To liberals, secularists, leftist social activists, and left-liberals of India
First of all, I find Left Liberals as a political formation very confusing because here, two incommensurable words/worlds collide. For me, this political formation does more than the jarring incongruence underlying it—it surfaces the inherent islamophobia in the social activism in the country. An example of this is Vir Sanghvi’s in/direct defence of BJP’s Uniform Civil Code identifies himself and his fellow activist, scholars, and public intellectuals as left liberals. I write this letter to liberals, secularists, social activists, and left-liberals because just like this category, your politics is incomprehensible (or, clear as crystal) and the primary reason for this, is your reluctance to use the word “Muslim” or “anti-Muslim” hatred in your advocacy against Hindutva.
After the last two years of closely watching India’s political resistance against a genocidal regime, ultimately I found that the word Muslim is tabooed not just in right-wing (including opposition AAP, Congress) discourses, narratives, and rhetoric that calls for the boycott of Muslim and vigorously demonizes them. But also, I found the M taboo in your struggle to restore secularism, democracy, and diversity in India. The inherent islamophobia in your politics underlies the op-ed sermons on secularism where your call for the absence of religion in public spaces is only applied to Hijabi women, bearded Muslim men, and Islam.
In December 2019, the M community came under the threat of losing their citizenship due to the construction of a new National Register of Citizenship. If Ms were to lose their citizenship under the renewed NRC, they had no means to naturalize after, as the amended Citizenship Act was amended in 2019 prohibiting the naturalization of Muslim refugees. While the whole of India was rejoicing the rise of dissent through the anti-CAA-NRC protests, I felt unsettled, disturbed and I shivered as I heard rhetoric imbue the anti-CAA-NRC dissentious discourse: “today it is Muslims, tomorrow it will be you.” This rhetoric made it visible for me that the pluralistic and socially just sections of Indian society will not protest in the name of Muslims, with Muslims, and in their terms of questioning Hindutva.
The CAA-NRC protests centered on the refugee Muslims and so, the show of solidarity from you was immense. Citizenship and refugee crisis are primary to the list of social causes that India’s activists take up. As CPI-M’s Brinda Karat, explaining her courageous feat of stopping the demolition of Muslim houses at Jahangirpuri by hand, in April 2022 states, “We know … they are Bengali-speaking Muslims who live in that area… there has never been a single incident, not one, of communal violence… they are poor people.” Here, Karat rationalized the need for protection of the people in Jahangirpuri—they are model Muslims as they do not engage in riots, often regarded as refugees because they share Bengali as their mother tongue with their counterparts in Muslim-dominant Bangladesh and also, poor. On the other hand, to stand with the [non-refugee/non-migrant] Muslim became tricky for ideological reasons: for secularists and communists—Muslim was a religious identity and had to be kept out of the public and the political discourse; the leftists feared the rise of identity politics; and for the left-liberals, I do know what to say (or, clear as crystal).
So, to take up the cause against CAA-NRC that clearly excluded Muslim refugees and Muslims only, the social activist had to cast the Muslims into the mold of social activism. They needed a more-than-Muslim reason and rhetoric: “today it is Muslims, tomorrow it would be you.” While, for contemporary Hindutva, the perpetual other is the Muslim, for the social activist, the “you” is “us” minus the “Muslim.” In such a way, the Muslim remains a political outcast or the pariah in the paradigm of Hindutva and progressive social activism in India. From Mulla being a politically charged slur, today, “Muslim” seems to have become a slur in your refusal to invoke it. It has been three years since Amin and Mushtaq wrote in their article,
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 violence against Muslims is not an opportune moment for you to preach about secularism, democracy, and liberalism from your ivory towers. The risk of you not uttering the word Muslim is not as enormous for Muslims and you are not our saviours. Your ideologies of secularism, communism, and leftism are perpetuating a false consciousness that is in direct contradiction with the social reality of today’s violence in India: “disallow Muslimness.. even when the exclusion is clearly about Muslim identity?” Consequently, the risk is enormous for your relevance to India’s contemporary politics. Progressive journalist discourses are changing and your language does not effectively help in translating and communicating the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Godi Media. Theories of secularism, democracy, and liberalism must emerge from ground realities of anti-Muslim hatred rather than being imposed from atop.
The difference drawn by you between Sharjeel Imam and Umar Khalid is also based on how they wrap Muslimness into public and political discourse. Umar Khalid’s lawyer Trideep Pais submitted that the protests by Imam and Khalid were radically different as “Sharjeel Imam criticized a secular movement against CAA” whereas Khalid did not. Khalid stated, “I am being lumped with a person who calls for a deeply communal protest against CAA.” One of the things that Sharjeel Imam said in his speech which has been marked as communal is that
“[t]he time has come when we should tell non-Muslims that if they sympathise with us, then they must stand with us on our terms. If they can’t agree to our terms, they can’t sympathise with us.”
In other words, what Sharjeel Imam is saying is that ‘when non-Muslims protested against CAA-NRC they should have protested because it is Muslims who are affected today and not because it will be “you” tomorrow.’ The left, by fervently building a climate where talking about one’s community is framed as communal and polarising, has built constraints around the voice of the community that is speaking in its own terms against the genocidal harm done to them.
The Congress party too uses “Minority” and not “Muslim” as using a term that signifies “a particular community” has been discursively framed by the Congress as communal polarization. Congress must be held accountable for this historical discursive construct of “the communal” that to speak about one’s community is to be polarizing. So, dear social activists, can you draw a line between communal as in leading to communal riots, and communal as in talking with one’s community?
There is also a basic premise that when Muslims protest, it is often irresponsible or they are “riots.” Take for example how Manisha Pandey constructed Friday Namaz protests against Nupur Sharma’s comment against the farmer’s tractor parade on republic day. Repeatedly, Manisha Pandey emphasized that the violence that erupted in the farmer’s tractor parade on Jan 26, 2021, was a clash between farmers and police. Whereas when reporting on the Friday Namaz Protest, Manisha Pandey remarked that “those who riot in the name of protest are harming the cause of what many sensible people in India want: an end to constant Hindu-Muslim tensions in the country.” This was a response to Newsance viewership’s (1 Million) whataboutery, “hey why didn’t you talk about the violent protests by Muslims?”
Friday Namaz Protest that remained peaceful too disappears in such a generalized identity-based political construction. When newspapers were busy reporting that “Violent Protests Engulf India after Friday protests,” reports by Aishwarya Iyer, Sartaj Alam, Nikita Jain pointed out that the protests were indeed a clash between police and protestors. In Jharkhand, the protests were turned violent by RW goons and police clashing against each other leading to the death of Mudassir. Manisha Pandey’s remark points to a bigger problem in our political discourse. Firstly, it shows the reluctance to unravel the facts beyond sweeping generalizations about identity. Consequently, assumptions about Muslim as irresponsible protestors or religion-based causes as necessarily evil took over the realities of how the Friday Namaz Protest led to “riots.” In a psychic rush towards reinforcing stereotypes about Muslims, journalism at the left has shredded the need for specificity, situatedness, and particularity.
Secondly, what is happening in the country at the moment is not “Hindu-Muslim tension.” It is orchestrated anti-Muslim pogrom, organized in ways to make it seem like a result of religious extremism of both the groups involved. Hindus and Muslims do not enjoy equal power. Just like Manisha’s response to the viewership’s whataboutery, to say Muslim massacres are Hindu-Muslim tensions or communal riots is a balancing act. Your disdain to use the word Muslim impedes Muslims’ effort to create a vocabulary for the anti-Muslim madness—impedes only because left activism is hegemonic in India’s social activism and not because Muslims regard you as saviours. Understanding the madness without its explicit anti-Muslimness falls short of grasping the method to this madness.
Your criticism begins with Hindutva quite effortlessly, but you flee the battleground before the frontline even sees the light of Hindutva’s anti-Muslimness. Your power to dictate the discourses and causes of social activism in India is authoritarian, so either invent the vocabulary to question this madness in its acute form of anti-Muslimness and stay back to lose your relevance in the blinding light of thousand saffron suns.
M Ali is a researcher.