Test Of Faith

The CAA protests shake the old bounds of Indian secular morality

29 January 2020
Chandrashekhar Azad’s dramatic protest put 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 Delhi’s Jama Masjid.
Manish Swarup / AP
Chandrashekhar Azad’s dramatic protest put 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 Delhi’s Jama Masjid.
Manish Swarup / AP

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 Muslimas 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. 

In numerous protests, some Muslims have chosen to chant “La ilaha illallah”—the shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, stating “there is no god but Allah”—and sometimes also “Allahu akbar”—“Allah is great.” Defending the practice, in the Indian Express, the writer Irena Akbar argued, “If Muslims are asserting their religious identity with their religious slogans, it is because they have been targeted on account of their religion. If the state wants to bully me because of my faith, I will only publicly assert it.” Disagreeing in the same paper, Hayaat Fatemah, a student at Aligarh Muslim University, wrote, “When we raise a slogan where we assert that there is no God but Allah, the verse that is the backbone of a Muslim’s faith, and also the verse that a non-Muslim recites when he converts to Islam, we automatically alienate the people who do not believe in our Allah.”

The dispute, at its crux, is over what place religious assertion and association can have in the defence of secular constitutional values. “Keeping the protests secular does not imply leaving my Muslim identity at home,” Fatemah argued, “it only means to fight as Indians and creating a space where a non-Muslim can raise the same slogans with the Muslims.” Akbar, by contrast, held that instead of “asking Muslims to ‘secularise’ protests, non-Muslims can carry ‘I am Muslim’ placards, like the Whites did in the US against Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ in 2017. The onus of saving India from majoritarianism is on the majority, not on minorities.” While the debate continues, its rise to prominence makes clear that events on the ground are shaking the earlier dominant consensus on how secular activism must be bounded.

Rahul Rao is a senior lecturer in politics at SOAS, University of London. His latest book, Out of Time: The Queer Politics of Postcoloniality, will be published by Oxford University Press in March.

Keywords: CAA NRC BR Ambedkar Chandrasekhar Azad Constitution Faiz Ahmed Faiz secularism Islam Bhim Army
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