ALIGARH, Uttar Pradesh — Afreen Fatima was 15-years-old when Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in 2014.
Modi’s victory barely registered with the teenager who was preoccupied with school, social media and basketball.
When Modi chose Hindutva firebrand Yogi Adityanath to be Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, three years later in 2017, Fatima was a student at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Women’s College, a voracious consumer of news, and gearing up for college politics.
Adityanath’s elevation stung.
“When I got to know that Yogi ji was going to be CM, my body was shivering with fear,” she said. ”I was afraid of what will happen to my state.”
Fatima was confounded when a Muslim student in her college, who hailed from Gorakhpur, told her that Adityanath was actually a “good” MP, and that she was happy about him becoming chief minister.
India’s Muslims were rudderless in an increasingly competitive political landscape, no longer dominated by the Congress Party, Fatima felt. Muslims, who constitute 13% of India’s population, needed a political movement of their own.
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, the petite, fast talking, 20-year-old said that the “otherization” of Muslims had thwarted them from finding their political identity. Muslims, the student of linguistics added, have been made to feel like the “other” not just in the five years that the BJP has been in power, but since India gained its independence.
While sipping tea at a popular hangout in Aligarh, with Adele and Ellie Goulding songs playing in the background, Fatima said that she didn’t blame the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Congress for “everything that has gone wrong with Muslims in India.”
“We have inflicted this on ourselves,” she said. "Why is no political party taking us seriously? Political parties have stopped using the word Muslim. Where is the Muslim political movement? There is a Dalit political movement, a Jat movement and a Yadav movement, but no Muslim movement.”
For there to be a Muslim movement, Fatima felt, Sunni-Shia sectarianism had to end. “We can have different ways of doing sajda, but as a community, we need to be one political entity,” she said.
“Where is the Muslim political movement?”
Fatima, who was elected president of the AMU Women’s College Students’ Union in 2018, finds herself wholly absorbed by India’s political history and its present — both inside and outside the campus.
In 2019, Fatima is reconciled to casting her first vote against the BJP, a party she regards as a threat to herself, her community and her college.
Fatima is worried that AMU, set up by Sir Ahmed Khan in 1877 for the educational regeneration of Indian Muslims, may not survive another five years of the BJP. While its minority status is contested, AMU is one of the few institutions that Muslims have in India. It is a place that has come to mean a great deal to her.
From the controversy over Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s portrait at AMU to the demand for a temple for Hindu students, the 140-year-old university has been pummeled by Hindutva forces both inside and outside the campus.
“If the BJP comes back to power, I would be a more frightened citizen. We need to stop the hate politics. Hindus should not hate Muslims and Muslims should not hate Hindus. Straight people should not hate gay people and gay people should not hate straight people. Why can’t we think about humanity and make the best of our lifetime?” Fatima said.
“If the BJP comes back to power, I would be a more frightened citizen.”
The student leader is clear that she must vote against the BJP, but she finds no joy in choosing “the lesser evil.”
Calling the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) “okay,” Fatima said that she did not “like” the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or the Congress.
Referring to the Congress, she said, “Who lifted the ban on the RSS? Who opened the lock on the Babri Masjid?”
“I don’t know whether I would want to vote for Congress or not, but I might have to because I don’t want BJP to come back,” she said.
Fatima is not alone in wanting a Muslim political movement.
Rounak Shahi, who is pursuing an M.A. in West Asian studies, said that with the exception of the BJP, everyone wanted the Muslim vote, but no one dared utter the M word.
The 24-year-old said, “With BJP, the attack is open and blunt, but we don’t see Congress as a friend either. It is high time that a Muslim leader and a Muslim party rises in this country. If I’m going to be accused of communalism for saying this, then I say if Mayawati can do Dalit politics, if Akhilesh can do Yadav politics, then why can (Asaduddin) Owaisi not do Muslim politics? Why are we called communal?”
“It is high time that a Muslim leader and a Muslim party rises in this country.”
A Muslim woman
Fatima, one of five siblings, is the first in her family enter student politics.
Her father, a businessman in Allahabad, helped her with her election campaign.
“He helped me in the cutest ways. He suggested crowdfunding my campaign, taking one rupee from every student so they feel invested in the result. He got my posters made in Allahabad. He wrote best wishes on all my Facebook posts,” she said.
Thinking of herself as a “Muslim woman” is new to Fatima, who, until she joined college, never thought of herself as anything other than “a normal Indian girl.”
She grew up wearing shorts, playing basketball, and studying at a convent school. Her best friend in school was a Christian and she was surrounded by Hindu friends.
The first time she felt “weird” around them was the first time that she visited home after BJP had swept UP the Assembly election in 2017, and Adityanath had become chief minister.
“I don’t know why but I could not feel the same with my friends. I was wondering if they saw me as Muslim. I was thinking that maybe they don’t like me. They are just pretending,” she said. “It was all in my head. My friends are the sweetest people that can be.
“It is high time that a Muslim leader and a Muslim party rises in the country.”
When Adityanath renamed her hometown, Allahabad, as Prayagraj , Fatima felt under siege.
When a middle-aged woman on an Aligarh-bound train made her feel invisible, Fatima felt humiliated.
Fatima recalled smiling at the woman, who was reclining against the window in the lower berth. The woman flashed her a warm smile and asked, ”kahan ja rahe ho, bete?” (Where are you going, child?)
Fatima recalled her smile vanishing when she saw her burqa clad sister who had followed her into the train. The conversation died after she said that they were students at AMU.
Fatima humorously refers to that moment as the point of no return. “She gave me this look — okay, so you are the sister, not the friend,” she said, laughing.
Then, as a pained expression replaced the comical look on her face, Fatima said, “You know, she remained in the corner, didn’t come near us or speak to us for the rest of the journey. I know it’s because we are Muslim.”
Unpleasant as this was, Fatima has imagined far worse.
After Junaid, a 16-year-old Muslim boy, was killed in an argument over seats in Mathura-bound train in 2017, Fatima has taken to thinking of life and death situations and how she would confront her attackers.
“They killed Junaid because he was wearing traditional clothes. My sister wears a burqa. I think about what I would do if someone attacks her,” she said. “Will I have the courage to save her? Will I be quick enough? Will we both get killed?”
Such thoughts are no longer surprising in present-day India run by the BJP, which has normalized dehumanizing language and hate crimes against Muslims.
Even as 900 million Indians vote in the world’s largest election, Whatsapp messages are fueling hate against minorities and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is driving a campaign predicated on fear. This week, the BJP decided to field Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, an accused in the 2008 Malegaon blasts, which killed seven and left over 100 people injured.
Fatima is worried every time her elder sister, who wears a burqa, travels by train. She has told her younger sister not to cover her hair on a train journey.
On how she feels while traveling in a train, without a burqa or a headscarf, Fatima quoted Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s haunting line in the movie Manto: “I am Muslim enough to get killed.” (Itna to hoon ki maara jaa sakoon).
Unlike Manto, who left India for Pakistan, Fatima said she isn’t planning to go anywhere.
“I’m not willing to leave India even if I’m killed for it. My grandfather decided to stay in India and I will stay here. That is my nationalism. But if someone tries to define nationalism for me, then I’m sorry, I’m not willing to answer them.”
Fatima says she would love to go study in Amsterdam or the United Kingdom, but she does not intend to run away because she is a “Muslim woman.”
“When my identity comes into it, then I’m not willing to go to any other country. As a Muslim woman, I’m not willing to give up on India. I’m not willing to give up on this democratic nation,” she said.
“My grandfather decided to stay in India and I will stay here. That is my nationalism.”
With the BJP in power at the Centre and in UP, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) has become an easy target for BJP leaders to beef up their Hindutva credentials, and for political aspirants to kickstart their careers.
It started with the BJP Member of Parliament (MP) from Aligarh, Satish Kumar Gautam, opposing AMU’s claim to minority status and demanding reservation for Dalits, tribals and Other Backward Classes (OBC) at the university.
Gautam has built his re-election campaign around seeking reservation at AMU. While campaigning in Agra last week, Adityanath said, “We need a MP like Satish Gautam, who can raise the issue of reservation again and again till he succeeds.”
AMU continues to argue that it is a minority institution and has Constitutional exemption from implementing reservation.
Activists have pointed out that BJP is adept at mixing legitimate concerns about Muslim conservatism with an unfounded and violent attack on the Muslim community.
Dalit activist and winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award, Bezwada Wilson, said that reservation is necessary in all institutions, government and private, but in singling out AMU, the BJP was trying to “divide and rule.”
“I cannot support this manipulative politically motivated attempt to divide people,” Wilson said.
When asked whether she is for or against reservation at AMU, Fatima said she cannot give a definitive reply.
Gautam has also stoked controversy over Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s portrait, which has been hanging in the university since 1936.
Last year, BJP youth leaders stormed AMU, demanding its removal, even as former Vice President Hamid Ansari was present on the campus. The event, which was to confer Ansari with the life membership of the AMU Students’ Union, had to be canceled.
In 2017, a Delhi High Court lawyer, who had no connection with AMU, tweeted that Hindu students at the university were not served food during Ramzan.
The truth is that not all the AMU hostels provide food during Ramzan, but there are an adequate number that continue running.
Of AMU’s estimated 21,000 students, around 4000 are Hindus. Of the estimated 1,300 faculty members, around 100 are Hindus.
The Hindu students that HuffPost India spoke with said they do not go hungry during Ramzan.
“I have never faced any kind of discrimination,” said Shiva Chaudhary, a 24-year-old mass communication student at AMU. “Some people are maligning the name of our university for their own benefit,” she said.
Ajay Bisaria, who has spent 40 years as a student and a teacher on the AMU campus, says he never faced a problem during Ramzan.
The Hindi professor said, “Hindutva interference has increased in the past five years and these forces are willing to go to any extent to communalize the campus.”
“I have never faced any kind of discrimination.”
In February, Ajay Singh Thakur, a law student and the grandson of Dalveer Singh, a BJP MLA from Aligarh, said he would not allow All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi to enter the AMU campus. He was joined by local BJP youth leaders from the city.
In the ensuing clash, fourteen AMU students were booked for sedition.
Shahi, who is pursuing an M.A. in West Asian studies, says the events in AMU cannot be viewed in isolation.
“Article 370, the Uniform Civil Code, the Ram Temple, nothing has worked for the BJP. Now, they need new issues for the polarization game and AMU fits right in those lines,” she said.
Fatima says that AMU is one of the last remaining places that she feels safe and she doesn’t want to lose this space.
“If a minority needs a university to reinforce the idea of them being minority, especially in the current political climate, there is nothing wrong. A minority university is the utmost need of the Muslim community,” she said.
“A minority university is the utmost need of the Muslim community.”
Thakur, and the BJP’s Yuva Morcha (youth wing) in Aligarh, have also demanded the construction of a temple on the AMU campus.
Like the other AMU students that HuffPost India spoke with this week, Fatima wanted to know if there are any mosques inside Benaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi, and if Muslim students in any Hindu majority university in India would dare ask for one.
BHU does not have a mosque on its campus.
While there is a temple right outside the college campus, Thakur, says that it’s quite a hike getting there from some places in the campus.
The law student, who stood for the AMU Students’ Union election and lost, also asked why Hindus were “never” elected to the three top positions — president, vice president and treasurer — in the body.
“When we can vote for Muslims, why can they not for Hindus? Why is everything is always Muslim, Muslim, Muslim?” he said.
The Hindu students that HuffPost India spoke with said that Thakur’s demand for a temple had gained little traction.
“There is no temple issue or Ramzan issue. People outside seem to be feeling some pain, which we, students inside the campus, don’t feel,” said Chaudhary, the mass communication student.
“There is no temple issue or Ramzan issue.”
Mohammad Sajjad, a history professor at AMU, finds the demand for a temple to be disingenuous and politically motivated. “If you keep raising the bar of Hindutva, if you keep raising certain issues about AMU, you hit the national headlines,” he said.
Fatima said she is fine with a temple or even a church on the AMU campus, but she questioned the intentions of those making the demand.
“It’s coming from those who have been trying to communalize the campus,” she said. “All this is doing is to encourage extremists and radicals on all sides.”
As a student leader, who is determined to make AMU’s Women’s College a more politically, socially and religiously vibrant space, Fatima dreads orthodoxy.
Fatima says she is the first president of the Women’s College Students’ Union, who, in recent history, does not wear a hijab.
After she was elected president of the Students’ Union, Fatima said there were some women students who questioned how she dressed.
These detractors, she said, object to cultural events and playing music at college festivals. They have taken to posting banners of “Quran ayats interpreting them in a way that everything that is happening is wrong,” she said.
Earlier this year, when Fatima organized a public talk on the Kunan Poshpora mass rape in Kashmir, they objected to her inviting male speakers on the women’s campus.
“There is a group that is trying to bring out the Muslim-ness in us but most students oppose these kinds of things,” she said. “Whether it is a Muslim university or not, this is a central university in a democratic republic and we wish to follow that.”
Fatima, who is applying for graduate school, is on the fence about continuing student politics. The student leader sees herself joining academia and fighting for the freedom of academic institutions in India. “We cannot be a democracy if our campuses are not free,” she said.
“This is a central university in a democratic republic and we wish to follow that.”
Burqa, burqa, burqa
Fatima has seen photo of a former principal of AMU’s Women’s College dressed in a sari and a sleeveless blouse. She repeats “a sleeveless blouse.”
Fatima could not say how old the photo is, but she has heard stories of how women used to dress in the “seventies and eighties” at AMU. “Back in the eighties, it was a chill college and a chill university,” she said.
While the burqa in Fatima’s house is a matter of choice, it has become a tool in the hands of Hindu right-wing leaders. Those wanting to make a case for growing religiosity at AMU point to its burqa clad women students.
Fatima points to a rise in the number of women students, who are the first generation of college-goers, hailing from rural backgrounds. While these women have conservative families, the student leader thinks there are multiple reasons for women students using headwear. For some, she said, it can be fashion choice.
For Fatima, everyone’s preoccupation with the burqa is tiring.
What pains her is seeing her elder sister treated differently because she wears one. “I see how people speak to me and speak to her. They have a problem speaking to her because they can see that she is Muslim,” she said.
“They have a problem speaking to her because they can see that she is Muslim.”
Another student at AMU, Afnan, recalled how her father had bought her a bunch of brown-coloured burqas instead of the traditional black as a safeguard against any attack.
Laughing, the 19-year-old political science student, said, “He said if you wear the black burqa, people will know that you are Muslim. If you wear a brown one, people might think it’s a gown.”
Even as she made light of her fears, Afnan asked why wearing a burqa allowed strangers to question how she felt about her country.
“Why are we asked to go to Pakistan? Modi ji can go to Pakistan and eat Biryani. If I go to Pakistan, then I’m anti-India. I’m a terrorist,” she said. “Imran Khan just tweeted that he hopes that Modi wins, nobody questions that. What if he had tweeted if that about any leader who is not in the BJP?”
Fatima has considered wearing a burqa to make a political statement.
“I’m not sure if I will or won’t. I don’t understand why an individual’s socio-cultural identity stands in the way of seeing her as a human being. Why can’t we just see each other as people,” she said. “I’m tired of having to prove my Indian-ness.”