Under the 2004 series “Across Unresolved Stories”, T V Santhosh, the Mumbai-based Malayali artist, has two paintings, both are photorealistic versions of unprocessed negatives: one bearded, topi-ed Muslim men in prayer and the other of burqa-clad women. Santhosh, in his rather large oil paintings, uses the idea of “negative” to bird-catch the alienation, intrigue, mystery and unease that surrounds the image of this “quintessential” Indian Muslim, capturing as well as limiting social impulses in the very being of paintings.
This intrigue was seen re-surfacing recently with the abundance of nationalistic imagery in the ongoing anti-CAA, anti-NRC protests from the so-called “Muslim ghettoes”. These were visibly Muslim areas and people always branded as anti-Indian suggestively established, in movies, with quick long shots of crescent-ridden Pakistan flag-like hangings and, in personal conversations, full of Pakistan cheer boys during India-Pakistan cricket matches. They were also seen as communal with Muslim masses ganging together in anti-Hindu prejudice and proverbially conservative, denying women access to the public sphere.
When the images of protests in Muslim-majority areas get vibrant with “Jana Gana Mana”, Gandhi-Ambedkar, Tri-colour flags, images of the Constitution and chants of “Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai”, in certain cases under the brave leadership of local women, notably from Shaheen Bagh and Seelampur, it was understandably puzzling.
The Hindu right-wing made fun of this as a “survival strategy”. Constitutional nationalists view this as a new and harmonising move, regaining India from the aestheticised, de-territorialised championing of the right-wing Hindu-Indian pride of a social group that began emerging in the 1990s, with pardesi aspirations and “East or West, India is the best” rhetoric.
Due to the homogenising narratives about the Indian Muslim, obliterating caste, class and region, there could well have been a serious oversight giving the impression that they were always speaking and representing, while in reality they were only being spoken about/for and framed in the terms of outsiders, be that right-wing, left-wing or even their own community leaders, spatially and socially distanced but connected by the inescapably homogenous communitarian identity.
The Muslim socio-political positions of the Indian subcontinent may largely be grouped into the following five shorthands: religious reformist secular of the Maulana Azad-kind, conservative secular of the Jamiatul Ulema-type, liberal communal of the Jinnah-variety, progressive left-liberal individuals of the Manto-stream and theocratic communal conservative of the Maulana Maududi school.
If religious reformists became an abandoned lot due to the social vacuum in the new world order, progressive left liberals didn’t engage with the community in any effective way, making these two politically very limited. Among the others, liberals like Jinnah, with their convictions of colonial modernity as the way forward, argued for an 18th century European nation-state of Muslim majority with one language, one religion and one culture. It is curious to remember that Pakistan supporting liberal Muslims were also the ones who opposed Gandhi’s Khilafat idea. Some of the powerful liberals were western educated, either from upper caste/aristocratic families or babus by profession with the option of geographical mobility, but after they moved to what is now Pakistan they were rattled very soon and later disseminated by the theocratic conservative in Pakistan’s journey into an Islamic republic not much later- a problem many managed to handle by migration to the West.
Muslim conservatives always rejected the idea of Partition and other than in Bengal and Punjab, where riots necessitated movement across the partition-lines, there has never been any mass exodus of lower-class, Dalit Muslims ideologically because they rejected the two-nation theory. So Partition was as much a class, caste, regional affair, as it was about religion. Erasure of such social aspects has trapped people into believing in the narratives that improvise on the “unfinished business of partition”, allowing the creation of a consolidated internal enemy. So the visibility of lower class, lower caste Muslim men and women outside all available structures of political narratives is the historical newness; not what they are saying.
To that oft-repeated “Country or religion first?” question from the majoritarian faulty question paper; the protestors are saying “we are also the country” in no uncertain terms. They are clearly not speaking what is expected of them but the fault is with the expectations. It is time to recognize that.
Now Muslim women, often absented and invisibilised by the heat of ever-so-repeated feuds between homogenised Muslim patriarchy with its elite leadership and, anti/reformist Muslim male “liberators”, have asserted their selves, making their bodies heard and extending our sense of the public. Underpaid, overworked women who struggled all their lives making ends meet are now out for their children — a rare occasion where not the sufferings of the fathers but the future of the children become the reason for a movement. A demonstration of what feminists call the “ethic of care” formulated into amazing and novel social energy is what we are witnessing: a possible beginning of the Dalit Muslim Women marking themselves both within and outside the singularised Indian Muslim narrative concocted by Islamophobes, Islamists and non-communal Muslim patriarchs together.
Opinion | Why I protest as a Muslim
They come as they come: wearing hijabs and niqabs, with breastfed babies, organising work-struggle-timings. Their slogans and icons are uniting Indians as Indians, firstly and lastly in the proper Ambedkarite vision. And they are staring straight into the conscience of the republic, with eyes hardened by care, love and the resolve of mothers’ labour.
N P Ashley teaches English at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi
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