Maverick Citizen


We cannot ignore the nexus between Muslims, mental health and Islamophobia in India

We cannot ignore the nexus between Muslims, mental health and Islamophobia in India
Members of the Jammu and Kashmir Pradesh Congress Committee (JKPCC) women's wing shout slogans as Indian female police try to stop them during a protest over the sexual violence against women in the northeastern state of Manipur and the ongoing conflict between cultural groups, Kashmir, 24 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / FAROOQ KHAN)

In India, hateful propaganda in the name of Hindu Nation excludes and illegitimates Muslims as citizens of the country. As the country becomes more majoritarian and Islamophobic, fear is incapacitating Muslim people. The promise of equality and freedom held out at the time of independence is being denied to India’s minorities.

On August 15 2023 India will mark seventy-seven years since independence. The history of the independence struggle and songs of freedom will be recalled. But freedom has a limited meaning for many minorities – Christians and Muslims – living in India. Scores of Muslims have been struggling with an unprecedented level of discrimination and demonisation, particularly in the last nine years of Bharatiya Janata Party rule. 

There has been an almost continuous barrage of hate propaganda in mainstream media. Muslims are portrayed as waging a multipronged Jihad against its majority Hindu population. In the last few years everything from the Covid-19 pandemic to unemployment and landlessness have been blamed on Muslims, falsely claimed to be waging low-grade warfare to render Hindus economically and socially weaker. 

The reality on the other hand is that Muslims make up the “new underclass”, marginal in multiple respects — in land ownership, employment, housing, education, experience of discrimination in employment and political representation. Side-by-side burgeoning right-wing politics as well as the state and judiciary have been criminalising the community. 

The underlying effect of this assault on the psyche of Muslims has been largely beyond the purview of researchers and virtually ignored by civil society. 

A member of the Chennai Manipuri community wears a face mask with the ‘Save Manipur’ slogan during a peaceful sit-in demonstration to express solidarity with the people of the violence-hit northeastern Manipur state and to raise awareness about the ongoing conflict between two ethnic groups, Kukis and Meiteis, in Chennai, India, 9 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / IDREES MOHAMMED)

From left: Karnataka State Deputy Chief Minister DK Shivakumar; Congress General Secretary KC Venugopal; Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh; and All India Congress Committee (AICC) spokesperson Pawan Khera attend a news conference in Bangalore, India, 17 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JAGADEESH NV)

Mental health overlooked

Acknowledging the socio-political determinants of mental health is fundamental in understanding the mental health of various social groups and populations comprehensively. Various studies are being conducted on livelihood, segregation, education and other socio-economic aspects of the Muslim communities but their mental health is more or less excluded from the discussions. 

This not only creates issues in understanding their mental health issues but also restricts their access to mental health services.

Through several years of grassroots level working, Bebaak as a platform engaging with feminist thought and practice, human rights issues, and the anti-discrimination struggle, has recognised the need to understand the experiences of communalism in the everyday lives of people. In these everyday forms of struggles, mental health has emerged as an important indicator to understand the effects of communalism on the quality of life. 

For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, following the Tablighi Jamaat controversy, Muslims were equated with virus and disease which resulted in the communalisation of the pandemic. This is emphasised by a report of Bebaak Collective titled ‘Communalisation of Covid: Experiences from the frontline

Along the same vein, Bebaak conducted a study on mental health as a politically refracted reality of Indian Muslims: Social suffering in a world without support: Report on the mental health of Indian Muslims, published by, which is based on interviews conducted between February and July 2022. 

KP/Ketki Ranade, in their foreword to the report, states that “the mental health of Indian Muslims had been severely underrepresented and almost invisible within the mental health or development literature in India”. They also recognise that this report is one of the initial efforts to understand the lived realities of Muslim communities by redefining the meanings of mental health. 

By adopting the framework ‘social suffering,’ this report aims at providing a political understanding of the issue of health. Through exploring the experiences of Muslims in India, the report also seeks to understand the long-term impacts of communalism on the lives of survivors of communal violence. 

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) activists carry placards and flags as they march during a protest against the Bengal government in Kolkata, India, 19 July 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / PIYAL ADHIKARY)

The Pakistani Christian minority attend a protest against violence in the Indian northeastern state of Manipur, in Karachi, Pakistan, 30 July 2023. (Photo:EPA-EFE / SHAHZAIB AKBER)

The impact of communalism

In order to understand the everyday impacts of communalism the research questions emphasised the feelings of the people about their experiences of communalism. Using an open-ended interview format, the study gathered details of past riots, present demolitions, details of betrayals, failures and difficult moments throughout the lives of those who have been direct victims of hate crimes or riots. The report presents the experiences and narratives of people about their loss, pain and hope for the future through their voices. 

To explore diverse experiences, the study included 70-80 victims of hate crimes from different classes, castes, gender, and educational backgrounds. Participants from more than five states in north, western and eastern India shared their experiences of communalism and it included imprisoned activists, their friends, families of men who have faced violence, therapists, families of riot victims, family members of imprisoned men and so on. 

The toll taken by everyday acts of communal hatred on the mental health of Muslims emerges in several interviews and provides some measure of the everyday experiences of minority religions in India.

Thus, the pain and anguish of Bilal, a 21-year-old youth, is not an isolated incident. Bilal’s brother, like so many other Muslims from Northeast Delhi, had been charged with a fraudulent case in the aftermath of the Delhi pogrom in 2020. Bilal expressed the toll the case had taken on him leaving him dependent on medical drugs. “Pathri ki capsule jo hoti hai wohi leta rehta hoon. Lat si lag gayi hai (It has become a habit of mine to keep taking pills meant for kidney stones).” 

To accept and come to terms with the absurdity of law, when it decides to go after the ones who have been wronged, is not only to experience the breach of the promise of fairness and justice but also the denial of one’s citizenship and even humanity. 

Denial of a fair hearing process was reported by the riot victims of Khamaria in Madhya Pradesh who highlighted the ways in which the police target them and everyday forms of communalism plays out in their lives. As one riot victim noted: 

“Jiss tareeke se humare saath attyachar hua uska koi rekh dekh nahi hua. Humari koi sunwai nahi hui. (No cognisance was taken of the manner in which our rights were violated. We were not heard).’

The report’s findings include the toll institutional betrayal takes on those wronged: in Khamaria, riot victims were being held as criminally responsible. After the riots during 2022, 16 men from the same family were arrested and booked by the police. After the Khamaria riots, the state authorities demolished the Muslim-owned houses and shops which were the sole sources of their livelihood. Apart from disrupting family dynamics of the people, communalism also shatters their financial lives and chance of social mobility. 

During the interviews, the conversations around internal struggles and worries of the family due to communal issues began and ended with mentioning their financial issues. Due to hate crimes and communal riots, the financial situations of the families deteriorated and the further stigma that they face makes it harder to rebuild lives. To recount and narrate the trajectory of their financial collapse was part of their struggle to rebuild their lives, reconfigure everyday life to make it more habitable, and understand the extent of loss suffered by them

Sexual violence faced by Muslim women during communal riots has been pervasive in the past and continues to haunt riots-ridden communities in the present. 

During the riots in Khamaria, women were locked away in one place to escape from the violence and restricted their mobility. Women who experienced the violence during the riots recollected their memories of threats that “dangaiyon ne kaha ki voh aurton aur bacchon ko bhi nahi bakshengey (the rioters said that they will not spare even the women and children)”

The stories from Khamaria reminded us of the experiences of women from the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, and the Kunan Poshpora incident of 1991. 

The effect of such a threat of violence is hypervigilance and hence restricted social mobility. Within the Muslim community, women face double or triple levels of discrimination and violence due to their multiple identities. It not only restricts their mobility but also creates scars of anxiety and trauma.

In the aftermath of riots and violence, people also try to isolate themselves from social gatherings as well as from visiting parts of their neighbourhoods to protect themselves from threatening scenarios.

Rashid, a participant from Delhi reeling from the trauma of riots, stated that “mein char saal se bazar nahi gaya, pehle mein roaz wahi pure din betha karta tha, abhi waha jaane ka dil hi nahi karta. (It has been four years since I have been to the market. Earlier, I used to sit there the whole day. I just don’t feel like going there any more)”. 

Riots also tend to disrupt the relations people have with their families, neighbours, and friends which would create a severe impact on the mental health of people. 

Finally, the participants also shared their aspirations, hopes and desires to create a good political future, especially for the future generation. These conversations emphasised the significance of the questions around organising resistance and collective mobilisation against the targeted communal hatred and violence.

Indian security personnel detain a member of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) during a ‘Save India Parliament encirclement’ protest against the Bhartiya Janata Party-led Indian government, in New Delhi, India, 8 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / RAJAT GUPTA)

A boy waits to receive a free scholarship in an event for the children who lost their parents due to Covid-19 infections, organised by a non-governmental organistations, in Bangalore, India, 25 July 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JAGADEESH NV)


The report emphasises the role of civil society in making the legal system accountable and also in addressing the emotional and community needs of the people which would create a safe space for the people. 

Another important recommendation suggested by the report is the need for an anti-discrimination law to report and address diverse forms of hate crimes against minorities in the country. 

In order to deal with the mental health impacts of communalism the report advocates for providing more counselling and trauma care services to the riot victims, especially in the Muslim concentrated areas. An intersectional approach in health care is emphasised by the report to address the issues faced by diverse social groups systematically. The approach of the state has a strategic role in attaining all these and we hope that this report serves as an indicator in taking appropriate steps in arresting the hate mentality and addressing the needs of the victims of hate crimes. 

Hateful propaganda in the name of the Hindu Nation excludes and illegitimates Muslims as citizens of the country.  As the country becomes more majoritarian and Islamophobic, fear is incapacitating Muslim individuals from being the best version of themselves. Rights of citizens to live in a fearless environment calls for a corresponding duty of the state to ensure that there exists a conducive environment for the citizens to exercise their fundamental rights. 

In the current context, the Indian state is failing to uphold that duty. The promise of equality and freedom held out at the time of independence is being denied to India’s minorities. If this situation persists, India would no longer be called a democracy but become not just an illiberal but also an apartheid state practicing internal colonialism against its own citizens. DM

Hasina Khan is a feminist activist and co-founder of the Bebaak Collective. Umara Zainab is a Researcher and Abi Babu is an Intern at the Bebaak Collective.


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