To invoke Allah or to not: Secular Islamophobia and the protesting Indian Muslim

A protest rally against the CAA and NRC in Kolkata. Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto / Getty Images
31 December, 2019

At around noon on 14 December, a middle-aged  man was painting on a wall of Jamia Millia Islamia’s Chemistry Department that faces the varsity’s 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 man’s brush strokes were an attempt to efface an Islamic proclamation of faith written in Arabic on the wall: “La ilaha illallah”—There is no god but Allah. A group of about fifteen 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 ten–fifteen students walked into scene, visibly upset at the attempt of effacement. One of them said, “How dare you attempt to remove this? Isn’t 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 movement—“Non-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 proclamation—“Secular 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 salaam”—or red salute—and “Inquilaab Zindabaad”—Long 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 Akbar—God is great—of communal sloganeering. The left-liberal students made statements such as, “Let us be united. Don’t 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 campus—a 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 country’s pluralistic credentials, but see any assertion on part of Muslims who foreground their identity in religious terms as inimical to India’s 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 Pakistan—the very existence of which is used to target Indian Muslims—Vinayak 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.” Savarkar’s ideology was an inspiration for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. 

Over the years, the BJP’s 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 Modi’s rule, the BJP’s 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 impunity—characterised by inaction against the perpetrators and BJP leaders applauding them instead—has 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 jihad”—a conspiracy theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women and convert them to Islam—and, 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 BJP’s 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 Kashmir’s constitutional status. The removal of Article 35A—which gave the permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir exclusive rights exclusive rights to buy and sell immovable property—poses 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 wealth—or, more particularly, preventing outsiders from establishing a land market in Kashmir—is 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 India’s control over Kashmir. With the CAA, other Muslims in the Indian subcontinent—only second to Kashmiri Muslims in the right-wing’s vision of hate—poured 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 2019—Kashmir, Ayodhya and CAA—were not about diverting people’s minds from its economic failures or other important issues. They were about realising the Right’s 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 Congress’s regimes as well. Among other aspects, the political representation afforded to Muslims has always been dismal. To thwart the BJP’s 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 out—unity 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 sidelined—disallow 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 values—the liberals see this as an act inherently contravening Islam—or be left out of the nation state’s 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 today’s 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 online—such 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 can’t fight Hindutva communalism by promoting Muslim communalism.” His stance, that it is the Muslims who must understand that the very idea of India’s 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 Muslims—the 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 Jamia’s image as a backward, terrorist and a minority ghetto. This image was cemented in September 2008 with the Batla House killings—when 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 maro”—Go 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 Jamia’s 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. Don’t 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 state’s version of an ideal Muslim—the 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 India’s 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 believe—the 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 persecuted—like 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-illalah”—Our 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 one’s 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 people’s specific identities and lived realities, it ceases to be solidarity—it 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 conversation—not 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 don’t 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. Isn’t that some start, at least?”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Savarkar was a leader of the RSS. The reference was in fact to his ideology being an inspiration to the RSS. The Caravan regrets the error.