Why are Muslims protesting in India?

Note: This piece was jointly written by Aasif Mujataba and Sharjeel Imam during the Anti-CAA movement in India. We are publishing this piece today on Sharjeel Imam’s Birthday.

As soon as the NDA government re-floated the idea of Citizenship Amendment Bill two months ago, unrest started in India. Mobilisation against the implementation of the law in Delhi started in early December. Meeting of Muslim Students of JNU, call to Jantar Mantar by United against Hate, protest march in Jamia Millia Islamia, roadblock at Shaheen Bagh and then the violent attack on Jamia: all of these happened in the first fortnight of December. AMU was attacked immediately after that, and the killing of Muslims in UP agitated more people resulting in more people taking to roads to protest. Protests, marches and rallies have become the norm in Muslim localities across Indian cities in the last two months, and the Muslims have finally come out demanding their rights, and that itself is a great achievement, the first step towards salvation.

Over the last few years, the Muslims in India have been growing conscious about the discriminations against them. The unilateral revocation of autonomy and lockdown of Jammu & Kashmir, Criminalisation of Muslim men under Triple Talaq Law, the Babri verdict and numerous other issues have haunted the Muslims in 2019 alone. And the last five years before 2019 also saw increasing attacks on Muslims in the form of lynchings all across India, and increasingly caustic rhetoric against Muslims becoming mainstream. And the realisation of 70 years, of experiences, post-independence, that Muslims have been treated as second class citizens, as well as being massacred by state apparatus and right-wing mobs.

Hence, it would be wrong to reduce the discontent and grievances of the Muslim masses to one single issue of CAA. The issue of NRC CAA is more of a tipping point, a trigger, rather than the origin which has forced the Muslims to take to the roads. The Muslims are protesting against the systemic oppression of many decades and not just this isolated case of CAA. It is imperative to acknowledge this fact to understand why Muslims are protesting.

What are we saving?

There has been a debate developing around this idea that the Muslims are out on the roads to save the Constitution. The vocal representatives of civil society, as well as some well-meaning Muslims, also adhere to this line of thinking. However, if you talk to the Muslim masses, it becomes clear that not many of them understand what the Constitution is, or what it means for them. That in itself makes a case for the consideration that Muslims are not out on roads to save the Constitution. It is a section of vocal representatives who are insisting on the fact that Muslims want to save the Constitution. However, there exists a healthy body of literature and opinions which makes it clear that the Constitution, how so much progressive it might sound, is not essential as inclusive and radical as we have been made to believe. And it is also well-argued that parts of this document have been instrumental in denying Muslims their share in power over the last 70 years. The significant issues are centre-state relations, the definition of Hindu (Dalit Muslims), Cow protection and First past the post-election system.

At the same time, the fight of Muslims is for survival which is under threat with the passage of this citizenship law. And it is not for those who are fighting for survival to save the secular nature of the Constitution or the society if they are secular at all. How can there be an argument that Indian polity is secular? If it were secular, Dalit Muslims would have been identified long ago, and Dalits could convert to Islam without losing their status. Since they can’t, it is merely a lie to state that Indian polity is secular and Muslims are saving secularism. We should not mislead the masses.
Besides, the Constitution itself is interpreted by the judiciary, and that leaves enough scope for the bias of the judges to prevail. The court has failed Muslims in the Babri verdict by first declaring that Babri masjid was in fact illegally demolished but yet awards the judgement in favour of those who destroyed it. Muslims have rarely seen a sympathetic voice in the executive and legislative for last 70 years mainly due to lack of representation in those wings of the government, and after the Babri verdict, the judiciary is also seen as utterly compromised.

Muslims are anxious and agitated about the threat of becoming stateless. Muslims are out on the roads, to save themselves. If saving themselves entails amending the Constitution, then we have to do that as well.

Means of Protest:

When Muslims are out on the roads, there are two important roles that scholars should play. First is the project of sensitisation and awareness, where we are able to connect with the masses and explain their history to them. Most of them have heard of massacres, most of them living in border areas know about the issues of citizenship which Muslims face since partition, most of them witnessed the role of the executive first hand. Hence it is a great opportunity to make the dots in their mind evolve into a coherent narrative which explains the role of state and traditional parties in marginalising them. There are thousands of protests going on in the form of juloos, sit-ins etc. where the project of sensitisation must go on, in combination with a door to door meeting approach.

Apart from the project of sensitisation, the other step is deciding on a plan of action by which we can compel the state and the parties to listen to us. The only precondition is that the means of protest should be peaceful, but it should be effective. Blocking roads is one effective way of increasing pressure on the government and civil society at large. That is what we achieved in Shaheen Bagh, a roadblock which has choked the Noida Delhi traffic for over a month now. There is no other protest site in India where this feat has been achieved. Our next step is to make hundreds of Shaheen Baghs so that we can bring India to a halt against this brazenly communal act in order to make our voices of distress and despair heard.

The role of the lesser endangered citizenry, communities included in CAA for the award of citizenship?

We believe NRC and NPR are coming for all. But CAA makes Muslims disproportionately vulnerable as it has a provision to grant citizenship to members of all communities except Muslims. We understand it is not going to be easy to claim citizenship under the amendment, but there is a scope nevertheless which should not be brushed aside but should be infact acknowledged as a direct assault on the Muslim citizens of the country.
In the given scenario, we expect all secular citizens of this country to not only stand with us in this protest but treat this fight as their own. Anti CAA struggle is not only a fight for the citizenship rights of a vulnerable minority community but also to inculcate secularism as a value in our society. And the responsibility of the same falls on the members of the majority community to stand up for secular credentials of the country. And while the members of the majority community and other sections of the society stand up for this struggle, the terms of the battle cannot be dictated to the Muslims who are fighting for their citizenship while being under assault for their religious identity. This fight has to be fought with our allies on the basis of mutual respect and dignity for our citizenship rights and humanity and not by an imposition of a temporal constitution or illusory secularism.
Moreover, the most significant contribution by other communities to this collective struggle would be that they undertake the responsibility to mobilise people within their communities in support of Anti-CAA, NRC campaign and pour in more support for the various modes of protests.

Opportunistic politics:

The anti-CAA and NRC campaign is not an electoral fight. The BJP is going to rule for four years according to the Constitution itself. It is incumbent upon us Muslims to avoid the electoral squabble among parties, and not let our movement crash into this or that election. We witnessed this clash in Shaheen Bagh and other places first hand. For the first ten days of the chakka jaam, no political parties were interested in us. Still, as soon as international media arrived, the protests became sites for electoral canvassing for the upcoming local elections. Muslims should not and will not let this movement be used for petty electoral gains in a system which has been fundamentally against their genuine interests.

Constitution vs Spirit of the Constitution

Our fight against the state-sponsored hate and violence is not merely based on the Constitution but entirely on its soul. This might appear a little confusing. How can the Constitution differ from the Constitutional spirit. Well, look at the human body, as organic as the Constitution, someone might be differently-abled. Physically one might not be able to walk, but the soul can travel, a soul exists irrespective of the form of the body.
The soul of the Constitution as enshrined in the Preamble is the guiding light. The body is mortal and perishable but the soul is time immemorial, same is with the Constitution, the texts might change ( through amendments) but the soul remains the same.

We base our arguments on the spirit of the Constitution and not entirely on the texts. For the same reason, we don’t find articles like 44, 48, 19(2), First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, putting delimitation outside the purview of judicial review etc coherent with the soul. There is a need for a healthy debate and a paradigm shift in such state policies.

The way forward

In the prevailing times when majoritarianism is trying to overshadow the constitutional spirit, It has become imperative to instil and reinforce the faith of the people on organs of the state. Be it Legislature, Executive or Judiciary, they need to act bonafide. They should try to win the heart of the minority. It’s also a high time for the obdurate Executive to take restorative measures. If they ignore the warning signs, it will be, quote an American slave song- no more water but the fire next time.

The court has given a four week to the government to provide its response. Well, be it four weeks or four months, our fight for the spirit of Constitution will go on. There would be innumerable Shaheen Baghs. Each of us would come on the streets with peaceful protests. We will follow all the non-violent ways to make this obdurate government listen to our legitimate concerns.

( The views expressed are that of the authors )

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