Whatever trajectory the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act take, the moment when Chandra Shekhar Aazad, the leader of the Bhim Army, appeared on the steps of Delhi’s Jama Masjid after the Friday prayer on 20 December, holding up a copy of the Constitution with a picture of BR Ambedkar on the cover and surrounded by predominantly Muslim protesters chanting slogans against the CAA and the National Register of Citizens, will be a beacon across the ages. Several factors conspired to make the scene iconic: Aazad’s flamboyance, his elusion of police trying to prevent any large gathering, live television coverage with anchors sounding like commentators at a sporting triumph. But perhaps most significant was the display of the Constitution and its imagery in a space where we were not accustomed to seeing them: a space as deeply religious—as deeply Muslim—as the Jama Masjid.
The weeks since then have supplied many more moments of wonder. Consider the spectacle of the Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi leading a reading of the preamble to the Constitution, in Urdu and English, as a crowd of thousands waved copies of the document and the national flag. Or the mostly Muslim women of Shaheen Bagh, camped out in the open for over a month now in the coldest Delhi winter in decades to defend the Constitution. Or the Carnatic musician TM Krishna singing largely forgotten stanzas of the Tagore hymn from which the national anthem is extracted: “Ohoroho tobo aobhano pracharito/ Shuni tobo udaro bani/ Hindu Bouddho Shikh Jaino Paroshik/ Musholman Chrishtani”—Your call is announced continuously/ we heed your gracious call/ Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis/ Muslims and Christians.
In offering a path to citizenship to members of all these communities but one, the CAA, allied with the proposed nationwide NRC, wrenches Muslims out of the nation that the anthem sings into being. Given such pointed communal exclusion, it is not surprising that the constitutional value to which protesters allude most frequently is secularism. But even among secularism’s votaries, some forms of assertion against the CAA and NRC have exposed a fault line.