Letter to Tharoor: ‘To Chant or Not to Chant Is Not the Question’

Jamia student Ladeeda Farzana pens an open letter to Tharoor, inviting him to join the fight for an inclusive India.

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Image of Ladeeda Farzana, author of this open letter, and Dr Shashi Tharoor, used for representational purposes.
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I do not think Dr Shashi Tharoor will disagree if I say that my vision of India as a country is one that espouses and practices freedom, equality, and liberty, irrespective of one’s gender, caste, religion. But then, aren’t these categories, that are enshrined in our Constitution, based on identity? One’s gender, one’s caste and one’s religion — and much more — are part of our identities. If we fight for a cause based on constitutional categories, how exactly does it become an identity politics that is undesirable?

Dr Tharoor I think is contradicting himself when he says one should be proud of one’s culture (Ramy Youssef, Resul Pookutty) but politics should not be based on identity.

The Majority Must Reform Itself to Understand Minorities’ Expressions

In a country where being a woman or a Dalit or a Muslim is so very ‘undesirable’, pride seems to be the prerogative of only the upper-caste Hindu male. And that identity never becomes visible identity politics but pride. This, even as for others, such identity politics is made undesirable. Given our contexts, I would be thankful if Dr Tharoor explains what exactly he means by ‘identity politics’.

It is interesting that he interprets the Islamic sloganeering as the ‘doubling of identity’.

Drawing on many instances of non-Muslim solidarity with the movement, he insists on the need for the movement ‘to be inclusive’ so as to foster the ‘secular core’ the movement was said to be based on. With a very curious selection of quotes from Ambedkar, Tharoor conveys that the majority in India is not a political majority, but a communal one. Interestingly, his anxiety finds its answer in the same quote regardless of whether he noticed it or not. Which is to say, it is the ‘communal majority’, according to Ambedkar, that scandalizes any minority expression. To put it bluntly, it is the majority that requires reformation, to come to terms with the expressions of minorities, following Tharoor’s quote from Ambedkar. Quite ironically, Tharoor called those who raised Islamic chants ‘extremists’ and ‘fundamentalists’.

What is worth remembering is the recent book Tharoor authored, ‘Why I am a Hindu’, which was framed in such a way that challenged the fundamental task that Ambedkar, and subsequently other Dalit-Bahujan leaders, had undertaken (see Kancha Ilaiah’s response to the book).

Tharoor’s Concern Over ‘Islamic Slogans’ Is Ironic

The principal task of Ambedkar, which was well-drafted in his ‘Annihilation of Caste’, was the total critique of Hinduism for its conceptual, ritual, empirical and cultural centrality occupied by caste. ‘Why I am a Hindu’ thus becomes a project that attempts to revive Hinduism against the total critique by Ambedkar, even while quoting him for select purpose. Ambedkar, however, made it clear that the rights of the minority “should be absolute rights” in 1947. It is well known that he declared that “any claim for the sharing of power by the minority is called ‘communalism’ while the monopolizing of the whole power by the majority is called ‘nationalism’” (BR Ambedkar, States and Minorities, Appendices, Appendix I: Explanatory Notes). Ambedkar’s quote should be safeguarded against serving any majoritarian narratives masquerading as tolerant democratic polemics.

Tharoor’s anxiety about the Islamic chants, or in his own words, ‘doubling of identity’ is equally ironic and thus interesting.

Isn’t the term ‘doubling’ presupposing a ‘normative’ Muslim identity in India? There have been studies published in the context of global empire about how the creation of ‘normative’ and ‘doubled’ Muslim identities in the name of ‘good Muslim’ and ‘bad Muslim’ (the works of scholars like Salman Sayyid and Mahmood Mamdani are widely known in this regard) was purposefully orchestrated, and there is no reason to presume that Shashi Tharoor, a writer of international recognition, is not aware of such observations.

Can the ‘Normal’ Muslim Step Into a ‘Safe’ Nationalist Position?

My point here is: how can one explain the brutal police violence unleashed in UP on the common or presumably ‘normal’ Muslims who were not a part of any protest gathering? It has been widely reported for the past few weeks that many Muslims — women, children and men, who were never part of any movement — have been brutalised by the police for their identity. Must the Muslim go through such brutalities and not resist? Where is the ‘doubling’ happening? Is such a divide — between normative expression of identity and ‘doubled’ expression of identity — even possible in today’s India?

To put it bluntly, is there a ‘safe’ nationalist position available for a Muslim to step into in the wake of the current NRC/CAA debate?

To be read along with this are Tharoor’s remarks: “Protesting purely as ‘Muslim’ facilitates the other side's efforts to divide opinion on communal lines”. I am not sure if any Muslim carries with herself an idea of ‘pure Muslim’ as can be distinguished from a ‘pious Muslim’ crisscrossing with other identities we live with, of a student, of a woman, of being from a particular region, etc.

Why Do We Sloganeer? Why Do We Protest?

Finally, can one sit back and think: what’s the function of sloganeering in a protest? Slogans are raised by remembering great icons of history or even fiction, and by drawing on past memories of oppression, which could sometimes be poetic. Sloganeering, thus, is seen as an ‘irrational expression’.

This — the protest movement against CAA / NRC — is a movement started by oridnary Muslims, from the bottom level of the community, and they need slogans which they identify with.

Along with the chants that address the ‘other’, there are no better chants than La ilaha Illallah to address the self, given that they are physically sacrificing their own selves for this struggle. The ‘self’ that is sacrificed, needs to be addressed. If you cannot address the ‘self’, you can choose to not invisiblise that self. The kalima that constitutes the ‘self’ which is being sacrificed, is the most predominant condition that was considered in the legislation of NRC/CAA. To silence or scandalise the kalima, the primordial and constitutive marker of their existence, means to silence or scandalize their existence itself; perhaps nothing less than what NRC/CAA does.

However, at this critical juncture, it is important that people of Dr Shashi Tharoor's stature support the anti-CAA/NRC movement, and try not to create a perception of Muslims as being communal. Obviously there will be differences, and we will be happy to discuss this. We request Tharoor’s support in what we see as a fight for a free and inclusive India, envisioned by the architect of our Constitution, Dr Ambedkar. Our vision of Azad holding the Constitution and emerging at Jama Masjid in Delhi amidst protests, aligns with this vision of Ambedkar.

(Ladeeda Farzana is a first year undergraduate student at Jamia Millia Islamia, pursuing a BA in Arabic. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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