The Great Muslim Awakening and the Death of Fear
In the most forceful way possible, Muslims have Indianized Islam, by taking ownership of the constitution, the flag and the national anthem—not as abstract citizens stripped of their religious moorings, but as a living community enmeshed in faith, and yet proudly nationalist.
If one looks at the sea of humanity that has descended and is still pouring, onto the streets of India to protest against the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, it would almost be impossible to believe that scarcely seven months ago, in May of 2019, the Modi government was voted back into power with a humongous mandate. Riding piggyback on a brutal majority—and with the feisty Amit Shah joining the cabinet—the BJP government has been flexing muscles more freely in its second edition, and indisputably with greater alacrity, in order to set the core agenda of the RSS in motion.
The Modi regime is intoxicated with the show of raw power, with empty conceit, and with misplaced delusions of grandeur; it has begun to believe so acutely in its own infallibility that it has grown blind to an enduring truth of history: "Vox populi Vox dei" (the voice of people is the voice of God). We, in India, are witnessing that rare event when a government has shamelessly turned on its own people, especially the Muslims and those on the margins. When and where, if at all, was the last time that a people were cowed down by repression? The more force this regime deploys against citizens, the more fraud it commits on society by trying to divide it, the lesser its moral authority becomes to rule. Who will explain to them that brutality has a cost? It evokes fear, yes. But no fear is everlasting. A castle built on fear, when it collapses, crumbles down like a house of cards. All that is needed is a spark of doubt. Doubt is contagious; it breeds courage which melts all fear in its effervescence.
But let us understand the “chronology” first. In the months leading up to the current imbroglio over the citizenship law, the Modi-Shah duo effected the summary abolition of Article 370 with relative ease; and then later, the apex court, in a somewhat dubious judgement on the Ayodhya dispute, bolstered the “Hindutva” narrative by dismissing Muslim claims over the disputed site even in the face of historical and material evidence. Not surprisingly though, both these momentous events failed to garner the necessary opprobrium mostly because—I dare say—there is no principled opposition to Hindutva in India with most political parties having largely bought the idea of a majoritarian democracy.
Emboldened thus, the juggernaut of “Hindu Rashtra” seemed all set to steamroll over everything in its path—or, at least until it got bogged down in an unexpected quagmire of unprecedented defiance to this manifestly sectarian citizenship law which pointedly excludes Muslims from its purview. When read together with an impending all India NRC, the real purpose of the CAA begins to emerge: it is not so much a humanitarian intervention to give succour to persecuted minorities in the neighbourhood, but on the contrary, it is a weapon deployed to harass and effectively disenfranchise, possibly render stateless, the members of the Muslim minority at home—especially the poor and landless amongst them, those without the wherewithal to scramble for necessary documents.
However, the goings-on in the last month have shown that there is ample courage to be found, if not in political parties, then in the midst of common people, in the deep recesses of civil society, where the idea of a composite India lives on. The young have risen in unison on campuses—in Jamia, AMU and JNU—and others across India have added their voices to a chorus that has reached a crescendo. Women of Shaheen Bagh have found reservoirs of strength to show the ethical bankruptcy of hate and violence. While the protests everywhere are drowning in a sea of tri-colours, reverberating with the national anthem, and the mass readings of the preamble of the constitution, the leaders in this government are busy identifying clothes or are vowing for revenge. The grammar of the discourse on both sides reveals the ugly underbelly of the invidious politics that has taken root.
One has to face the grim reality that with the political discourse over the CAA, NRC and now the NPR getting murkier and murkier each day, political gains might have already accrued to the BJP in the form of a deepening Hindu-Muslim fault-line, putatively overriding all other schisms—a necessary condition for the emergence of the Hindu vote. The entire top-brass of the Sangh Parivar has used this opportunity to revel in hate-speech, make divisive commentary and target an already marginalised minority by an unsavoury, aggressive, and unseemly “othering” of an entire community whose loyalty has been made suspect in a manner never seen before. Muslims are fair game now even in the mainstream media—anyone can heap humiliation on them, question their patriotism, or simply ask them to go to Pakistan with impunity. This everyday abuse is in addition to the frequent cases of communally targeted mob-lynchings that have been a feature of the Modi regime. The worst though, is the mutation of the law-enforcement agencies, the police and the para-military forces, especially in the BJP ruled states, into well-oiled machines for oppressing Muslims, barging into their homes, randomly picking up young boys, ransacking their educational institutions and destroying their property and businesses.
The most encouraging silver-lining in these dark clouds of doom, however, is the awakening of the Muslim consciousness. There has been a sudden and total metamorphosis of the Muslim psyche—which was until recently languishing in the dregs of despair, grappling with questions of dignity and self-respect, leaderless and rudderless—from fear to hope. This has happened largely without the intervention of political parties; Muslims have risen, one might argue, despite political parties; and this novel rising has whole-heartedly embraced the twin-identities of religion and nationalism, as though to demonstrate the complementarity between the two. There is no trace of apology, no feeling of shame, in the swathes and swathes of people proudly wearing skull-caps and waving the national flag in the numerous rallies and demonstrations across the length and breadth of India purportedly to save the Constitution.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words; one of the most telling images from the now-iconic Shaheen Bagh sit-in that I have seen is that of a hijab-clad Muslim woman offering namaz on the road under the shade of the tri-colour. Although it is just an image amongst thousands of similar images, it points to a discernible pattern in the mode of demonstration that has found favour with Muslims lately. A new visual dictionary of politics is being crafted by the Muslims of India: one which intertwines the most visible, often derided, symbols of their faith—hijab, skull-cap, beard—with known signifiers of nationalism like the flag, the constitution, and the national anthem.
This new-found resurgence, this lusty, very conscious, embrace between religious symbols and artefacts of nationalism must be seen in the proper context, as a studied response to the Hindutva myth that Muslims, their religion, and their loyalty is alien to the “punyabhumi” that is India—the idea inherited by the RSS from the likes of Savarkar and Golwalkar. In the most forceful way possible, Muslims have answered that allegation by Indianizing Islam, by taking ownership of the constitution, the flag and the national anthem—not as abstract citizens stripped of their religious moorings, but as a living community enmeshed in faith, and yet proudly nationalist.
This fight is about saving the constitution and protecting its secular fabric, but this fight is being fought in the main by Muslims who suffer from the threat of statelessness because of their religious identity; others have lent invaluable support and made the movement truly plural. The idea that comprises the very kernel of the Citizenship Act is that India is not a natural homeland for Muslims—not even for the Muslims of the subcontinent who share with everyone else belonging to this land the same ethnicity—is utterly preposterous.
The only way to respond to such a devilish, exclusionary proposition is to act both as a citizen and as a Muslim in visible ways to reclaim the ownership of the nation from the clutches of this fanciful view that somehow, only Hindus, as Savarkar explains it, belong naturally to this land. India, incidentally also has the second-largest Muslim population in the world. The Shaheen Bagh protest has become an allegory for this happy amalgamation of the Muslim and the Citizen. A compelling argument is being made to the effect that Muslims become Indian not by distancing themselves from religion, from their felt identity, but rather because of it; and, because they perceive no distinction between the advantages that being a Hindu or Muslim might confer on any individual with regards to citizenship. This argument demands equivalence.
The assertion of Muslim religious identity has caused some unease in many quarters. One is drawn to Hannah Arendt, however, who made a profound point when she said: “If one is attacked as a Jew one must defend oneself as a Jew”. The whole discourse around CAA-NRC has been consciously made anti-Muslim by the BJP. The police have selectively targeted Muslim localities and committed flagrant atrocities; not just that, it has also made a show of these brutalities almost as an exemplar, as though it's a sign that Muslims don't belong here. The media generally has delegitimised and dismissed these protests as Muslims creating nuisance against a humane law. The brave women of Shaheen Bagh have been robbed of their agency and portrayed as a front for the mischievous Muslim menfolk by a few sinister channels that are known mouth-pieces of the government. This is the context in which the resurgence of identity among Muslims should be seen.
The usual argument put forth by many liberals is that the anti-CAA protests must steer clear of all religious symbolism, that Muslims should find bases of solidarity other than the bonds of faith to preserve the constitutional-secular character of the demonstrations. What they choose to ignore is that it is precisely because of their faith that Muslims are being singled out and threatened with withdrawal of citizenship. They also fail to recognise that it is only natural that when the core of one's identity is attacked, people leap to defend it; they embrace it more willingly and find shelter in it. Muslims have done the same, but they have also had the foresight to weave their identity inextricably with the thread of nationalism. After all, unlike others, Muslims have a twin burden to bear—they must salvage their religion from the growing wave of Islamophobia by not shying away from its symbols; as much as they must fight to defend their constitutional rights, their citizenship.
The liberal view, I believe, is based on a flawed understanding of the true nature of India’s secularism as it is practised. In fact, the normative principles of our republic are threatened when the religiosity of the majority can masquerade as culture, as nationalism, while the religiosity of the minority is painted as inappropriate or undesirable. How can there be any equality if a Hindu can easily wear a “teeka” but the skull cap is frowned upon? Or that a Hindu can have a “havan” in a public locality while a “qurankhaani” is viewed with suspicion? To my mind our constitution allows me to be a Muslim, to bear my religion publicly and still be treated equally. Just as a Hindu can invoke the Gita without looking around or weighing the audience, a Muslim should be able to invoke the Quran fearlessly.
In practice, therefore, the Gandhian idea of “Sarvadharma Sambhaav”—equal respect and co-existence of all religions—is closer to the idea of secularism enshrined in our constitution than the secularism of the French variety which scoffs at any display of religiosity in the public sphere to which most liberals seem to be adhering to. In any case, ours is a deeply religious society and the banishment of religion is simply not plausible. Our secularism must be dialogical, it must allow for a peaceful, unfettered interface between different faiths on the shared terrain of citizenship while at the same time ensuring that the state is equidistant from all religions. Gandhi understood this, and he has rightfully emerged as the prophet of the current movement which has been extraordinarily peaceful and non-violent.
Remarkably, the Shaheen Bagh protests have, in a sense, taught us the unique meaning of our secularism by illustrating this truth. The sight of turbaned Sikh gentlemen organising a langar for protestors who are mostly Muslim women, but also Hindus and Christians in solidarity, amidst the chanting of the national anthem, keeping Roza, reading the Preamble, and singing the national anthem shoulder to shoulder, is a powerful metaphor. The mini India-Gate that has been put up at the protest site with names of people who have died so far in police brutalities against the CAA protestors is also another prop that helps liberate the whole movement from the degrading narrative that the media has tried hard to impose upon it. Shaheen Bagh, however, has managed to transcend the barriers of geography, and the world media has taken notice; it has been largely supportive of this transformative struggle that is being led by women. The visuals of inter-faith prayers that have been frequently organised in Shaheen Bagh, the universal camaraderie that has been on display, and the arresting images of young women with new-borns attending meetings in the freezing temperatures of winter nights in Delhi have been firmly etched on the consciousness of a whole generation, inspiring a multitude of similar “dharnas” in many other parts of the country to register dissent against a divisive law that has been foisted upon India by her own Parliament.
It is as though the spirit of Gandhi himself has been summoned to adorn the protest site in Shaheen Bagh and imbue it with irresistible moral legitimacy. This is how Shaheen Bagh has become more than a site of protest against the citizenship law; it has been transformed into a site of praxis, a site where Indian secularism—particularly Gandhian secularism—and its troublesome relationship with Indian nationalism is being forged in a new light, is being given a new meaning. It is a rebirth of sorts for the much-maligned concept of secularism which had almost become a slur in the political discourse vitiated by an aggressive majoritarian nationalism in recent times.
The epochal protests against the black citizenship law have also galvanised Muslims to come out of their long slumber, into an awakening that promises to finally wash-off the guilt of partition, and embrace their rightful place in the land of their choosing; not since the days of the freedom struggle have Muslims been so vocal, so vociferous, and so vehement. There is fearlessness. There is courage. There is resolve. The all-pervasive fear of retribution, that has always shrouded the Muslim minority like a pall of gloom, has been lifted by the courageous acts of these brave women of Shaheen Bagh.
It is almost reminiscent of what the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant in 1784, in his celebrated essay “What is Enlightenment?” declared as the motto of Enlightenment— “Sapere Aude” (having the courage to think for oneself). This movement is free from the “tutelage” of political masters or religious leaders. It represents the rising tide of consciousness from below; it signifies a moment where the community has begun to show the audacity to—as Kant would put it—make use of “public reason” in the determination of its own destiny.
The question of dignity can no longer be ignored; the farcical distinction between Muslim and Indian has long been the punishing rod used by Hindutva to humiliate an entire community and rob it of its icons. Now, by stoking the same distinction, there is this perversity playing out where under the garb of a sectarian law, and the threats of a pan-Indian NRC, Muslims are being made to suffer the possibility of statelessness. The manner and mode of demonstrations by Muslims everywhere in India, but most demonstrably in Shaheen Bagh, has been to visibly erase this manufactured distinction between Muslim and Indian—just as the “Gita” and the Constitution can go together, just as the “tilak” and nationalism are seamlessly complementary; so is the Quran and the Constitution, and the “hijab” and nationalism. In other words, Muslims have made a very public spectacle, through these protests, for all to see that they perceive no dichotomy between their religious identity and their nationalism—the charge that has been often maliciously levelled against them since the rise of Hindutva.
This is history being made—surely a moment of reckoning, such moments have come but rarely in the history of independent India; what is up for contestation is whether this moment will be cast in the mould of Gandhi or Savarkar; whether we are able to save a composite, plural India under a secular constitution, or take the high road paved with uniformity to Hindu-Rashtra.