The protests against the CAA and NRC continue to grow despite the media focus shifting from it after the attacks in JNU. These protests have been largely spontaneous. The sheer diversity of the ways in which people are expressing themselves against the divisive state policy is proof that they are organic in nature. The size and spread of the protests make them the largest after the India against Corruption movement. But, while the focus of IAC was too narrow, the ongoing protests are about the renewal of the promise of India to its people. A common aspect in these protests is the sight of the Preamble of the Constitution of India. The Constitution has become the grammar of collective action and has reached where it belonged, the people of India, struggling against an oppressive power to secure freedom, equality, justice and fraternity.
There are two distinct features of the protests: The youth, mainly students, are from all religions and social backgrounds. It means that our universities, despite all their failings, are still performing a useful role for a society trapped in its divisions — to create universal citizens who feel responsible for each other. These cosmopolitan young minds will hopefully nudge their elders to review their biases and prejudices about the “others”.
The second feature is that while the Muslim presence is spontaneous, the effort to persuade others to join has met with little success. It shows the failing of the project of Indian democracy in moulding a new “demos”. The contrast with universities is interesting. But, it is heartening that Muslims have shed their reluctance and are exercising their agency as citizens. Muslims, who were being cornered and pushed to the margins by the BJP and shunned by the secular parties, have found in these protests a moment to assert their right of equality and dignity in their land.
Their well wishers advise them to take care that the protests do not look exclusively Muslim, as it would be used by the BJP to create a “Muslim scare” in the minds of Hindus. Muslims agree with them. They know that the common Hindu mind is Muslim sceptic. That is the reason a Chandrashekhar Ravan or a Kanhaiya, who are yet to be accepted as mass leaders even by their communities, have become the face of the protests or the civil society activists, who are politically inconsequential, are being given leading roles in the protests.
That the template of university action cannot be replicated outside is also clear. But, the Muslim perseverance has forced political parties to shed their ambiguity towards them. Even NDA partners have spoken out against the CAA and NRC. The Congress, which wanted to wipe out the “ blot” of pro-Muslimness, is in the process of discovering the old Gandhi-Nehruvian secular resolve. Its resolution rejecting NPR shows that it is firming up its stance. The message now should go down the ranks.
This moment is a great opportunity for both the students and Muslims to provide leadership. It holds immense potential in creating a new language of togetherness and empathy. Sadbhavna or goodwill, as the founding principle of any collective action, can be foregrounded. Hindu-Muslim unity, the first article of the constructive programme of Gandhi, should be the objective if the present phase of protests have to mutate into a movement of civic and shared nationalism. If religion still remains a source of transcendence from one’s narrow existence, then why not revive Sarva Dharma Prarthana on a national scale? We have seen churches opening up to Muslims. Why not a similar gesture from Hindu temples and gurudwaras and places of worship of other religions?
The aim of the ruling party has been to disenfranchise Muslims in all senses. The symbolic meaning of the CAA and the NRC/NPR is too stark for the Muslims to miss it. They have refused to buckle down. It has often been asked if Muslims are the coolies of secularism and if it is only for them to bear its cross. But, as I’ve said, this is their chance to take up the mantle of secularism and provide leadership.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 14, 2020 under the title ‘Let’s revive togetherness’. The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University.
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