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With a flag, song and book: Reclaiming national symbols is an act of political genius and imagination

From the day they started, these civic protests were marked by lusty wavings of the national tricolour, public readings of the Preamble to the Constitution, and now, the singing of the national anthem.

Written by Sushant Singh |
Updated: January 24, 2020 11:30:11 am
Shaheen Bagh protests, CAA protests, NRC, CAA, Jamia Millia Islamia University, youth CAA protests, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indian Express The singing of the national anthem by the people at Shaheen Bagh or outside Jamia took no one by surprise. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

The English-speaking urban youth usually ring in the new year in Delhi with their socio-economic equals in stratified environs of clubs, pubs, restaurants and homes. But this new year’s eve, it was at radically different places — on the road outside the Jamia Millia Islamia University or at Shaheen Bagh — two of the most iconic places linked with the recent civic protests against the CAA and NRC. Here they mingled freely with people they would rarely interact with as equals, and that too, in a public space.

If that was not radical enough, what happened at the midnight hour was a moment that portends something significant for India in the coming decade. As the clock struck 12, those gathered there broke into the national anthem. Never has any public gathering in post-Independent India witnessed such a passionate singing of the national anthem, not even after a major sports victory when patriotism and nationalism are usually at their apogee.

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The singing of the national anthem by the people at Shaheen Bagh or outside Jamia took no one by surprise. From the day they started, these civic protests were marked by lusty wavings of the national tricolour, public readings of the Preamble to the Constitution, and now, the singing of the national anthem. Cynics can allege that this was part of a tactical ploy by the protestors to shield themselves from being labelled “anti-national”. But that argument is rebutted by the fact that these protests, all over the country, are neither centrally directed nor centrally organised. In fact, it is not unusual to witness multiple protests by various groups at the same site, merging and demerging at the same time, ruling out any possibility of a devious diktat by a central authority for everyone to flaunt the national symbols.

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The presence of national symbols and icons is simultaneously marked by an absence of religious and sectarian symbols, even though the issue directly affects the Muslim community. This is not coincidental, but points to a critical shift in the form and manner of civic protests and democratic engagement in India’s public spaces.

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How does a group of citizens perceive, articulate and negotiate their citizenship claim? The young Muslim, who has been the ideological and organisational fountainhead of these protests in her community, has not chosen religion or community as a means of intermediation with India’s democracy. She has instead chosen the Constitution as the instrument to engage with the democratic setup and assert her citizenship as an Indian, without sacrificing her Muslim identity.

It is this wilful choice which makes the tricolour and the national anthem such a natural fit in these protests, unlike a forced effort to place a tricolour among a sea of party or religious flags. Moreover, the Constitution, as the intermediary, has provided the metaphor for members of all classes, castes, communities and demographics to join these protests — these larger solidarities are at the heart of the optimism, creativity and enthusiasm witnessed on the streets. It reinforces the political argument that citizenship and democracy belong together — naturally compatible and mutually complementary.

Every single dimension of the concept of citizenship is being challenged by the CAA-NRC regime of the Narendra Modi government: Citizenship as a legal status, citizenship as a bundle of rights and entitlements, and citizenship as a sense of identity and belonging. While the government officials want to restrict the contestation to one of a legal status, the ruling party politicians are keen to limit it to that of the Muslim identity. A negotiation of the idea of citizenship is inherently full of tensions and contradictions. But by placing the Constitution at the centre of the public space and the national debate, the young have involved all the aspects and expanded it to a larger question about the kind of India that they want, defeating all attempts to limit it either only to the victimisation of Muslims or to a legal contest over a new law.

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There is a sharp distinction between citizenship obtained through struggle and citizenship as a gift of the state. In India, the idea of citizenship evolved at the end of a prolonged struggle for the country’s freedom, forging it with the idea of India. The idea of a civic struggle for citizenship has thus been intricately linked with the idea of India, which also fits in with the modern liberal discourse of civil and political rights. National symbols — the tricolour, the preamble and the national anthem — are situated at the confluence of these ideas, and the young have started their march towards reclaiming the idea of India by reclaiming the national symbols of India.

This is a generation accused of being consumed by a sense of self, often damned for not venturing beyond their own headphones. But, by clearly identifying the burden that the CAA-NRC regime would place on each individual, they have made people realise and understand what the Constitution means to each and every person.

Reclaiming national symbols, while bringing life to an abstract idea like the Constitution, is an act of political genius and imagination. Any idea becomes a force when it connects to the self. This idea has brought the young Indian to the street. Its power cannot be estimated as yet. It would be a difficult beast to tame.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 24, 2020 under the title “With a flag, song and book”.

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