Is Sharjeel Imam a symptom of bigger political malaise?

 Sharjeel Imam

Let’s agree that,we the people are Indian citizens;however, some are less than others. We all share some form of social solidarity with respect to our socio-cultural markers. These identities are more pronounced among the politically inferiorized identities and every party tries to co-opt these groups to win election.  With the decline of Congress and politicization of these identities, there emerged many caste-based regional parties which challenged the hegemony of congress. The spilling out of these identities were first frowned upon as divisive but later accepted as a legitimate form of politics. The idea behind it was to create an autonomous political space to prevent co-option of their identities there by strengthening their leverage vis-à-vis mainstream parties.

Unfortunately, Partition foreclosed such unfolding of possibilities among the Muslims. Many disparate regional parties like All India Momin Conference merged with the Congress after partition. The decline of Nehruvian liberalism gave way to the strengthening of Hindutva ideology. Meanwhile, many factors contributed to increase the support base of Hindutva ideology. In recent past, it appears that rhetoric against Muslims has become the sole fulcrum around which political strategy are made for communal consolidation. Nowadays,BJP can entirely dispense with Muslim support and yet expect to win with thumping majority! Now situate this communal mobilization for state power in order to disenfranchise certain communities with the communal solidarity intended to neutralize. Are both ‘communalism’ qualitatively the same? It is clear from Sharjeel’s speech he knew his articulation would go against the grain of liberal political sensibilities. Moreover, the main content of his speech is obscured amidst the noise of BJP propaganda accusing him traitor, anti-national, part of the tukdetukde gang so on and so forth.

I could gather three strands from his speech: first, the indictment of secular parties and their ‘betrayal.’ Second, some vague articulation for autonomous Muslim politics. third, his attempt to cast off the onus of secularism on Muslims by rupturing the boundary between secular and communal.  It is this aberration which failed him to garner support like Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar.

Is CAA-‘NRC’ unprecedented in terms of constitutional bias? 

Let’s discuss as to why did it create such a flutter among politically conscious people and divided the liberals?  First, he courageously pinpointed the doublespeak of the secular-left parties.  He drew the parallel between BJP and the Congress so far as denunciation of Muslim autonomous politics is concerned. More so because the illiberalism of liberals’ bordered on Hindutva’s uneasiness to grant any kind of autonomy to Muslims to negotiate themselves as a community. In the aftermath of partition and few months after the promulgation of constitution, a presidential order, called constitution (scheduled caste) order 1950 came into existence which effectively debarred non-Hindu lower castes from affirmative action or state patronage. The order says, “no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a scheduled caste.” Later the Scheduled Caste net was extended to include the Sikhs and Buddhists but Muslims and Christians still remain excluded. The new citizenship act and impeding NRC is just another law in the long history of ‘othering’ the Muslims; it’s legal approval will only accomplish what has been pervasive in non-state spaces in recent years.This historic protest against CAA-NRC gave Muslims the opportunity to call secular parties’ bluff and at the same time resist against Hindutva forces.

Why Muslims cannot afford to piggyback on secular parties anymore?

Jamia Coordination Committee and Shaheen Bagh Protestors promptly disassociated from Sharjeel. What did they fear? Was Sharjeel’s speech seditious enough? Did they differ from the method he floated to his audience? Is he some opportunist who is trying to fashion a radical audience for himself? The answer to all these question is NO. Then why the promptness?  The  pragmatic condemnation by JCC and Protestors was due to the possibility of disastrous political fallout considering popular acceptance of the Hindutva among the masses.They feared  it would further demonise the community and shrink their political spaces to protest. Their anxiety is understandable but it is only tip of the iceberg. Let me now turn to the question of assertion of exclusive religious identity. The discomfiture with his articulation is based on a series of false assumptionsand also its uncertain political fallout. First, the belief that minority communalism shall acerbate majority communalism and which in turn, feed into the ideological logic of the Sangh Parivar. Thus, in this logic both communalisms sprang from the same ideological thread. Furthermore, it will reduce the solidarity of non-Muslims against CAA-NCR thereby shrinking the space and strength necessary for the protest, Second, the unarticulated anxiety has its roots in history- the ghost of Jinnah, the shadows of partition and the prospect of pan-Islamism- compounds to this misreading.  The popular history of partition is so entrenched in public memory that whenever they see an assertion of Muslim identity, these vicarious memories come back to haunt them.

Liberal political ideology assumes that people in a democracy are citizens whose relationship with the state is based on abstract individual terms.In practice, people are not atomised individuals even if in a normative sense the state assumes so, they are part of some social group and shares interest based community solidarity. In a democracy, the claim over the state is decided by the instrumentality of electoral politics.The custodians of state, in turn, exercises asymmetric power over society to fashion it in such a way as they think desirable. Until a few years back, the spiral of competitive populism between identity politics and Hindu nationalism had masked the poverty of state secularism.Since 1980s, many social identities have been vying for share in the power within the larger canopy of the Indian state. At times, caste-based parties have made adjustments to share power with diametrically opposite ideological parties. In this backdrop, how come the call for political solidarity based on the foundational social fault-line – religion- became an act of treason? One can argue that Dalits cannot be compared with the Muslims. Unlike largely undifferentiated socio-historical experience of Dalits as the wretched Other in the varna order, the historical trajectory of Muslim identity have seen many ruptures in a comparatively short span of time. They are/have been a highly differentiated community in terms of class, Beraderi, ethnicity and other cultural markers which rendered everyday social intercourse almost impermeable. Partition has a definitive role in coalescing Muslims identity into homogenous whole both within the community and in relation to the state.  Those who choose to live in India in the shadow of partition still cripple their political aspiration.

In this scenario, the strategy to piggyback on secular parties continued as long as there was the assurance of physical security and communal harmony. In turn, the secular parties harvested political dividend out of this insecurity. The strategy bore fruit in development terms for large cross-section of Muslim community. In recent years, the ouster of secular parties from state power has thrown Muslims to the winds. This was further complicated by the ideological seepage of Hindutva ideology among the Hindu subalterns. This was made possible by the limited political and social empowerment and clever stitching of Dalit-Bahujan heroes to a larger Hindu nationalist pantheon.In the previous general assembly, the victory of BJP in many states, garnering more than fifty percent of votes is empirical proof of acceptance of that ideology.

Unlike symbolic issues like the Babri Masjid or personal laws, CAA-NRC has insidious implication- a threshold beyond which the process of Jewishisation will take concrete shape. Even in the best case scenario if the CAA is rescinded and NRC is never introduced, the long due political fruition of Hindutva ideology has come to stay on national stage, imagine a situation when hateful ideology of Hindutva is combined with the social welfare measures like AamAdami Party. How would one counter the deadly combination of Hindutva with welfarism? The political appropriation of  Hanuman by AAP to appease Hindu voters in order to defeat BJP is after all ideological victory of Hindutva in some sense.

It is the now accepted that the political spaces of Dalit-Bahujan were not ready made; neither can they be taken as guaranteed, rather it was created through the persistent struggle by the Dalit leaderswhich, even then, militated against the liberal commonsense because it was contrary to the abstract idea of individual citizenship. Nehruvian secularism failed to create a deracinated individual, an abstract citizen fit for liberal democracy. It is the political necessity of the segmented social world we live in today, the emancipation of abstract individual and their claim for equal citizenship, to use liberal terms, would spring from the emancipation of the community. If the identity of a community is the sole marker of injustice towards them,the resistance against it lies in instrumentalisation of that identity. The autonomous political space will allow them to bargain with mainstream parties rather than remaining a passive ‘denationalized’ minority who are perpetually in the need of ‘rescue.’

Muslim political agency is imperative to wrest from political expediency of the secular parties and unrelenting attack from the Hindutva forces.It is necessary to make the difference between religious solidarity for political emancipation from the solidarity envisioned for dominance. Sharjeel only tried to grope in the darkness in his quest for a resolution of the Muslim predicament.

Iqbal Ahmad is a  PhD candidate, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ,New Delhi




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