Citizenship Act: Muslim singularization and the denial of the political

Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

Muhammed Shah

The polemic foundation of India’s citizenship amendment bill is the claim of oppression based on religion in the Muslim neighboring nations. To imagine neighboring Muslim countries as the perpetrators of anti-Hindu (Hindu here includes ‘everything’ except Muslims) violence is being refied to be a call for homeland; a homeland for the oppressed Hindus. The tale of oppressed Hindus has often been traced back to the history of Muslim rule in India. Mughal and pre-Mughal history of Muslim rule could perhaps be considered the epitome of ‘history being the most ideological construction’. Remember the Padmaavat movie directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali which concocted Sultan Alauddin Khilji as an infamous evil in order to ‘historicize’ the fiction of Padmavati, the queen of Chittor. Indian politics is another Bollywood period drama strikingly characterized by its ‘historical’ enmity toward Muslims. The polemic axis of this enmity is the claim of oppression by the ‘Hindus’, or non-Muslims in the Muslim lands. In other words, the sole possible affirmation of this land as the nation is slowly being made possible only through the enactment of the enmity against the Muslims. The question of the ‘factual aspect’ of this polemic still would go unchecked as long as the ‘spectacle’ of this ‘historical’ claim is firmly present within the current discourse. No wonder if this, at some point, reminds us of Israel; the curious ideal of a modern homeland.


The ongoing anti CAA/NRC/NPR movement has at some point faced an intense controversy over its language and expression. The amount of writing produced during this debate has marked the public anxiety about the expression (in turn the identity) of the entire movement by which a demand for its ‘domestication’ through the nationalist rhetorical foundation arouse. What does this entail?

Photo: Shaheen Abdulla/Maktoob

The legislation of CAA reduces multiple dimensions of a Muslim into her religious identity. A Muslim becomes nothing other than a ‘Muslim’ through this legislation. There is, however, a difference between a Muslim exceeding other identitarian dimensions and a ‘Muslim’ being deprived of other dimensions of her self. The first could be a choice as well as an outcome of a political process. But the second is a forceful deprivation of the possibilities of a self; a denial of the political (maybe a concrete inversion of Schmitt). A Muslim, through the Citizenship Act, becomes deprived of a choice to be other than a ‘Muslim’ as well as to be more and less than a Muslim. A Muslim, here, is not an affirmative category. Instead the Muslim becomes a structural and political enactment. In effect, a Muslim only by virtue of being a ‘Muslim’ becomes political. Political, thus, is something a Muslim would find extremely difficult to escape from, precisely because it is political which was denied to a Muslim, through the legislation of Citizenship Bill. The condition of the political, for a Muslim at this moment, does not come from a conscious choice, but as an attempt to preserve the single available category of existence. Maybe it is this particular dimension that renders the others—non Muslims—clearly ‘Hindus’. Because, non-Muslims are able to retain their choices in terms of identification as well as assertions as long as the political is granted to them. The ‘Hinduness’, that is under construction through the reconstruction of the nation, is not an identity but a grid of identifications as well as identities. The moment you become something other than a Muslim, you have enumerable possibilities of identifications and existences, of course with varying degrees of acceptance. This enumerability is manifest in her choice to become anything other than ‘Muslim’ at the moment of NPR. A Muslim becomes devoid of such an enumerability and simply becomes ‘Muslim’ from top to bottom. This choicelessness would push a Muslim to the final struggle, the struggle for preserving the political only by which she can be exposed to the enumerability of existence. A Muslim, a uniquely (anti)political entity, thus becomes a singular category reduced, condensed and compressed. Every political moment in fact is a moment of such reduction; reduction of a Dalit into his caste aspect, reduction of a woman into her gender aspect etc. But these reductions often find themselves threatened by an imagination of inclusivity, rights and entitlements which people would call citizenship. A Muslim reduction is not even included in any imagination of inclusion that is schematized within the Indian political order. A Muslim should only be a ‘Muslim’ thus to be excluded. This exclusion, however, was proposed in order not to balance the existing population, but to make possible another inclusion; inclusion of non-Muslims (not even stateless) living outside the borders. The exclusion or need for the exclusion creates a Muslim that is singular at the level of physical reality as well as the epistemological practice. A Muslim cuts the gap between her reality and her name; the most singular moment. A Muslim emerges to be a most singular entity cutting across her segments and sects such as Shafi, Hanafi, Maliki, Hanbali, Sunni, Shi’it, Islamists, traditionalists, Sufi etc, which is something ironically missing from the anti-CAA writings. Akil Bilgami, for instance, displays it by relying on the quite insipid fantasy of ‘popular Islam’, another descendent of ‘syncretic tradition’, which is a much secularized fashion parade of ‘traditional’ Islam, against Islamists. A Muslim, however, becomes disenfranchised of her generality and multiplicity for her rigid and solid structure of existence that thwarts every other name. A Muslim thus acquires the form of a proper name, a proper name that rejects the generality (of meanings) and multitude (of becoming) by repeatedly be-coming non-other than a Muslim. The anti-CAA movement appears to be an attempt to create a cohabitation of Muslim with other categories. That cohabitation could be conflictual as well as harmonious. But the moment a Muslim chant La ilah Illallah, in other words, expresses her Muslimness, she becomes incommensurable to the structure of the cohabitation, even for those who oppose CAA. Put in frame, the moment a Muslim gets included within the domain of citizenship, the proper name would be obliterated. Every such political imagination is a redaction of the proper name ‘Muslim’. Hence, the exclusion of a Muslim is not just a legislative enactment, but also a part of any enactment against that very legislation. The Muslim in the wake of the Citizenship Act faces two threats: the threat of reduction and the threat of redaction. The most important question thus becomes whether you are with the Muslim or not; a question which is far more intelligible than whether you are anti or pro Citizenship Act.


Sharjeel Imam, a PhD student at JNU embodies the struggle against the redaction as well as reduction and becomes the most criminal subtraction in contemporary India. He becomes a Muslim subtracted from everything else once he was. Subtracted to be a ‘Muslim’, he now undergoes the legal lynching decreed directly by the state.

Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

Imam is a common noun among the Muslims which signifies a leader or the one who precedes others. The one who leads the daily prayers is called Imam in Islam. But, Sharjeel Imam is not a common noun, but a proper name; name of a particular person. In Indian history, we have people who gradually arrogated the Islamic common nouns as their proper names among Muslim leaders and scholars. Maulana is such a name. Now, the title Maulana is often disguised to be a proper name appearing before Abul Kalam Azad, Ubaidullah Sindhi, Sayyid Wali Rahmani, Abul A’ala Maududi, Abul Hassan Ali Nadvi etc in the later writings about them. But there is a fair sense of understanding about this common noun among people given that it was gradually attributed to or acquired by these Muslim leaders at some point. Besides, they were literally considered to be leaders among many sections of Muslims as well. But as for Sharjeel, he was born with the common noun as his proper name; Imam as his own name, or proper name. One might assume that this tail shows his commutarian embodiment. But quite the contrary, the community has been projected on him through the tail name. Which is to say, a community which is defined through the unremitting persecution is slapped on him. Put precisely, he bears the persecution that is destined for a whole community. His tail name makes him the most vilified and demonized subtraction of a community. Imam turned to be a common noun for Sharjeel, quite the opposite in the case of Islamic scholars and leaders in the history of subcontinent. The force that is behind the title of Imam is apparently absent at the level of polemics wherein the title has been given to someone else; Chandra Sekhar Azad. Azad does not represent the proper name while Sharjeel already took on the pain of the title which was actually not given to him. Perhaps, this is why we see the urgency of the state machinery to book him on a very fragile allegation made about his speech. He did not talk about the partition, but only about Chakka Jam, which nonetheless was clearly (mis)interpreted as a call for partition. This (mis)interpretation appears interesting because of the prominence of territory as a constitutive point of political sovereignty in India. A territorial redistribution, or even the total split of a particular territory itself, cannot ideally amount to a question of political sovereignty anywhere. Although it is not surprising to see the question of political sovereignty in India, which already witnessed many internal partitions, slowly shifting from its usual domains such as caste, language, culture etc. into territory. What is much more interesting is its so-called ‘historical’ resemblance of being named as ‘Hindu’ for its territorial enclosure (Sindh, in turn Hindu). ‘Hindu’, hence, from its impossibility to become a ‘religion’, proceeds to be a territorial enclosure taking the form of a nation. The Muslim, remained in India after the 1947 partition, is an excess to get evacuated so as to soothe the process of nation making. Sharjeel Imam is the strongest possible name menacing such an enclosure.

The Imam, unrecognized among the community as the/an Imam, now had to take on the pain of the common noun (Imam) and has been absolutely credited to favour a ‘partition’. Sharjeel Imam has been the subtraction of the entire community. What he currently goes through is apparently what was written for a whole community. Meanwhile, what is missing in a quite ‘enlightening’ letter written in disagreement with Sharjeel is the lesson that the state is not going to treat the ‘normal’ and ‘deviated’ Muslims like Sharjeel separately. Because that is exactly what this moment is about. A Muslim subject becomes a category separated from other coordinates and most subtracted one; a criminal subtraction. In other words, Sharjeel is the Muslim community and the Muslim community is Sharjeel. The (Sharjeel) Imam becomes the most singular leader of a subtracted community that has forcefully become singular striped of other coordinates.

Muhammed Shah is a PhD-Research Scholar at ASPECT, Virginia Tech, United States.

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