Shaheen Bagh protest challenges BJP govt’s brand of populism, is generative of new vision of democracy
Amid ongoing anti-CAA, NRC protests, Shaheen Bagh sit-in symbolises an alternative idea of democracy enmeshed in suffering, pain, mutual care, and the acknowledgement of vulnerability and human finitude
The passage of the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act exemplifies legislative populism in its most ethnic format, the National Register of Citizens being its subservient arm or vice versa.
The anti-CAA, NRC movement offers a significant challenge to Narendra Modi’s brand of populism, a challenge that is generative of a “new” vision of democracy.
The Shaheen Bagh protest contains possibilities for redefining democracy.
This essay contends that the passage of the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) exemplifies legislative populism in its most ethnic format, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) being its subservient arm or vice versa.
Arjun Appadurai describes the countrywide protests against the CAA-NCR as “India’s first mass movement since the movement for national Independence”. Along with its size and magnitude, I argue, the movement equally offers a significant challenge to Narendra Modi’s brand of populism, a challenge that is generative of a “new” vision of democracy.
Since the full enunciation of this democracy lies in the future, I only identify some of its key features. To this end, I focus on the women-led protest sit-in (dẖarna) in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh near Jamia Millia Islamia — a university founded during the anti-colonial non-cooperation ḳhilāfat movement, and from which this author earned his Bachelor’s degree. It is my contention that Shaheen Bagh protest contains possibilities for redefining democracy. The meaning of the Urdu word ‘Shaheen’ is ‘eagle’, and is central to Muhammad Iqbal’s decolonial poetic philosophy.
The CAA installs a “Hindu home”
My argument that CAA is piece of legal populism draws on Jan-Werner Müller’s observation that two of its fundamental features are: 1. the notion of an “authentic” people constituting a nation-state; and 2. its vehement opposition to substantive (contra procedural) pluralism. Both in its German and Italian versions, Müller further maintains, fascism should be construed primarily as “populist movements.” In Appadurai’s words, the enactment of the CAA fuses “the fascism of law and the fascism of the streets.” However, what are the mechanisms that drive this fusion and where exactly it is headed to?
At the core of the CAA is an exclusivist, ethnic notion of nation and who constitutes its “authentic” people.
This nation in turn is popularly imagined as an orderly, cosy “home” — emptied (often by violence) of an orchestrated “impure” other within, and the enemy at war outside. The outside and inside, however, are never clearly demarcated because nation-states also fashion “interior frontiers”. That the CAA is an installation of Hindu home is manifest in the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto, which promises that the party would work to make India “natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here”.
The CAA states that “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan… shall not be treated as illegal migrants” and thus they would become [Indian] citizens. Clearly, the CAA kills two birds with one stone: it sweepingly frames Islam and Muslim-majority countries as oppressors and Hindus as oppressed. It also institutes the dualism of Us-Hindus-Insiders versus Them-Muslims-Outsiders.
Analysts who criticise the CAA for excluding Tamil Hindus from Sri Lanka or Muslim Rohingya miss this dark dualism staged by the law.
Let us note that Christians were included in the CAA as an afterthought to ward off possible outcry from the West, especially from Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who both claim to fight for persecuted Christians. Let us also note that neither Christians nor Parsis previously figured in the BJP-RSS discourse or mobilisations as peoples whose “natural home” is India. Notably, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism are deemed not as religions independent from Hinduism but merely as offshoots of the latter. India’s Constitution too sanctifies this Hindu assimilationist view of other religions, premised on the contentious distinction between “Indic” and “foreign” religions.
It is not simply the exclusion of Muslims from the CAA’s purview that makes it ethnic; its ethnic character is revealed more pronouncedly in its assumption of pan-Hinduism.
The CAA posits India as a Hindu nation-state self-obliged to speak for Hindus beyond its own borders. India belongs, so goes the populist credo, to Hindus who are its original, authentic population. In this context, critics of CAA bypass the example of Nepal. As an Indian citizen hailing from Bihar, which borders Nepal, I admire the fact that citizens of Nepal require no visa to travel or work in India (and vice versa). However, if Mohammad Azmal Hoque, a retired Indian Army officer from Assam, is made to prove his citizenship by demonstrating that he is not an illegal immigrant, why are citizens of Nepal, which is a separate country, recruited in the Indian army? Is it because Nepal is a Hindu-majority country?
Ethnic roots of citizenship: From inception until now
Most commentators attribute the CAA’s ethnic character to the ideology of the RSS-Hindutva as articulated by VD Savarkar, MS Golwalkar and others. In contrast, they assume — for instance, as does Aparna Pande — that the citizenship law enacted at the birth of India as a republic was inclusive, especially because of Jawaharlal Nehru’s so-called secular vision. This can be accurate only when law is understood solely in its own terms, without its relation to the power it is predicated on. But even here strong caveats are necessary on two counts:
First, Indian citizenship law consisted of the tenets jus soli as well as of jus sanguinis where while the former, based on birth and domicile, is civic and inclusive, the latter is ethnic-exclusivist based as it is on individual’s descent or the citizenship of one’s parents. While Part II of India’s Constitution outlined the basis of citizenship on the principle of jus soli, it also had provision for jus sanguinis manifest, inter alia, in granting citizenship to individuals living outside of India if either they themselves or one of their parents or grand-parents was born in India. Anupama Rao concludes that “Indian citizenship as manifest in the Constitution at its commencement thus emphasises ethnic ties.”
Second, even the inclusive criterion of jus soli was compromised in the vortex of Partition. To the discomfort of nationalised selves, the fact needs to be stated that the stance of the Indian state over citizenship was far more ethnic than that of the Pakistani state. Faced with the high numbers of muhājirs (migrants) from India, Pakistan opposed their further migration saying that Karachi is “full”. Receptive only to Muslim refugees from Punjab, Pakistan asserted that its doors were “closed” to even those who had worked for Pakistan’s formation. Contrast this with Vallabhbhai Patel’s statement that “whatever the definition [of Indian citizenship]…Hindus and Sikhs of Pakistan can’t be considered as aliens in India”. Indeed no less a person than Acharya Kripalani, the then president of the Congress party, strongly advised Hindus to leave Pakistan. With fineness, historian Vazira Zamindar discussed these issues in her book, including the comical-poignant story of Lucknow’s Ghulam Ali. Literally tossed many times between the Indian and Pakistani states and disowned by both, Ali returned to India in 1960, not as a citizen but as a foreigner under the constant surveillance of the state.
Another arena where the ethnic-patriarchal basis of India’s citizenship were glaringly visible was in the implementation of the 1949 Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act, which remained in force until 1957, two years after the passage of the Citizenship Act. Unlike Hindu and Sikh women recovered from Pakistan, Muslims as “recovered and abducted women” were treated rather differently. They were thrown into detention camps to languish until the Pakistani state claimed them. They were not considered worthy of citizenship.
Since in institutions, policies, applications of law, day-to-today politics, including within his own party, Nehru’s personal views had very little impact, Nehruvian secularism appears at best a drawing room curiosity. My contention thus contests Jivanta Schoettlim’s who maintains that “Nehru’s views on citizenship” — gleaned, among other sources, from his Western education, writings, public statements, letters — is “a crucial prism for understanding his policy…and choices”. My point is that without an approach that attends to elements of continuity rather than rupture (championed by “progressive” intelligentsia), we cannot grasp further ethnification of citizenship laws from the 1980s through 2000s to our very present.
The year 1986 marks a turning point when an amendment to the 1955 Act further undermined the principle of jus soli to foreground ethnic bonds. The 1986 amendment took place in the wake of the Assam Accord signed between Rajiv Gandhi and various Assamese student outfits, which had violently campaigned against the arrival of Bangladeshis during its independence from Pakistan in 1971. It is important to note that the campaign by the Assamese nationalists had led to an anti-Muslim pogrom in which over 2,000 Muslims in Nelli (who lived there since 1900) were massacred. At that time, Bangladeshi immigrants were construed necessarily as Muslims. Succumbing to the Assamese chauvinism, the 1986 amendment made 1971 rather than 1986 as the cut-off for eligibility for citizenship in Assam. A further amendment to the Citizenship Act in 2003 stipulated that even when born on Indian territory, a person would not become a citizen if at the time of his or her birth, one of their parents was an illegal immigrant.
The 2003 amendment in the Citizenship Act also led to a new category: overseas citizens of India. Initially, the debate on overseas citizenship was limited to Indians settled in rich countries of North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand. However, through an ordinance in 2005, under the category of the overseas citizens the 2003 Citizenship Act included every person of Indian origin who left India after 1950 and was residing in any nation-state except Bangladesh and Pakistan. Placing Bangladesh and Pakistan in the space of exception and the simultaneous granting of citizenship to the people of Indian origin everywhere else amply show the consolidation of citizenship ethnified.
(Dis)Identification machine: The NRC
It is against this wider historical background of populist ethnification of citizenship that the massive exercise undertaken in Assam by the National Register of Citizens (NRC), integral to the current debate on the CAA as its twin, should be seen. Though instituted specifically for Assam during the 1951 census that independent India undertook, it was a ruling by the Supreme Court (SC) in 2014, which reactivated the NRC. With the formation of foreigners tribunals, the process of identifying who were citizens began in 2015. The SC instructed the government to find ways to deport non-citizens, i.e., illegal immigrants. Classified as D-voters (doubtful voters), the so-called illegals await the fate of being stateless.
On 31 August 2019, NRC released the final list from which names of over 1.9 million people living in Assam were absent. The key criteria of being on the list was the onus unjustly placed on people to offer documentary evidence that they and their family lived within the borders of Assam prior to 25 March 1971. Let us leave aside the bureaucratic loopholes, procedural lapses in the NRC exercise and people’s inability — due to their low educational-cultural capital as subalterned — to live up to the Kafkaesque demands of the document raj. But we cannot ignore the fact that officers involved in running the NRC machine were as biased and politicised as the BJP workers and Assamese chauvinists who championed it.
Though the government is yet to spell out how to deal with the 1.9 million illegals, construction of detention camps has been in full flow. Media has shown footage of construction of detention camps, with twenty-foot high walls and watchtowers, in the Goalpara district of Assam. Many more such camps are under construction in the state. Other states such as Maharashtra have also issued instructions to build similar detention camps.
Clearly, of the 1.9 million out of the NRC list, not all are Muslims. There are Hindus too. We do not know the exact figure of either. The question is: what is the fate of these 1.9 million people? Will they be deported? If so, to which country? Is the country of deportation willing to accept them?
It is here that once again the ethnic goals of both the CAA and the NRC become so glaring, especially in light of the BJP’s repeated assertions that it plans to extend the NRC beyond Assam to include every state of India.
If extended to pan-India level, like the Assam-specific NRC, it too would lead to many more millions classified as illegals and D-voters. And most of these illegals would be the poor and subalterns across religious lines. Given the ethnic ideology of the BJP-RSS combine, however, it does not aim to treat illegals evenly. This is starkly evident in the bogus distinction the regime makes between infiltrators and refugees. The word infiltrators is reserved for Muslims and refugees for Hindus. During an election rally in 2019, Amit Shah, the current Home Minister who was then president of the ruling party, described infiltrators as “termites” and vowed to “pick up infiltrators one-by-one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal.”
The violence toward (Muslim) infiltrators in Shah’s statement needs to be juxtaposed against profound sympathy towards (Hindu) refugees promised with citizenship.
To assuage the fear among Hindus, a booklet of BJP’s West Bengal unit, released on 5 January 2020 by Union minister Babul Supriyo, unambiguously stated: “After the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), no Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian or Parsi will find their name in the D-voter (doubtful voters) list. The Hindus and Sikhs have their homelands secured.”
Contrary to the government’s claims, it is abundantly clear how the CAA and NRC are not separate, stand-alone projects. Instead, they are complementary.
As crisply put by Mukul Kesvan, NRC is the “evil twin” of the CAA. While everyone unable to pass the NRC test will land up in limbo, the CAA’s pro-Hindu ethnic character will rescue Hindus from deportation and detention camps, but not Muslims who stand deleted from the CAA’s ambit.
Shaheen Bagh as a metaphor
Though opposition to both the CAA and NRC were voiced earlier too, the onset of Shaheen Bagh protest as a phenomenon is connected to the brutal police crackdown on protests led, inter alia, by students of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). At AMU, over 20,000 students went on hunger strikes and undertook torchlight processions to oppose the CAA. The police booked several hundreds of them. The police treated the JMI protest likewise. On 15 December, the third day of the protest at JMI, police brutally beat the students. Those who escaped to the library were not spared either. The police attacked library properties as well as the CCTV cameras. The cops also used offensive words against protesters such as “pimp, jihadi, mulle” and so on. In subsequent weeks, over 20 protesters lost their lives; most of those killed belonged to Uttar Pradesh. In a telling exposition, Tanweer Fazal discusses how the police, based on an ethnic division between “good” and “bad” protestors, harshly treated the anti-CAA protesters.
However, police also faced resistance to their brutal repression. One such moment of resistance that became iconic was the fearlessness with which two young women in hijab, both students of JMI, confronted the police who were mercilessly beating a male protester. The video, showing a defiant Ayesha Renna and Ladeeda Farzana, enrolled respectively for courses in History and Arabic literature, went viral. While many applauded their courage, media houses such as India Today described them “radical” because they had raised the slogan God is the Greatest (Allahu Akbar) during protests. They were also branded as being sympathetic to terrorism. An additional reason for being dubbed radical was that they regarded the current regime as fascist. On 14 January, based on utter fantasy and to discredit the Shaheen Bagh protest, an article in Firstpost, went to the ridiculous extent of saying that it was a hidden movement to “establish Dar-ul-Islam, or the supremacy of the faith”.
To return to resistance by Renna and Farzana, two weeks after the incident, I met the latter in Kozhikode during a conference. Having watched the video, I asked if she had previously participated in protests, she replied in the negative, adding that her action in the video was spurred purely by her ethics at that moment.
Barely a few kilometers away from JMI, the protest sit-in in Shaheen Bagh began on 16 December, a day after the police assault on JMI students. Started initially by only 10 or so local women, this protest sit-in subsequently gathered momentum, increasing the size of protesters to six figures, especially on weekends. Along with local people, those attending the protest come from distant neighborhoods of Delhi as well as from outside the city. The gathering is not only of Muslims — Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and people of other faiths are equally part of it. So are intellectuals-artists, some of whom may not consider themselves as believers.
With the highway connecting Shaheen Bagh to the satellite town of Noida blocked, the tented venue of protest is also a site of culture where Hindus perform havans and Christians, Muslims and Sikhs read their religious books. Photos of Ambedkar, Abul Kalam Azad, Zakir Hussain, Gandhi and many others dot the venue. There is also a miniature of the India Gate with names of those who were killed or died during the anti-CAA movement inscribed on its two pillars. A makeshift detention camp graphically tells people of the future that waits for those classified as illegals. There are slogans in English, Hindi and Urdu opposing the CAA as well as the larger politics it belongs to.
Above all, the protest venue serves as a site to narrate stories, personal as well as collective.
The barricaded venue of protest itself is a generator of stories, poems, slogans, graffiti, humour and more. Adults teach youngsters from whom adults learn in turn.
There are three cultural templates that mark the Shaheen Bagh protest: First, unlike the India Against Corruption movement, it is not established, known leaders who are at its forefront. Nor is much of the mainstream media enthusiastic about the Shaheen Bagh protest, with women and youth being its key drivers. Some commentators have described the protest as leaderless. However, there cannot be a sustained, month-long protest without leaders. There are surely leaders but our dominant views of who a leader is cannot identify them. Unlike the prevalent politics where leaders work primarily to forge or defend “interests” — sectional, national or otherwise — in Shaheen Bagh, ethics trump interests. Given that ethics has been sent on a long holiday in politics worldwide, we have to train our habits of thinking to figure out what sort of ethical politics is at work in Shaheen Bagh, including the attempts at suffocating Shaheen Bagh as a phenomenon by the powers that be.
Second, Shaheen Bagh symbolises an alternative idea of democracy enmeshed in suffering, pain, mutual care, and the acknowledgement of vulnerability and human finitude.
Talal Asad aptly describes this “democratic sensibility as an ethos.” In conversation with NDTV’s Ravish Kumar, Shaheen Bagh’s women — veiled, scarfed, without scarfs — regularly spoke of dukẖ (suffering/pain) and taklīf (hardship). The daring interventions against the police by Renna and Farzana was likewise right in the midst of pain ceaselessly inflicted on a fellow human. Democracy as an ethos, Asad goes on to observe, stands against democracy as a state system the lynchpin of which is bureaucratic rationality. As a machine, the NRC was a perfect illustration of bureaucratic rationality. As poet Muhammad Iqbal noted long ago, democracy’s rationality begins with and stops at electoral arithmetic calculations, thereby consigning value and human worth to nothingness. A system that reduces worth of humans to a statistical referent obviously violates dignity in its most basic sense. As exemplified by women of Shaheen Bagh, in contrast to the programmed smiles and arrogant laughter that mark much of the corporate-driven, mediatised democracy at the service of the rich, dignity, mutual care, sufferings and tears characterise democracy as an ethos.
The eagle of democracy
Third, rather than being incidental, poetry is central to the Shaheen Bagh’s cultural milieu. By this, I certainly do not mean Imran Pratapgarhi’s visit to Shaheen Bagh and him reciting his poems. In any case, he is less a poet as classically understood and more a singer of current affairs. I take poetry — used in conversations, splashed on posters, recited during speeches in Shaheen Bagh — as a longing for creativity and making. This urge to make, as noted earlier, is integral to suffering in terms of passion in flame. A line in Iqbal’s Farsi couplet reads: zindigāni soḳhtan ba sāḳhtan (life becomes itself through burning, a longing to make).
Those well versed with Iqbal are also familiar with the metaphor of shaheen in his poetry. Translated as eagle or falcon, one of the many features of shaheen is that, unlike vultures, shaheen does not rely on the livelihood earned by others. Shaheen makes its own livelihood. For Iqbal, shaheen is a byword for the philosophy of autonomy and self-reliance. In the context of Shaheen Bagh, based on sources in the public domain, it is not known that big corporates, industrial houses or business conglomerates back this protest movement. This self-reliance is also manifest in the idioms at play during the protests. For self-reliance to actualise itself, a firm resolve radiating from an ethical self is essential. Thus a couplet of Iqbal at the Shaheen Bagh protest venue read: Go on building nest/house upon nest/house so that the lightning loses its capacity to strike.
Notably, shaheen is less than amenable to making a permanent, anti-dynamic home (āsheyāñ). Which is not to say that it is averse to dwellings of some sorts. After all, dwelling is inevitable. To shaheen, a permanent home or dwelling, however, is a distraction as much as an obstruction in its quest to scaling new height after height in course of its flight. With the CAA declaring India as a Hindu home, the future for non-Hindu illegals stands signaled toward detention camps, a replica of which is built on the protest venue.
Out of their homes, protesters seem to be faced with a choice between two kinds of camps: one which the protest venue itself has become in some ways, and the detention camps meant for the illegals/infiltrators in Goalpara and elsewhere. Dialectically speaking, since masters cannot be truly free as long as slaves exists, home cannot be home qua home when its (re)designing throws a people into detention camps.
As the catastrophic consequences of populism, not to speak of its bankruptcy, are staring us in the face, Shaheen Bagh is a call to recognise the eagle of democracy.
Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist and senior research fellow at Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany. He is the co-editor of The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare: A Long View of India’s 2014 Election (Oxford University Press, 2019).
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