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Shaheen Bagh Becomes a Metaphor for a Historical Moment in Indian Politics

By Salik Ahmad

February 7, 2020

The fire did not belong to a niche place: some political indoctrination camp or some zone of enlightenment in a university. It burned like a hearth this time. In homes, in people. Shaheen Iqra is a homemaker. She was among the first lot of women who came on the Kalindi Kunj road next to Shaheen Bagh on December 15 evening, blocking it, and staging a 24x7 sit-in that continues till today.

Photograph by Getty Images


When the Burqa-wearing woman held the microphone for the first time, her legs quivered. She uttered a long prayer under her breath before the first words came out of her mouth. Addressing the initially small gathering, of women and men, she urged them to call more of their kinsfolk. Zulm (oppression) has crossed all limits, she said. The trigger had been the police action on anti-CAA protestors, including students of Jamia Millia Islamia, earlier that evening.

Shaheen Bagh Protest


She’s still here, after seeing through one of the coldest winters in Delhi’s memory. It’s beyond midnight, but Shaheen Bagh is supremely alive. Women in the front rows are clapping to the rhythm of slogans flowing from the stage. The men are sauntering around, every now and then filming a moment with their phones. The kids in tricolour hats and bandannas are playing, horsing around, pulverising used Kulhads, occasionally voicing the ­repeated motif of slogans in a sing-song way. An elderly poet is reading out his populist composition, ‘Insaaf Ko Ab Log Taraste Hain Yahaan, Wo Pehla Hindostaan Kahaan’ (Starving for ­justice/Whither, that old India). The tempo changes quickly: next up is a ­rapper, with three songs. Then an ­address by Dalits and Adivasis. ‘Allah-o-Akbar! Jai Bhim!’ they go… ‘Allah-o-Akbar! Hul Johar!’

The place is searingly loud and Iqra strains to speak over the din, through her veil. “We have seen a lot in these one-and-a-half months. We have seen goons coming here and firing. We have been accused of doing this for money. We have seen people twisting and ­portraying things,” says Iqra. A by-product of her long stints at the protest site has been the stirring of a curiosity ­inside her. “From our Sikh brothers and sisters who have come in our support, we heard about the torture Sikhs faced in Punjab. We heard about the killings and rapes of Kashmiri Pandits. Once this protest is over, I’m going to read about these things.”

Women have been the vanguard of these protests (see ‘The End of Silence’). But what could have spur­red these women, mostly homemakers, onto the streets? What reso­lve could have steeled them against the biting Delhi chill? “Women feel very deeply about family, about their parents, their children, and these protests are an ext­ension of that feeling. It’s an emotional and thoughtful res­ponse to the violence that occurred at Jamia,” says Shadab Bano, professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, whose area of research covers slavery and gender history.

Politicians don’t know what to make of Shaheen Bagh, how to cope with it at the level of idea and action. Those in power use it as a punching bag. For many, it evokes scorn and a faint dread. Some evade it. But everyone watches, in awe and bewilderment, as the people lead—and politicians follow. For millions across India, it’s a new signpost. Not just of resistance, but of a deeper, keenly felt citizenship, a shared ground of belonging. It joins a small list of remarkable and truly national political movements—like in the Emergency years. For the Muslim community, it is an inflection point like never before. Whatever is ­extracted or not out of this moment, a genuinely positive inner transformation has been attained, a threshold crossed, a hesitant taciturnity broken. Under extreme duress, if not existential threat, and despite the absence of a proper formal-political representation (see ‘The Absent Helmsman’), they have responded with a creative burst of energy, finding a space from which to articulate themselves in the mainstream, using a universal language and symbolism, breaking out of the mental ghetto they are commonly accused of inhabiting. Not merely using the Constitution to save themselves, but actually leading the fight to save the Constitution on everyone’s behalf. That’s why the Shaheen Bagh template has been ­replicated in countless other corners of the country.

Bano cites, within all that, another bridge crossed. “The stereotyping of Muslim women, to which the Muslim clergy and Indian media contributed equally, and their state-propelled ­caricaturing, have been subverted to a great degree. And once these women are out of the homes and armed with the experience of a movement, the ­patriarchs won’t be able to put them back in the kitchens,” says Bano. At the end of it all, there will be a new Shaheen Iqra. Gender relations in Muslim homes—a favourite topic of the State—can only evolve.

The Shaheen Bagh moment is creative in an abstract sense, but also in a very literal dimension. Graffiti—witty, snarky, profound, heartfelt—adorns the walls of this public square the way only campuses have seen before. There are plays, there are memes, and there is poetry—a lot of poetry welling forth as if from some long-still ­volcanic mound. Works of art shot through with deep colours and made of bold strokes—a revivified sense of identity, unapologetically spoken. Consider the poetry of Iqra Khilji, a 23-year-old student at the Gujarat National Law University. One poem is titled Deemak or termites—in its thin surface sense of internal enemies, it’s a slur for Muslims in vogue of late. She subverts that and exhorts ‘the termites’ to raze the throne to dust. While the markers of identity, including the slurs defiantly accepted, are profuse in her poetry, the acceptance of identity in her own life came fairly belatedly.

“During my teens, I had internalised Islamophobia myself. I felt uncomfortable whenever I visited my grandmother, for she stayed in what people would call a Muslim ghetto. Even in Ahmedabad, if I was with friends and I saw a visibly Muslim person, I’d pounce upon the moment to express my contempt for them and not miss a chance to say how regressive Muslims were,” says Khilji, who was born and bred in Bhopal. The change came around 2016, incremental, embarrassing, and driven by the events in the country. Now, she says, it’s her assertions of identity that make people uncomfortable around her. Once an aspirant for the civil ­services, she now feels she is too ­anti-establishment to make the cut. Her chief concerns these days are the protestors, or their vulnerability to ­violence by the State. “This whole episode looks like one big experiment in des­pondency. As if somebody is doing it on us and watching,” adds Khilji.

That gradual accretion of traumatic public events, which seemed in each INS­tance directed at you personally, was a common experience for Muslims. Each moment felt on the skin, as it were. The slow pile-up of incidents of lynching by cow vigilantes, the causticity and often the casual communalism in workplace conversations, the ­frequent airing of an inimical sentiment from high office. Then there was news of a brute electoral majority, ­coming with the seeming inevitability of a high tide. Then a court verdict. All certitudes seemed to be caving in, everything seemed to be closing in ­suddenly. The fear psychosis was real, if unspoken. Not a few began to consider moving out of the country….

A. Ashraf, a 33-year-old working in the pharmaceutical research wing of a BPO in Gurgaon, certainly did. He had everything he could have asked for…a fine job, a kid, a piece of land in Greater Noida where he wished to build a nice house, so his family, his brothers and parents, could live ­together. He gave up the idea when a Gau Raksha Kendra (cow protection centre) came up in that neighbourhood. “The other day, ­somebody called my Burqa-clad wife a terrorist while we were shopping in Lajpat Nagar. My son already knows the words Hindu and Muslim…he’s just three-and-a-half,” says Ashraf. Today he is taking his child to school for ­admission, “I am already scared what he’ll face.” Ashraf, meanwhile, is ­preparing for IELTS, and figuring out ways and means of shifting to Canada, where he feels there would be no threat to life and limb. Ask him if anything stops him and he responds, “Hindostaani Hoon, Hindostaan Rokta Hai (I’m Indian, the spirit of India stops me). But when I think of my son’s ­future, I’m inclined to move out.”

These threads of insecurity among Muslims possibly run all the way to the violent birth of free India. After Partition, says former JNU sociology professor Imtiaz Ahmed, Muslims were seized by a deep uncertainty. India was home, but what would be their status now? Would India remain secular? Still, says Ahmed, they ­reposed faith in the leadership of Nehru, who came across as a sympathetic figure; so much so that when he died, Muslims felt orphaned.

The guilt, the subconsciously held sense of culpability for their co-religionists having torn off a part of the country, instilled a chronophobia of sorts among Muslims. The vulnerability was real. The idiom of conversations between them and others changed. Or between ‘others’ and ­others. The moral legitimacy of those who chose to stay back was slowly eroded in subtle everyday reminders, sprinkled in casual exchanges. The Partition was the great unspoken. The Hindi film industry treated it almost as a taboo subject. Yet, a Garam Hawa came along, its flickering lights and shadows realising those dilemmas and negotiations in the crevices of the Muslim consciousness.

The 1965 war with Pakistan was a defining, stabilising moment. “India as a whole emerged from the conflict politically stronger and more ­unified.… Indian secularism had passed its first major test since 1947-48 with flying colours,” write historians Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee in India since Independence. “There was no communal trouble during the war; Indian Muslims had given wholehearted support to the war effort; and Muslims in the armed forces had ­disappointed Pakistan by fighting bravely alongside their Hindu, Sikh and Christian comrades.”

And still, things were yet to fully ­solidify. “The migration of Muslims to Pakistan happened in three phases,” explains Ahmed. “Immediate ­migration from places hit by violence, ­migration driven by calculations and pragmatic reasons, and individual ­migration, such as in cases where a relative there had found a job for a person still here.” The third kind ­continued well into the 1960s, he adds, but the key change happened in 1968 or 1969 when Pakistan put a stop to migration. “It was then that Indian Muslims realised they have to sink or swim here. As a consequence, it led to a growth in their public visibility and rights orientation. The first major ­expression was witnessed in the Shah Bano case where Muslims asserted themselves and showed the will to fight for their rights. So the journey of Muslim grammar in independent India has been from passivity to visibility to activism,” says Ahmed. This live ­presence was an issue for the RSS, which cited it to ignite the fears of the majority community.

The Ayodhya movement through the 1980s and its creeping denouement—the demolition of a 16th century mosque—perhaps fractured an old shared consciousness beyond repair. The State’s complicity, the frequent riots in its wake in which Muslim casualties were larger in most cases, the ­discriminatory police behaviour, all of this alienated the community further and drove deep a sense of victimhood. The realisation that they must not ­expect a fair deal in this country ­registered itself effectively.

The sense of victimhood has been so internalised by the community that it reflects in the most quotidian things. A professor at Jamia, requesting anonymity, says Muslim students often expect a kind of avuncular indulgence from them, as if it was natural to seek it to offset a shared discrimination. The ‘plight of Muslims’ is a staple theme of Muslim conversations. Nothing happened outside to allay that either—if anything, the causes for an intensification of fear were plenty. If the outside world offered 9/11, India gave 2002. The ‘war on terror’ years saw a generalised blame being ­attached to the community; arrests were, but of course, natural. The morale plunged to such depths as the last decade wound down that not a sound of protest emanated after the adverse Ayodhya judgement in 2019.

It was into this air of mute dread that the CAA/NRC spectre was dropped. It proved to be the last straw on the ­camel’s back. The disquiet of a decade and more, the swallowed slurs and ­internalised shame, the gathering gloom and fear…all of that coagulated into something else. From a silenced graveyard, as it were, a spontaneous burst of speech issued forth: its ­vocabulary solidly democratic, its ­symbolism patriotic. Everything seemed novel in this nebulous, effervescent, evolving moment: the sworn ­allegiance to the Constitution, the open assertion of Indian identity and, equally, of Muslim identity. It seemed like the cusp of a new epoch. The street was ruthless in dislodging the clergy and the politicians from the helm, all the while negotiating and juggling a multitude of divergent ideologies within. The dominant strand stood by the Constitution, but some spoke for ­acknowledging it as strictly a fight for Muslim existence and not democratic values. Framing the struggle in any way other than the ‘oppressed Muslims ­versus oppressor Islamophobic state’, they argued, would be a denial of ­oppression. Those thoughts did not find many takers within the protests, at least going by the visual impressions or ­taking into account the stage narrative.

That strand has invited criticism for more specific reasons too. “Islamism, at one level, represses the internal ­ref­ormist voices of subordinated Muslim castes, genders and so on. At another, it creates a legitimating ­vocabulary for Hindutva forces. This is why neither force can be an ally in any democratic transformation worth its name,” says Khalid Anis Ansari, who teaches sociology at Glocal University, Saharanpur, and has worked on caste movements among Muslims. While finding the protests totally legitimate, Ansari also expre­sses reservations. “The question of Muslim caste has been totally eclipsed in the protest discourse, which is dominated by Ashrafiya imagination. There are portraits of Maulana Azad and Zakir Hussain but what about the heroes of the Pasmanda community who constitute 85 per cent of Muslims? Where are Abdul Qaiyum Ansari and Maulana Ateequr-Rehman Mansoori?  Pasmanda narratives, their experiences, cultures and inter­pretations, often get marginalised in such protests.”

Turn the prism and see it from the other side. The Shaheen Bagh protest has blocked a major link between Noida and Delhi. Mahendra Prasad Singh, former political science professor at Delhi University, shares his ­observations on the protest with ­reference to the logistical issues: “The protest has remained largely civil, not become violent, but it seems to be crossing the limits of a civil protest and the public around is being inconvenienced.  Even if the government is not engaging with them, they should consider clearing the road, and repose their faith in the courts. The courts generally perform well in constitutional democracies.” Another Delhi resident, Akash Jindal, a 27-year old in the hardware business, accepts that the CAA is discriminatory, and that police action on students was certainly wrong, but wonders how the protests sustained for so long. “It’s amusing that they have. Who is ­backing it? If it’s organic, it’s fantastic, but I doubt it is. Maybe it will vanish after elections,” says Jindal, an ­accomplished mountaineer. “I believe that the CAA/NRC should be implemented, but with absolute fairness. Illegal immigrants must be deported or sent to jails. It might be morally whatever but this is how it should be.”

India may be slow to change, but it has now been gifted a whole new set of should-be’s. And is’es.

Sayema, Radio Jockey

I studied in a Sikh school and never had Muslim friends or colleagues. I had actually vowed to not be a Muslim voice in the public sphere. When I joined Radio Mirchi, we were told that none of us would have a surname—we would only be Indian. It was about 2-3 years ago that people on ­social media started treating me as if I were just a Muslim and not an RJ. They called me Pakistani, ­Jihadan etc. I realised these are the same people who have been listening to me for years. It then hit me that a divisive game is being played in this country. For long, Muslims have been treated as a vote bank. Now we have to stop being vote banks and reinforce our status as citizens. I went to Shaheen Bagh today and asked a woman, “What keeps you going? Aren’t you scared?” She replied, “Death comes only once. I don’t wear a Burqa to the protest—I wear a shroud every day. This is my duty and I must do it even if I die.” The Constitution talks about our rights and duties, as does the Quran. That’s what we’ve ­always been taught.

Original Headline: Shaheen Bagh, Where The Indian Muslim Has Found Her Voice And A Deeper Sense Of Citizenship

Source: The Outlook India