On the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi in 1947, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad addressed Muslims, several of whom would be heading to Pakistan, about the futility of the exercise. In a memorable speech that wove vivid Islamic imagery with the place of Muslims in India’s history, he thundered: “I do not want you to lead a life of sycophancy as you did during the foreign rule. I want to remind you that these bright etchings, which you see all around you, are relics of the processions of your forefathers. Do not forget them. Do not forsake them. Live like their worthy inheritors, and, rest assured, that if you do not wish to flee from this scene, nobody can make you flee. Come, today let us pledge that this country is ours, we belong to it and any fundamental decisions about its destiny will remain incomplete without our consent.”
The journey from then onwards for “Muslims” in India has been a roller-coaster. It has been an examined and studied path, but perhaps not quite as much as it should have been. This is where the largest number of Muslims anywhere in the world live in a functioning democracy. Those who heeded the Maulana’s call, and became Indians “not by chance but by choice”, chose to live here, well before India signed up for “We, the people”, or gave to itself a Constitution. Long before citizenship was delinked from who your prayed to. The year 1950 was to witness one of the most modern ideas of nationhood — well before all Blacks had the right to vote in the US, making India an older democracy. The first Indian mosque came up in Kodangullur in Kerala during the Prophet’s lifetime. The Muslim presence here is as old as Islam. This is no refugee or atithi story, it is an insider’s tale. The civilisational urn has Islam as much in the mix as any other faith. But it has been a journey which has had its hiccups, defined as much by the strain as the smoothness of the ride.
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But the nationwide debate on India’s streets in the aftermath of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which provides that undocumented non-Muslims from three South Asian countries fast-track their citizenship has broken something, somewhere — even if no one can immediately point to exactly what.
The protests have been described as demography finally bursting upon democracy. But there is clearly much more to it. The 1990s were marked by many tremors — Other Backward Classes asserted themselves visibly and political parties were forced to make changes that should have been made decades earlier. The silent revolution of Dalit assertion came a little later, and was also seen as Dalits finally coming into their own. With Muslims, however, the “vote-bank” slur was something that was almost internalised. The rising wave of Hindutva meant that Muslims were political, but happy to be seen voting “tactically” and even till recent months, not keen to be seen as acting politically and visibly.
The CAA, by introducing religion as a differentiator in the question of citizenship, has resulted in a dam bursting, and brought many people, but also Muslims as Muslims, on to the street. The “Save Constitution” question was an abstract and the heavy idea so far. But with the line having been drawn clearly, and as one that keeps Muslims out, it personalised the Constitution like nothing before has. It has everyone asking how documents and the burden of proving citizenship will impact each person. So far, despite economic and social deprivation, the Indian constitutional democracy ensured an equilibrium of political rights whereby a former PM proudly witnessed ex-US President George Bush speaking of “no member of the al Qaeda” being an Indian Muslim.
Operating under the ghost of M A Jinnah, the “leadership” of Indian Muslims has been an uneasy question. A series of communal riots in Jabalpur, Calcutta and Rourkela pushed Muslims to start worrying about life under the post-Nehru Congress. The Majlis-e-Mushawarat was initially set up in August 1964 under Syed Mahmud, a Bihari Muslim leader, educated in Cambridge, and a friend of Motilal Nehru. The Mushawarat’s UP unit was headed by a firebrand medical doctor. Abdul Jaleel Faridi proposed a new strategy for Muslims, asking them to vote for “good candidates” and not look to parties for security. But the Muslim vote was thought to be best mediated through a well-heeled upper class Muslim leadership. The notion of individual Muslim votes being aggregated was nowhere on the scene.
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In the unstable and violent 1980s, amidst the rise of the BJP on the back of the Ayodhya dispute, leaders of the Janata Party, the RJD, Congress, Samajwadi Party, Left and Trinamool, all at different times, had the confidence of Muslims and their support had been forceful. Narendra Modi’s win with a full majority was a turning point. But the CAA, seen as a fundamental reshaping of the Republic, threatens every dimension of citizenship. Both legally and in terms of identity, the social and emotional stakes for Muslims are much higher than the dadhi-topi-‘personal law’ battle of the 1970s or even one for education-economic rights that emerged in the more modern debate around the Sachar Committee.
The idiom and turn of the phrase, the sharp and uninhibited articulation on hand-drawn posters that derives from Hindi cinema, the Urdu poetry from both India and Pakistan – what can be seen on the street now is decidedly young. It reflects a guilt-free generation, unencumbered by the burden of Partition, and one that feels solidly Indian enough to demand its due and make its case in Constitutional terms. It is a loud show of strength and cuts across classes. It is not shy to turn up fully kitted as “Muslim”, while also being happy to collaborate and seek support from all others who for personal or political reasons oppose the CAA. Political parties have been late-comers to this party, the venues were already resonating with slogans and messages . The freshness and candour has taken even the combative and deft BJP by surprise.
It is the ability of the Muslim to find a vocabulary this time — political, assertive and involving a massive number of women — that makes the current moment unique. The Act is seen as an attack on the Indian Muslim identity but the response to is not being framed in “Muslim” terms or through religious intermediaries. The framing of this as a fundamental question of “who is Indian” has meant that people of different faiths and creeds have joined in naturally and been welcomed wholeheartedly. And this is why Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad, now in police custody, on the steps of Jama Masjid, standing amidst a sea of young Muslims — no Shahi Imam in sight — holding a copy of the Constitution and Ambedkar is seminal to the movement.
With the protest being about the idea of India, the tricolour is the protesters’ to hold and wave. It is still early days and it is not 1968 yet, nor even a full-blown civil rights movement. But what is clear is that it is new, fresh, young and anxious to land a punch with a sketch pen, chart paper and a rhyme. And what gave both, rhyme and reason, was poet Hussain Haidry’s verse at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan:
Sau mein 14 hun lekin, yeh 14 kam nahi padte hain/Poore sau mein basta hun mein poore sau mujh me baste hain/Sau Kalam se likhi kahaani meri/Main jitna musalmaan hun bhai/Main utna Hindustani hun/Main Hindustani Musalman hun. (I am just 14 amongst 100, but no light-weight/ I occupy the soul of the 100, and the 100 are imbued in me/ My story is written with a hundred pens, I am as much Muslim as a Hindustani/ I am a Hindustani Muslim).
The unapologetic Hindustani Musalman is out of the box. Maulana Azad was right.
This article first appeared in the print edition of January 4, 2020 under the title “The new Indian Muslim”
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