To invoke Allah or to not: Secular Islamophobia and the protesting Indian Muslim – MUDASIR AMIN AND SAMREEN MUSHTAQ

At around noon on 14 December, a middle-aged  man was painting on a wall of Jamia Millia Islamias Chemistry Department that faces the varsitys Central Canteen. That day, many students were painting colourful messages on every other wall in Jamia, expressing their opposition to the recently enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.

But the mans brush strokes were an attempt to efface an Islamic proclamation of faith written in Arabic on the wall: La ilaha illallahThere is no god but Allah. A group of aboutfifteen students and security guards were standing next to him. The group started cheering on the guards for paying heed to their complaint against the communal slogan, and asking someone to repaint it. At that moment, another group of about tenfifteen students walked into scene, visibly upset at the attempt of effacement. One of them said, How dare you attempt to remove this? Isnt this the whole reason why Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens are being used to target us?

The man holding the brush sensed the tension and quickly walked away. One of the students from the second group rewrote the two words that had been painted over by then. Students from the second group began telling those gathered there that the CAA needed to be seen as an attack on Islam and Muslims, and that it must be an entry point for Muslim assertion. The first group retorted by calling the slogan communal in an otherwise secular movementNon-Muslims are also joining in, after all, one of them said. 

Perhaps to tone down the Muslimness that the wall reflected, by the evening, other graffiti had been painted next to the proclamationSecular India and Be United in English; Civil Naafarmaani, or civil disobedience, and Sab ek hain, or all are equal, in Devanagari script. Later that day, students gathered at Gate 7 of the campus amid slogans of the communist greeting, Lal salaamor red saluteand Inquilaab ZindabaadLong live the revolution.

One by one, they took up the microphone to speak about the CAA-NRC issue. The left-liberal student leaders, who were controlling the speakers order, shouted down anyone who tried to make a point about CAA and NRC primarily being about anti-Islam politics. They accused those who raised slogans like Allahu AkbarGod is greatof communal sloganeering. The left-liberal students made statements such as, Let us be united. Dont give a communal colour to the movement, and We will not allow La ilaha to be shouted here.

The next day, the police unleashed a brutal attack on the students of Jamia. They entered the campus, teargassed its library and beat students indiscriminately. The police injured many students and detained around fifty. On 21 December, we managed to sneak inside the campusa day before the attack, the Jamia administration had declared a university vacation till 5 January and since then only a few students were allowed to enter the campus. In addition to broken flower pots and shattered glass, we found the wall with the Islamic proclamation to be the only one that had been painted over. 

The same graffiti, and others like Allahu Akbar, continued to exist on walls that are away from public gaze, not in the common spots. The next time we manage to go in, it would not be a surprise to see if those were painted over too. 

What is it about Muslim assertion that must be repressed in order to forge unity with the leftist-liberals? This is not a comment on Jamia alone, but goes well beyond. Solidarity from liberals is conditional because of their understanding of Muslims as quintessentially illiberal. The liberals boast about the countrys pluralistic credentials, but see any assertion on part of Muslims who foreground their identity in religious terms as inimical to Indias secular fabric. 

There are varied forms of Islamophobia in India right now. On the one hand, there is a government which does not even bother to hide its anti-Islam stance. In 1939, even before the formation of Pakistanthe very existence of which is used to target Indian MuslimsVinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the prominent ideologues of Hindutva, remarked, If we Hindus in India grow stronger, in time these Muslim friends of the League type will have to play the part of German-Jews instead. Savarkars ideology was an inspiration for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. 

Over the years, the BJPs election manifestos, speeches by its leaders and policy documents have served anti-Muslim hate and bigotry, and resulted in direct cases of violence such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh and the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a malignant anti-Muslim vision for India, as Khinvraj Jangid, an assistant professor at OP Jindal University who holds a PhD in politics, defined it. His ascent after the landslide electoral victories in 2014 and again in 2019 is the culmination of this vision. The CAA and NRC appear to be among the final steps in this process, if not the last. 

Under Modis rule, the BJPs agenda translated into mass-scale actions against Muslims. A report by India Spend, a data-journalism portal, states that 84 percent of bovine-related killings since 2010 were of Muslims, with 97 percent of such violence recorded after Modi came to power in 2014. The culture of impunitycharacterised by inaction against the perpetrators and BJP leaders applauding them insteadhas instilled fear in the entire Muslim community. As if the violence was not enough, the ruling dispensation also seems to have a larger strategy to demonise Muslim men, for instance, by instilling a fear of love jihada conspiracy theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women and convert them to Islamand, on a policy level, by criminalising Triple Talaq. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act of 2019also patronises Muslim women by portraying them as permanently victimised by Islam in a way that casts the government as their saviours. Most recently, the Supreme Court of India also green-lit the BJPs dream of constructing a Ram temple in Ayodhya, in place of the Babri Masjid that was destroyed. 

Add to this the settler-colonial ambitions of the Hindutva project that were on display after 5 August 2019, when the Indian state changed Kashmirs constitutional status. The removal of Article 35Awhich gave the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir exclusive rights exclusive rights to buy and sell immovable propertyposes an existential threat to the people of Kashmir, the researcher Aditi Saraf wrote in an October 2019 piece for The Caravan. Maintaining land as inalienable wealthor, more particularly, preventing outsiders from establishing a land market in Kashmiris a principle with historical depth and significance in the region, Saraf noted. 

Post 5 August, the Indian state seemed to have expected that Kashmiri Muslims, who have long been branded as traitors, would come out on the streets and be killed. This particular expectation was not met, even as there is a different, lethal ongoing confrontation resulting from dense militarisationto ensure Indias control over Kashmir. With the CAA, other Muslims in the Indian subcontinentonly second to Kashmiri Muslims in the right-wings vision of hatepoured out to protest in large numbers. Perhaps this presented itself as an opportunity to make a spectacle out of brutalising Muslims, as we saw in Uttar Pradesh and Mangalore, and consolidate a majoritarian vote bank.

The highlights of 2019Kashmir, Ayodhya and CAAwere not about diverting peoples minds from its economic failures or other important issues. They were about realising the Rights vision of a Hindu Rashtra, which excludes Muslims. When Modi said that the anti-CAA protestors who areindulging inviolence can beidentified by their clothes, it was an obvious insinuation that Muslims are a threat to the peace of the country.

Muslims suffered under the decades-long apathy and institutional discrimination during the Congresss regimes as well. Among other aspects, the political representation afforded to Muslims has always been dismal. To thwart the BJPs attempts to label it as a party that appeases the Muslim community and is anti-Hindu, the Congress pandered to soft Hindutva to distance itself from the minority community. Given the abysmal socio-economic conditions of Muslims in India, this alleged appeasement is a mythat best. As the researchers Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan A pointed out in an opinion piece for the Indian Express, Any move in favour of minorities looks illegitimate in the era of majoritarianism.

Another form of Islamophobia that is noted in the left-liberal circles is more insidious, more dangerous. This is not to discredit the thousands of people, men and women, young and old, on the streets across India against the CAA. This is not to overlook the hundreds of Muslims carrying the Indian tricolor in these rallies, the love for their homeland and the values they want to fight for. 

But in this moment, the Islamophobia of selective solidarity must be called outunity that is sought in the name of the nation, unity that seeks to remove all reference to Islam in the name of secular values. How is it that Muslims asserting their Indian identity are welcome, but those asserting their religious identity beyond the liberal framework are silenced? If the people are out on the streets to protect the secular values of the country as enshrined in the Constitution, do those values necessitate for religion to be sidelineddisallow Muslimness in any form in the public sphere, even when the exclusion is clearly about Muslim identity?

The complex terrain of the negotiation between religion, politics and the state varies in accordance with the different contexts in each country. In India, when secularism means a neutral position of the state towards all religions, why does the onus of proving secular credentials rest on the Muslim minority of the country? Why do Indian Muslims have to stifle their religious identity to prove these credentials? When the Supreme Court validated the destroyers of the Babri Masjid by effectively sanctioning the construction of a temple in its place, why did the country expect Muslims to accept the decision in the name of secular values? 

As the cultural anthropologist Talal Asad argued, the state carries out the function of defining the acceptable public face of religion. When it comes to the Muslim religious identity, Muslims have to either assimilate liberal valuesthe liberals see this as an act inherently contravening Islamor be left out of the nation states political imaginary. This is akin to the political categorisation of good Muslims and bad Muslims, as the political scientist Mahmood Mamdani has written about in context of the West. Referring to the public discussion in America post 9/11, Mamdani writes: 

President Bush moved to distinguish between good Muslims and bad Muslims. From this point of view, bad Muslims were clearly responsible for terrorism. At the same time, the president seemed to assure Americans that good Muslims were anxious to clear their names and consciences of this horrible crime and would undoubtedly support us in a war against them. But this could not hide the central message of such discourse: unless proved to be good, every Muslim was presumed to be bad. All Muslims were now under obligation to prove their credentials by joining in a war against bad Muslims.


This is what we see when the liberal-left activists seek to direct todays decisive movement for the Muslims of India. When pictures of the Jamia students Ladeeda Sakhaloon and Aysha Renna vociferously protesting and defending students emerged online, social media hailed them as heroes of the anti-CAA movement. But then, their social-media posts started to circulate onlinesuch as one where Sakhaloon posted, We have abandoned your secular slogans long before. Suddenly, Twitter users started to insinuate that they are traitors to secular values. 

On 29 December, the Congress member of parliament Shashi Tharoor, who is popularly considered a liberal, retweeted a video of the slogan La ilaha illallah being raised at a protest. Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either, Tharoor wrote in the text of his retweet. He added that we will not allow pluralism and diversity to be supplanted by any kind of religious fundamentalism.

After online backlash for statement, Tharoor provided an explanation via a thread of tweets stating he understands primordial place of the slogan in Islam and its usage as an assertion of faith. And yet, he revealed a basic flaw in his understanding by adding, You cant fight Hindutva communalism by promoting Muslim communalism. His stance, that it is the Muslims who must understand that the very idea of Indias pluralism that is threatened, comes from a position of utter privilege and patronises a community facing an existential threat. 

Tharoor claimed that the BJP is circulating such videos to give a communal colour to the movement. He failed to note that the threat to pluralism also comes from those who claim to uphold democratic values by singling out Muslim assertion and giving it a negative connotation. The only difference between the Congress and the BJP seems to be their articulation while shouting down Muslimsthe former, in the name of the Hindu Rashtra; the latter, for its skewed definition of a plural, liberal and secular India. 

Rather than asking the Muslim other to get along with liberal values, it is necessary to direct the questions at the privileged self. What does the liberal sense of solidarity entail for a group facing violence owing to its religious identity? How tolerant is the liberal idea of the secular and the plural? 


At the brink of a possible annihilation, Muslims have nothing to prove to India, Apoorvanand, a professor at the University of Delhi, wrote in an article in The Wire. He highlighted how many well-wishers of Muslims are worried that the BJP will frame the opposition to the CAA as sectarian and essentially Muslim. Should Jamia and AMU have kept silent, or the protestors of Seelampur or Purnia kept themselves confined to their daily chores since their visibility would weaken the argument against the CAA? Apoorvanand asked. 

In Jamia, too, we encountered students who felt that framing the CAA issue in terms of the exclusion of Muslims and through slogans reflective of Muslimness could mean reinforcing of Jamias image as a backward, terrorist and a minority ghetto. This image was cemented in September 2008 with the Batla House killingswhen the Delhi police shot two students in an alleged encounter in Jamia Nagar, an area that surrounds the varsity. 

Many human-rights groups including the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association questioned the authenticity of the encounter, terming it a part of the shameful history of extrajudicial violence. The killing brought more suspicion against the Muslim neighbourhood, and the university in particular. The right-wing then furthered this suspicion. Shortly after the incident, Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, said: There is a university in Delhi called Jamia Millia Islamia. It has publicly announced that it will foot the legal fee of terrorists involved in the act. Doob maro, doob maroGo drown yourself. In 2017, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an affiliate of the RSS, called Jamia a refuge for anti-nationals.

It was in the context of the Batla House case that over a decade later, a woman student on campus told us, This is about Jamias image. Many students asked us to distance ourselves from the residents of Jamia Nagar who had come out on roads in solidarity with Jamia students. In tones that reeked of condescension, several students gave us the directive: They are an unruly mob; we are educated and distinct from them. Dont join them. 

Rizwan Qaiser, a professor of Modern Indian History at Jamia, told the Indian Express that students are seeking constitutional, not religious, rights through their anti-CAA protests. Further, that it is crucial for people to know that Jamia is like any other modern, liberal institution. 

But these narratives also go beyond Jamia. For example, the historian Ramchandra Guha wrote in a March 2018 article in the Indian Express that the Muslim community needs to come out of a medievalist ghetto into a full engagement with the modern world. He had also argued that any objection to the Muslim women publicly wearing burqas was rooted in emancipation and liberal values. 

 These comments are an implicit acknowledgement of the orientalist stereotypes of Muslims as barbarians, who need to be taught ways of an enlightened existence. They discredit Muslim identities to only legitimise the sarkaari musalmaan, the states version of an ideal Muslimthe one who does not have any symbols of Islam visible in the public sphere, who will be more favourable to the Indian identity of his hyphenated Indian-Muslim self, the one who would be the picture perfect on billboards, with a beard and skull cap even, to speak of Indias pluralistic image. The suggestion is that living life as a Muslim is itself the problem, according to Santhosh S, a cultural theorist. 

The liberal articulation of the issue or expression of solidarity demands that Muslims keep their religious identity aside, probably even give up on it in the name of the nation, and show off how secular they are. It demands the idealised Muslim, an educated patriot, keep away from other Muslims. In truth, liberal solidarity demands a total separation, an exclusion of an exclusion.  

The liberal solidarity is offered as a favour, as a teaching for the other on how to protest. Liberals direct how the oppressed engage with the movement; they claim to stand with the oppressed but muzzle their voice in the process. 

Often times since these protests began, we have asked ourselves: as Kashmiri Muslims where do we place ourselves in this movement? We have had a strong sense of disengagement with all forms of politics in India. Back home, we have often been a part of discussions about the indifference of Muslims outside Kashmir to the situation in our homeland. Those conversations never led to an imagination of the kind of battle that is currently unfolding in India. 

The slogans of azadi in Kashmir and India are different in terms of the framing and the goals. This is not the potential Kashmirisation of India as certain analysts, such as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, want us to believethe term could only be used if the Indian state laid siege to the country. But this is a significant time in the sense of the assertiveness of Indian Muslims and the pouring of people on the streets. This is certainly not a time for us to give patronising sermons.

We find ourselves drawn to this movement in relation to the Muslim identity, in addition to a general solidarity with the oppressed and the persecutedlike we have been for decades at the hands of the Indian state. To discard the Muslimness of our solidarity would be to take the same stance of the left-liberal activists in shedding a reality that is central to this moment in time.  

It is perhaps this Muslimness that has made Kashmiris stand with Palestinian struggle for decades. The streets of Kashmir have been adorned with graffiti saying Save Gaza and, referring to Islam, Falasteen se rishta kya-La illaha-illalahOur relation to Palestine; There is no god but Allah.It is this multi-layered solidarity that pushed Kashmiris to the streets in 1969 during the desecration of Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. This is how Kashmiris have shown bonds of solidarity with the persecuted Muslims of Bosnia and Iraq, Rohingya Muslims of Arakan and Uighur Muslims.  

Solidarity is a responsibility, as much for ones own conscience as it is towards the oppressed. It has to be unconditional and accepting of the different contextual realities. When expressed as convenient condescension and blindness to peoples specific identities and lived realities, it ceases to be solidarityit is an attempt at the same othering and exclusion that the state is being questioned for. Solidarity has to be a constant learning and unlearning, a continuing conversationnot one that comes with conditional clauses and terms of dictation.

On 20 December, we met a research scholar from Jamia, a Muslim woman, who told us how happy she is to see people finally out on the roads, resisting the power that is all set to annihilate them. Some students and locals tell me they dont even know how to go about this, or what a proper way of protest is, she said. But they are coming out here with their families. Isnt that some start, at least?


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