Every year on 14th August, friends turned Hindutva activists would wish me “azaadi”. I know it has become normalised for Indian Muslims. It is one of the ways that the Hindutva brigade and like-minded citizens mock Indian Muslims and want to make us realise that we should be on the other side on the Indo-Pak border, that we don’t belong here. This year was no different. Now I have stopped replying to these kinds of slurs. I have stopped proving myself “Indian” to them. I’ve just stopped engaging on this issue.
A day later, on 15th August, I put up a story “Jo Azaad hai unko Azaadi Mubarak”. To this a close friend of mine who comes from the majority community asked me as to why don’t I celebrate Independence Day. He inquired “Don’t you feel free? Bolne ka toh adhikaar hai hi Muslamaanon ke liye. Tujhe CAA ke time se kya ho gaya? “ (There is still freedom of expression for Muslims. You have changed since CAA). I didn’t have a reply yesterday. But now I do.
I’m someone who comes from an army background. I did my schooling at an Army Public School and was friends with people whose parents too served in the armed forces. At school, I used to take part in Independence Day celebrations. I would even get my cheeks painted in the tricolor like the other kids. But all this changed since the communally charged BJP came to power.
For a Muslim like me, the meaning of Independence is different, especially when seen in the context of the current regime. For me, it is almost like half independence or no independence at all. It’s almost like the face of the oppressor has changed but the oppression still remains the same. We are still under an authoritarian regime, we are still under a rule which exploits Muslims, harasses them, and persecutes them for asking for their basic rights. It is so bad that they even refuse to acknowledge the humanity of my community. We do have independence from the British, but we don’t have independence yet from oppression.
During the rule of the UPA government, there was an attack on the Muslim minority but it wasn’t a state policy. This regime is more brutal in that way. The frequency of targeting has increased, the intensity has increased. The disrespect for institutions, the disrespect for the law of the land, and for the constitution is rampant.
To his question, if I feel free in “Independent” India? Absolutely not. How can one be free and not free to express their thoughts? I believe there is no question of freedom here because there is an attack on every aspect of our lives, of our private lives, and of our social lives. Right from what we eat to how we dress up to how we look, to where we work, where we live, who we love, who we marry, who we befriend, what we speak, what we think, how we profess our religion, everything is under attack. Just a few days ago, a Muslim man was assaulted by Hindu men over charges of forced conversion in front of his daughter who cried and pleaded with those men to no avail. Three men were arrested for the incident but granted bail in less than 24 hours. Can you imagine the impunity? Muslims are being dictated, we are being told our limits. So if there are limits set everywhere, in all aspects of our lives, how can we feel free. As a Muslim and as a citizen of this country but foremost as a Muslim. No, I do not feel free in this independent country.
Frankly speaking, there is no freedom of speech and expression left. There is rampant persecution of Muslims who dare to exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression. All aspects of our lives are being monitored, we are being surveillance. There is nothing left of that right to freedom of speech and expression that was promised. For speaking truth to power, three students of my university, Jamia Millia Islamia and AAJMI president Shifa Ur Rehman were sent to jail under UAPA. Their only crime was that they were Muslims with a conscience.
This is a stark reality for the Muslims of this country, for people like me. All those activists who are still languishing in jail, you ask them about freedom of speech and expression, and they will tell you it’s a farce. So far, it is only on paper and not in real life. It is only reserved for hate speech, for people who give genocidal slogans against Muslims, for people like Uttam Upadhyay, Ashwini Upadhyay, and Ram Bhakt Gopal. It is only reserved for this section of the country, for members of the majoritarian group. The common man does not have it, the minorities certainly do not have the right to freedom of speech and expression.
Yes, the CAA has changed my outlook on Independence. The anti CAA protests were a reality check for the Muslim minority of this country. We realized it was an existential question for us and it was at that point of time that we realized that we could not take our position in this country and our stake in this country’s future for granted, that even though this country was free from British rule, that it had a constitution of its own, that India on paper is a “socialist secular democratic republic”, for us the reality was different. So for us, that was a wake-up call that we Muslims would have to fight for truth, that we would have to fight for our freedom from this oppression, for our freedom from persecution, and we would have to fight for a right to be recognized as equal citizens of this country and it is not enough to just have that on paper. So yes, in a way independence day changed post CAA.
Yesterday, I passed through an Independence day program happening in my locality. At that point, the people there were singing the national anthem. Listening to it I got flashbacks from February 2020, seeing the video on television wherein the Delhi Police forced a group of injured men to sing the national anthem between beatings. One of them, Faizan (aged 23), was illegally detained by the police for nearly 36 hours and refused medical attention, despite his injuries. He later died. None of the policemen involved in the incident have been brought to account for the cold-blooded murder. I despised every second of it, while I stood there. My heart cries for my brethren who were subjected to such hate.
While the country has a lot to celebrate. And yes, it was an achievement that after 200 years of British rule, we finally had our own people governing us. We Muslims came to realize that freedom is not absolute. That freedom is not something that can be taken for granted and that you have to protect it, preserve it, and fight for it every day.
Arbab Ali is a student of M.A. History at Jamia Millia Islamia and an activist of the left-affiliated student body AISA.