When you press the button on the EVM, do it with such force that the current is felt at Shaheen Bagh, Amit Shah said while campaigning for the BJP ahead of the Delhi election. ‘Prevent a thousand Shaheen Baghs’ was his message. Then law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad called a press conference to accuse Arvind Kejriwal of standing with Shaheen Bagh protesters.
Clearly, Shaheen Bagh is no longer just the name of a locality or a local site of protest. It has already etched its name on the global stage with the likes of Tahrir Square in Egypt, Taksim Square in Turkey, and Wall Street in New York. Every night Shaheen Bagh persists, it creates more of itself in different corners of India. More Shaheen Baghs – in Park Circus in Kolkata, Ghanta Ghar in Lucknow, and Mosque Road in Bengaluru.
As one placard reads: “You divide, we multiply”.
A muted community speaks up
Be it Shaheen Bagh or any of the other sit-ins against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, it is clear that these are not ordinary protest sites. No pliant audience sits listening to political speeches and disperses soon after, leaving just flyers on the road. At any point during the day, Shaheen Bagh is alive. Children sit with mothers, grandmothers sit near the stage, food is brought in from homes, art is made, songs are sung.
Ignoring the armed police who loom like dementors, protesters have turned Shaheen Bagh into a site for the fearless and the determined. Revolution, after all, is a carnival of people power.
Some cynics ask, ‘What have the protests achieved and can they change Narendra Modi and Shah’s plans?’ For the first time since Independence, the Muslims of India have found a language, a new grammar of politics to articulate their pain and their aspirations. For the first time in the last five years of Modi rule, those who could not step out after each lynching, those who had to keep quiet after the unjust Ayodhya verdict, those who have been overtaken by fear and despair, are speaking up. A muted community is speaking up for itself. The Muslim youth and women in these sit-ins today are more aware, more up to date, more informed, more critical, more conscious than the average Indian studying in ‘WhatsApp university’. This, for me, is the biggest achievement yet of our collective fight back.
Did our silence help?
For far too long, Muslims have been reduced to a silent vote bank, advised to lie low and let others fight for them. These ‘others’ can be self-proclaimed secularists, liberals and even anti-caste warriors. While many of them are genuine well-wishers of the community, some just wanted to satiate their self-interest at the cost of Muslims and win votes. Muslims should remain silent, they would say, or else it will only end up helping the Hindutva-wadis polarise society. And we listened to their advice for many decades now.
What has this tactic achieved for Muslims or for India? Has their silence checked the polarisation of India? Could the unbridled rise of fascism be contained? Did it save secularism? By avoiding association with Muslims, could the opposition make a dent in the vote count of the BJP? Far from political security, it also did not guarantee social or economic security.
The illiteracy rate is the highest among Muslims (42.7 per cent) compared to any other community – SC, ST or OBC. Muslims have the lowest rate of enrollment in higher education, lower than even other marginalised communities. In an economy where job security is eroding fast, Muslims are perhaps the worst hit. The Sachar Committee, the Ranganath Misra Committee and the Amitabh Kundu Committee – one after the other attested to the profound deprivation of the largest minority in India. Their share in salaried employment, in government jobs, in police, in army or among industrialists are all disproportionately low. The only place we are over-represented are in India’s jails.
So, how did our silence help?
Arm-twisting Muslim politics
Today, through the CAA protests, Muslims are not just speaking, they are also rewriting politics. Contrary to mainstream political thought, Muslims aren’t a vote block or a homogeneous community. But with these protests, many dormant emotions (or forcefully suppressed ones) have been set in motion in the Muslim community. So much so that even those who have occupied centre stage “representing” the community for far too long are being challenged from within. And by whom? The most marginalised Muslim voices – that of the women and the young.
This internal influx is bothering those parties or people who want to deal with Muslims as a monolithic vote bank and then use them again as bait to stereotype the community. This symbiotic relationship between the system and traditional spokespersons has been unsettled. Top-down Muslim politics has been shaken from voices on the ground.
A secular intellectual wrote an article after the Ayodhya judgment, chiding Muslims in the most patronising tone about how they were complicit in the final verdict. According to Javed Anand, by protesting the Shah Bano judgement and getting it reversed, the Muslims were complicit in ‘giving’ an agenda to the Hindu Right. While giving the Muslims his unsolicited advice, he, however, has no words for the Rajiv Gandhi government, which made the All India Muslim Personal Law Board the “sole representative” of the Muslims in India. Would the AIMPLB have overthrown or challenged the Congress government? Far from it. But still the Congress government chose to do what it did, because it always suited power to impose top-down control on Muslims.
The history of Indian politics is replete with instances where the Muslim community has been arm twisted by secular parties into silence. But we won’t be blackmailed any more.
A new turn
Yes, we are secular. But our fight for secularism will not be decontextualised, we will not operate within frameworks that obfuscate the inequalities and contradictions faced by Muslims. By fighting against the CAA-NRC-NPR, we have begun a fight not just to safeguard secularism but also to ensure social justice. And we shall not stop at simply safeguarding our citizenship. We have the right to be Muslims and still be equal citizens of India.
This is a moment akin to the Black civil rights movement. We are at the cusp of a possibility. Possibility of being equal again.
The author is an activist and former JNU student. Views are personal.
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