CAA-NRC Protests & Muslims: Why It Can’t Only Be Identity Politics
- Muslims are often at the forefront of CAA-NRC protests. It is their place in India, after all, and their rights as Indian citizens, that are being targeted by our divisive government.
- Unfortunately, in their understandable anger and frustration with the course of events, some Muslims have doubled down on their identity, reiterating their faith in the manner and tone of their protests.
- Alarmed at this, I tweeted a cautionary message which unleashed a virulent reaction, with a storm of tweets, social media posts and print media op-ed articles taking me to task for denying Indian Muslims the right to protest in the name of their faith.
- You can’t fight Hindutva communalism by promoting Muslim communalism. Identity politics will destroy India.
- This is a battle for the soul of India. Every Indian has a stake in the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free.
The spontaneous, and continuing, protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (and its threatened successor, the proposed all-India National Register of Citizens) have inspired every democrat in the nation. Students, office-goers, artists, ordinary Indians of every description are standing up to be counted.
A University-gold medallist refusing to receive her medal from the Governor in protest; individuals forming a human chain at their gathering so that Muslim protestors could break for their afternoon namaz; students speaking passionately in defence of their protests to police and the media; the ordinary women of Shaheen Bagh in Delhi protesting night after night in the bitter cold; and above all ordinary Indians’ determination to stand up and continue, day after day, in the face of all the forces of intimidation arrayed against them by the state – all this has elicited admiration, applause, and of course, the inevitable attempts to discredit and intimidate.
Are Only Muslims Protesting?
Amongst these attempts is the predictably crude one by the BJP to delegitimize the protests as being those of Muslims alone. “You can tell who is protesting by their clothes,” Prime Minister Modi notoriously declared. “Look at all the beards, skull caps and hijabs at these protests,” a ruling-party sympathizer said to me with grim bigotry. “It will just drive more Hindu votes to our side.”
Indeed, Muslims are often at the forefront of these protests. It is their place in India, after all, and their rights as Indian citizens, that are being targeted by our divisive government. But they are by no means alone. Many, perhaps more, non-Muslim Indians have joined them, because they see the CAA/NRC as an assault on the India they hold dear, the inclusive India reified in the Constitution.
These Indians realise the importance of Dr B R Ambedkar’s sage warning to the nation in the constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948: “the minorities in India have agreed to place their existence in the hands of the majority… They have loyally accepted the rule of the majority, which is basically a communal majority and not a political majority. It is for the majority to realise its duty not to discriminate against minorities.”
They resist the persistent efforts of the BJP and its supporters to portray the CAA/NRC protests as being of, by, and for Muslims alone. It is no accident that many protestors, of all faiths, have chosen to recite secular nationalist poetry at their protests, and to repeatedly, and with feeling, sing the national anthem.
How I View Extremism and Religious Fundamentalism
When I inaugurated a rally of the Muslim Co-ordination Council outside the Raj Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram, I made it a point to go there from a temple with the sandalwood paste from the priest’s prasadam visible on my forehead. The message was: you are not alone; believing Hindus are with you too.
Unfortunately, in their understandable anger and frustration with the course of events, some Muslims have doubled down on their identity, reiterating their faith in the manner and tone of their protests. The BJP has seized on this with glee. The WhatsApp groups they regularly feed are full of messages demonizing the protestors. A recent godsend for them came in the form of a video of protestors chanting the Kalima, one of the foundational prayers of the Islamic faith: “'lā ilāha illāllāh, muḥammadur rasūlu -llāh” and adding the refrain, “tera mera rishta kya? 'lā ilāha illāllāh”.
Alarmed at this, I tweeted a cautionary message as much to them as to those who were seeking to misrepresent their cause. “Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either. We who’re raising our voice in the CAA/NRC Protests are fighting to defend an Inclusive India. We will not allow pluralism and diversity to be supplanted by any kind of religious fundamentalism”, I wrote.
And as the first responses by angry Muslms began to come in, I added: “ No offence intended. Just making it clear that for most of us this struggle is about India, not about Islam. Or Hinduism. It’s about our constitutional values & founding principles. It’s about defending pluralism. It’s about saving the soul of India. Not one faith vs another.”
An Unnecessary Controversy
There the matter should have ended, but instead it unleashed a virulent reaction, with a storm of tweets, social media posts and print media op-ed articles taking me to task for denying Indian Muslims the right to protest in the name of their faith. Some accused me of harbouring majoritarian bigotry – something that I have fought against in my writings and my conduct all my life; others of wearing my Hinduism on my sleeve and placing Muslims in a subordinate role.
When the Egyptian actor Ramy Youssef received a Golden Globe with the words “Allahu Akbar,” many sneered that I would have disapproved.
I respect the right of people to disagree with my stand, but not to misrepresent it. I still maintain that protestors should not give a communal coloration to their protests. A vital part of our struggle is not about Islam, but about supporting Muslims who are fighting for their identity in India. The question is what is the most effective way of doing so, and what kind of conduct will undermine that objective.
Identity Politics Will Destroy India
Of course I understand the primordial place of the Kalima in the Islamic faith. "La ilaha ilallah" is unexceptionable in itself. It's the context that matters here; the phrase ‘tera mera rishta la ilaha illallah’ tends to isolate the community from others whose rishta is to India. How are non-Muslims to understand that in a protest about CAA-NRC, “tera mera rishta” refers to the individual’s relationship with God?
God shouldn’t even come into a protest about Constitutional values, the spirit of the law, and the foundational pluralist idea of India we all seek to defend – especially when BJP supporters are gleefully circulating such videos on social media, telling wavering Hindus: “see what this fight’s about; which side are you on?"
It is vital for all Indians to understand what's at stake for the Muslim community. But that is because the basic idea of Indian pluralism is threatened by the CAA/NRC double-barrelled assault. The best answer to this assault is to strengthen the support base for the resistance by appealing to all. You can't fight Hindutva communalism by promoting Muslim communalism. Identity politics will destroy India.
The BJP, which prefers to polarise the electorate before every election, is looking for an opportunity to paint this agitation in communal colours, as Hindu vs Muslim. I say to Muslim protestors: Don’t give it to them. Protesting purely as "Muslim" facilitates the other side's efforts to divide opinion on communal lines. Say you are fighting for your rights as an Indian, and every right-thinking Indian will empathize with you.
CAA/NRC Protests Cannot Be a Purely Muslim Affair
As to Ramy Youssef, I am amazed that people think I wouldn't approve. Why should anyone object to someone showing pride in his culture or faith? I applauded when Irfan Pathan thanked Allah for ensuring India's victory over Pak in 2004, or Resul Pookutty chanted "Om" at the Oscars. All I objected to, and still object to, was reducing the CAA/NRC protests to a purely Muslim affair. India's resistance to injustice embraces all communities. I don't have to be Muslim to object to Muslims being discriminated against. By creating a republic where all faiths are safe, India's Constitution protects Muslims as well as others. Some Muslims do themselves a disservice by seeking to make this only about them. We're all in this together.
I believe in an India of pluralism and diversity, not of religious bigotry and identity politics. I believe in an India that is secure in itself and confident of its place in the world, an India that is a proud example of tolerance, freedom and hope for the downtrodden and the marginalized. This is not the “New India” the BJP seeks to create.
As I said in parliament, this is a battle for the soul of India. Every Indian has a stake in the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free. Let's not betray his vision.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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