On 12 January 2020, as Congress MP Shashi Tharoor spoke against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) and later at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a group of students, standing at a short distance away from him protested, chanting the slogan of Islamic monotheism, "La Ilaha IlAllah".
They were protesting against Tharoor's 29 December, 2019, tweet where the MP called protesters in Kerala chanting La Ilaha IlAllah as giving comfort to 'Islamic extremism'. The protesters whom he targeted were protesting in solidarity with the students of Jamia who had been attacked by the Delhi Police in their campus on 15 December, 2019. As Twitterati rallied, both in his support and against him, some important questions were raised that need to be answered.
An argument being forwarded to oppose the sloganeering of La Ilaha IlAllah in public protests is that it alienates the non-Muslims who are a part of these protests. The argument may be correct, but by simply blaming the slogan it misses out the underlying reason behind this alienation. Why does the slogan alienate non-Muslims? Or for that purpose, why does a Muslim wearing hijab or skull cap alienate non-Muslims?
Muslims being denied residence on rent, job applications being turned down merely because the applicant is a Muslim and Muslims being refused loans are widely known and well-documented phenomena. All of this happens, merely because the victim carries the identity of being a Muslim with her/him. Be it their hijab, their beard, or simply, their name. The "alienation" by this slogan, in fact, is just another manifestation of the same problem " deeply rooted Islamophobia.
The recent incident at IIT-Kanpur when the institute set up a panel to decide whether the poem Hum Dekhenge, penned by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, is "anti-national" or "communal" makes the matter clearer. A renowned poem of a literary genius is being viewed as "anti-national" merely because of the use of Islamic terminology in it. So essentially, the problem isn't with the slogans of La Ilaha IlAllah, but any and every expression of Muslim identity.
The ongoing movement against CAA and NRC, as has been explained here, began in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) precisely as a movement against this Islamophobic nature of Indian society. And since the alienation of non-Muslims by this slogan is a part and parcel of the same problem, the argument that it should not be raised in public is deeply fallacious as it does not take into account the underlying reason behind this alienation. The slogan, in fact, should be taken as a call to recognise and overcome Islamophobia in Indian society.
Another argument against the use of La Ilaha IlAllah in the ongoing protests is that the struggle is for the constitutional values of secularism and equality, and thus it must not be given a religious tone. This argument fails to recognise the true nature of this agitation.
As the agitation sparked from AMU spread to Jamia, and then to the streets, the Muslim-centric nature of these protests became even more evident. The protesters were mostly Muslims. Muslim-dominated localities and towns became the hub of protests. Even when the government backlashed, especially in Uttar Pradesh, the target were individuals and groups with Muslim identity.
If the fight is really to save constitutional values, why is it that Muslims dominate the scene despite being a mere 14 percent of the Indian population? It is because the existence of Muslims alone have been directly targeted by the CAA-NRC combination. And so the Muslims are out there to safeguard their existence and hence dominate these protests.
Had the Muslims come out to protest against this law because it was unconstitutional they would have come out on the streets long back " when the Aadhaar Bill was cleared by dubbing it as a Money Bill, when constitutional and statutory institutions such as Election Commission of India and Reserve Bank of India were being attacked, and when Article 370 of the Constitution was de-operationalised.
Mere invoking of the Constitution cannot be construed to mean that the ongoing movement is for safeguarding the Constitution. The Constitution is being invoked by Muslims as it promises them the right to human existence. So in essence, it is a fight for Muslim existence, Muslim dignity, and Muslim identity. To cover all of this under the cloak of fight for the Constitution will be a faÃ§ade.
Uncovering this cloak is important not merely because it covers the true nature of the ongoing movement. It is even more important because a comparison with other identity-based movements makes it amply clear the cloak itself is a result of Islamophobia.
When Adivasis in Jharkhand and Odisha resisted various mining projects with the slogan "Our land, our minerals and our rights" their movement was seen as a fight for Adivasi rights, not constitutional values. Also, the word 'our' in their slogan did not evoke a similar response as La Ilaha IlAllah is raising today.
Similarly, in March 2018, when the Supreme Court issued order diluting the provisions of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989, the Dalits came out on the streets to protest against this order. Back then, it was seen as a Dalit uprising. Nobody delegitimised the Dalit struggle by covering it up as a fight for constitutional values.
So why this hesitation to see this movement as a Muslim movement? Islamophobia. Period.