Navigating Complexity: Challenges and Reflexivity of a Muslim Researcher

Istikhar Ali


My thesis delves into Muslim identity within Muslim-segregated areas, investigating its integration into society through an ethnographic lens. It examines the marginalization and health behavior of Muslims, focusing on experiences in South Delhi, India, particularly Jamia Nagar. Jamia Nagar, labeled a Muslim ‘ghetto,’ witnessed intensified challenges post-‘Batla House encounter’ in 2008, the ‘Shaheen Bagh Movement’ in 2019 against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), followed by a 2020 pogrom and ‘Corona Jihad.’ These experiences reveal a spectrum of marginalization, contributing to a deeper understanding and aiming to illuminate complexities in Jamia Nagar’s vibrant socio-political dynamics. As a Muslim researcher, I encountered various obstacles during the data collection in this charged area.

Dynamics of Identities

During the pilot studies in mid-2019, I successfully laid a crucial foundation for rapport and trust-building. These elements were essential for unlocking insights into the study of socio-political chaos. A meticulously drafted plan involved conducting surveys and case studies, utilizing a survey questionnaire for demographic profiles, semi-structured interviews, and field notes, thereby establishing rapport initially through pilot studies. However, this groundwork faced unexpected heightened distrust and disruptions with the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in 2019.

Initially, everything was progressing according to plan until the spark of the CAB turned into the CAA on December 12, 2019. What began as a disagreement transformed into a movement reshaping perceptions of identity in Jamia Nagar. With numerous visits, I witnessed the dynamics dramatically shifting due to external political chaos.

Jamia Nagar, a significant locale where the movement gained momentum, became emblematic of broader changes in India. The movement’s impact wasn’t confined to the streets; it permeated the social fabric, creating a substantial gap and fostering misinformation within the Muslim community. This, in turn, manifested in altered behaviors and interactions between individual Muslims and the rest of society.

Despite my persistent efforts to maintain a presence and interact with locals, the protest injected new challenges into the research process. The upheaval led to a transformation in the demeanor of respondents, rendering them unfriendly and unwilling to share information. Social and political consciousness during the protests profoundly affected the community, resulting in a reluctance to divulge details, fueled by both the state’s actions and a general unwillingness to share in the wake of heightened tensions.

A Researcher’s Reflection

Before extensive fieldwork commenced in October 2019, I meticulously reviewed the methodological tools for data collection and devised a blueprint for the field visit, comprising three phases: pilot, extensive, and leftover data. The completion of the pilot study, informed by feedback, enabled the refinement of the tools. However, before transitioning to in-depth interviews, the spark ignited by the CAA engulfed Delhi, consuming trust and leaving only ashes in its wake.

The ensuing political turmoil abruptly halted my fieldwork, as indefinite protests and demonstrations became the order of the day. Despite ongoing challenges, I continued to visit the field area, driven by a sense of solidarity as a Muslim whose citizenship and identity were now endangered. Acting as a participant observer, I keenly sensed the prevailing fear and uncertainty within the community. While informal interactions with many people occurred during these visits, detailed interviews became an impossibility due to discriminating apprehension and insecurity in the neighborhood.

An emphatic respondent advised me, underscoring the importance of explicitly stating one’s Muslim name before initiating any interaction to foster trust. I intentionally disclosed my Muslim identity, behaving as an insider publicly during interactions to establish rapport and acknowledge the sensitivity of the context. The significance of this approach became evident when even critical informants introduced me based on my Muslim identity, highlighting the effectiveness of building trust through a transparent acknowledgement of cultural identity.

In response to confronting these issues, I discarded conventional tools and prioritized securing verbal consent for interviews and eschewing paperwork. The once-cooperative participants became unresponsive, driven by genuine concerns rooted in the prevailing socio-political climate. The generally amicable locals became wary and reluctant when I, as a researcher, broached the subject of the study.

A Desire for Safety without Fear

The mere presence of an interview guide created fear among locals. I observed growing skepticism among people, extending even to handouts and consent forms. Confronting trust challenges, I prioritized obtaining verbal consent for interviews and avoided cumbersome paperwork. The intricacies of conducting in-depth research became apparent during data collection, posing a formidable challenge without conventional tools. By using pointers or memory aids, note-taking during interviews was minimized, enabling clearer explanations after completing fieldwork.

The Batla House encounter had already heightened social consciousness in Jamia Nagar, but political awareness remained minimal until the 2014 general elections, won by right-wing parties. Despite this, a substantial portion of the Muslim population remained oblivious and uninvolved, grappling with the insecurity and uncertainty surrounding Indian citizenship. Amid these challenges, I found that the circumstances in the field were different and unusual, requiring a reevaluation of strategies.

Undaunted by the uncooperative atmosphere without reference, respondents were hesitant to engage in conversation. Instead, the focus shifted towards a selected area and size of the sample, employing a snowballing approach to trace and approach interviewees. While this method had its merits, it proved inadequate in capturing the full spectrum of marginalization present in the stratified sample, particularly across areas, classes, and genders.

Simultaneously, I adopted a dual strategy, approaching respondents through the snowballing technique and exploring social media for potential references of people who understand the significance of the research, such as activists, professors, academics, journalists, politicians, etc. While these efforts yielded some results, there was still a long way to go in comprehensively understanding the experiences of the community.


The journey from grappling with the complexities of identity and positionality to successfully presenting and interpreting my findings marked a significant enhancement in my research efficacy and endeavors. Adapting methodologies, this research strives to shed light on multifaceted dimensions of marginalization, balancing insider-outsider perspectives. Despite obstacles, the study addresses the transformative impact on community dynamics, emphasizing cultural sensitivity in studying marginalized communities in this intricate socio-political landscape.


I am immensely grateful to Prof. Rama Baru (JNU) for her insightful contributions and to Dr. AB Dey (AIIMS) for his support in allowing me the freedom and space to explore ideas. Additionally, I would like to thank both reviewers for their thoughtful feedback and suggestions, which have undeniably enhanced the quality of my work.