Political Space Shrinking, Where Do Indian Muslims Go From Here?

·7-min read

The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) were unarguably the biggest political movement by Muslims in Independent India. This is not to downplay the participation of non-Muslims, but there is no denying that Muslims lay at the core of the movement.

Muslim localities became epicentres of protests. Women and men, children and elderly – cutting across sects, biradris and professions – came out to voice their opposition to a discriminatory law. Even geographically, there were protests in most states, with Shaheen Bagh style sit-ins coming up even in small towns. The community has never been this united and this visible politically.

Then came the crackdown.

Crackdown Against CAA Activists

Protesters, especially in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, were fired upon, lathi-charged or even arrested under draconian laws. Several protesters were killed in police firing.

The crackdown further intensified with the investigation into the communal violence that took place in northeast Delhi in February 2020, killing 38 Muslims and 15 Hindus.

The Delhi Police’s investigation is based on the premise that the aim of the protests was to incite riots in Delhi, in effect criminalising the entire movement. This is a premise that was articulated by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in his speech on the Delhi riots violence in Parliament, indicating that the direction in the probe came right from the top.

Muslim activists cutting across political boundaries have been arrested.

So, if Umar Khalid is a leftist, Ishrat Jahan is a Congress councillor, Meeran Haider is from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Tahir Hussain was an Aam Aadmi Party councillor, Khalid Saifi was formerly with AAP and Asif Iqbal Tanha is from the Students’ Islamic Organisation. Then there is Sharjeel Imam who is critical of all mainstream political parties and Muslim political outfits like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind.

Outside of the Delhi riots probe, the anti-CAA protesters who had to face arrests include Maulana Tahir Madni of the Ulema Council, Dr Kafeel Khan, AMU activist Sharjeel Usmani and functionaries of the AIMIM in Uttar Pradesh’s Mau.

Former Congress councillor Ishrat Jahan is one of the activists arrested under UAPA
Former Congress councillor Ishrat Jahan is one of the activists arrested under UAPA

Clearly, in the end it didn't matter who was from which party or ideology. Their primary identity was all that mattered. They were all politically assertive Muslims and that was enough for them to be seen as threats.

Dilemma Regarding ‘Allies’

While the crackdown from the state is the single biggest threat, there were other challenges also that the community has had to negotiate. One such challenge is the question of accommodating ‘allies’.

While several non-Muslim activists have selflessly supported Muslims in the anti-CAA movement and the broader struggle against discrimination, there have been moments where ‘allies’ fell prey to the ‘Good Muslim’ vs ‘Bad Muslim’ binary.

A recent example is the debate sparked by Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav’s article supporting Umar Khalid, who was arrested on 13 September in connection with the Delhi riots.

For instance, Yogendra Yadav wrote in his article:

" “Given that his father is from Jamaat-e-Islami, it is remarkable that Umar has avoided being a Muslim fundamentalist or someone who shuns Muslim identity altogether.”"

“That’s what makes him an icon for the youth today. Especially for the new educated middle-class Indian Muslims, desperately seeking to move away from the clutches of clerics, from the prison of Muslim ghettos, from the stereotypical image of a Muslim.”

This clearly amounts to glorifying one kind of Muslim and dismissing another.

Umar Khalid was arrested in the wee hours of 14 September in connection with the Delhi riots case.
Umar Khalid was arrested in the wee hours of 14 September in connection with the Delhi riots case.

In reality, there is no difference. Umar Khalid and his father are not ideological opponents. His father also spoke at the function in Amravati where Khalid delivered the speech that is being used against him.

Also, the “clutches of clerics” and “stereotypical image of a Muslim” are based on flawed assumptions.

The reality is that the a cleric like Maulana Tahir Madni and a clean-shaven doctor like Dr Kafeel Khan were both put in jail by the Uttar Pradesh regime. The difference, sadly, lay in the fact that Umar or Dr Kafeel got much more solidarity from progressive civil society than Maulana Tahir Madni or Sharjeel Imam even though their plight was the same.

This selective solidarity has very real consequences on the ground. For example, during the CAA protests in Kanpur, a group of Hindu lawyers decided to help out Muslim protesters who had been arrested. However, they put the condition that they would take the cases of all Muslims except "those associated with outfits such as AIMIM and other Muslim organisations."

So the problem is that even extremely well-meaning and brave allies, sometimes end up invisiblising a certain kind of Muslim.

Three Strands of Opinions Among Muslims

The anti-CAA protests gave rise to three broad strands of political opinion among Indian Muslims.

  • The first and probably the more numerous strand is represented by protesters who emphasised a great deal on the anti-CAA movement being an attempt to "reclaim the Constitution" and provide a nationalist narrative counter to the BJP’s nationalism. This strand largely continues to have faith in existing political parties and civil society, despite minor misgivings.

  • The second strand is represented by activists like Sharjeel Imam and Sharjeel Usmani, who say that the solutions do not lie in asserting one's nationalism or reclaiming the Constitution but in collective action and assertion of one’s identity. In a Facebook post after his release, Sharjeel Usmani wrote critiquing the former approach, “Nobody cares about the law abiding attitude of the persecuted in a excellently functional lawless society [sic].”

File image of anti-CAA activist Sharjeel Usmani.
File image of anti-CAA activist Sharjeel Usmani.
  • The third strand isn't a product of the CAA but in some ways a consequence of the crackdown. This strand advocates that Muslims should stay away from protest politics and instead focus on aspects like education and internal reform. This is best represented by a body called Indian Muslims for Progress and Reforms (IMPAR) that came into existence a little after the CAA protests.

With people belonging to the first and second strands are both facing crackdown and arrests, the third strand is likely to be presented as a "safe option" for the survival of the community.

The Way Out

A lot has happened since the anti-CAA movement. Not just the crackdown, but several other factors have contributed to the shrinking of political space for Muslims – such as the spurt of attacks, rising propaganda and even economic boycott against Muslims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These instances and the arrests may have led many Muslims to become despondent and forget the gains made during the anti-CAA movement.

The beauty of the movement is that while activists like those who have been arrested did play an important role, it wasn’t critically dependent on any individual. The movement had a life of its own.

In reality, the anti-CAA movement didn’t just give a dozen prominent voices to the community, it gave tens of thousands of grassroots leaders who could organise an extremely innovative protest with very little resources and very few templates to build upon.

The anti-CAA protests gave rise to thousands of grassroots level leaders among Muslims.
The anti-CAA protests gave rise to thousands of grassroots level leaders among Muslims.

If these grassroots-level leaders are allowed to grow, they would not only be able to counter any crackdown from the state but also deal on much more equal terms with “allies” and non-hostile political parties.

The anti-CAA movement isn’t a finite event that ended when the Delhi Police brought down the tent at Shaheen Bagh and destroyed the graffiti at Jamia Millia Islamia. It is part of a larger struggle of Indian Muslims gaining political voice and representation.

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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