What do the protests over BJP leaders’ anti-Prophet remarks and the following crackdown speak about the Muslim condition in India? The media discourse around these protests framed the issue as one of religious fundamentalism. But these events are best understood through the lens of citizenship.
Muslims are de facto semi-citizens in today’s India. As comparative scholarship on citizenship shows, there is a difference between formal (de jure) and actual (de facto) citizenship. You can have the legal guarantee of citizenship rights but can still be denied real access to civil and political rights. De facto citizenship is mediated through State structures and national discourse, and a community can be locked into semi-citizenship if those pathways of negotiation turn hostile.
Let’s start with bulldozers. It is perhaps the starkest example of semi-citizenship in India now. Even supporters of bulldozer politics know that it is a form of collective punishment aimed at Muslims. There is not even a bare minimum legal process for establishing individual guilt. It was used again to punish Muslims in the aftermath of the Friday protests in Uttar Pradesh. This included the demolished house of a young woman activist, Afreen Fatima, who became prominent during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests.
There is no other community targeted by the State in this way. It is a violation of the most basic protections available to a citizen. Even Israel uses demolition of homes as a form of instant punishment only in the occupied territories, against non-citizens who they are quite literally occupying by force. It does not use this abhorrent instrument on its own citizens of Palestinian ethnicity.
Bulldozers are a perfect symbol of how the BJP-ruled states view Muslims: As a community to be controlled and managed, not as citizens who need to be negotiated with in accordance with the law.
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Laws for all?
The recent protest itself was the product of this condition of semi-citizenship. The Indian State, through its laws, promises to protect every community from hate speech (IPC Section 153A) as well as speech meant to denigrate any community’s sacred symbols (IPC Section 295). Let’s keep aside the matter of how compatible these laws are with the tenets of free speech. These are the laws in the books at present, and every group of citizens ought to be offered equal protection under them.
But Indian hate speech laws have long stopped protecting Muslims. There are other marginalised communities in India—the Dalits and tribals promptly come to mind—but none of them are denigrated every single day on television like Muslims. No other community is consistently and explicitly subjected to hate speech in the political discourse. It is not just that hate speech against Muslims appears to have legal immunity, an even more damning fact is that spreading prejudice against Muslims is the most reliable tool of political mobilisation for the ruling party. It is worth remembering that UP CM Yogi Adityanath had framed the UP election as an ’80 per cent vs 20 per cent’ election, where the 20 per cent group (a dog whistle for Muslims) represented “supporters of mafias and criminals.”
When Muslims came out demanding legal action against Nupur Sharma, it stemmed from the accumulated hurt of constant and systematic attacks on their identity. That a diatribe against the Prophet broke the dam of Muslim patience was unsurprising. Reverence for the Prophet is at the core of Muslim identity.
In this respect, these protests were also an assertion of citizenship – demanding that they too be protected by the laws that restrict similar speech directed at other communities.
After all, these laws have been expansively employed not just against speech directed against Hindu Gods, but even against those blaspheming the good name of Narendra Modi. To those questioning the reasonableness of the protests, one can also point out that there exists, in fact, a separate class of laws protecting Hindu sensibilities in most states—anti-cow slaughter, anti-conversion, ‘love jihad’ laws. In this case, the core of the Muslim demand was only an even-handed implementation of existing laws.
In contrast to the CAA protests, the Friday protests lacked in both articulation and discipline. This was to be expected. The CAA protests were guided by a middle-class leadership of students and activists. These protests against BJP leaders’ remarks were either spontaneous or poorly organised. Nevertheless, both these protests also lie on a continuum, essentially representing a lashing out against the condition of semi-citizenship. The CAA protests, it must be borne in mind, owed its traction not just to a potential fear of loss of citizenship, it was also inspired by a perceived dilution of existing citizenship, a pushback driven by a plethora of grievances that had been piling up for several years.
Civil citizenship—biased crackdown
What are the features of this semi-citizenship? In a classic formulation, British sociologist T.H. Marshall described citizenship as having three dimensions: Civil citizenship (having civil rights such as equality before law and free expression), political citizenship (participation in the political process), and social citizenship (socio-economic security).
Of these three dimensions of citizenship, the Hindutva government of the BJP only believes in providing Muslims social citizenship. Civil citizenship and political citizenship for Muslims, meanwhile, are meant to be severely curtailed.
Let’s come to civil citizenship first. Does Muslim civil society enjoy freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly, and equal protection of law?
One needs to only look at the evidence of how anti-terror legislation—UAPA and NSA—is disproportionately used against Muslims. For instance, one-third of all NSA cases in UP have been lodged against Muslims accused of cow slaughter. By their nature, anti-terror laws are a device used to truncate or suspend civil liberties.
The crackdown against the organisers of the CAA protests is a revealing case. Many of the leaders of those extraordinarily peaceful protests are now behind bars under anti-terror cases. This is unlike how the State dealt with farm law protest organisers or indeed against those caste/community leaders who periodically agitate (not entirely peacefully) for reservation.
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Political citizenship – Where are the Muslim ministers?
Now let’s come to political citizenship. Does the BJP believe in the rights of representation and participation of Muslims in the political sphere? In a few weeks, the BJP will have no Muslims in either the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha. There already is no Muslim among more than a combined 1,000 MLAs of the BJP. There is no Muslim minister (except minority affairs) in a BJP state government. Further, the dominance of Hindutva in Indian polity has led to a general slump in Muslim representation. Overall, in 25 out of 31 states there is either no Muslim minister or a single Muslim minister (usually minority affairs minister).
Even in the previous era, there was only tokenistic representation given to Muslims by the BJP. But that tokenism also was significant insofar as it meant some acknowledgement of the principle that every community deserves representation.
By removing tokenistic representation, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah BJP is communicating that Muslim representation is not denied because of political constraints (Muslims are likely to lose on a BJP ticket) but out of ideological principle. It is reinforcing the message that Muslims cannot claim the privilege of participating in the political process that determines how they are governed. In short, they do not substantively possess political citizenship.
Therefore, at a community level, Muslims do not fully possess either a right to speak (civil citizenship) or a right to be heard (political citizenship).
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Social citizenship – You are free if…
What the BJP offers to Muslims is contingent social citizenship. Muslims will be free to go on with their social lives as long as they don’t press their other citizenship claims. They will also be entitled to social welfare benefits much like other communities. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, the RSS had passed a resolution at a conference in Bangalore stating: “Let Muslims understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority.” Uttar Pradesh provides a good example. Muslims co-operated with the government in removing loudspeakers from mosques, as well as restricting prayers to the confines of the mosque. In return, Adityanath has tamped down on certain (though far from all) forms of anti-Muslim action, such as denying some Hindu Right-wing groups permission to demonstrate on Ram Navami. RSS functionary Ram Madhav has proposed other concessions that can ensure their full social citizenship—such as removal of kafir, ummah and jihad from Muslim religious doctrine.
Yet, when Muslims gather the temerity to exercise their civil or political rights, the reprisal is swift and brutal.
Let’s accept for a moment the claim that Muslim protesters threw stones at the police unprovoked. Let’s disregard for now the reports that point to an overzealous police force that escalated the situation. Let’s also disregard the documented studies of rampant anti-Muslim prejudice among the ranks of the police. Let’s also accept the claim that the police would have behaved the same with protesters of any community.
To understand the nature of semi-citizenship of Muslims, we only need to look at one piece of evidence. Shalab Mani Tripathi, a ruling party MLA and a close aide and former media advisor to Yogi Adityanath, released a video showing police torturing Muslim protestors in detention. This video could only have been shared with the consent of the top BJP leadership of the state. Would the BJP have gloatingly put out such a video if the protesters were Dalits, Gujjars, Brahmins, Sikhs, students, or famers? We intuitively know the answer. This was partly a message to Hindus about the government’s competence in teaching Muslims a lesson – Tripathi called it a ‘return gift’. But partly, it was a chilling message to Muslims – as close to an official declaration as possible that they do not possess substantive civil rights, that a public display of their illegal torture can be gleefully broadcast to the country without any fear of legal or political consequence.
One of the central functions of citizenship is to generate belonging. The nation-state ensures the consent of different groups in its system by providing to them full benefits of citizenship, or at least a pathway for realising them. A brutal State and a morally coarsened society cheering on that brutality do not generate belonging. They breed alienation, and we will continue to see displays of such alienation, from time to time, on our streets.
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist. He tweets @AsimAli6.