I have already received a lot of flak for the bits and pieces of opinion that I have expressed on social media, a collation of which is what I propose to write in this essay. At the outset, I would like to make it clear that my intention isn’t to undermine the gravity and importance of the unprecedented protests against the Government of India in the aftermath of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019. However, I believe that hegemony needs to be called out whenever it is noticed regardless of the time and space. Not doing so will be equivalent to complicity in perpetrating a discourse that overlooks hegemony.
After CAA received Presidential assent on 12th December 2019, there were lots of advises pouring in “only” for Muslim communities on how to respond to it – especially from privileged savarnas who presumed that they did not have anything to do with the legislation and assumed the mantle of saving Muslim communities, which for them translated into saving their version of secularism. While one lot advised Muslims to come out in large numbers and protest as it was their issue alone and nobody else was going to talk for them failing which they have to leave the country, the other lot wanted them to remain silent and not risk themselves to further persecution. Both the lot did not bother listening to what Muslim communities wanted to say.
While this was happening on social media, mainstream political parties in Kerala had decided unilaterally that civil society shouldn’t protest CAA and should leave the responsibility to them. It is in this context that around 33 Muslim and Dalit organisations decided to organize an hartal on the 17th December in Kerala – which was decried by all political parties alike. On 16th evening, while I was sitting with some medical professionals, few of whom were either card carrying members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or sympathizers of the same, we got the news that 80 people – Muslims all – were taken into preventive custody in the neighboring town of Kunnamkulam. My companions – all of them non Muslims seemed to endorse the Police action and were trying to argue that Muslims standing up for their rights wasn’t healthy for secularism as they perceived it. The evening ended with fierce arguments. The hartal was a success, also because people were taken into custody in large numbers and videos of protestors – especially women shouting “Insha Allah Zindabad” started doing the rounds!
I don’t know whether the hartal was the trigger or not, but parallel to the happenings elsewhere in the country, defying the diktats of mainstream political parties, Muslim communities, artist and literary groups, lay people started organizing protests and events on their own. These events saw participation that was much larger than what any political party could imagine to mobilize forcing the government of Kerala to back down from persecuting protestors. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the country where Muslim communities don’t have similar social and political clout as in Kerala and where BJP is in power – state reprisal on protestors continue to be heavy. While, the media focuses on Delhi, Muslim communities in Uttar Pradesh are being burned by state agencies. In all these protests, the slogans reflected assertion of human rights – both political and social – within the state and I haven’t seen a single protest referring to Pakistan. These protests have definitely shaken the establishment.
Meanwhile, people with savior complex started announcing their plans. Harsh Mander declared that he was going to convert to Islam, if the act was to come into force (which he is yet to). The problem with this declaration is that it belies his own privilege and the actual consequences and dangers of the process that was set in motion long back and is going to find fruition in the 2021 census – of which CAA is an important link. Even if he converts to Islam, he nor his opponents on the BJP side who are already Muslims like M. A. Naqvi, Syed Shanawaz Hussein, Najma Heptulla, M. J. Akbar etc. don’t actually stand to lose much. We need to understand that a population of 230 million people cannot be wiped off completely, deported or put in detention centers. The idea is to disenfranchise Muslims – and those who would be affected are the lower caste Muslims, especially those that can’t afford to keep track of genealogy. So, the government would admit citizenship to a certain number of Muslims while keeping the others on their toes. It is anyone’s guess as to who would pass the muster. The rest of the Muslims – mostly lower caste – would be forced to live in a state of limbo without rights – and would be the ideal fodder for the Brahmin-Baniya industrial complex.
As the protests continued another excruciatingly problematic and assertive slogan started to be peddled by the saviors. That Muslims are the only Indians by choice, insinuating that Muslim communities in South Asia had a choice over their nationality. This slogan is not only downright patronizing and insulting, but also ahistorical. It would be cruel to suggest that people across communities who migrated during partition did so exercising a choice given to them. They migrated to serve the power lust of savarna leaders from all communities and most importantly to survive alive. The slogan makes a mockery of all those who died in what is perhaps one of the worst human made disasters of 20th century.
Again it is sheer arrogance to presume that those who stayed back in either Pakistan or India did so also exercising a choice. The truth of the matter is that most people did not have a choice. Those in the states that were being partitioned could either live or migrate. While, those in the hinterland did not bother with the choice as long as they were not disturbed from the land in which they were born, why partition did not affect peninsular India. In fact, neither the idea of Pakistan, nor that of a nation state was there in their imagination. Those who had fought against the British were like the rest of India dreaming of a prosperous future. They had no inkling of the snakes that were waiting to usurp their very lives.
Let me take a diversion here to demonstrate this with an anecdote from Karachi, Pakistan. On my first morning in Karachi sometime in 2003, staying at a hotel called Beach Luxury – which is part of the Avari group owned by a Pakistani Parsi family, when I stepped out for a coffee, Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan and I spied a small woman swabbing the floor. Casual conversation revealed that she was a Tamil Dalit woman whose ancestors have been living in Karachi much before partition. Their community is endogamous and lives within the caste structure of Pakistan. To call Muslim communities that are India – citizens by choice is like calling the privileged Parsi or the caste oppressed Tamil – Pakistani citizen by choice.
The fact is that nationality is an accident of birth like religion. Very few people have the privilege to change it in their lifetimes. There are many who escape hostile geo political terrains – like what happened during the partition, but most of them remain refugees in the lands they chose to migrate or land up in. (Zionism would be the only exception, but Zionist imperialism is another discussion altogether) To dress up nationality as something that people choose is privileged arrogance at its best. But what is disconcerting is that many people have taken up this slogan in their opposition to the BJP government’s program of profiling people without realizing that it is counterproductive to the zeitgeist and the inherent hegemonic content of the same. It endorses what Hindutva’s focal argument that Muslims have many “homelands”, but India is the only one that can become a homeland for Hindus. That Muslims are essentially outsiders who chose India because of its benign and tolerant nature. Having done that, Muslim communities need to learn to subject their aspirations and rights to the majority community.
The reality is different – it is not privileged. These are peoples who are aware that they are being threatened to be dispossessed of their land, livelihood, freedom and perhaps even life. They did not get this land, livelihood or freedom by choice. They were born into it. And before that their ancestors fought for the freedom as much if not more than their neighbors. Near my village is the shrine to Umar Qazi, who unknown to mainstream history was the first person to stage civil disobedience against the British. To claim that they made this choice is to belittle their history.
I received a lot of flak for saying most of this on social media. I was advised to choose my battles and allies in the fight against fascism. That the people propagating the slogan were respected (read savarna) leaders and great men! My message to all of you is that if the fight against fascism is going to be at the cost of agency, histories, cultures and self-respect of entire communities – you haven’t understood what the fight is about and it is better you allow those who are risking their lives and existence out there. We don’t want to lose the fight because of your privilege – for we stand to lose much more than you!
Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher and writer.