Since December 2019, India has seen countrywide protests against a new citizenship law. The law fast tracks Indian citizenship applications from non-Muslim citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The federal government has stated that this is to help “persecuted minorities” in these countries. Those opposed to it call it discriminatory and in violation of Article 14 of India’s Constitution.
But a remarkable feature of the protests is the fact that they are largely being led by women. There is a debate around whether religious symbols should be a part of what are secular protests. Some argue that since Muslims are the targets of such a law, they must assert their identity.
In this context, a quotation recently attributed to Hannah Arendt has been doing the rounds. She says that the Jews should have resisted persecution as Jews, not as Germans insofar as the reason for their oppression was religious, not national. It requires some audacity to express an opinion, however tentative or nuanced, that is different from the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, who drew her insights from the lived experience of a persecuted minority.
The fundamental question of who constitutes a minority needs to be answered in order to make sense of the befuddling complexity at hand. There are myriad definitions, and a slide into reductionism must be avoided at all costs. But, in the context of a nation, members of a minority community do not constitute the upper echelons of the ruling class. They are not disenfranchised. But their group claim is not the same as the majority’s. Its members, having all the civic and constitutional rights, may reach supreme heights as individual citizens so long as they don’t predicate their claim on group rights, and earn universal acceptance by not flaunting their identity.
The fundamental question of who constitutes a minority needs to be answered in order to make sense of the befuddling complexity at hand
A minority’s main identity is national, within which it exists as a subset with some historically inherited features which set it apart for the rest, and which need to be protected, preserved and promoted. The majority has no quarrel with these differences, rather the majority rejoices in them as a form of exotica.
It is in this framework that we may try to understand the significance of the relative presence and absence of religious idioms and symbolism in the agitations which have been raging for over a month now.
Breaking free of the clergy
The most salient features have been:
The complete redundancy of the clergy. The ulema (clergy) are nowhere to be seen. Two main reasons can be ascribed to their conspicuous absence. First, this being a non-theological, legal and constitutional issue, they don’t have enough understanding of it to make religious pronouncements. The subject remains outside the purview of the Halal-Haraam (pure-impure) binary and sectarian squabbling. Further, irrespective of the outcome, they might have reckoned that their control over the community, through the imposition of what is pure and impure, would remain intact. They are going to be disappointed. This agitation is as much their obituary as it heralds the birth of a non-theological and secular consciousness of Indian Muslims.
Secondly, the vanguard role played by women. This is their moment. This is their movement. Although, apparently, it is against government’s policies, its social consequences are going to be far reaching. It is a result of slow but steady modernization of the Indian Muslim society. The inescapable pull of modernity has been very deftly accommodated by the emerging religious-ideological discourses.
The popularity of the veil-less burqa and the headscarf named hijab, which without challenging the religious dogma on the subject of veiling the face, exposed it nonetheless. It used the subterfuge of adding a couple of folds of cloth around the head and neck in lieu of covering the face. It has been a great enabler. It enabled women to venture out for education, employment and daily chores; and brought about a silent, pervasive and irreversible change.
That these women, as a collective, are in the lead, has irredeemably dented the Indian Muslim patriarchy. This may be the first time that they have dominated the public space in such a resounding manner. It is not only going to formalize the already modified gender equation within the family, but also to institutionalize new standards of propriety by displacing the Purdah prudery which kept in place a women-phobic discourse of piety and propriety.
The credit, of course, goes to the government for freeing the Muslim women from the clutches of the ulema and the talaq (divorce)-on-my-lips tyranny of their men. Had the government not felt so deeply about the oppression under which Muslim women had been groaning, and had it not taken revolutionary measures on the triple talaq issue, they would never be so emboldened and empowered as to script an altogether new sociology and theology for themselves.
Apart from how this movement is undermining Muslim patriarchy, and freeing Muslim consciousness from clerical domination, its impact for their political mainstreaming is even more significant.
This is the first time that the idiom of their public discourse has been largely secular. The green flag and the Allahu Akbar slogans are not even conspicuous by their absence. They became obsolete, and no one is missing them. No one is talking about Islam being in danger. The issue is not about whether they can practice their religion. And, with ulema being left out of this, the bogey of Islam-in-danger can not be raised.
This may largely be a Muslim agitation, but they are agitating not as Muslims but as Indians. The song Tera Mera Rishta Kya (What is your relationship with me) was raised by those for whom this is pure but the iconography of Bharat Mata (Mother India) and the song Vande Mataram (Hail Mother India) are impure. Therefore, despite the fact that old habits die hard, recidivist impulse of separatism and insularity has been marginalized, not tactically but sincerely, in good faith and with true conviction.
This is also the first time that the Indian flag has been so ubiquitous in a public demonstration, and the arguments of agitation have been so firmly anchored in the Constitution. The Indian Muslim has come of age as a citizen. She is talking as an Indian. She is mainstream. She is not a minority. Not anymore.
(Views expressed here are strictly personal)