‘Urdu Is Written Back To Front’: The ‘Microaggressions’ Indian Muslims Face All The Time

03 Nov 2023 14 min read  Share

A recent paper revealed many microaggressions—put-downs, insults and jibes—that Indian Muslims face in their daily lives. Even humour is deployed. We spoke with the author, Prerna Bakshi, a lecturer at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, about what a conversation between Hindu and Meo Muslim education officials in Mewat, Haryana, revealed about the 'covert and subtle' ways in which discrimination manifests.


“All languages come out of Sanskrit.” 

“Urdu is written back to front.”

“Now, one goes to visit Qutub Minar, it is written right there that such Hindu temples were demolished in the process.” 

“Yes, the government can’t be held responsible for this. It depends on the local people, parents and village council to ensure the right education for children. The government has done its part by allocating the budget.”

These were some of the things Hindu officials said to their Muslim colleagues during a conversation about education in Haryana’s Mewat region that was documented in an academic paper about “microaggressions” against Muslims in the workplace in India. 

Prerna Bakshi, a sociolinguist and lecturer at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen, who authored a paper, Language, religion, and workplace discrimination: intersectional microaggressions in India, spoke with Article 14 about these put-downs, insults and jibes that Muslims experience. 

This kind of targeting—conscious and subconscious—is prevalent to the point that it goes unnoticed and is far from being addressed, let alone studied. 

“While strides have been made to address workplace discrimination by introducing laws and training initiatives, discrimination persists because of the tendency to view discrimination overtly and intentionally, without much regard for the covert and subtle ways in which it manifests itself, which may not be so easy to spot, capture or challenge,” said the paper.

Microaggressions take the form of microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations.

The paper explained that while a microassault was a conscious act to make an overtly derogatory remark to hurt the target, microinsult and microinvalidation were subconscious acts in that perpetrators may be unaware that they were being offensive. 

“Microaggression” was coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe subtle forms of race-based discrimination against African Americans, but research on religious discrimination in literature is rarely seen, with no study on religious microaggressions in the workplace for Muslims in India, the paper noted. 

While working on educational issues in Mewat, Bakshi found that a recurring theme was the encounters of Meo Muslims with prejudice and discrimination. The focus group of six people that she observed consisted of four Meo Muslims and two Hindu officials of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, an Indian government campaign to promote education.

The Meos, a pastoral community included as “other backward class” (OBCs) by the Indian government, has historically been known for their syncretic traditions—sometimes called ‘half Muslims’—following Hindu and Muslim customs and traditions, the paper noted. 

When Meo officials explained that students struggled to follow teachers who spoke Haryanvi (not Mewati, the local dialect), the paper said they were constantly interrupted by non-Meos, speaking in a dominating voice. When the Meos said that Haryanvi and Mewati were “poles apart”, a non-Meo said, “The mother language of all these is Sanskrit though” and that “all languages come out Sanskrit”.

The paper said this was an example of "microinvalidation", where non-Meos “attempted to negate, deny or undermine” the account of the Meos by “stressing all languages emerged from Sanskrit, thereby implying it did not or should not pose a significant challenge for students, even when it did not correspond to the ground reality as Meo participants indicated”. 

Humour was also deployed. 

When Meos disagreed that all languages emerged from Sanskrit, saying, “Urdu is different”, a non-Meo laughed and said it was written “back to front”.

“Humour is tricky, as it offers the speakers a plausible deniability while simultaneously giving the impression that those on the receiving end of it could be acting ‘too sensitive’ if they resist or register a protest,” Bakshi wrote. 

When Meos expressed concern about the lack of representation of Meos in the textbooks, non-Meos said the purpose of the books was not representation and used a conspiracy theory that temples were destroyed to build the Qutub Minar, suggesting that the Hindu majority suffered discrimination as well, the study noted. 

“This was a deliberate and conscious act of making purposeful and provocative remarks against the Muslim community," Bakshi wrote. "The underlying motivation is that either Meos are to blame or held responsible for some imagined historical wrong that needed to be righted. Its effect was there was a palpable tension, and the underlying power dynamics came to the fore. This resulted in Meo participants either withdrawing from the conversation or acting neutral.” 

When Meos shared concerns about the late delivery of books and the lack of transporting and shipping, despite being so close to the national capital, a non-Meo said the government had done its part by allocating the budget. 

“This act of negating is invalidating the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of Meos could be characterised as microinvalidation," wrote Bakshi. "It could also be interpreted as an act of victim blaming by the dominant community.” 

Why did you decide to study microaggressions, microinsults and microinvalidations?

I'm a sociolinguist—most of my research centres around intergroup relations and communication, neoliberalism and language in education policy.  While working with the teachers in Mewat, I noticed the different kinds of responses Meos and non-Meos gave. It was the same situation, but Meos looked at it from a different perspective than non-Meos, who were migrants and ad hoc teachers. Meos had a lot of grievances that people in power were not addressing. The Jat community held a lot of the positions in power. There is no open discrimination but put-downs, slights and jibes.

In psychology, there is a well-established concept of microaggression, which I knew existed that has been studied by US scholars but has barely been talked about in the academic discourse in the global south and India. What I was witnessing at the time was that. It goes under the radar because it is so hard to capture and contest.

The conversation did not seem subtle at all: they were talking down to Meo Muslims, mocking Urdu, bringing up conspiracy theories, and then blaming the community for the failures of the state.

The micro of the microassault is not the consequence or the effect. It has more to do with the micro-interactions we have. The scholars who have used it are very clear that the assault is done with the intention to harm. The microinsult is in the realm of the unconscious part. Humour is part of it. When the participant said, ‘Urdu is just written back to front, hahaha’, and said it many times, that is a backhanded thing and not part of a microassault.

The same thing about how all languages originated from Sanskrit. Think about how often we hear that in India. That is just not true. To say Sanskrit is the oldest language in the world. Again, wrong. Hindi is not the national language. It is the official language, along with English, but India has no national language. Politicians and people who should know better often make these remarks, but nobody contests them. In this case, what do you do with the remark that all languages originate from Sanskrit? Clearly, the Meos disagreed with it, and they were unhappy about it but didn't have much choice. They used some strategies. They paused or tried to change the subject. Sometimes, they were able to resist. They found their ways to navigate tense environments and moments. They were deploying their own strategies.

When the Meos talk about how the textbooks are not representative, they make a broader, pedagogical resource argument. It had nothing to do with where the conversation went—the majority used it to talk about the Qutub Minar being built over a shrine of Shiva. That was not unconscious. The intention was to humiliate, to submit the speaker into silence.

It was also very interesting that Meos didn’t back down. They eventually put their points across and shared their grievances despite everything.

 (They said: Madam, I will be direct. The whole thing is that those in power have never thought about Mewat.”

(“Madam, I believe in speaking the truth, and we should accept when things are wrong. We need to stop making excuses and must accept that things such as rations for midday meals, books and uniforms get late and do not arrive on time, and when they do, they often do not cover all the children.”)

Sometimes, when power differentials are at play, you would think the people on the margins would not say anything, but that is not what happened. That was very refreshing for me to see. They are more in numbers locally and perhaps did not have so much to fear. They have been there for a long time. They were well-educated and respected in their community. They felt they could talk freely. If you noticed someone else chipped in when they thought they needed support. They deploy a lot of strategies. When it was time to take a back seat, they did that.  When it was time for strategic pauses, they did that and thought what was the best way to address it. They were neutral on certain positions. And sometimes, they could articulate their concerns very well and strongly to the point where the other party felt they were on the back foot. It wasn't always one side. That was interesting from a research perspective.

The conversation seemed very strained.

It was an academic paper focused on one issue, but there were also happy moments. Later, we had chai together, and we took pictures together. It wasn't all tense. It wasn't like that.

That is very interesting. It feels like there are two things always at play in India. One is the underlying prejudice, and the other is a level of bonhomie—superficial perhaps—but it is there.

There will always be clashes in workplaces where you have people from different groups, identities and experiences. If you look at the academic hierarchy, significant abuse is borne by postdocs and PhD students. It sucks and is sad, but you must navigate the world carefully. It is a hard thing to do. Think about women at workplaces or if you are a person of colour or from any oppressed background. You will have these experiences but come up with different strategies. You have to. Otherwise, you will not be able to make it. You can have diversity training like you have in the US, but at the end of the day, the people at the receiving end will also have to think on their feet. They will have to be strategic.

If you look at the research on diversity training right now, you will see a lot of different opinions—should we have it, is it even worth it, and is it producing results? Even the best diversity training is not going to remove these experiences. Research shows that beliefs, attitudes and behaviour are very hard to change. You can create awareness of people's cognitive learning, but not when changing people’s actions, beliefs and behaviour. That is what we are up against. People at the receiving end of it come up with ways to fight back against that kind of treatment.

Those are colleagues for these people. They are not just seeing them in this one-dimensional way. They have to coexist. In a man-woman relationship, patriarchy exists. Does it mean that women stop coexisting with men? We learn to bargain, negotiate and fight back.

There is a strategy to survive, but when it comes to Hindus in India and how they behave towards Muslims, I feel there is also an unresolved emotional dichotomy. For instance, when you were all taking photos together, that was perhaps a moment of genuine affection.

That is also true. People who said what they said about Urdu light-heartedly, maybe it was just a joke that did not land right. When I asked their thoughts on Urdu again, they said their parents knew Urdu and proudly talked about it. But they said the next generation doesn't know. It is not that they are totally against it either or being downright offensive because that is not the case. Maybe they were unconsciously saying things that could be insensitive without realising what they were doing, which is what microinsult means when you unconsciously make a derogatory remark. In this case, I don't think they were out to get them, but it didn't stop them from saying it even when they saw Meos were not enjoying it or laughing.

We have witnessed hate crimes against Muslims since the BJP came to power ten years ago, but speaking badly about Muslims and putting them down has always been there.

That is a topic for further research. There is a lot of emphasis on the very direct form of violence, the physical manifestation like mob lynchings. I was very interested in the everyday forms of prejudice or discrimination that go under the radar, slights, jibes, or unconscious things we say that have a negative effect. But I would say that it is not just under the BJP that these things have come up. It would be a very inaccurate thing to say, but when it comes to these jokes and theories, they have existed for a very long time, even when Congress was in power. The same situation was there in Mewat. I know because I was there. These relationships did not deteriorate suddenly. They were already fractured. We must be very clear about how we look at the data point where the entry point is. It is unfair to say everyone was living happily, and suddenly this happened. My own family is a result of the Partition. Both sides saw the worst form of violence, and my grandparents came as refugees.

How can you police such behaviour and begin to address it?

Firstly, we have to ask what the data tells us. We don't have much data beyond the Sachar committee report, and Muslims face issues in housing and education. They are socially, economically and politically deprived. But we don’t have much data on everyday life beyond the horrible things we see people write on the internet.

Even today, I was amazed to hear Atishi from the AAP party saying we don’t know what to do about pollution. We don’t have the data about what is the source of it. I can’t believe it. I’m living in China, where there was a cry about pollution a decade or two ago. But if you look at it now, when I check my app, the air is clear. I don’t know how they did it. Great administration is all I can say. They have turned the situation around within two decades. Good data and good administration produce outcomes. You cannot make good policies if you don’t have good data.

Beyond just knowing that Muslims are at the receiving end of this backlash, which we already know, we need to collect data to see what we can do at the organisational level. And not just have the diversity training like you have in the US where they just do it for a couple of days for five to six hours, and then that’s it, this won’t do. When it comes to changing attitudes and behaviour, people are very resistant to that. We need to develop behaviour-based training, equipping the employees so that when a colleague makes a remark like that, what do you do? How do you deal with it? And have leaders who lead by example. If you have made diversity training mandatory, there were instances in the US where there was a backlash. People felt you were taking their autonomy away. In places, it led to reduced diversity. Research said that after five years of mandatory diversity training, there was a six percent reduction in black women being managers. But the biggest change that has to happen has to happen outside the institutions at the societal level—the harmony between people.

It is a colossal problem where biases and prejudices have festered and gone unaddressed for a very long time. Would the best way not be to start at home and raise children without fear and bigotry? By the time you join a workforce, one is pretty set in your ways.

Yes, of course. 

What was it like for you to witness the conversation?

As a researcher, I couldn’t share my emotions. You can’t be excited or emotional. The fact that I was able to get along with all of them and they gave me their time suggests that despite the differences that people may have in our society, it gave me hope that it has not completely broken down to the extent where you can’t remedy and heal it. That is the hope I had when I left the field, and that is the hope that I carry right now. Not all is lost.

(Betwa Sharma is managing editor of Article 14). 

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