Lying on the therapist’s brown leather couch, next to a tissue box, I find myself returning to a dark memory. I am in an unfamiliar drawing room, sipping tea, my reporter’s notebook on the table before me. The house is old yet neat; a small altar for the Hindu god Ganesha is on one wall, on another hangs framed pictures of Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Lal Krishna Advani, prominent leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s foremost Hindu supremacist organization. At home in the village of Bisahda, adjoining the industrial town of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, S. sits across from me.
I am here to inquire about a crime S. has committed, though he does not see the matter that way and neither does the Indian state, which has not punished him. What he does know is my Muslim name, just a word removed from Mohammad Akhlaq, the fifty-two-year-old man he and a mob of Hindu vigilantes lynched a few months earlier, on the night of September 28, 2015, less than fifty meters from where we are sitting. Several of his associates surround him as I try to strike up a conversation.
Adrenaline rushes through my body, it senses danger before my mind catches up. Just as quickly, my reporter’s instincts kick in; I calm myself down and commence the interview. I ask S. what Akhlaq did that he had to be killed. Could he tell me the story from the beginning? After a few moments of silence, he informs me that Akhlaq’s crime was “cow-slaughter.” Akhlaq had killed an animal held holy by Hindus across India. An example had to be made out of him so that other Muslims understand how serious Hindus were—how serious Indians were—about defending the Holy Cow. People had to learn that Akhlaq’s actions were anti-national.
My body breaks into a sweat, despite the December cold. As S. rants about the villainies of Islam, I stay guarded, tight-lipped, keeping speech to a minimum, asking for a clarification here and a detail there, steering clear of any sentiments that might reveal my Muslim-ness, betray my helplessness. Soon, I feel a sense of guilt welling up. A terrible thought crosses my mind: Am I colluding with him, sitting here in his house, without protesting? He takes out his phone to show me the video of the lynching. “Humara khoon khaul gaya thha,” S. exclaims. “Our blood was boiling.”
Mine is too. I want to scream. But I sit silently, taking notes, which the fact-checker will request later to verify my report. As I leave his house, I imagine S. laughing behind my back, taunting me, dismissing me as a deluded reporter and a katua—an Islamophobic slur reducing Muslim men to their circumcised penis—on top of that. He would probably call me an anti-national, a Pakistani, too.
The emotions I had repressed that day, and for long after, resurface three years later, in therapy. I am overwhelmed by raging helplessness and fear. I also feel shame. In choosing journalism, in abiding by its conventions of self-effacement and objectivity, I feel I have somehow betrayed my identity, my community. The space of therapy allows me, for the first time, to grieve: for myself and my people, for the hatred we now face every day in India. A sense of profound loss suffuses my senses, my heart is heavy. That night, I stay up crying. When sleep comes, it comes with nightmares. I see myself accosted, thrashed by a Hindu mob. The nightmare doesn’t end with the night. Days since then have been engulfed in a miasma of fear and grief.
Modi’s India is a living nightmare for India’s Muslims.
How did I land on a therapist’s couch for the first time at the age of thirty-five? Partly, it was collateral damage from my profession and partly my reckoning with my Muslim identity. For six years, from 2012 to 2018, I had worked as a staff writer at the Delhi bureau of The Hindu, a supposedly progressive English-language publication and one of the most respected newspapers in the country. Early on in my tenure, I was assigned to cover the sectarian clashes and communal flare-ups that were growing increasingly common around Delhi and much of north India. I was the only Muslim reporter at the bureau, and it served an identitarian left-liberal agenda to have me cover this beat. As I filed report after report on Hindu-led violence, a chorus of right-wing voices came to decry the newspaper—and my reportage—as anti-Hindu.
The pushback was symbolic of a larger process gathering pace across India. As I travelled on a motorbike around the polluted capital and the rundown industrial towns around it, I could sense that sectarian clashes, which have dotted India’s post-Independence trajectory, were becoming more frequent and mainstream than ever before. Not that the liberal English-language media was taking notice. Even as it became clear that Hindutva was being normalized among vast swathes of Hindu society, liberal commentators continued to describe it as a “fringe” ideology.
It was of little surprise to me that the English-speaking liberal elite was caught off guard by Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister in May 2014. All they saw was a seemingly sudden change in popular sentiment. They could not fathom that a deep network and architecture of Hindutva had been constructed, silently and efficiently, over the past decades. The elections prompted me to pay more attention to the growing tentacles of Hindutva. I decided to take a transfer to Meerut, a small city in western Uttar Pradesh, to see what was happening on the ground. This was what brought me into contact with people like S.
I had extensively reported on Hindutva vigilantes before. I had spoken to extremist leaders who would say the most atrocious things about Islam, often openly calling for mass violence against my community. Yet up until then, however tense the situation, I had never quite feared for myself as a Muslim man. Extremist leaders would add ji, an honorific, while addressing me, and usually smile at the end of meetings. They took me to be a journalist, and by extension, I suppose, an educated, well-connected man, somehow above the communal fray.
But things felt different after Modi’s election. The masks were finally off. The facade of courtesy and civility I once counted on as a shield didn’t exist anymore. As an epidemic of communal violence took over India—according to Human Rights Watch, at least forty-four people were killed in “cow-related violence” across twelve Indian states between May 2015 and December 2018—I grew hesitant in approaching my old contacts, aware that their words had easily turned into deeds, that many of them were attacking and even killing Muslims with impunity.
Friends suggested that I hide my identity while reporting. I decided against it, if only to provoke the fanatics into revealing their real selves. At the same time, I was acutely aware that in Modi’s India, my Muslim name could get me lynched. I wondered if a Muslim reporter could actually cover such subjects without paying a terrible price.
Reporting on people who could kill you tomorrow is a harrowing experience. A day of reporting would lead to a night of uncertainty, pain, fear, trauma, anger. It was a double-edged sword. I was resigned to reporting what perhaps cannot be changed, and yet I felt helpless, like my fellow Muslims, against a marauding, hateful crowd. In any case, it was clear that Muslim journalists could no longer be objective, impartial observers. We were moving targets in Modi’s India. Tragically, we had become part of the story, and it was a story I was determined to tell. The long-term impact on my mental health became clear only later.
Human Pigs and Holy Cows
Akhlaq’s was the first of several lynchings that I covered over my four years in Uttar Pradesh. In building my networks, I often spent weeks trying to win the trust of Hindu vigilantes. They were not extraordinary killers. In fact, mostly they were young, unemployed, ordinary men who had no future in a stagnant manufacturing economy. I would eat with them, hang out with their families, socialize in their circles, and not bat an eyelid as they joked and abused Muslims. I was guarded but persistent.
Perhaps the most significant contact I developed was with one Vivek Premi, a resident of Shamli. In the summer of 2015, he had been briefly arrested for publicly beating up a forty-two-year-old Muslim laborer named Mohammed Reyaz, who was accused of cow slaughter. Premi was only twenty-two at the time. A WhatsApp clip of the attack had gone viral. This video, one minute and twenty-four seconds in duration, showed Premi flogging Reyaz, with a Hindu mob cheering him on. Like a man possessed, he wielded his belt on Reyaz, who kneeled before him, hands tied behind his back, blood trickling from his eyes and through his torn brown shirt onto the busy market road. Premi was conscious of being captured on camera. At times he even paused, as if to pose. The hate in his eyes remains etched in my mind to date.
The video would turn Premi—his last name means “lover” in Hindi—into a local hero. He soon emerged as a prominent leader of the Bajrang Dal, celebrated for his use of WhatsApp and for the large surveillance network he had built out of local informants. Their sole purpose was to terrorize Muslims, interfaith couples, and alleged cow slaughterers. I had briefly spoken to Premi in 2015, soon after his release from jail, while reporting on another story. Though I didn’t write about his case then, something about his organizational acumen appealed to my reporting sensibilities. Three years later, while attending the graduate program in journalism at Columbia University, I applied for a grant to write a profile of him. It seemed to me that he could offer a fascinating window into the mind of the Hindutva warriors and their networks spread across India, even if a fair amount of effort would be required to pry the window open. The grant was approved, on the condition that I took the necessary precautions: hiring a Hindu cab driver, a Hindu stringer, and so on. I started working on an article that would be published in Wired magazine in April 2020.
I grew to understand that the hate was not just being directed at Muslims at large, but also to me personally, as a Muslim journalist.
It took me longer than usual to get to the heart of the story. For one thing, Premi and his foot soldiers were a lot more deliberate about putting me in my place. The first two weeks were about testing my patience. This period was marked by circuitous meetings in which Premi would spew Hindu supremacist conspiracy theories about Muslims—in time, I would hear elected leaders in the Bharatiya Janata Party say the same things on television—and how this had ruined India. He ranted on about the history of Islamic violence, beginning with the arrival of the Mughal Emperor Babur in the sixteenth century, followed by centuries of Islamic imperialism over hapless Hindu subjects. Muslim rulers, he informed me, had forcibly converted countless Hindus into Islam. Indeed, all Muslims secretly harbored a Jihadi mindset to convert Hindus. Premi was himself Sunar—technically considered a “backward” caste—and he had come to believe that even the caste system was somehow a result of “Muslim colonization.”
One day, I had barely sat down for a meeting with Premi when his associate, Rana, fired a salvo: “Ali ji, why don’t you talk to your fellow Muslims. They keep on creating a mess in this country. They don’t treat India as their mother land nor are they ready to revere her.” “Most of the local criminals here are Muslims,” another man continued. “This is actually not good. Muslims keep bothering Hindus. We mostly remain silent. But when we react the secular media blames us.” They were addressing me as if I was the spokesperson of the community. “Muslims should learn how to behave. They live here. If they have to live they need to start respecting their big brothers. Otherwise, it is the responsibility of big brothers to teach them.” Rana was on a high horse. “They live here but praise Pakistan. They eat and live in India, but they sing paeans for Pakistan.”
Hearing such things made me indignant, but I was powerless to do much about it. I kept my head down, held my feelings in check, and jotted down everything in my notebook. Sometimes, Premi would take my phone calls with the greetings of “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Praise Lord Ram,” the war cry of Bajrang Dal activists, often shouted during lynchings. To humor him, I would sometimes respond with a “Jai Sri Ram.”
I grew to understand that the hate was not just being directed at Muslims at large, but also to me personally, as a Muslim journalist. At the same time, I could not deny the rapport I had developed with Premi and his men. This brought a new dilemma. On one hand, I felt compelled to understand them, explore their motivations deeply. I believed it was important to report on their actions, bring it to a wider audience. As I told Premi on more than one occasion, his work as a Hindutva warrior was fundamentally transforming India, its past, present, and future. People needed to understand this. But on the other hand, I wondered if my reportage would make any difference. In fact, the opposite was as likely. What if my piece in a famous American magazine made Premi even more popular? What if it helped him spread his message? Was it ethically justifiable to understand such a man?
The profile of Premi was one of the first investigative reports to cast a light on the internal operations of the Hindu right, at least in the Western press. It generated considerable interest. Premi was initially troubled with the response to the story. His first call to me after its publication was a complaint. But hours later, I was surprised to know that his cadres in the Bajrang Dal were sharing it on social media, happily. They felt validated with the publicity. “Premi jaise Hinduon ke sher ne Trump ke America me bhai jhanda gaaad diya,” said one comment on Facebook. “Hindu lions like Premi are flying our flag even in Trump’s America.”
After the Wired story drew attention to the normalization of hate in a Hindutva-dominated India, I was invited to speak on many panels about the persecution of Muslims in India. Well intentioned as these events are, I feel uncomfortable participating. No matter how critical I am about their actions, I fear I am, at the end of the day, enabling the violent ideology of Hindutva by “humanizing” its followers, not to mention providing the media attention they crave. As my story gets more traction, my struggle with guilt and shame worsens. I can’t motivate myself to write about this again. Recently, Condé Nast Entertainment decided to adapt the piece into a documentary. I was not sure if Premi would like that idea. But when I relayed the news, he replied with a flurry of kissing emojis.
The Sense of an Ending
I received the first death threats for my reporting on the Hindu right in the fall of 2017. This was soon after the murder of Gauri Lankesh, a Kannada-language journalist who wrote extensively on the rise of Hindutva, allegedly by members of the Hindu right. After the first threat I changed houses, stopped going out for walks. I continued to live in a state of anxiety. I started watching my back, even when I am walking around in public. I checked the door locks several times when I get back home. Even after moving from Delhi to New York, I would get up in the middle of the night to check the lock on the door. The fear of being attacked or followed is omnipresent.
Reporting on Premi broke something essential in me. Perhaps it was my faith in and hope for India. It was deeply alienating to feel like a second-class citizen. On our last day together, Premi had told me: “Ali ji, a day will come when your future generations will have to convert if they have to live in India. I may not be alive to see that day but one day that is going to happen.”
As the BJP goes from strength to strength, as news channels make it their business to spread hate, as Muslims get targeted through systematic riots and everyday micro-aggressions— I cannot help but feel that everything Premi and his gang had told me was coming true. What breaks my heart is seeing how average Hindus have become an extended version of Premi and his ilk. The hateful messages I would find on Premi’s WhatsApp groups are now circulated by average Hindu families.
We once felt entitled to an honest life of dignity in India. That dream is over.
Modi’s India is a living nightmare for India’s Muslims. And Muslim journalists are the first in line to report and write on it, to confront it and document it as professionals. Yet we are too afraid to speak. We cannot report and write what we feel, and that is our destiny. Our stories cannot help against the horrors of Hindutva anymore. Most Indian Muslim journalists I know are facing depression and trauma. And it is only the privileged who have the opportunity to reflect on their identity—the assault on their identity. Frankly, I can afford my truth and talk about this openly because I no longer work for Indian media, which remain under the Modi regime’s thumb.
In this time of crisis, Muslim journalists have few allies who truly understand the pain and darkness we are living through. Recently, Rana Ayyub, a prominent Indian Muslim journalist, told CNN that Indian media is on the ventilator, referring to its failure to seriously confront the current government over its pandemic mismanagement. This is a fact that most editors acknowledge in public and private conversation, provoking many Brahmin reporters and commentators to question her credentials. They attacked her journalism, ignoring the massive risks she has had to confront over the years to directly challenge Modi, a fact, again, well documented by international institutions.
India’s newsrooms represent a concentrated power circle: made up of upper-caste Hindu men and now, to some extent, women. Rana, and countless other Muslim, Bahujan, and Adivasi reporters, find little acceptance. The current media infrastructure is indeed on life support, unable to function without Modi’s blessings. Few liberal or left-leaning elite journalists, most of them Brahman, are willing to question their role in advance of possible genocide against Muslims, nor are they willing to give space to Muslim journalists to speak their own truths. In fact, a certain group of journalists and public intellectuals have openly supported Modi, until recently when they found themselves affected by his lackluster economic performance and mismanagement of the pandemic. The Modi apologists, on television and in print, are just as responsible for the right-wing poison that threatens to destroy Indian democracy.
For some time now, Muslims have been wondering about our future in the Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu Republic. I believe that it will demand our obedience, debasement, and public humiliation. Indian Muslims will endure the model that has been deployed in Kashmir, in Gujarat, in Assam: subjected to subordination, segregation, and periodic violence. Like them, we will have to learn to live outside the protection of law, watching our helplessness feed the hubris of a triumphant Hindu public. The Muslim body’s vulnerability is the foundation of their imperialist ambitions.
Modi has reduced us—all of us—to our immediate identities. As Muslims, we experience an existential threat that overrides all other aspirations. We once felt entitled to an honest life of dignity in India. That dream is over; there is no getting around this fact. I feel a deep sense of loss knowing that my country can disown me at any time, that my motherland has become bewafa, unfaithful. It is too painful to talk about this because we want to hope for the idea of India to survive. Perhaps we cannot completely comprehend what the death of this hope means.