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As a Jamia Alumnus, I Feel It's Not the Place to Screen BBC's Modi Documentary

Muslims don't really need a reminder of what happened in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

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At the outset, let me say that I am writing this neither as a journalist nor someone with stakes in university politics. I write this mainly as an old student of Jamia Millia Islamia. Not as notable star-studded alumni but as someone who has spent almost a decade on the campus. As someone who has truly believed in the anthem of Jamia, ‘Dayar-e-shauq mera , Shehr-e-aarzoo mera’, ( This is the land of my hopes, This is the land of my dreams).

Jamia indeed has been the land of my dreams. It has not just enlightened me with modern ideas from the French revolution - such as equality, liberty, and fraternity - but also traditional values, like respect for our teachers and elders. I owe the University any achievement I have accomplished in my life, no matter how small.

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As students here many years ago, most of us took pride in its anti-colonial legacy. For us, the University was a reflection of the 'Idea of India'. Unfortunately, as we were preparing ourselves to say farewell to the university, it was also the time when India was ascending into a new era of darkness, and the clouds of majoritarianism were hovering all over.

The year was 2014. It was perhaps clear to many of us what it would mean to be a Muslim in this 'new India'. Many of our non-Muslim friends who believed in Jamia and the idea of India it represented, were equally concerned.

Jamia Under Attack

Eight years since then, there has been an unprecedented attack on Muslims living in India under various pretexts - from cow slaughter to interfaith marriages as well targeting of visible markers of Muslim identity. These attacks have not just been against individuals, but also institutions associated with the Muslim community have been systematically targeted, whether Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia or others.

Last week, Jamia Millia Islamia was turned into a 'citadel' surrounded by Delhi Police and armed personnel of other agencies. Several students from the varsity were detained for planning to screen a BBC documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the call of a Left student organisation.

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As someone who witnessed the 2002 Gujarat violence from a distance as well as watched anti-Muslim hate unfold more closely as a journalist in the last decade, I am convinced that there is nothing extraordinarily revealing in this documentary except a secret report funded by the UK government on Gujarat violence.

However, merely having nothing new does not undermine the importance of the documentary. The work of documentation is vital to writing history; preserving the memory of violence is essential to making a better society. Perhaps for this reason, Germany still has a holocaust memorial; it does not want its citizens to forget the horror unleashed by Hitler in the name of ethnic cleansing.

It would be apt to quote Susan Sontag, the American writer and political activist, here, "All memory is individual, unreproducible - it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds."

BBC and all those involved in the production of this documentary must be applauded for their courage in bringing out something important. Irrespective of the impact.

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Why Jamia Isn’t the Right Place to Screen the Documentary

Coming back to Jamia, I do not see the university as an appropriate space for screening this documentary. Being a minority university, it has a massive chunk of Muslim students who have grown up listening to stories of Gujarat 2002 and survived in an atmosphere where their name is testimony to everyday lived experience of discrimination, hate, and bullying.

While others may be witnessing history embedded with violence and hatred, ordinary Muslims feel that history is in the making every day. They do not need to be reminded of Gujarat 2002.

Also, often the police and administrative response in minority spaces are disproportionate to those elsewhere, certainly adding to the vulnerability of Muslims in India.

Unfortunately, in India, the fight and mobilisation against Hindutva forces are not taking place within the Hindu society and their physical spaces. Most of the consolidation taking place against the politics of Hindutva are in spaces dominated by minorities, be it the Shaheen Bagh movement against the CAA and NRC or the march against the farm laws led by Sikh farmers.

Muslims don't really need a reminder of what happened in the 2002 Gujarat riots.

Most of the mobilisation during the anti-CAA protests were in Muslim-concentration areas.

(Photo: PTI)

Secular activists and leaders coming from the majority society, rather than introspecting their failures and the need to address them to consolidate the majority community against Hindutva, often 'appropriate' the struggles and movements led by minorities.

In all this, they are missing that in an electoral democracy with a first-past-the-post system, Hindutva forces cannot be defeated without the approval of the majority. For that, they must work with the majority and stand as pillars of support in movements led by minorities for inclusive and secular nationalism and against majoritarian tyranny.

It is also a time for secular activists and leaders to look back at Mahatma Gandhi and how he invoked Hinduism to counter the threats of Hindutva. When India was celebrating freedom, Gandhi was in Calcutta, intending to proceed towards Noakhlai, the site of vicious post-partition killings.

In the last few months of his life post-independence, Gandhi undertook his last Satyagraha, demonstrating his commitment to his principles and pledge to not succumb to majoritarian sentiments nor fear the bloodthirsty majoritarian mob. There was an intense reprisal against Muslims in Delhi, but that did not stop Gandhi from fasting in order to protect Muslims and kindle the reunion of hearts of all communities. He did this despite being old, sick and frail.

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It was because of his fast that, even in that charged-up communal atmosphere, many Sikhs and Hindus pledged to protect the Muslims of Delhi. Perhaps this is the most apt lesson for secular activists and leaders today. Instead of looking for spaces and trying to appropriate struggles by minorities, they should go to majority areas with difficult questions to undo the radicalisation taking place among them.

Nevertheless, it would be very unfair to doubt the intention of the left students organising the BBC documentary in Jamia and now in other University spaces too. One would instead put it to their youthful exuberance with hopes that they realise the importance of screening this documentary among their kin, neighbour, in their societies.

They should also lead small movements busting the myths around Muslims propelled by the Sangh-led Hindutva ideology and make their families and relatives empathise with the sufferings of Indian Muslims. If all goes well, then that day is not very far when we will sing ‘Dayar'-e-shauq mera, Shehr-e-aarzoo mera’, ( This is the land of my hopes, This is the land of my dreams) for India and our beloved Jamia Millia Islamia.

(Asad Ashraf is an independent journalist and former student of Jamia Millia Islamia. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them)

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