise the Prime Minister and regime. It is a masterstroke where you realize that, look, we don’t need to invest that much money. We don’t need to invest those many resources when we can ensure that every day we are creating minor, minor, very little incidents of hate crimes, right. And that are a result of nothing, oftentimes the result of absolutely petty arguments and differences. For example, in Kanpur, right? I did this story where there is this Basti where, you know, these Muslim and Hindu families have lived together for decades. And these two families, one Muslim family and one Hindu family, they enter an argument by how- what is the genesis of their argument? It’s that the Muslim man of the family, he had brushed past the past the rickshaw of the Hindu, my Hindu son, right. So something like, oh, why did you hit my rickshaw? And something absolutely petty of that sort. But the fact is that their identities were Hindu and Muslim. So Bajrangdal got involved and Bajrangdal accused the Muslim man of attempting love jihad with the sister of the man who he had a brawl with, right? And there is the police record showed that there is absolutely no basis to this, but just the fact that there is a Muslim man and a Hindu woman. This is what this is the narrative we end up building. Chalo that’s also fine. Now, literally, these are the two houses right next to each other. And barely 20 or 30 feet away, there is another Muslim man’s house who has nothing to do with this petty argument with this brawl. Anything. But one fine day, Bajrang Dal men from the Bajrang Dal show up five, six men and they’re looking for someone from this Muslim family, you know, whose son got into this argument with the Hindu family and they can’t find him. And this their eye turns towards this other house where they see a man with a beard walking out and someone points to that and says Oh dekh Mulla Jaa Raha Hai. Immediately the five, six men latch on to him. They start beating him up. They start literally pulling his beard. What’s absolutely heartbreaking is that his seven-year old daughter is seeing all of that and she runs and she holds on to her dad’s leg and begs and pleads the Bajrang Dal men to spare her father. All of this is on video. This video went viral. And you know, I do not blame anyone for forgetting this visual because there have been a gazillion such visuals in the last eight years, right? How much can the human mind process and take? I remember when that video went viral, and so many people are tweeting and sharing that this is obnoxious, this is horrific, this is I I can’t, I can’t process what’s happening. And then there’s another, and then there’s another, and then there’s another, right? I remember we would leave and lynchings first became a thing, the outrage, the sheer outrage. Like today we don’t even click on that link. When we when we get a notification saying lynching on this part of the country or in another part of the country, it doesn’t move us at all because that’s what happens when you normalize that violence. Like can you believe it? Like think of the basics of it, right, the absolute basics of what has happened here. This man who had absolutely nothing to do with the brawl, quote unquote brawl. Chalo even if he did, but in this case he had nothing to do. Just the fact that he is visibly Muslim, 5-6 men start beating him up. His seven-year old daughter holds on to him. Literally, he’s been paraded around that entire colony where he’s lived for several decades and she’s saying, please, Mat Maaro Mere Abbu ko mat maaro. And they keep beating him up. And later, many months later, I went to their house to revisit this story, right? And I met that man, Afsar. He’s a rickshaw driver, extremely poor family. And I meet him and I, you know, his biggest concern is I don’t know how my daughter will ever recover from this. I can’t even imagine the psychological impact this has had, this has had on her, like how is she to go on life normally not absolutely scarred by this visual of her father being beaten by men from her own country for absolutely no reason while she’s begging. And they showed zero mercy. And then I went and met those men. I went and met those five men from the Bajrang Dal who perpetuated this violence and I asked them why did you to do this?
And they said, Oh ye to upar se order aata hai. And it’s all on video. It’s all on record. You know, there’s a link. It’s up on YouTube and it really just like flabbergasted me that this is just something that’s happening. And so this was a whole series, right. So in various districts we went and we saw how little minor absolutely like petty issues lead to something of this sort. And so what does this do right, this visual this happens with one family one quote uquote local issue when one thana. But this video goes viral. The virality isn’t an accident. It isn’t a byproduct, right? We have to understand the virality is very much part of the intention. It is the intended scheme. What happens when an Asma or an Ashfaq or an Aslam sitting in any part of the country, any part of the country, watch that video on their palms? What happens right? It’s a visual that has completely entered their hearts and brains and minds and in such a visceral way that they know that this country is no longer safe for them. You know, they know that no matter how protected they are by their various degrees of privileges, this is just something that they have to live with. And that becomes extremely difficult to understand. And this, the psychological impact of these viral videos is something that every Muslim has suffered from, right? There was a story in scroll a couple of months ago and it was literally titled Why are so many Muslims leaving India, right? And I mean the caveat is that why are so many rich Muslims leaving India? Because 99.9 Muslims, percent of Muslims cannot leave India because they are extremely poor. They can barely step out of their ghettos that they’ve been pushed into. So these are the, you know, so when I talk about the long term ramifications, I am saying that these hyper localized incidents are done with the intention of making sure that it creates waves across India. Something that a riot cannot, cannot reason you. Because even if it does do that, even if people do have 5710 debates over it, it’s something then that enters the court of law. It’s something that people are like okay- done that, seen that and that’s it, right? And it’s just it’s an unnecessary scrutiny that you’re inviting on yourself, on your government that you don’t want, you know, when you can have, in fact, far greater reach than a riot impact for riot would. This is it. This viral video does it for you.
Sanchi- Yes. Thank you so much for bringing all of that up, Fatima. And I think you brought out really pertinent points. And while you were talking, I was thinking back to like the current state of affairs which you have talked about. And I would like to follow up with you on that and ask you that. Like, for sure, we know that state violence against Muslims existed well before 2014 as well. So what do you think is unique about this era? Like you’ve spoken about what has happened in the last eight years and could you just talk a bit more about how that has impacted the normal normalization that you spoke of?
Fatima- I think, in a personal level, you will see that like I can from personal experience talk about how Islamophobia, anti Muslim hate, just horrible things said to Muslims was a completely normal part of my school and growing up, right? Absolutely normal. But I think what the difference was that even then and now, I think what the difference between then and now would be that there was this active realization from people that, okay, maybe it’s not a good thing to be communal, you know, like let’s be communal, but in our drawing rooms, let’s be closeted communal people. You know, where today is just such a matter of fact, where it’s such a matter of pride, where it’s unabashed and of course it’s happened because you’ve legitimized it, right, where you institutionalized it. When you have a terror accused as a Member of Parliament, when you have people who are lending rape convicts, not even accused, but rape convicts-that becomes an issue. So you know, so when you, when you, when you see that these are people sitting in positions of power praising people who have been convicted of horrific crimes, anti-Muslim crimes, you are saying that it’s actually a good thing to be this person and it’s a good thing to support these activities. There is no shame involved. You know, it’s something that I was discussing with a friend of mine that when I was when a lot of Muslims growing up and you talk to them, right there is this acute sense of shame, right? Okay. If ISIS has done something in another part of the world or you know, Al Qaeda has done something in a completely different part of the world, it doesn’t matter, right? An ordinary 7/10/15 year old Muslim in some school in Gurgaon, in Indore, in Bangalore will feel an acute sense of shame as if it’s their responsibility. But when you talk to like a lot of ordinary Hindus, there is no sense of shame, even though a lot of their families have literally voted this regime into power. So, I would feel shame for an activity that you know, I have been. I have never endorsed, I have never voted for, I have never supported. That’s not taking place in my country, that’s taking place somewhere else. I would feel that shame- guilty by association, you know. But here there is a very clear association that you voted for something that is perpetuating violence against your set friends or brethren or people who are from your own country. I mean, you don’t even need to love them, right? You don’t need to love Muslims. You just need to acknowledge that they’re human beings. You just need to acknowledge the decency and dignity that comes by virtue of being a human. So I think that that’s,that’s lack of shame is something that is so glaring to me where, you know, I think it was impossible to collect today. There are like this section of Hindus you’ll see who are extremely vocal, who are extremely progressive, what talking and thinking about this, right. But that the minute you realize that outside of like Twitter and social media and Instagram, that section barely like exists. Not to say that those people don’t continue with those politics, but the numbers are so few. Well, it just saddens me, you know? It saddens me. Why do I have to enter every room and talk about it, right? Why? Why is the onus on me? Whereas you know when Muslims commit any crime ever. I feel like I just, I like it, it consumes me, you know. But my point is that it’s not consuming the ordinary even “well meaning not BJP supporting Hindu”. It’s just like oh you know, its the Sanghis who are doing it like but its the Sanghis who are your parents and grandparents. It’s the Sanghis who you end up dating and you’re kind of okay with. It becomes like a haha thing, you know, It’s not like, you know, supporting people or loving people or hanging out with people. Choosing to hang out with people who are complicit or perpetuating violence against Muslims is not okay. Of course you can’t like make that choice with your families or your relatives, but you can make a choice about the conversations you decide to hold with them. You know, the kind of things you let them know are okay to be said or not said. So I feel like, yeah, broadly that I feel like when society in itself has gone through that change, you can clearly tell the difference between pre 2014 and post 2014.
Uttanshi- Thanks Fatima and I think every time I’m listening to you speak, there is really so much to, you know, go back to and refer to and talk about and its im really, you know, saddened that it’s just a podcast episode that’s going to, you know eventually run out of time. But just to really bring everything together, I just have one question, you know, a final question so to say, but it has two parts. The first is you know of course what you do is dangerous and a part of it can be dangerous for you, for your family, people who you, you know, surround yourselves with, but what keeps you going, you know, what is your North Star so to say? And I think the second part of that question is really what are some ways that you think our listeners can really amplify the resistance of, you know, against State violence and can ensure that they are playing an active role in resisting this form of State violence.
Fatima-I think, number one, I would say that a lot of people ask me there, you know, you don’t sound very hopeful, you sound very cynical. Then why do you continue to do what you do? So I feel like one on a very personal level, I feel like I constantly like model between cynicism and optimism, which I feel is a good place to be in. I don’t think I would ever want to be friends with anyone who’s like, too optimistic, hey, or like, too too cynical about life. Yeah, I’m missing that. Like generally, in general, my black predisposition towards like all of these things that we’ve discussed is there I I sway between like optimism and cynicism and some sort of like hope and complete hopelessness. And that’s just like maybe I think the that ongoing continuous battle is something that’s important because you don’t want to be a person who has, you know just sunk their head in the ground and said that, oh, everything’s okay. You also don’t want to be the person who refuses to see all the efforts and activism and just general goodwill that people are trying to put out there, even if they’re far and few in between. But what keeps me going, I’d say, is that I really enjoy what I do very honestly. Like, I don’t think there’s much else to it. I know a lot of my peers are people who are forced journalists. You know, like situations have compelled them to become journalists, you know, because they were on their way to become like any engineers or whatever, right? They all had different teams. And then they realized that in the Indian media sucks, right? The Indian media is actively discriminatory towards Muslims. It lies, it lies through streets about the community. So, when you feel like all of that’s happening, it pushes you, it compels you to take it up on yourselves, to report or write or fact check or in some way, contribute. For me, I feel like it’s just something that I really always wanted to do. It’s I love, like storytelling. I love interviewing people. I love meeting people. Those are just parts of the job that I really enjoy. So Allhamdulillah Masha Allah. So I feel like being able to do that is just an opportunity, right? So I don’t ever see myself as like some sort of a martyr or you know, like someone who’s doing it because she has to do it. I’m doing it because I really, really like enjoy it and love it. So that’s one.
Uttanshi- What do you think that we can all do to resist State violence? You know, all our listeners, everyone that’s not directly impacted by. What do you think we can do?
Fatima-Yeah, you know, so lately I’ve been, I don’t know, it’s something that’s been bothering me a lot, right? Like, I had a lot of these friends. I have a lot of these friends from college and stuff who I feel like I’m not bigoted. But they also like, don’t care. Like, they’re almost like, like they see the work I’m doing, they see the work I’m posting on social media. And it’s almost like it exists in a parallel world, in a parallel reality. Like it’s not something that they’d ever want to discuss or like, let it seep into their reality, which bothers me. Like I said, right, Like, I’m so consumed by anything where that a Muslim does anywhere. But you’re not consumed by, like, the bad decisions your own family members have taken. Why are you not consumed? Why? Why are these? Why, whenever these lynching videos go viral, why you know, there’s a trigger warning. But 9 out of 10 times, I’m sure that the trigger warning is only like helping us age what could have been a trigger to Muslims. Why is this not triggering enough Hindus, you know, So it’s that that really, really bothers me. Like, it bothers me that, okay, you know, there are different aspects to it, right? One is there are a lot of people who are doing a lot, like at a personal level, either through journalism or activism or something as basic as why don’t you go and support your local candidate who’s fighting against that really bigoted sitting MLA? Why don’t you do that? okay, if you don’t do all of that, if all and it’s fine. You don’t want to do all of that, right? At least use your social media to amplify important stories, important work, hoping that maybe some bigoted relative of yours will see it enough times and it will seep into their subconscious, you know, But I see them only sharing Goa pictures and like ashram yoga pictures and like, I it’s like Alag hi duniya me ho tum (you are in a different world), but it matlab (meaning), you know, And it really does bug me because I feel like so much of the conversation, you know, bigotry, unfortunately, is also quite like problematic and elitist, whether it’s like, oh, you know, unemployment has led to what where we are today. It’s the unemployed people. But unemployment was, it’s not a new phenomenon, right? It’s existed in India since time immemorial, but a lot of unemployed people are not a lot of like people holding the top most positions and corporate firms are extremely bigoted. So I don’t think that this direct correlation that people try to draw between like unemployment leading to like an idle mind leading to you killing a Muslim. I dont think it’s that straightforward, right? I dont think it’s simple 123. So, my problem is more with like and you know, like data tells us that the upper-middle class are like the top most supporters of the BJP. So that data is telling us something about ourselves. It’s not telling us about something, “ from about people beneath us” right? It’s not it’s telling us about our own family members. So, do something about it. Right. So, I today I really do judge people whose social media doesn’t ever, ever talk about this. Like progressive politics is not even a realm. And I, you know, people might call this really petty that oh, social media is not life. But then and I agree, but then I my question is what are you doing in real life if that is the case, right. If you’re not doing on social media, what are you doing in real life? You’re not. I know you’re not. You know you’re not. So it’s it’s something that it’s like it’s it just feels like at this stage almost like I often just find Muslims talking about “the Muslim stuff”, you know, and that really like bothers me and bugs me. And I feel like you need to be able to do this stuff and otherwise, right, like an individual level, make sure that like a part of your salary always goes to pay the subscription fees of any independent media house, any media independent media house of your liking, support them, support their work. So tomorrow you don’t just complain about how the big media houses have obliterated the small ones and eaten then up. So I think that that kind of initiative, I don’t see many people taking. I think the last time something of this sort happened where I felt like Hindus are actually doing something about this was way back in 2016, I think when the not in My name movement took place where a bunch of you know, I don’t. I am not entirely sure of like the scale of it and you know, outside of Delhi and Bombay, how many places it managed to reach, but at least it was good to see some initiative of that sort. So yeah, I think like things like these would really go a long way. But honestly, just like, talk to your parents, guys.
Uttanshi-Yeah, thanks so much, Fatima. I think it’s been really enlightening to listen to you and especially try and understand and situate that these issues are not as far from our homes and our lives as you know. People want us to believe, right? And people want us to be convinced and the government wants us to believe. They’re very much our issue. They’re very much something that you and I can do something about, and I think it’s been really enlightening to hear from you, to learn from your experience and for you to share so candidly what your life and your work, how that has, you know, coincided to shape your experiences here. So I just want to say thank you so much for taking the time out to really be a part of this conversation.
Sanchi-Thank you. Thank you. I really enjoyed myself. I could go on talking for like hours about this, but I am actually. I don’t know if it’s too. I think it’s premature to plug this, but I’ll just do it anyway. I’m actually writing a book on this, on a lot of what I have talked to you about today because I am angry and I have a lot of feelings and thoughts and a lot of what I told you today, right? Like this doesn’t make it to my final report, obviously for obvious reasons, right? So I feel like there’s always a space for that parallel conversation and I’m trying to work on it and maybe just for myself, right? Put it on paper so that so that it has some place to go. I guess That’s like Uttanshi said for the it’s been so great listening to you today and I think the passion that you speak from without romanticizing it, I think it’s really contagious. And we will look out for your book and we hope that it comes out soon and that we get to learn. No, but I’m sure it would be a great read for all of us and I think our listeners would agree as well because we are for sure taking a lot away from this conversation. So yes, thank you so much for your time and for being here with us today. It has been a pleasure to host you at this podcast.
Uttanshi-Thank you for tuning in today. Please leave us any questions you may have as voice notes on Anchor or in our Dms. We would love to hear from you. This podcast is brought to you by One Future Collective.
Sanchi-Yes, thank you so much. And don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and Facebook at One Future Collective and at One Future India on Twitter. And keep an eye out for Future episodes, out every second and fourth Thursday of the month. Until next time.