While attending a protest at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh last week, I heard several speakers invoking the India of Mohandas Gandhi and Bhagat Singh to argue that the new Citizenship Amendment Act and the planned National Register of Citizens run contrary to the spirit of Indian Constitution. Some of these speakers – ordinary women, not high-profile personalities – ended their speeches with religious advice, telling audiences that the discrimination they faced was the consequence of Muslims deviating from Islamic monotheism and counselling them to hold on to their faith. In other parts of India, too, Muslims are proudly wearing their religious identities on their sleeves (and on their heads) at the protests.

This display of Muslimness at the protests has brought into focus the long-standing discussion about whether identity politics is compatible with secularism. Some liberals argue that such appeals to religious identity have undermined the ability to create broad-based coalitions against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s discriminatory citizenship initiatives, which could be used to harass Muslims – and perhaps even disenfranchise many of them.

This liberal criticism is based on wrong premise. It is an undeniable fact that the vast number of people assaulted and detained as the state has cracked down on opponents of the initiatives have been Muslim – be it on students at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University or the police brutality in Uttar Pradesh, where they vandalised homes and property of community members. Since the suppression has been based on Muslim identity, it is entirely natural for the protests to be conducted on the same grounds.

Institutions compromised

Critics have failed to understand why Muslims are talking shelter in Identity politics. Not since Independence have there been such enormous demonstrations by Muslims, unabashedly displaying community symbols. So why now? The reason is simple: the Modi government has compromised every institution in which the Indian Muslims have placed their faith. Muslims have grown disillusioned with the increasing violence they face. The lynchings under the guise that Muslims have slaughtered cows, the accusations that they are waging “love jihads” to woo Hindu women and covert them to Islam and conducting “land jihads” to dispossess Hindus of their homes, and now the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens make the blatant Islamophobic nature of Modi government very apparent. Even political parties such as the Congress that once relied on Muslim votes are showing the tint of Hindutva.

The double standards of India liberals are evident from the fact that some of them promote Hinduism, even as they claim to merely be espousing longstanding cultural practices. When minorities do the same thing, though, their representations of identity are categorised as communal.

A protest in Mumbai on January 18 against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

This controversy is an echo of the debate between Gandhi and BR Ambedkar over the Poona Pact in 1932, on the reservation of seats for the “depressed classes” in colonial-era provincial legislative assemblies. If Ambedkar had allowed the Dalit movement to be subsumed by the national Independence movement, the community would not have such a strong presence in Indian politics today. That is why it is important for Muslims to assert their identity.

As commentator Asim Ali has noted, despite the protests, Modi retains the support of the silent majority. In this situation, the slogans and symbols deployed by Muslims in these protests do not matter as much was whether members of other communities can find any affinities with a group that is protesting their explicit segregation through legislation. So far, that does not seem to be the case. It would seem that most people on the streets are those who are already sceptical of Modi. The need of the hour is to broaden the coalition involved in the protests by including farmers in distress, workers hurt by the economic slowdown and others who have been battered by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s poorly conceptualised policies.

Confusing liberal claim

Besides, to suggest that the protests against the citizenship initiatives would be tainted unless Muslims keep their religion inside their homes is in itself discriminatory. The claim by some Indian liberals that our fight against the citizenship initiatives must be based on a single identity as Indians is a little confused. How can we safeguard a Constitution that speaks for religious freedom while discarding our own religious freedom?

Indian secularism is different from the western version of the ideal. As Nehru stated, for him secularism meant protecting every religion. Asking a minority community to hide its identity and repose their hopes only on the Constitution is paradoxical. Is it not a fact that one specific community in India has been targetted by the citizenship policies? India is a land of multiculturalism and those who argue for freedoms to be limited themselves betray the idea of Indian secularism.

Muslims are not the perpetrators but the victim of identity politics practiced by the Sangh Parivar and Modi government in particular. By using religious symbolism, Muslims are reclaiming their space and the freedoms guaranteed to all Indians under the Constitution. They are demanding that other communities should also adhere to Gandhi’s idea of India where Gita, Quran and Bible were recited on the same platform. It is time for other communities to show their solidarity with Muslims and reassure the community that we need not feel alienated in our own homeland.

Nafis Haider studies Political Science at Aligarh Muslim University.