Tejasvi Surya’s communal ‘bed-blocking’ expose just the latest indicator of a national malaise

In light of MP Tejasvi Surya’s blatant, if failed, attempt to lend a communal spin to the so-called ‘bed-blocking scam’ in Bangalore, PARINITHA SHETTY points out how this is the latest instance of the Islamophobia that has gripped our body politic, and writes about the rich Islamic cultural roots of the Indian nation.


BANGALORE South’s Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya has been in the news recently for falsely accusing 17 Muslim staff members of the local municipal corporation COVID war room of being involved in a bed-blocking scam. Surya publicly released their names, and they were all suspended from work for five days before being reinstated when it became clear that the allegations against them were unfounded.

It is unfortunate that Surya tried, even if in vain, to blatantly and brazenly communalise a public health care issue at a time when not only Bangalore, but the entire country is going through perhaps its greatest public health crisis. He could do what he did without the slightest moral compunction or fear of legal repercussion because the rabid communalism displayed and strategically deployed by him and his political party has become legitimized, espoused not only by the State but also a great majority of the citizens.

The growing menace of Islamophobia in India

In varying degrees, political parties, across the board, have taken advantage of this national malaise of Islamophobia. The only distinction between them and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) is the latter’s ability to deploy this national perversion most intelligently and effectively to consolidate its political power and popularity.

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Over and over again, we have witnessed not only the normalisation of such instances of Islamophobia, but also the valorisation of those who grotesquely display it, very often in inhumane and barbarically violent ways. Mohammed Akhlaq,  Pehlu KhanUsman AnsariTabrez AnsariAftab AlamRakbar Khan, and Faizan are just a few of the names through which bodies have been brutalised and vandalised by rabid Islamophobia have been identified.

The demonising of Islam and the uniformization of ‘Hindu India’ is taking place so routinely and insidiously that is now taken for granted in the political theatre.  The othering of Muslims as outsiders to the demographic uniformity of the ‘Hindu’ nation is normalized by making terrorism coterminous with the Muslim’s religious identity.

The sartorial markers of identity that the Muslims bears on their body are marked out and bracketed as specifically religious in nature and origin. A skewed semiosis of the burkha, the hijab, the skull cap, the surma and the tawiz paints them as markers of excess or deviance: An excess of women’s oppression, an excess of religious bigotry, latent criminality, a latent anti-nationalism, a defiant display of identarian agency.

The Muslim is fenced out as the disturbing, dangerous outsider and enemy, through the patterning of certain dietary practices, sartorial styles, and a repertoire of devotional postures into the insignia of the religious zealot, which is made to dovetail with the stereotype of the anti-national.

India’s roots are imbued with Islamic tradition

But Islam and Muslims have been part of the Indian subcontinent since the birth of Islam. Islamic architectureculinary and musical traditions, and literature have seeped into the social interstices, embellishing the recreational pleasures and refined cultures of art and music of the Indian subcontinent. They are part of the layers of our civilizational being that have overlapped and merged across a history of interactions and intersections.

We cannot sieve Islam and its traditions of culture and social textures from the many life-worlds into which it has entered, with which it has merged and which it neighbours in this geographical entity we call India.

In the many-hued and complex spheres of intimacy, we have intersected and intertwined as lovers, as friends, as colleagues, as teachers and students, as classmates, as kin, and through so many other attachments and attractions yet to be named. We have searched both in Meera as well as Nizamuddin Auliya for that condition of love that is a state of ecstasy and an experience of boundlessness. We have lived as neighbours, we have idolised common heroes, and relished the delicacies of our region through the acquired taste of a shared food palette. We have been familiar and beloved and necessary to each other, and have been woven together into the routine ordinariness of our common lives.

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Who benefits from Islamophobia?

But we have also lived with a constructed stereotype of Muslims and Islam which is incommensurate with the lived transactions and intimacies of our lives. We have lived with this schizophrenic polarity assiduously fed and fostered with a hate that is inimical to human sociality and human co-existence.

Politicians, religious charlatans, authoritarian parents, families that continually guard their respectability by toeing the brute majoritarian line, officers who exercise their authority through perverted animosities,  peddlers of power and positions, have all magnified the stereotype, breathed life into it through the rhetoric of hate, and carried it around as the badge of their patriotism. Those like Surya have ruthlessly and brazenly propped up the stereotype. They have been elected to power by an electorate that is deeply inscribed with Islamophobia. Those who are elected to power, in turn, reaffirm and nurture this Islamophobia. This is a vicious cycle that results in endless cycles of violence and hate.

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Together, the elected and the electors shape the architecture of a nation, buttressed by the uniformity of a single dead and deadly religion. The many vernaculars of spiritual ecstasy and divine love are trampled by the repetitive chants of politicians seeking votes in the name of Gods, by hooligans posturing as swamis, and yogis unleashing unimagined versions of terror.

But Surya has not realized that death brings in its wake radical equality. He is out of sync with a time ravaged by an uncontrollable pandemic.

They who cannot grieve for the dead will not know the transforming power of death. They fail to recognize the fellowship between human beings that shines as brightly as the funeral pyres.

Surya does not seem to be aware that the stereotypes that he and those of his ilk have sustained and fed are slowly crumbling. He has not recognized the power of a new visuality of the Muslim. As the skull cap weaves its way among the burning pyres, as the skull cap shows through the window of the ambulance, as the skull caps rise above the four corners of a bier being borne to the crematorium, the suspicion of fear evaporates and the tender shoots of a new possibility of human community slowly rises out of the burning earth.

There is no place for Surya in this new world born of death and grief.

(Professor Parinitha Shetty teaches English in the Department of English, Mangalore University, Karnataka. The views expressed are personal.)