The la ilaha illallah controversy and secular dissent in India
It is important to recognize that as dissent, as people insisting on secularism and democracy, we have consistently failed in India. Many people are speaking of these protests as “secular” protests, and in appropriating them as such, seeking to dictate their voice.
The reality is that the people who are protesting in any massive numbers, are doing so as their own identities. If you look beyond major cities, most of the protests can be classified as:
- College protests in solidarity with Jamia, AMU.
- Humongous crowds comprising largely of Muslims
- Political rallies.
People have their own issues with BJP that makes them more ready to object. Non-Muslims of Tamil Nadu for example don’t see Muslims as any particular trigger either way. They are largely indifferent and wouldn’t hit the streets over it – to suppress or support. But they hate BJP and particularly since the Hindi opposition. They oppose BJP for the heck of it half the time, and this time they have the added provocation of Tamil Hindus from Sri Lanka not being offered citizenship under CAA with Jayalalitha’s party in power. So much for Tamil Eelam. Tamil identity pride is a THING.
Kerala has a violent tradition almost between the left and right. They will oppose any assertion by the right. That the law is unfair is a bonus. Assam has issues with outsiders, regardless of religion. Ruling party in Maharashtra just got out from under BJP’s thumb and is actively disavowing religious communalism.
Each of these identities are directly in conflict with BJP. Education and colleges are under structural, social and economic attack, and the brutal actions at Jamia spurred these protests, not any success of those of us endorsing democracy.
College students, currently hailed as the torch-bearers of democracy, didn’t so much as blink over violent assaults on Muslims beyond the usual suspects like JNU, Jamia and AMU, etc. If there is one thign college students would understand as unfair deprivation, it is an internet shutdown. yet not a lot of action in colleges over Kashmir. If this was about them being the torchbearers of democracy, this should have exploded across colleges. It didn’t. Why are they out now? Because colleges were attacked.
Political parties are fighting for their very survival, and a successful atmosphere of protest gives them opportunity to assert their politics. This is also not a result of our work.
We have been diligently compiling calls to protest and other than December 19th and December 31st for obvious reasons, the maximum number of protests actually happen on Fridays, directly after prayers. All the enduring and relentless protests giving gravity to our “secular” wisdom are largely sustained by Muslims. For the vast majority of non-Muslim dissenters, the protests are events they attend to make a stand. Muslims are pitching camp on a daily basis. Daily protests in many places and literally pitching camp in a few.
There are corresponding calls for peaceful protest by various Muslim organizations. It is tempting to appropriate these voices as our own, particularly since India has a glorious tradition of not listening to them. But these protests aren’t happening to “uphold democracy” this is a community directly under threat swarming out to protect its existence.
At times like these, when those pontifacting on democracy say that the protests are secular and Muslim slogans have no place in it, while gleefully sharing throngs of lakhs wearing white caps as “secular”, I’d like to find a few polite words for it, but it takes longer, it is basically assholery. They aren’t fighting to save our ideals, they are fighting to save their own existence.
We gleefully shared and boosted Assam’s discontent with the CAA till we found protests more to our liking – those that opposed NRC as well in the mainland, and now WE have silenced Assam in addition to the government, because it isn’t fashionable to agree with regional concerns about disruptive outside overwhelm that threatens resources and culture, unless the place is Niyamgiri and you get a company to fight. BJP has alientated them, but what have we done to show them we can be trusted?
My suggestion is a moment of reality check. The actual numbers out on the streets because of us and our ideals is not as high as we imagine. College students and urban crowds may agree with what we say and since they are moved to protest, are saying what makes sense, but they would not have protested like this on our say anyway beyond the few organizations that are politically active, if not for the tremendous momentum created by…. not us.
Correlation does not imply causation
If the protests were truly “secular” or for democratic ideals, we’d see about 14% of Muslims among protesters – like the population of India, not these entire seas of white caps. In refusing to see those, we are essentially appropriating them as us. And then someone like Shashi Tharoor goes ahead and criticizes them for being themselves! We have failed to prevent blatant religious behavior by the state. Forget BJP’s blatant Hindutva, lighting lamps has traditionally begun many a sarkari function. What is our moral authority to tell other citizens what they can say and what they cannot invoke god in their moment of threat to defend against marginalization of themselves?
This is the time to be humble, be inclusive. To ACT on all the preaching we do. To recognize that just as India is diverse, India’s reasons for protest are diverse and to neither appropriate anyone’s voice, nor to dismiss it. This unfortunate, but crucial intersection of multiple voices is creating space for the necessary conversations on democracy. Space we were not able to create on a large scale on our own. Let us value it and use it wisely rather than feel entitled to it.
Is a religious slogan condusive to assertion of democracy? This is a matter of debate, if the religious slogan were raised to insist on democracy. Muslims of India have tried secular protest after countless instances of attacks and marginalization. Right now, they are rising in solidarity and in defense on the basis of religion. Jamia se rishta kya? La ilaha illallah – should be a big hint. Like colleges were moved by the brutality against fellow college students, Muslims are moved by yet another senseless brutality against their Muslim young. And only an utter hypocrite would undermine the legitimacy of their protests because of this. This may not be ideal, but this has been a long time coming and to object to it now because of puritan ideals would be to stand along the side of those silencing them for a long time.
Recognize that there are many concerns caused by the NRC-CAA-NPR machine. These are not one perspective or motive and to look on existential concerns of identity – whether for fear of cultural overwhelm or for fear for safety as inferior to our perspective of “democratic ideals” is very “let them eat cake”.
First let them survive the threat before appropriating them into the tepid assertions of democracy we do. We have no capacity to comprehend the sense of threat nor to channel that angry swarm better than them.
People fearing for existence can’t afford ideals. The democratic idealism is our perspective, as we sit comfortably in our homes and are able to philosophize our future, because we are not fighting for our own security. Most non-Muslims leave the relatively trivial threat of police action behind at the protest venue when we go home. True, secularism is enshrined in the constitution, but then, so is the right to life – a far more basic need.
The reality is that this “revolution” is an intersection of anger at BJP for multiple reasons. To put it bluntly, BJP has finally managed to piss off too many people and for too long, and managed to hit the last straw with many at the same time.
But in this, we, the idealists have an opportunity to form bridges that turn these temporary intersections into a permanent resilient network. To convince, negotiate, compromise and beg for compromises in turn, to be absolutely trustworthy when we stand by existential concerns. It is after we prove trustworthy in ensuring their basic rights that we can expect them to improve their messageon our say so toward a greater goal that enriches all. Stripping them of the legitimacy to band together when under threat under the one slogan they believe to be their highest truth is plain petty.
Note: I am atheist and do NOT like any religion. Islam included. I am asocial. I dislike most people till they catch my attention with something worthy. Muslims included. This is absolutely no group hug moment “let us all like Islam and Muslims” going on. But I don’t have to like someone or their beliefs to recognize that they have rights. To see what is going on and why.
We, the relatively safe first have an obligation to ensure their safety before we can ask them to contribute to our goals.
Then, slowly, we can manifest an India where farmers agree that Muslims have rights, where feminists agree that the concerns of losing identity are real, where the poor agree that the disabled need support and so on. Because we arrive at a common understanding that EVERYONE has rights. That is what it will take to achieve democratic awareness, not feeling self-congratulatory about a series of events we did not cause and doing nothing. Then the moment will pass and people will return to their own silos, as isolated as ever.
Let us form those bridges. Criticize and moralize less, listen more. Keep an eye on the larger goal, rather than reviewing paths others take.