Test Of Faith

The CAA protests shake the old bounds of Indian secular morality

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
29 January, 2020

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.

Fatemah is one voice of that consensus. Another—and of a different stripe—is the Congress politician Shashi Tharoor. Responding to a video of protesters chanting “Say it on the barricade: La ilaha illallah,” Tharoor tweeted, “Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either.” The kneejerk association of these words with Islamist extremism—the video showed nothing more than a mass of young men marching as they chanted—closed the door to the many ways that they can be read, not least of them as an expression of Muslim defiance rather than extremist belief. Tharoor, evidently, did not shy away from recklessly conflating the two. It would not have occurred to him that in exhorting the faithful to worship none other than Allah, the shahada can evince a republican spirit more in consonance with constitutional values than the worship of the state that the current government encourages. 

The same failure to appreciate the use of religious idioms for political purposes underpinned the furore over “Hum Dekhenge,” the poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “Sab taj uchhale jayenge/ Sab takht girae jayenge/ Bas naam rahega Allah ka,” it reads—Every crown will be stripped off/ All thrones brought down/ Only Allah’s name will remain. After protesting students at IIT Kanpur recited the poem, a member of the faculty complained that it was “anti-Hindu” in its iconoclasm, and the university set up an investigation. At the time Faiz wrote the poem, its iconoclasm defied the military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, then ruling over the poet’s native Pakistan. 

Contrast Tharoor’s secularism, which has no truck with professions of faith—or at least Islamic faith—in the public sphere, with Aazad’s stand in the midst of, and in solidarity with, pious Muslims in one of their most significant places of worship. If the location and timing of Aazad’s protest is not to be read purely tactically, his secularism must be understood as one that does not merely tolerate religious difference, but exists precisely in order to enable the practice of piety by those who wish to practise it. 

It should not be surprising that Azad, a self-professed Ambedkarite, would take such a stand. Having attacked the Hindu scriptures that authorise caste, Ambedkar famously turned to a refashioned Buddhism to provide alternative moral foundations on which, in his view, a more egalitarian society could be built. This move was compelled by his doubts over the ability of a resolutely materialist ideology such as Marxism to transform moral dispositions, and by his identification of Buddhism as the original indigenous ethical challenge to Brahminism. One consequence of the centrality of religion in Ambedkar’s emancipatory project, reflected in the importance of religious conversion in Dalit strategies of empowerment, is that whatever their individual religious commitments or lack thereof, Ambedkarites tend not to display the instinctive aversion to religious expression that is characteristic of some left-liberals.

Theorists of Indian secularism have spent a great deal of time parsing what the concept means for relations between the state and its citizens, neglecting the question of what ethical demands it might make of citizens in their relations with one another. Ambedkar observed that “without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.” When the constable is himself communal, fraternity may be the last check against a descent into barbarism. 

In a discussion of the notion of fraternity, published last year, the rights activist Harsh Mander declared a preference for the Hindi word bandhuta, conjuring as it does an image of bonds of friendship without the gendered connotations of “fraternity.” Mander has done more than most to nurture a politics of bandhuta. Over the last two years, his Karwan-e-Mohabbat—Caravan of Love—has travelled across the country, visiting the families of people murdered in hate crimes. He cites as his inspiration the lonely figure of Gandhi in the last months of his life, walking from house to house and fasting in an attempt to quell the communal riots engulfing his new nation.

Shortly before the passage of the CAA, Mander tweeted that if the controversial bill became law, he would register as a Muslim, refuse to submit documents to an NRC and court the same punishment that undocumented Muslims might suffer. He has invited others to join him in this act of civil disobedience. Such radical gestures of empathy resonate with the forms of grassroots solidarity emerging from the anti-CAA protests—as when Hindus and Sikhs have formed protective cordons around Muslims offering namaz or attempting to take out baraats in the midst of protests, or when members of particular faiths have opened up their places of worship for the use of other faiths. This politics of bandhuta—in which groups go out of their way for one another, even in the face of explicit religious difference—offers a mode of solidarity against Hindutva that goes beyond the understanding of secularism that has prevailed so far.

In the protests at Shaheen Bagh, as elsewhere, events on the ground are shaking the earlier dominant consensus on how secular activism must be bounded. Tanvi Mishra For The Caravan

When Arundhati Roy’s novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was published, in 2017, readers recognised its protagonists—a hijra, a Dalit masquerading as a Muslim, a disaffected middle-class architect dreaming of azadi in Kashmir, and the baby of a Naxalite—as figurations of popular struggles in the contemporary Indian body politic. They saw in Roy’s tale of their coming together an allegorical fantasy of how these struggles might coalesce in their opposition to the Hindu Right. (When, at a political meeting, the character Anjum hears an unfamiliar salutation, “Lal Salaam,” she instinctively replies “Lal Salaam Aleikum.” The narrator notes in an aside that this “could have been the beginning of a whole political movement.”) But many complained that the different characters’ stories were too disconnected. The reviewer Somak Ghoshal described the novel as “multiple strands of narratives with the merest excuse of a literary scotch tape.”

Whatever the book’s literary value, if it was meant to hold a mirror up to the forces ranged against the Hindu Right, its narrative weaknesses were symptomatic of their disunity. If the protests against the CAA have done anything, they have sutured closer together the separate stories of opposition to Hindutva. If Roy had done this in her novel, even just three years ago, she would have been accused of foolish utopianism.