Shaheen Bagh; an interrupted future: Irfan Ahmad’s essay- Part II

Photo: Shakeep KPA/Maktoob

Drawn from the valedictory talk in February for INKAAR, an online lecture series on anti-CAA uprising organized by Fraternity Movement, University of Hyderabad, this is a theoretical essay in two parts. It makes an alternative reading of Shaheen Bagh as an event, a concept discussed by anthropologists and philosophers. Identifying the strategies deployed by “merchants of bullshit” to domesticate it to fit their nationalist-liberal impulses rather than revise them, the essay argues that Shaheen Bagh is an event of the future –– a future signed by poetry but violently interrupted by bureaucrats of the present.

In part I of this essay, I argued how Shaheen Bagh was an event. To this end, I presented a genealogy of event in anthropology, history, sociology and philosophy. This genealogy allowed me to analyze Shaheen Bagh as an event. Having shown Shaheen Bagh as a surprising and exceptional event, I begin the concluding part by discussing how the dominant power and knowledge responded to it. From there I proceed to describe truth and method integral to Shaheen Bagh. I end with an outline of traditions at work in the event of Shaheen Bagh.

Merchants of Bullshit and Shaheen Bagh

Shaheen Bagh significantly challenged the prevalent order of knowing and comprehension evident in the appearance of and reassertion by merchants of bullshit. How? To answer this is to ask what bullshit is. In dictionary usage, bullshit means nonsense or rubbish. My use is indebted to On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt, who links bullshit to truth. In his formulation, the hallmark of bullshit is “its lack of connection to a concern with truth.” Because of its cultivated indifference to truth, Frankfurt regards bullshit as “a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” Importantly, this unconcern with truth is often willful and skillful. To return to Shaheen Bagh, the predominant response from the order of knowing was as bullshit. Practicing epistemic humility, an honest response would have been: it is an event we do not know yet, at least adequately enough. This honesty was largely missing from the public domain.

Because of its cultivated indifference to truth, Frankfurt regards bullshit as “a greater enemy of truth than lies are.”

The dominant response was nationalist and nationalizing; including the one from liberal-left (who equally partake in nationalism). Shot through with Orientalism and Islamophobia, one shade of this response went like this: women are not leading the movement; men are using women, that too for “anti-national” goals. Rather than contradict, this response validates the long-held Orientalist dogma according to which men confine women to the domestic realm because Islam is not “modern.” Having visited the sites of protest, another shade of response stated that indeed women were prominent there and among participants were not just Muslims but also people of many faiths. Such a “liberal” reporting implied that Muslims had “finally” learnt to protest democratically and peacefully, all due to “our,” (read Hindu) influence. In so far as bullshit relates to truth as its nemesis ––here with truth of historical, cultural, theological and justice tradition of a community –– these shades of responses all illustrated bullshit in its diversity.   

Yet another, probably the most pronounced, form of bullshit was manifest in responsesto the Delhi pogrom designed to undo the Shaheen Bagh event. For example, political psychologist Ashis Nandy described the 2020 anti-Muslim violence as riots (not a pogrom), which he viewed as happening “from both sides.” Like Nandy, television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai held that “Political Hindutva vs radical Islam has created a volcanic situation” in Delhi. The former AAP leader Yogendra Yadav offered a profoundly mystical explanation, terming it “auto-triggered.”

The move to nationalize Shaheen Bagh in such terms, however, is contradictory. How can nationalism counter CAA, which itself is a product of nationalism predicated on the heavily financed idea of an ethnic Hindu nation-state?

Many analysts also viewed the event of Shaheen Bagh as Muslims’ “eventual” participation in nationalism. To Barkha Dutt, anti-CAA movement was “assertion of nationalism.” Such analyses seem to stem from the fact that protesters used and carried India’s flag, recited national anthem, invoked Constitution and displayed photographs of Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru. The fact that protesters also used photographs of Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Abul Kalam Azad, Zakir Husain and others did not matter much in these analyses, which surely have some merits. The move to nationalize Shaheen Bagh in such terms, however, is contradictory. How can nationalism counter CAA, which itself is a product of nationalism predicated on the heavily financed idea of an ethnic Hindu nation-state?

A possible answer may read as follows. Well, we have to differentiate between good and bad nationalism. Some scholars make a distinction between people’s nationalism and state nationalism. Along this line, in one reading Shaheen Bagh symbolized anti-state nationalism. In my view, this reasoning is also flawed.  In Fear of Small Numbers, Arjun Appadurai aptly observes: “no modern nation, however…eloquent…about the virtue of tolerance, multiculturalism, and inclusion is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some set of ethnic genius.” Before Appadurai’s observation is taken to characterize nationalism in “backward,” non-Western states like ethnic Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar or Hindutva in India, let us note that equality eludes the “developed” nation-states too. In seven monarchies of Europe, people born in royal families lack freedom to articulate their political view points. They are not free to choose their profession and become, for instance, taxi drivers or sex workers.

Of the many shades of responses to Shaheen Bagh described so far, its characterization as secular entails a scrutiny. Rajeev Bhargava’s op-ed “The Return of the Secular” illustrates this line. Bhargava equates secular with Gandhi’s vision. This equation and the consequent attempt to fit Shaheen Bagh within it is, to say the least, misleading because it is a diversion from the truth of Gandhi as well as of Shaheen Bagh. According to Nirmal Kumar Bose, an anthropologist who worked as an interpreter of Gandhi, “…Gandhi tacitly formed an alliance with those who believed in a restoration of Hindu domination.” Clearly, the goal for Hindu domination and “secular” vision are antagonistic. Let us also note Gandhi’s support for Zionism–– a fact suppressed despite evidence. To read Shaheen Bagh through Gandhi’s vision is wrong on another count. In contrast to Shaheen Bagh protesters, Gandhi admired violence. Having already participated in three bloody wars –– the two Boer Wars, Zulu War and WW 1–– even during the latter phase of his life when he preached “non-violence,” Gandhi justified violence on many occasions. In 1930, he chastised soldiers who disobeyed to kill the anti-colonial protesters and followers of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Only weeks before his own murder, Gandhi justified killing Indian Muslims if they betrayed the state (and Hindus) in an imaginary war with Pakistan.

However, secular also works as an arm of majoritarian power, as a stick with which to police the disempowered by classifying them as “religious minorities,” while assuming the religion of majority as national and by virtue of which also rational. Such a weaponizing of secular also works in the West.

My point is not that secular–– Gandhi’s or other’s –– in itself is problematic. If secular refers to respect for religious difference and equal participation of people from many (or no) faiths in a power-sharing configuration, it seems worthy. However, secular also works as an arm of majoritarian power: as a stick with which to police the disempowered by classifying them as “religious minorities,” while assuming the religion of majority as national and by virtue of which also rational. Such a weaponizing of secular also works in the West.

Photo: Shakeep KPA/Maktoob

Truth and Method of Shaheen Bagh

What, then, are truth of Shaheen Bagh and methods at work in that event? My formulation is as follows: Shaheen Bagh was the most political movement against politics itself. It was an ethical call to rethink the dyad of nationalism and liberalism and much else. It was a call to imagine a polis or political community differently. In using flag or invoking Constitution, participants of/in Shaheen Bagh were not replaying the existent nationalism constituted by violence and power denial but inventing one as its self-nullification. Recall over-identification I explained in part I of the essay. Theirs was a gesture of over-identification aimed not at worshipping or sacralizing but unveiling hollowness, violence and absurdity at the heart of the nation thinking and nationalism.

Confronted with unprecedented lethal violence by the police, protesters seemed confused about the fact that the police officers were betraying or following Gandhi, the icon of nonviolence. As already demonstrated, the icon of nonviolence was in practice a votary of violence when in 1930 Gandhi justified the brutal killing of followers of Ghaffar Khan and his Ḳhudāī Ḳhidmatgār movement. This was only one among many ways to show the limits and underbelly of liberalism-nationalism. With their bodies and souls, protesters also appeared to complain aloud: look, for long you pedagogized us to follow a list of do’s and don’ts and we did follow them all, yet why do you ceaselessly cast us as outcaste? In ways more than one, protesters seemed to ask the custodians of nation and nationalism: why do you continue to classify us as an enemy while we enact, as we have done it for long, friendship qua friendship? Protesters indeed posed the most difficult theoretical question to power-holders and their props: why does nation in whose name you speak need an enemy? Cannot we collaboratively think of a polis without an “other,” internal or external?

Protesters indeed posed the most difficult theoretical question to power-holders and their props: why does nation in whose name you speak need an enemy?

An important truth about Shaheen Bagh as an event was the emergence of a new (relatively speaking) subject. Clearly, protesters and dissenters spoke as Indians. But they also spoke as less and more than Indians. They spoke as a sheer human who does reside in and belongs to a nation-state but her or his being and becoming were irreducible to nation’s dictate and its claustrophobic loyalty. In reconstituting themselves, victims of police brutality in particular and of violence in the name of nation in general foregrounded their pain and suffering as humans at their bare minimum. As I have written on this theme elsewhere, suffice to note here that their modes of describing suffering were in terms of pure corporeality. In so doing, they were setting a task more challenging than hurriedly and simply become Indian or nationalist. That task, to echo Ghalib, was: even man is not fated to become human: ādmī ko bẖī mayassar nahī insāñ hōnā (ādmī means both men and women). This is probably a rare line inscribed in the world poetry.

The emergence of a new subject presupposes as well as generates a new plane. So, what was the plane of emergence in Shaheen Bagh as an event? Of course, protesters invoked nation. But they did in a way that their invocation also transcended the nation to encompass the entirety of the earth and the sky. The most radical, humanist aspect of the emergent in Shaheen Bagh was to enact poetry of Faiz, deemed as poet of an enemy nation-state. In enacting Faiz’s poem, they were not being disloyal to India or/and faithful to Pakistan; rather, they were scripting obituary of nationalism as sports or tamāshaon either side of the border, itself erected by the departing colonial warlords. When analyzed critically, it was quite a courageous act because to write obituary of something which is not dead yet is far more challenging than writing the obituary of someone dead. Through acts such as these, protesters were showing absurdity of crass jingoism that nationalism is. In his dissenting poetry, mark that Amir Aziz spoke about the entire earth and the whole sky: you inflict z̤ulm (oppression) on the earth, we will write revolution on the sky. The plane of oppression is not limited to a nation-state or a specific community as is the revolution the ambit of which is the borderless sky. The overlap –– or crossing, if you will –– between “here” and “there”, India and the world was equally voiced by Bilqis dādī who I discussed earlier: “I will sit here till blood stops flowing in my veins so the children of this country and the world breathe the air of justice and equality.”

In enacting Faiz’s poem, they were not being disloyal to India or/and faithful to Pakistan; rather, they were scripting obituary of nationalism as sports or tamāsha on either side of the border, itself erected by the departing colonial warlords.

Traditions at Work in Shaheen Bagh

To conclude this essay, I give a preliminary outline of traditions–– at once Indian and extra- and supra-Indian, more than Indian and more Indian than the ethnic notion of what qualifies as Indian––from which Shaheen Bagh sprang as an event. This crucial aspect needs to be stressed and rescued precisely because “progressive” voices determinedly elide, silence and malign it.

Consider the commentary by Ajay Gudavarthy. In it, he compares the anti-CAA and farmer movements. He remarks that despite being led by Sikhs as a religious community, the farmer movement is “universal” because it is “about being a farmer, not a Sikh or a Jat.” In contrast, “the anti-CAA protests were limited by their religious stamp.” The anti-agentive nature of both sentences, indeed of much of his commentary, does not make it clear who are the agents who define and design “universal” in one case and “limited” by “religious stamp” in another. The overall tone of the commentary and what comes after the cited sentences leave little doubt that ant-CAA protesters themselves kept their appeal limited. So beholden is Gudavarthy to “popular consciousness” that its rightness or wrongness does not concern him. Thus, speaking on behalf of that popular consciousness, which is nothing else but damaging fiction fashioned by corrupting elites and disseminated to the lower strata, he works to address “the anxiety of the majority.” The core of that anxiety is: “Islam, as a religion that has originated ‘outside.’” To instill a “sense of belonging” among Muslims, he, therefore, prescribes a debate on “an Indic-Islam version.”

Photo: Shakeep KPA/Maktoob

One can say a lot about this patronizing, hackneyed and majoritarian nationalist prescription. I limit myself to say this. Scared of or unable to elevating himself to attend to the intellect, aspirations and values of protesting Muslim democrats, Gudavarthy brings the protesters down to his own ethnic level of thinking steeped in neo-Orientalism and stamped with nationalism, that too of a seemingly Brahmannical type. Obviously, Gudavarthy and his ilk will refuse to publicly identify themselves with the calls by Savarkar and Balraj Madhok to Indianize Islam, but that exactly is the prescription he pompously makes to Muslims and others to initiate a debate on “Indic-Islam version” for Muslims to belong to. In the process of prescribing the so-called debate, he inadvertently reveals his own “Indic-Hinduism version” of nationalism, which in general has been mostly terrifying the world over. It is high time that we introduced “Indo-Hindu” as a term analogous to the ubiquitous Indo-Islamic. It is instructive that while prescribing “Indic-Islam version,” it does not occur to him to issue an identical call to twice-born upper caste stalwarts such as B.G. Tilak and Nirad C. Chaudhuri who saw their original home outside India (in central Asia or southern Russia). That Gudavarthy, like nationalists of other hues, seems obsessed with “origin” rather than Nietzsche’s genealogy is another matter.

Scared of or unable to elevating himself to attend to the intellect, aspirations, and values of protesting Muslim democrats, Gudavarthy brings the protesters down to his own ethnic level of thinking steeped in neo-Orientalism and stamped with nationalism, that too of a seemingly Brahmanical type.

To return to stressing the traditions that enabled Shaheen Bagh, one cannot forget the brutality with which the police beat the protesting students at Jamia Millia Islamia.  The police forcibly entered even the Jamia library and attacked students studying there, and who had little to do with the protest. In one report, at least 31 people were mercilessly done to death, most of them due to firing by the police. Despite the police terror, many protestors offered flowers to the police. Is there a cultural explanation of this gesture?

This gesture recalls and reenacts another event: an event from the Prophet’s life in Mecca. A woman routinely threw garbage on his face as the Prophet passed through the street she lived in. The Prophet never complained to her or anyone else. One day as he passed by, the woman did not show up. Later he learnt that she was sick and homebound. The Prophet went to meet and inquire about her health. Taken aback by his visit, she became an admirer of the Prophet.

The practice of ṣabr was another signature of that tradition. Popularly but wrongly translated as patience, ṣabr instead is steadfastness and continuous endurance in times of trial, tribulation and difficulties and to remain faithful to the truth. Thus, while shielding her friends from brutality by the police, when Ayesha Renna (a student of Jamia) raised her index finger to warn the police hell bent on mounting another attack, it was like embodying ṣabr in one of its finest forms. The deployment of her index finger in confrontation with the police by Renna is of much symbolic value. In offering namāz, one lifts one’s index finger to affirm and witness the singularity and oneness of God. That affirmation was at once a warning to the ruthless power gone berserk and which Renna and her friends were faced with, reminding that power thereby of its earthly character and its limits. In Urdu, index finger is also called shahādat kī uñglī. Etymologically, shaheed, shāhid (witness) and shahāda (proclamation of God’s oneness) are linked. In using her index finger, shahādat kī uñglī, to remind and warn the police, in my interpretation, Renna was also signaling identification with martyrs from the lynched Hafiz Junaid, the landless victims of Bathani Tola massacre (Bihar) to those lynched by the British after the 1857 anti-British rebellion. 

Photo: Shakeeb KPA/Maktoob

Yet another vital element of the tradition at work in Shaheen Bagh was sheer fearlessness. Recall the young Hindutva activist with a loaded pistol in his right hand terrorizes protesters at Jamia, while the police watched on. It was in such a fear-laden atmosphere that Shadab Farooq fearlessly marched toward the pistol-wielding Hindutva activist. In the course of his fearless marching, Farooq was not simply displaying his being; he was also becoming and transforming himself. Such is my interpretation of Deleuze’s notion of becoming in the context of this essay.

What, then, is the future of Shaheen Bagh? Nay, Shaheen Bagh is the future!

Despite the imprisonment of its activists, Shaheen Bagh as poetry and as a process of becoming will emerge victorious.

In the abstract of this essay, I described Shaheen Bagh as an event marked by poetry. Poetry relates to aesthetics, creativity, potentiality and more. Many prominent activists of the anti-CAA movement –– Sharjeel Imam, Safoora Zargar, Natasha Narwal, Kafeel Khan and Meeran Haider, to name only some–– were put in jail. It is not activists who were thrown in prison; it is incarceration of poetry and the acts of becoming. However, censorship and confiscation by the authorities notwithstanding, poetry, Judith Butler informs us, survived to escape even Guantanamo Bay. Despite the imprisonment of its activists, Shaheen Bagh as poetry and as a process of becoming will emerge victorious. To recall Derrida, an event contains its recurrence. Thus, Shaheen Bagh is far from over. Actually, it has not even properly begun. It has done the groundwork for something to come: that which is the horizon of the future. And when it returns, it will be even more surprising. Some elements of the ongoing farmer movement resonate with an event, beckoning to the potential.

Read the first part of this essay here.

Irfan Ahmad a political anthropologist, is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious & Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany.