Celebration of separate identities in a pluralist movement: Is it an Oxymoron?

The ongoing people’s movement against BJP government’s RSS-inspired citizenship matrix has rekindled many old ideas of our freedom struggle, reclaimed many of its pluralist legacies and churned up new creative slogans, idioms and images connecting the present to the past. Simultaneously, it has raked up some controversies across the spectrum of activists and larger secular democratic milieu. An exchange between Harsh Mandar and Ram Chandra Guha had drawn many others in such debates regarding the use of religious identities, idioms and symbols in the resistance against Hindutva forces. The moot question is whether or not the affirmation of separate faiths would make unity of people of India more sustainable  and strong.

At the recently concluded People’s Literary Festival in Kolkata, two young students of Jamia Millia University, Ayesha Renna and Ladeeda Farzana, now known for their courageous role against police brutalities in their Delhi campus, put forth their arguments forcefully in favour of assertion of their religious identity at the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protest spaces. The hijab and chadar-clad girls, both married, justified their dress as a ‘personal choice’ as well as community identity statement while supporting their slogans like Zindagi Ka Matlab Kya, La Ilaha Illallah ( what is the purpose of life, there is no other deity but Allah). The second part of the slogan is an integral part of Shahadah, the cornerstone of Islamic faith in strict monotheism that is not complete without the following declaration – Muhammad-Ur-Rasool-Ullah (Muhammad is the Messenger of God).

According to them, this assertion is part of their democratic rights under the constitution and it is needed since the RSS-BJP has concentrated its attacks on Indian Muslims. The largest minority community of the country must not cower down before the majaoritarian forces by hiding its religious self and related social practices. They also defended their slogans calling Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime as Islamophobic. Referring the usages of Hindu idioms and images in political rallies, they lambasted their critics within the secular camp who had reportedly asked them to leave protest sites or tone down. Similar assertions and sentiments were found in some of the mobilizations in Kolkata and other cities, dominated by Muslims.

In contrast, Muslim women in their traditional dresses at sit-in protest sites from Shaheen Bagh to Park Circus have been leading men for months without focusing on their religious separateness. They have been raising slogans for Azadi and Inquilab, remembering the multi-faith martyrs of our freedom struggle while singing the national anthem and waving the national flag affirming their faith in constitutional principles. It fact, religious slogans and speeches have been deliberately avoided by the organizers so far except the messages and images of inter-community harmony. Muslim conservatives are not exactly happy with so many women at public protest mixing with men almost freely and addressing the assembly. But my interaction with participants of both sexes has underlined an ongoing mini social revolution. Do they need to recite Shahadah and other articles of faith to please the conservatives and attract more religious members of the community?

Gandhi and Khilafat

The debate is as old as the controversy over Gandhi’s endorsement of Khilafat Movement in 1919-21. Gandhi’s supporters justified him pointing to his goal to achieve Hindu-Muslim unity in India, a must for a mass struggle against the British Raj that had dismembered the Ottoman Empire and undermined its head, the Khalifa who was also the chief of the Ummah or Muslim world. His secular critics have rejected his means since they felt it had only amplified the appeal of a decadent and lost empire, strengthened pan-Islamic revivalism which was hitherto not popular among Indian Muslims. For them, Gandhi unwittingly legitimized the political role of backward – looking Ulemas at the cost of modernizing forces among Muslims at home and abroad. Thus, he made room for Muslim separatism in India which in turn gave fillip to Hindu revivalism and finally to the two nation theories of Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS.

The juries are still out on the debate over Gandhi’s propensity to use Hindu mythological utopias like Ram Rajya for a model of free India. Despite being the apostle of communal amity and his martyrdom at the hands of the Hindu fanatics, the ideological progenitors of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, his political idioms and strategies are still problematic for many. The present debate is germane to that legacy. One can take a conclusive position only by being blind to the conflicting social realities and consequent political compulsions, then and now. It was an almost endless journey through a minefield. It has remained so in our times.

 Context changes meaning

This columnist who had tried to engage the brave girls during their tour de force preferred to focus on the social-political context of the usages as well as their users instead of taking an abstract and absolutist position irrespective of time and space. The cultural meanings of religion-ordained dresses as well as idioms and symbols have changed from time to time, mostly determined by dominant discourse of global and local powers. Considering it a symbol of Ottoman decadence, Ataturk had banned the public use of Muslim traditional dresses in his modernizing and secularizing mission in post-WWI Turkey. Europe-inspired modernists and feminists in the Arab World and Iran followed in defiance of the clergy-controlled Patriarchy.

By the time of post-WWII Turkey, not only conservatives opposed the ban as anti-Islamic but also some secular and feminist groups too did it, as Erhan Pamuk’s novel ‘Snow’ depicted. They countered it as a symbol of state repression of right to individual freedom and choice. When Hamas and other Islamic radical groups called Hizab et al as the symbol of Palestinian resistance against the US-supported Israeli occupation, some women’s right groups supported. The political-cultural import of Muslim markers has again undergone successive changes particularly during and after the Iranian revolution and US-Saudi-Pak sponsored ‘holy’ Mujahidin war against ‘godless’ Soviet army in Afghanistan. The later led to the emergence of Al Qaida, America’s Frankenstein and ultraconservative and misogynist Taliban.

The unity of ‘freedom fighters and believers’ in the east and west in the last leg of the cold war suffered a tectonic shift following the Al-Qaida suicide attacks on Twin Towers in New York. Junior Bush and his echo-chambers resurrected the memories of Crusades Vs Jihads in their subsequent ‘war against terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then Islamophobia has become a defining feature for the Western theorists of civilizational clashes and a global two nation theory has come in vogue. Now the meanings of Hijab-Burqa-Chadar and allied Islamic identity markers like proclamation of ‘La lIlah lllallah’ have been morphed again. For Islamophobic Donald Trump and his buddies like Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi, these are symbols of a hated and feared Other.

To be continued…

Biswajit Roy

is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

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