The Indian state’s violent response to the nationwide
protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act is a pointer to the fact that
the country is in the grip of an undeclared emergency. Despite its
discriminatory nature this aggression has fostered an ecosystem that offers
space for apologetic justifications that sanction its moral legitimacy.
Trying to make sense of this law as a charade by the government to mask the failure of its economic policy or as one more attempt to polarise and manipulate the vote bank driven political system only exposes the bankruptcy of the secular imagination. For the RSS, which provides the ideological framework for this dispensation, an anti-Muslim agenda is not an instrument to acquire power. Instead, power for the Sangh is an instrument to translate an ideologically articulated anti-Muslim agenda into state policy. Therefore, to try and understand, as the left liberal intelligentsia prefers, what is in essence a racial project from the perspective of class based analysis is a serious mistake. Economic readings often fail to recognise the contours of a racial project. In the Indian context, such readings also serve to reveal the true extent of concern liberals have reserved for Muslims and Adivasis in their priority list.
On December 22, 2019, at a time when the protests had gathered significant momentum across the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government had no plans to conduct a nationwide NRC. However, various proclamations in the last few months by home minister Amit Shah contradict the Prime Minister. The President›s address to Parliament in June also had clear references to an imminent implementation of NRC. All this has created a smokescreen around the government›s position on the matter, confounding centrist liberals and in the process weakening the anti-CAA front. Amid this chaos, the public cabinet meeting called by Modi gave the green signal for the NPR.
After the Vajpayee government introduced the illegal migrant clause in the Citizenship Act, 1955, the NPR (National Population Register) needs to be understood as the primary enumeratory process that enables a smooth implementation of NRC. If NPR, NRC and CAA are viewed as a combined project, NPR is the most significant and least talked about component. Among the three, it is NPR that involves a firsthand enumeration process. The government defines NPR as “a register of usual residents of the country, prepared at the local (village/ sub town), sub district, district, state and national level under provisions of the Citizenship Act 1955 and the Citizenship (Registration of citizens and national identity cards) Rules, 2003.” It creates a new class of “doubtful citizenship”. The NRC which will follow NPR, will relegate these “dubious citizens” to a foreign tribunal and eventually to detention centres. Therefore the right to mark a citizen as “doubtful” is a right that is deadly enough to endanger the life of a human being. (The government is yet to provide clarity on the procedural details of NPR or on the criteria that determine a doubtful citizen. However, while a normal census process takes twenty to thirty days, NPR has been given four months.)
n a state of doubt’, a documentary made in 2018 by Shaheen Abdulla, a journalism student at Jamia Millia Islamia and one of the leaders of the student protests in Delhi, provides a vivid illustration of the shambolic consequences of NRC in Assam. If such a process were to be repeated across a country whose population is expected to cross the 1.5 billion mark, the implications would be unfathomable.
One wonders how a nation state can even contemplate the possibility of detention centres. How can an individual justify the confinement of a fellow individual to such a habitat? Indeed, what is transpiring around us is a demonstration of the ethical failure of the idea of the modern nation state and its judiciary. And what is lost in translation when an ethical question is transformed into a legal question is the very essence of humanity.
Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and Interreligious studies at the University of Edinburgh, writes in her book Hospitality and Islam: “Offering hospitality is not only about being in power but about taking risks and becoming vulnerable. This is especially the case with issues that pertain to an increasingly globalised and interconnected world but where strictly enforced territorial borders raise the question as to whether there exists a right to hospitality and what this might look like.”
The rhetoric of Muslims as “abnormal subjects” who had to be kept under check was normalised by propaganda. Violent assaults on Muslims came to be regarded as natural responses to an unreasonable system.
It would be impossible to locate even the possibility of a
metaphysical obligation of such scale and depth in a modern nation state and
its judiciary. On the contrary, the judiciary often ends up as a rubber stamp
that enables the conditions necessary for the state’s imperialist designs to
bear fruit. One need not look beyond Kashmir for evidence. It should also not
be forgotten that it was the court that first ordered the implementation of NRC
In his book Homo Sacer (“'the sacred man' or 'the accursed man', homo sacer is a figure of Roman law: a person who is banned and may be killed by anybody, but may not be sacrificed in a religious ritual”) Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben draws parallels between those ancient Romans who lived outside the purview of legal considerations and modern Jews in Nazi concentration camps. Nazi Germany considered Jews to have no rights whatsoever. While a citizen is politically defined and legally protected, denizens and homo sacers risk getting killed just because they exist. Once you are consigned to a space outside the ambit of law, your murder does not deserve a reason; your death is less than a death and your life is less than a life.
We need, therefore, to look at CAA as a tool that catalyses the state’s transformation into something like ancient Rome or Nazi Germany. In Kashmir, we already see this. By aggressively promoting a majoritarian outlook which gave credence to the idea that a Kashmiri’s life is not equal to a mainland Indian’s life, the notion that a Kashmiri is not as valuable as a mainland Indian was normalised. Once this was achieved, a Kashmiri’s murder by the state became an act approved by mainstream consensus. If they are Kashmiris, why bother about their death?
What is happening now is an extension of this process of dehumanisation carried out in Kashmir. The rhetoric of Muslims being “abnormal subjects” who had to be kept under check was normalised by expertly curated cultural propaganda. The rightful privileges enjoyed by Muslims were construed as unjust entitlements. In such circumstances, violent assaults on Muslims came to be regarded as natural responses to an unreasonable system.
he ideas of citizen, citizenship and citizen rights came to existence by means of a range of social contracts and negotiations. When kingdoms and monarchies changed to nation states, not only did the subject become a citizen but s/he also acquired citizenship rights through a contract with the newly emerged nation state. In time, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt observes, citizenship became a right to have rights. In our times, it is a primary condition of existence.
If a community that is persistently indicted as an enemy of secularism managed to survive in both colonial and post-colonial India, it is only by resolutely combating the hegemony of Savarna Brahmin supremacy .
But citizenship is not just a matter of rights. It is a
prerequisite for legally sanctioned political representation. In the context of
the Indian state, to define citizenship on the grounds of an understanding of
modern nationalism alone is to disregard the riotous history of colonial India.
The discourse on citizenship in colonial India developed as a response to the
various socio-economic policies of the colonisers. It is impossible to confine
this discourse to a monolithic reading. Such undertakings are not just an
insult to history, but are blatantly anti-human as well.
From a historical point of view, the citizenship crisis of Indian Muslims goes back a long way. The Muslim community has been historically trapped in a dilemma which saddles them with the responsibility of providing evidence for their secular credentials and loyalty to the nation. They have been consigned to an inferior position in the polity and encumbered with the task of carrying the burden of partition.
Maulana Mohammed Ali Jauhar, Indian Muslim independence leader and a leading figure of the Khilafat movement writes in Freedom or Death that Indian Muslims live between two circles of the same size, one being India and the other being the Ummah (global Islamic community). Dr. M.T Ansari, in Islam and Nationalism in India elaborates on this tricky position. On the one hand, they have to address an emotional concern arising out of their faith for Muslims around the world and a sense of brotherhood that emerges as a consequence of this faith, and on the other they have to deal with an equally intense ethical concern for colonial India, their land of birth and the land where they live. And as if these challenges were not complex enough, they also have to deal with various forms of “secular threats” issued by a Hindu majoritarian society. Yet, as Dr. Ansari points out, Indian Muslims have successfully thwarted these challenges.
However, the same writer has also pointed out that “A Muslim in India is a leftover or excess or a residual presence and a repository of irrationality in the body politic of nation state.” If a community that is persistently questioned and indicted as an enemy of secularism has managed to survive in both colonial and post-colonial India, it is only by means of resolutely combating the hegemony of Savarna Brahmin supremacy and the mainstream consensus it has manufactured.
s he was working on the Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar argued that Muslims and Dalits should be recognised as political minorities. But a Savarna-dominated Constituent Assembly chose to consider Muslims religious minorities. As a consequence, any attempt at political mobilisation by Muslims came to be interpreted as an act of communal mobilising. Thinkers like G. Aloysius have argued that Hindu nationalism flourished by placing the Muslim as the other. Indeed, if one were to look at various populist readings on nationalism, they all seem to identify something inherent in the Muslim identity that has the potential to fracture the lofty ideal of national integration.
With the demolition of the Babri Masjid the Muslim community finally recognised the perils of a lack of political organisational capability. Abdul Nazer Mahdani’s People’s Democratic Party was a case of a visionary political imagination premised on subaltern unity. Incidentally, the response to it also laid bare the extent to which the communal tag attached to Islam had gripped mainstream consciousness. Even the Muslim League, the secular face of contemporary Muslim politics, cannot escape the predicament of constantly being forced to prove their fidelity to the country.
Also, by mimicking the lexicon of a western imagination which controls and regulates Muslim subjectivity with adjectives like “ecstatic”, “mad” and “fanatic”, Indian secular discourse has also cast the Muslim community as one which can never get along with the idea of the nation state.
It is in the background of such prejudices that the natural coming together of Muslims and their protests against CAA-NPR-NRC in which they chose to assert their religious identity are branded as “communal”. These sort of political and cultural biases are a consequence of the unwillingness to accept the reality that the present form of self-assured protests have emerged from a decades-long process of political sterilisation and secular domestication the Muslim community has been subjected to.
In Kerala, for instance, where a left liberal consciousness dominates the political discourse and a CPI (M)-led government is at the forefront of a resistance against right wing fascism, the secular identity of the movement is sustained by excluding various Muslim political organisations. How can you confront a fascist agenda that excludes Muslims by excluding another section of assertive Muslims? In fact, what is happening now in the secular space is similar to what happened in pre-independence India, especially during the time of the Communal Award, when a Savarna-dominated Congress branded Dr. Ambedkar’s anti-caste politics as communal.
Azad has become the national face of the protest started by students. He has championed a brand of identity politics hitherto not mainstream, and made it a point to associate with various assertive political organisations traditionally considered untouchable in the dominant political discourse.
However, in post-independence India, Dalit causes
transformed into secular causes. As political theorist Rajni Kothari observes,
Dalit politics becomes secular and progressive because its focal content is
premised on secular and progressive issues like reservation and annihilation of
caste. These are also issues that are quintessentially “Indian”. But when it
comes to Muslim politics, conventional understanding entangles it in a binary
formulation of communal versus secular in which various aforementioned
prejudices never grant them the opportunity to be secular. Even when you have a
scenario where Muslims are staring at the possibility of a total extermination,
left liberal politics in India is simply incapable of envisioning a language of
resistance that can rise above this binary formulation.
The need of the hour is to imagine and accomplish new idioms of resistance that can triumph over these inadequacies. What we are witnessing in Aligarh, Shaheen Bagh and Araria are expressions of these new forms of protest which posit themselves as modes of vernacular resistance located outside Savarna-dominated urban centres and universities.
In a way, it is possible to identify Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad and his brand of politics as the pan-Indian embodiment of this vernacular resistance. If the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula was a pivotal moment in Bahujan politics, Azad’s Jama Masjid protest can be considered as an equally pivotal and riotous moment in contemporary politics.
Azad’s entry into the Jama Masjid was a gesture of cinematic dimensions, the kind usually reserved for Savarna leaders in the Indian public sphere. In the everyday reality of Indian Dalits, the public exists as a “desire” while the private is never truly private or something over which they have exclusive control. It is in this context that Azad violates and “contaminates” the sanctity of the public sphere.
Azad has by now become the national face of the protest started by the students of Jamia Millia and Aligarh Muslim University. He has championed a brand of identity politics that has hitherto not been mainstream, and has also made it a point to associate with various assertive political organisations that have traditionally been considered untouchable in the dominant political discourse.
Yet it is also important to note that there have also been criticisms from feminist circles that describe the way he twirls his moustache as an expression of hyper-masculinity. To understand the limitation of such a reading, one needs to consider that Azad comes from a casteist space which holds the power to kill a Dalit who chooses to twirl his moustache.
The reason why local resistances like Shaheen Bagh have so far overcome attempts at appropriation is that they are organically formed on the basis of a right to live. It is, therefore, almost impossible to understand these resistances on the basis of theoretical frameworks currently in vogue like gender or faith. They are incapable of telling you why, for instance, the women of Lucknow’s Ghanta Ghar continue to protest even after chief minister Adityanath’s police has, by official count, killed 25 protesters already.
n his novel Shame, Salman Rushdie describes Pakistan as an inadequately imagined state that was first thought about in the 1930s and was realised in 1947. He ascribes Pakistan’s problems to this inadequacy of imagination. On the contrary India, as M.T. Ansari describes it, is an excessively imagined state where Assam’s reality is different from the reality of Uttar Pradesh, and Assam’s reasons to protest are different from those of Uttar Pradesh.
In a nation state orchestrated around a secular theme that takes pride in fragile ideals like “unity in diversity”, the people excluded from this paradigm of excessive imagination are Adivasis, the entire Northeast population, Dalits and Muslims. When you are asked to come together in the name of an ideal like “unity”, it is important to consider who is asking whom to come together. Why cannot we be many? Or instead of unity in diversity, why cannot there be co-existence in diversity? It should not be forgotten that those who profit most from a politics of unity are a group that dream a monolithic nation state. It should also not be forgotten that NPR is the first step in that direction.
Beyond apologetic ramblings that wonder what offence Muslims committed to make them undeserving of Indian citizenship, efforts should be made to actualise a historical reading that analyses colonial and post-colonial India’s power discourses and its interactions with various socio-political interventions of Indian Muslims. Only then can the present crisis find a correspondingly intense expression in the repertoire of protests against it.
(Translated from Malayalam by Suresh P. Thomas)