India @ 75 – I am a Muslim first or Indian first?


As we approach the 75th anniversary of independence, once again the ‘Bajrangi Bhaijans’ are cornering the Indian Muslims to specify whether they are Muslim first or Indian first. The poor Muslims are unable to tackle this catch-22 question because if they say they are Muslim first, they will be dubbed as anti-India and if they say they are Indian first, they will be forfeiting their religious identity.

This is not the first time this question has been raised in India and there is a long list of many prominent Muslims who have tackled such a quiz. This question was first put to Maulana Mohammad Ali, one of the siblings of “Ali brothers” fame, who spearheaded the Khilafat movement in 1920.

Mohammad Ali is credited with having called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from South Africa to India. If he had not called him then who had led the country is an imponderable that no one can answer. However, the point here is after Maulana Mohammad Ali left the Congress party and joined the Muslim League, he was asked the same question whether he is Muslim First or Indian first.

He said both. He took pains to explain that it’s like answering the question of whether the chicken came first or the hen first, mother first or father first. The answer is both. He elaborated that religious identity and national identity are like two wheels of a bullock cart and both are essential to make the cart work. So there is no conflict between geographical identity and religious identity and it’s both first.

He further said since he is born Indian so he is an Indian first, at the same time he is born a Muslim, and he is a Muslim first. So the short answer is I am an “Indian Muslim.”

The same question was asked to Khan Abdul Wali Khan, son of frontier Gandhi and the Pukhtoon leader; are you Pukhtun first, Muslim first, or Pakistani first? “I have been a Pukhtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years, and a Pakistani for twenty-five years. I have all the three identities in tandem,” he replied.

It was assumed that the Muslim first or Indian first debate may be closed forever with the Partition of India but it has not happened so and this question is once again being raked up to embarrass the Muslims when India is celebrating its 75th independence. It is deliberate vilification of the Muslims done to create unnecessary tension in their minds.

Multiple identities are an inevitable part of human societies and to be questioned to bracket them as first or second is a piece of human rascality. The question Muslim first or Indian first is one of the smartest arrows in the quiver of the ‘Sangh Parivar.’ It has no other purpose other than to corner the Muslims.  Since Sanghi equate religion with the national identity it’s easy for them to say Indian first. This is because they assume Hindus alone are Indian and rests are strangers. They want to create first-class and second-class citizens in India by asking the question Muslims first of Indians first.

However, when the same set of people are asked whether they are Indian first, Brahmin first, or Hindu first, the veneer of Indian nationalism gets peeled away, and the identity of Brahmin first and Hindu second ooze out. Then such people come under the Muslim umbrella and say, all first!

Similarly, if they become a US citizen and question are you American first, Indian first, Brahmin first or Hindu first, they have to reconcile with their multiple identities and say all first, otherwise they will lose their US citizenship.

If we look into our past, India’s canvass welcomed all religions with equal zeal when they knocked at its shores. This is because of the openness of Hinduism that we find a beautiful spread of religions in our country. Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhs, Jains, and Zoroastrians, all flourished and makes a nice mosaic of our plural society.

The southern shores of India welcomed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with open arms. We have a first synagogue, first church, and first mosque in Kerala, a synthesis that is difficult to see in any other part of the world. India, therefore, stands tall among the communities of nations where pluralism is the jewel in its crown. Even the most evolved societies of Europe are still grappling with the plural values that already exist in India. As a result, India is rich in terms of art, culture, architecture, and music from the rest of the world.

However, what is seen now in the country is that religion and nationalism are being entwined and put as bait for the Muslims. In this, there is a hidden agenda to make India a Hindu Rashtra and to corner the Muslims.

This idea is countered by the contemporary Urdu poet Bashir Badar, who answers the question of Hindu identity’s merger with the Indian identity. He says, when a Hindu dies, his body is exhumed, his ashes are put in the river, the river merges with the ocean and no one knows with which water body the ocean merges; (kohre tal mile nadi ke jal se, nadi mile sagar mein, sagar mile kaun se jal me koi jane na.)  The dead will never be born a Hindu again, so how can they claim the right and title and ownership of India? In contrast, a Muslim is buried in the soil of his birth and his grave is a testament to the claim of being an Indian, the poet explains.

Well, religion is a personal thing to an individual. He cannot change his religion though he can change his geographical living space. So loyalty to the religion is permanent and to the nation is temporary. Today one is an Indian, tomorrow he can be American or Australian, or British. In whichever country he lives he has to show his loyalty to the country to its people and freely practice his religion without any prejudice toward others.

In India, we are witnessing an agenda setting going on by mixing religion with national identity. This is to create a conflicting situation; all the identities are stacked up Muslims are asked to identify which first. This is ridiculous because the individual has to live with all such identities and adjust to the society and country where he lives.

So the final answer to the primary question of Muslim first or Indian first is the answer to the question of whether a glass of water is half empty or half full. The answer is both.

In the end, it can be said the only way to peacefully live in India is to steer the path of unity in diversity, secularism and pluralism, and peaceful coexistence.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

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  1. Thanks for this piece. The credo I admire is of Two Circles…(and of course adopted by Kashif bhai of
    No need to say more.
    Indian Muslims don’t have to keep proving themselves.
    Ignore the bigots, please. India belongs to all who feel belonging for her.

  2. Nice article with good explanation. Muslims especially new generation should know and study the sacrifices made by their forefathers for the freedom of this country so as to prepare themselves to counter such attempt(s) to corner them by Sanghis.

  3. Religion is personal, no doubt about it. Even though I’m grown up now but still if someone asks me Indian or a Sikh. My reply would always be Indian. There is no clash to admit it. None should spark a debate over it. But things are clear. People don’t expect anything from the community that can’t utter ‘Vande Matram’ or can’t sing the National Anthem. It’s their religion that comes at the top. Rest can follow or it can wait. That is the attitude. But seriously thinking no one has any expectations from the community.


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