This post is written by Amal Latif, A PhD candidate in Social Anthropology based in India, researching gender and migration.
“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.” Albert Camus (1960: 3-4)
I never thought much about my identity as an Indian. It felt just like breathing. I have travelled to many parts of this country, fourteen states, to be exact. From the North-Eastern part of India to the South, I have witnessed its many faces. Its streets. The perfectly round golgappas (An Indian street snack). The heart-shaped red balloons. The chai waala (tea seller) who smiles at me every time I pass that mundane street. That woman with a basket of grapes and her recycled dreams.
Also, those posters of politicians begging for votes in the name of God and nationalism. I have witnessed it all in my life as an Indian.
But ever since I enrolled for college six years ago, I have had to spend most of my time debating and proving how ‘Indian’ I am. Eventually, I realised that the right-wing regime and the rising communal tension in the country reduced me to my immediate identity of being a Muslim. With time, I noticed that my name mattered every time I dissented. In the middle of a casual debate at a conference, I remember a man telling me, “Ah, I know exactly where you come from”, as he heard my name. My name and my father’s name decided the weight of the arguments I raised. From being harassed on social media for sharing a piece of news reporting Muslims being lynched by an invisible mob that preached ‘Ahimsa’ (non-violence), to being judged in academic spaces for my opinions, it all became the new normal in my everyday life. I eventually avoided revealing my identity as a Muslim when I travelled. At any social occasion, if you are asked your name and say you are Hussain, Ahmed or Ayesha, note the reaction of the people around. Eventually, I stopped feeling the ease of being an Indian Muslim anymore. Self-confidence and hope had begun to seem blurry in my existence.
The proposal of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAA) in 2019 was a blood-curdling time in my life as an Indian Muslim. I remember watching the television on the edge of my seat when the Indian government passed it as an Act. My existence as an Indian was socially questioned all the while, and now it has become a legal battle. The CAA seeks to demarcate and exclude Muslims, regularising everyone’s citizenship in the country except for the Muslims. For the first time in India’s long history of secularism, a religious test has been enacted for granting citizenship under the passed Bill. The law specifically fast-tracks asylum claims of non-Muslim irregular immigrants from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. After 70 years of freedom, to be told to prove that I am an Indian is to experience a feeling akin to shame. The Bill has led to fears among the millions of Indian Muslims. There were subsequent attacks on the minority, asking them to prove their ‘Indianness.’ A video from Delhi went viral in February 2020 showing five injured men lying on the street being beaten by several policemen and forced to sing the Indian national anthem. One of the men, Faizan, a 23-year-old Muslim, died from his injuries two days later.
With the Bill, I witnessed family gatherings where parents advised the kids not to raise their voices, no matter what. I was told that I had no other choice if I wanted to remain safe in these mad times. I saw dire fear in the eyes of those parents as they said that. Every time I raised criticism against the brute majoritarianism, I noticed that I was losing friends with time. They raised eyebrows as I questioned the growing political polarisation in my country. Their neutrality haunted me in every political debate we had. I missed classes because I didn’t feel like facing people anymore. The alienation due to the new political reality felt so real that I isolated myself from people who could not empathise with the situation. Their decision to be unapologetically apolitical at this point is political. That decision signifies an implicit endorsement of the current dehumanisation of citizens based on religion. I grew more and more despondent.
The animosity towards Muslim people in India of course has a long history to it, which stems back to British colonial rule. Whilst there was a lack of common unity in India beforehand, the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and the creation of separate religious electorates in 1909 by the British generated new animosity, leading to the bloody partition of a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan which killed almost one million people. For a time, before independence in 1947, the British conquest brought about an idea of shared suffering and community resistance within India; the test of loyalty to the nation was all about the opposition to British rule. But today, India is witnessing an upsurge in Hindu nationalist politics marked by the resumption of the long legacy of bloodshed that Indian history witnessed from British colonial rule.
India is now witnessing the chauvinistic ‘patriotism’ that Samuel Johnson described as the ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’. Under the aegis of Hindutva fundamentalist groups, narratives of nationalism are intricately weaved with narratives of religiously oriented mythology. The classic blend of emphasizing national identity and Hindu religion has led to the country’s divisiveness, further leading to violence. The Citizenship Act has been joined by mob lynchings of Muslims, beef ban, and gau rakshaks (cow protection vigilante groups). We are suddenly in a position where eating beef has emerged as a political act of subversion in today’s India. Today, to be an Indian, is to submit to dogmas, rather than the demands of one’s conscience. As Orwell put it, we have come to a point where “Facts are selected or suppressed to make a case; if need be, the necessary facts are simply invented or, contrariwise, erased.”
Given the apathy of the people around me to this situation, I was relieved to see that a number of civil movements sprung up across the country with the Bill. Perhaps, this country’s conscience is not that weak, I began to hope. One among them that gained global attention was the Shaheen Bagh movement. Muslim women, many clad in burqas and scarves, from different backgrounds, the working, the old and young, huddled in one stretch of a highway in protest for over a hundred days. The women who were deemed as subjugated and oppressed came out to the streets to liberate their fellow citizens. Creativity is the most critical foundation of Shaheen Bagh’s being. The protest proved its dynamism by singing songs of resistance to translating the art of resistance to an ordinary language. Here, we have an incredible story of how a group of Muslim women and Dadis, with their children and grandchildren, in the middle of a cold December, choosing to peacefully resist what they believed to be unconstitutional citizenship laws targeting minorities. They chanted, “Goli nahi phool barsao” (Don’t rain bullets, rain flowers”). As the ordinary women spoke to the media and people, they unfolded their vocabulary of love against the systematic dehumanisation of the minority. With time, people from different communities joined the movement and something stirred in me. It was probably hope, hope that I can go back to a life where I don’t have to prove my existence as an Indian Muslim.
The close liaison that grew between the most educated young Indian students and the Anti-CAA movement alarmed the right-wing regime. The Shaheen Bagh movement wasn’t something that came out of nowhere. It resulted from years of brute majoritarianism, arrests of political leaders who dared to dissent, the brutal killings of civilians and children in Kashmir by the Indian force. It was about more than the lethal CAA. The ‘Integration’ of Muslims was never completely achieved even after its independence from the British. Muslims remained the expendable ‘other’. The community was also systematically used as an electoral tool by political parties. And Shaheen Bagh was an answer to all of it. It’s about the women who came out to the streets to save the last ounce of secular democracy that’s left in the country. And this event in the history of India will not be forgotten. The years of fear I carried on my shoulders began to feel a little lighter. I felt connected to the hundreds of women who chose to throw themselves into the streets as an act of resistance. And this connection wasn’t just about my identity as an Indian Muslim woman; it was also about the oppression and fear that was inflicted upon the community for a very long time.
The Covid-19 pandemic turned out to just renew the stigma faced by the minority in the country. In March 2020, the day before the national lockdown in India, I booked a ticket and rushed to the airport to reach home as quickly as possible. My cab driver was quite impressive. He talked about how he has fixed rates for his rides, unlike the other drivers who charged as they liked. I asked him about his family. We discussed politics, education, and a lot more. After 40 minutes of the drive, he opened his phone to show a forwarded video he got on WhatsApp. In the video, a white man (as far as I could make out from it) spat on a metro train’s metal pole. After he showed me the video, he said something surprising. The driver told me that the man in the video was a Muslim and he is trying to infect the others with Covid-19. I had no idea on what ground that video was shared with that description. That’s what the forwarded message was, and the man bought it. He continued, “sab musalmaan log aise hi hain, ma’am” (This is how all Muslims are), filled with anger as he said that.
The lack of stereotypical markers must have made him feel that I am not a Muslim. Well, I know it because this is not the first time I have experienced bias and bigotry for the religion I belong to. This time, it felt a little different. For a very long time, I shrugged off such remarks thrown at me, as I had done since I was a young girl. It did not hit me hard for a very long until my identity as an Indian was questioned. That day, I realised that I have grown up to be a different person. I did not want to run away anymore though there was so much to be afraid of. As I was about to get out of the cab, the cab driver asked me if I could tell him my name. This time, I did not hide my name. It is what it is. And I want my fellow countrymen to take me for what I am.
Today, the future of dissent and resistance is currently on thin ice with the subsequent arrests of students, activists, and civilians around the country. This also fills me with dread about the future of my country. The state must have crushed the place where the Shaheen Bagh happened by now, but the idea of Shaheen Bagh shall never fade as the movement fearlessly shouts out that “resistance is the women.” How these women decided to dissent has several historical precedents – in the widows of Kashmir who protested against insurgency, in the women of Manipur who carried out nude protest against rape by the army men, in the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who campaigned for their disappeared children.
As Arundhati Roy puts it, in her novel, The Cost of Living, “To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” That is precisely the lesson this movement gave me for life. As I go back to the times when I was subjected to judgements and reduced to my immediate identity as a Muslim woman in India, I realised that those experiences shaped my idea of dissent, marginalisation, justice, and empathy. My lack of privilege taught me what it feels to be politically disadvantaged in an unfair political discourse. And I would want my children to understand that an apolitical attitude is never a choice where there is injustice. Conversations around oppression, injustice and falsehood deserve to be dealt with. Yet, you and me can be as ‘Indian’ as anybody else is.