Liberal quandaries over the politics of Muslim assertion

Student hold up a “Muslim Lives Matter” placard as they march in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi to protest against India’s recent ‘anti-Muslim’ Citizenship Act in December 2019.  Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

Karthika Jayakumar & Muhammed Jahfer

The liberal gaze, essentially oriental, portrays the quintessential Muslim as socially and culturally backward, who ‘needs’ to get assimilated and ‘reformed’ under a broad and homogenized form of secularism wherein the liberal will grant emancipation to the Muslim by taking the latter under their wing thereby also offering ‘representation’ which is inherently tokenistic. What the liberal does not realize is that this ‘backwardness’ is enforced by forces that occupy space and positions of power. This paternalistic approach, in reality, does not reflect the plurality of a Muslim individual and instead strips them down to merely their religious identity. For resisting such a reductionist interpretation, an individual unapologetically asserting their Muslim identity in the hegemonic mainstream is accused of being sectarian.

The deliberate invisibilization of everything that pertains to the Muslim identity can be traced back to the days following the partition of the subcontinent. The Muslims, for whom it was not enough that they were born and raised in India to be worthy of citizenship, had to undergo a forced erasure of their identities, so as to not be treated with suspicion of inciting violence and betrayal against the state. Going to the extent of substituting the Turkish Fez with the Khadi cap, hesitantly sacrificing separate electorates and agreeing to teach their children Hindi instead of Urdu and other endless atonements were still not enough to remove the blotch that had befallen the identity of, mainly, the Bahujan Muslims who were made the scapegoat of elite and pretentious politics of the Savarna stakeholders that resulted in the formation of Pakistan. In addition to this, a chilling reminder came from Sardar Vallabhai Patel who demanded ‘proof of declaration’ of the loyalty of Muslims to the Indian Union, post partition (Jalal, 1997).

Debates over the ‘Muslim Question’

Two years ago there was a contentious liberal debate on the ‘Muslim question’. It all started with Ramchandra Guha replying to Harsh Mander’s column in The Indian Express. In Sonia, sadly, Mander seemed to be concerned about Sonia Gandhi’s fear that Congress is being perceived as a Muslim party. Mrs. Gandhi could have diplomatically responded that Congress stands for all or with some dosage of Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb. But, in an increasingly majoritarian political landscape, the Congress supremo must have been convinced about the popular public sense.

However, Ramchandra Guha in his dissent note to Harsh Mander reproduced the writings of Hamid Dalwai to make a case for an ‘avant-garde liberal elite’ to lead the community. Guha further quotes Dalwai: “If Muslims are to be integrated in the fabric of a secular and integrated Indian society, a necessary precondition is to have a class of Muslim liberals who would continuously assail communalist dogmas and tendencies. Such Muslim liberals, along with Hindu liberals and others, would comprise a class of modern Indian liberals.”

In other words, Muslims are not being integrated into Indian society because the precondition of having a class of liberal leadership is not met. Scheduled caste Muslims, whose right to avail SC reservation was scuttled through a Presidential order in 1950, are being asked to get integrated into the larger framework. The racialization that is deeply embedded in the VHP’s slogan Pehle kasai, Phir isai (First butchers, pejoratively associated with Muslims, then Christians) gets only minimal attention from the class of liberals. The existence of an ideology that seeks to disenfranchise minorities and tries to de-mobilize subaltern struggles is being compared to communitarian voices from the margins as to eventually discard them while refusing to acknowledge the gigantic power relation. In the current politically outrageous and increasingly hatred driven social system, Muslims are more concerned about the physical existence and citizenship rights rather than ‘integrating’ into the microscopic liberal fabric.

Guha hailed Arif Mohammed Khan as someone who belonged to the league of ‘secularising modernists’ happens to be a ‘good Muslim’ in BJP’s account. While the discourse on good Muslim-bad Muslim has been persistent right from the inception of nationalism in the subcontinent, the conception of good Muslim differs between the secular parties and the BJP. For the secular parties, good Muslims are a source of ‘unity in diversity’ who have been patriots and nationalists, while BJP’s good Muslims are supposed to demonstrate Muslimness as antithetical to the national identity.

Nobody seems to have deliberated on the arguments put forth by Khalid Anis Ansari. Apart from the notions of Hindu-ness and Muslimness, he invoked Pasmanda ideologues who advocated for ‘counter-hegemonic solidarity’ of subaltern castes across religions. If deliberated on the series of similar arguments, the class of modern Indian liberals would have been baffled as its caste location is being called out.

(Un)conditional Allyship

The diktats of liberal inclusiveness manifests itself in binaries of secular nationalism or religious communalism. This isn’t ideal as the onus always falls on the Muslim to prove their nationalism, that too by foregoing their Muslimness. Here, a homogenised ‘Indian identity’ gets projected that rejects pluralities and conveniently subverts an entire community as the ‘subaltern’. Liberal anxieties over being the ‘spokesperson’ of the subaltern is amusing. They hijack and appropriate the subaltern cause in their own terms for validation instead of just passing the mic. These subalterns have been speaking for generations. The real concern is whether or not self-proclaimed allies are willing to listen and extend solidarity on the terms of the oppressed.

The recent anti-CAA movement witnessed the largest participation of Muslims in India post independence. What emerged as an organic movement eventually faced bouts of liberal whitewashing. The movement essentially epitomised upholding a Muslim’s identity assertion and freedom to lead a life of dignity in Indian society. When people came out onto the streets in skullcaps and burqas, raising slogans of La ilaha illallah and Allahu Akbar, performing the Namaz on the road and claiming public spaces that are rightfully theirs, they were questioned for their ‘radical’ politicizing of an otherwise ‘Indian’ movement that sought to fight against the discriminatory citizenship laws that supposedly affected the entire Indian population. This is a blatant (mis)interpretation as the citizenship laws were exclusively targeted at the Indian Muslims and offered a backdoor to migrants of Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Jain, Buddhist and Christian minorities who fled persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan before December 2014 thereby emphasizing on a mass Muslim agitation.

Unveiling Secular Anxieties

Political leaders like Shashi Tharoor expressed concerns about the importance of fighting both Hindutva and ‘Islamist’ extremism and called for a rejection of slogans like La ilaha illallah as he did not want pluralism to get replaced by ‘religious fundamentalism’. Instead of extending unconditional solidarity to the movement, the cause got warped into protecting the Constitution and patriotic slogans like Bharat Mata Ki Jai were raised thus instilling a need to preserve nationalism. As slogans of Hum kya chahte? Azaadi! also floated around several protest sites, progressive circles attempted to appropriate this as a pan Indian struggle to liberate democracy from the clutches of fascism. Azaadi for the Indian Muslim holds an altogether different meaning. It is the right to occupy space in the fabric of Indian secular ethos by fighting for their citizenship within the state which they shouldn’t have been made to fight for, in the first place. This raises doubts over the kind of ‘Azaadi’ being demanded by the Indian liberals.

Despite the loud outrage against the citizenship laws, the silence that ensued the incarceration of Sharjeel Imam, the first protester to be targeted by the state in the series that followed, was deafening. ‘Progressive’ voices only spoke in terms of conditional solidarities and patronizing open letters that dismissed Imam’s arrest and slapping of draconian laws like sedition and UAPA but refused to support the ‘deluded rant’ of a man who apparently played into the hands of right wing propaganda. Here, we see secular anxieties being revealed at the truthful assertions of an erudite Muslim scholar. Imam criticized the performativity and tokenism that accompanied liberal politics. His ideas were not restricted to binaries of secular/bigoted ideologues. Instead, his propositions for social justice ascribed not only to political representation but also rooted for a critical engagement with Islam as a theology which clearly rattled many. As Imam serves time in prison for speaking truth to power, he bears the brunt of the fate meted out to the entire community that he belongs to. The lack of hesitation with which he presented the collective aspirations of the Indian Muslim is what triggered regressive responses from all sides.

The organic formulation of assertive politics of a deliberately subverted group is unpalatable as per the likes of the liberal. Imam’s unapologetic Muslimness, the women activists of Jamia raising slogans of La ilaha illallah and the moment when Shahrukh Pathan was seen pointing a gun at the police in self-defence during the Delhi pogrom are all acts of resistance which don’t fit into the moulds of mainstream political narratives. Desperation to ‘save’ the Muslim, limits the liberal discourses of resistance to mere flowery appeasing acts like offering peace symbols to literal gun yielding hypermasculine state machinery.

Reference: Jalal, A. (1997). Exploding Communalism: The Politics of Muslim Identity in South Asia. Nationalism, Democracy and Development: State and Politics in India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998-9.

Karthika Jayakumar and Muhammed Jahfer are currently studying at Tata Institute Of Social Science in Tuljapur, Maharashtra.