Shaheen Bagh

This is the first of two letters we received from our friends in Kolkata, India. It sheds light on the historical rise of the BJP, the plight of Muslims, and other atrocities of the Indian nation-state to contextualize the significance of the mass uprising at Shaheen Bagh, which began in December of last year and lasted for several months, rapidly spreading across the country. In a second letter, to be published next week, our friends examine the government’s lockdown (supported by the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act) and reflect on the role of the media as a key element of the BJP’s political power.

Dear Liaisons,

Long before the pandemic imposed itself on India’s collective psyche, the intolerable had already been lodged deep into the fabric of our daily lives: Islamophobic lynchings, caste atrocities, the garlanding and celebration of rapists, butchers and murderers as national heroes, the perfection of lying into high art by the obscene spectacle of news media, witch-hunts of political dissidents, democratic institutions shedding all “democratic” pretensions and turning against their very demos, concerted assaults on minorities through the twin terrors of policing and policy, the systematic destitution of the already destitute, “detention” camps, obscene levels of inequality – all of this shrouded, protected, and defended by way of nationalist hysteria. This had been our daily diet of normalcy.

Indian Democracy and the BJP

“Democracy is in danger!” “Is this the final nail in democracy’s coffin?” For six years now, the left-liberal political opposition has never ceased to remind us of how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or “Indian People’s Party,” is endangering the democratic spirit of the Indian state, to the point that such statements have become banal truisms. Yet, and perhaps especially because of how ingrained it is as political common sense, this idea deserves further scrutiny. Did the BJP really just magically coalesce out of the ether one day to parasitically occupy hitherto pristine political institutions – like a virus from the outside – or was it the result of contradictions immanent to the very project of the post-colonial Indian nation-state? After all, in 1999, then in 2014 and 2019, the BJP was elected democratically.

Established in 1980, the BJP is the parliamentary wing of a wider family of Hindu nationalist organizations known as the “Sangh Parivar” (RSS family). Its immediate political precursor was the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), or “Indian People’s Association,” but much of its ideology can be traced to the key organization of the “family” – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the “National Volunteers Corps” known as the RSS – which was founded in 1925. The RSS, which purports to be a “cultural” and not a “political” organization, is an advocate of the ideology of Hindutva (Hinduness), a brand of nationalism that prioritizes Hindu cultural traditions and values and seeks to create an “Akhand Bharat” (“Undivided India”), based on the universalization of such values. The RSS’s political ideas primarily draw from the works and thought of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, widely considered to be the father of Hindutva. Paradoxically given the honorific of “veer” (brave), Savarkar was a cowardly and repugnant little man who, while in prison, repeatedly begged the British for concessions. His other prominent accolades include justifying the use of rape as a political weapon against minorities and being an ardent admirer of Italian and German fascism, going so far as to draw a comparison between German Jews and Indian Muslims: “But if we Hindus in India grow stronger in time, these Moslem friends of the league type will have to play the part of German Jews.”

1. In the Indian context, “communalism” generally refers to religious-driven tensions between communities. Hindu-Muslim riots, for example, are described as communal riots. The term is also used in a more sinister way (i.e. any Muslim-specific demand may be described as “communal” by secularists, and the term is used to describe Kashmir separatists as well); on the other hand, liberals also describe Modi and the BJP as “communal.”
The BJP’s first real taste of electoral success came in the years immediately leading up to and following the demolition of the Babri Masjid (Babri Mosque) in 1992. The site of the Babri Masjid, a nearly 500-year-old mosque, was declared to be the birthplace of Lord Rama, a Hindu deity, by Hindu nationalists. On December 6th, 1992, the Sangh Parivar organized a rally of over 150,000 people at the site. After incendiary speeches from prominent BJP leaders, in a matter of hours, the mob charged at the mosque and brought down the entire structure. The incident led to widespread communal discord1 throughout society, and over 2,000 people lost their lives in the riots that followed. The religious polarization caused by the Babri Masjid allowed the BJP to eventually form their first majority government in parliament in 1999. This is to simply ascertain that Islamophobia, coupled with a toxic brand of majoritarian nationalism, are a fundamental part of the BJP’s DNA. But the BJP’s Islamophobic intervention was a causal catalyst – a strategic intervention meant to exacerbate the tensions and fissures already existing within the social fabric.

The BJP’s rise in 2014 cannot be separated from the broader political context of widespread discontent in the face of decades of neoliberal policies, as well as a Congress racked by corruption scandals. Aided by a slick advertising campaign and a well-oiled PR-machinery, the rise of Modi was in many ways a recuperation of this popular discontent. As Walter Benjamin once said, “behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.

Today, as the BJP strives to strip millions of Indian Muslims of their citizenship, and as political struggles are waged around, through, and in its name, Indian “citizenship” itself deserves further scrutiny. Instead of being some self-evident truth, the ideal citizen-subject has historically been produced through a range of strategies and tactics. At the heart of this lies the question: who has historically qualified as an Indian citizen and who has not?

Citizenship as a concept is intricately bound up with nation-states, which themselves only manage to materialize by strictly establishing boundaries and distinctions.  One such distinction is that of majority and minority: the former constitutes what is considered to be the “natural soul,” or core of the nation, and the latter – constituted through a lack of “natural soul” – form the means by which the majority is further identified, delineated, and solidified in its values and norms. The loyalty of minorities, then, unlike that of the majority, cannot be taken for granted. Citizenship might be defined as a sort of permanent tribunal – minorities must constantly stand trial to prove their fealty to the nation. When it comes to proving their loyalty, they are marked with a question that can never quite be erased – a question mark can remain, but always with the potential of metamorphosing into the mark of a “terrorist” or “traitor.” The tribunal of citizenship allows minorities to be subjected to a permanent coercive surveillance wherein constant sacrifices are demanded as proof of loyalty. Yet no sacrifice is ever enough.

In the age of Modi, all this is painfully evident. Muslims are lynched with impunity for their choice of meat, the state passes entire bills stripping them of their citizenship, and “anti-national” is the term of choice to describe anyone critical of the BJP’s Islamophobia. But the question of whether a Muslim can be an Indian citizen is not new. It goes back to the Partition of 1947 and the establishment of the Indian nation-state.

Partition was the event that threw existing identities and histories into question and simultaneously allowed for the congealing of new ones. More than half a million people lost their lives in the turmoil as “minority” populations in different areas were driven out: the Hindus and Sikhs from the territories of West Pakistan, and Muslims from East Punjab and neighboring tracts in India. Fourteen million people were displaced and turned into refugees, and an immense number of people were looted, raped, and maimed.

It was against this backdrop of violence that the identities constitutive of the Indian nation-state were formed. One such identity was that of the “Nationalist Muslim,” for which there was no equivalent Hindu category. Since the late nineteenth century, politically-conscious Hindus held two camps: there were “Hindu nationalists” – the political ancestors of the BJP – who prioritized Hindu culture and traditions, and “secular nationalists,” those whose nationalism was rooted in secular and democratic principles. The first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is an example of the latter. Regardless of the group one belonged to, the nationalism of both groups was never in doubt. Indian Muslims, however, received a very different distinction – that between “Nationalist Muslims” (supporters of Indian nationalism) and “Muslims” (all Muslims, whether politically active or not, who were not explicit supporters of Indian nationalism). All Hindus, whether driven by secular or Hindu values, were primarily nationalists. Muslims, however, were primarily Muslims.

To weaken the freedom movement, the British had long fostered discord between Hindus and Muslims through their divide and rule policies; however, British efforts to win the Muslims over to their side (in what was no doubt a strategic move) had already sown seeds of doubt regarding Muslim loyalty in the nationalist imagination. Post-Partition, Indian Muslims weren’t just any minority. They were the minority who had agitated for Pakistan. If they were to now choose India as their place of belonging, in order to earn their citizenship, they had to demonstrate their sincerity. The Muslims who remained in India, it was feared, harbored sympathies for Pakistan. Rumors spread they were storing arms. Were these really for self-defense, which they should at any rate have entrusted to the government? What right did these people – potential Pakistan sympathizers, defectors-until-yesterday, traitors-in-waiting – have to stay in India?

2. Gyanendra Pandey, Can a Muslim be an Indian?
This was not just a fringe discourse confined to Hindu nationalists. Such questions were raised by secular nationalists and Congress party leaders as well. Writing in the paper Vartman in 1947, Babu Sampurnanand, then Education Minister in the Congress Government of Uttar Pradesh, expressed his fears about a war between India and Pakistan: “our worries will be greatly increased, for it is not impossible that the sympathies of our Muslim population will veer towards Pakistan.2

Reality, however, was somewhat different. For most Muslims, “it was, as many who lived through those times recall, primarily a question of where one could live in relative mental, and physical, peace.” Many of them went back and forth across the border as they had done pre-Partition, simply because they had family and friends there. In northern India, significant sections of the population, especially Hindu and Sikh refugees from West Pakistan (who had been victims of communal violence themselves), as well as the Hindu rightwing leadership, demanded that Muslims be expelled from India and be sent to Pakistan. It was in this climate of fear that most Indian Muslims had to make a choice.

3. Gyanendra Pandey, Can a Muslim be an Indian?
While such suspicions may have been birthed to a large extent by the exceptional circumstances of the Partition, in its aftermath, they did not just fade away. At the time of the inception of the Indian nation-state, amidst the turmoil of the Partition, for Indian Muslims, proof of loyalty through sacrifice – manifest by the shedding of one’s own blood – became the password to citizenship. “It is a password that has been demanded of Muslims in India, in one form or another, ever since,”3 and perhaps never more so than now.

This is why to oppose the BJP – in the name of some ideal Nehruvian democracy – is to completely misunderstand the terrain of battle: even the ideal citizen is already a product of power. Even the purest of democracies, that of Athens, subjugated all living beings (zoe) to a particular life (bios) – the life of the Polis (administration of the city state). Exclusion is not an anomaly, but is built into the heart of concepts that ultimately seek to render all life governable. The authoritarian and liberal poles of the state exist in a dialectical relationship: the Magician-King who rules through terror and the Jurist-Priest who binds through contract are not mutually exclusive, one is liable to switch into the other at any given moment. For the sake of our liberation, we must not lack the courage to dream a little bigger and expand the political horizon of our emancipation.

Shaheen Bagh

The end of 2019 was marked by a global wave of insurrections, and India was no exception.  In December 2019, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the Indian Parliament. This act came on the heels of the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC), which would require every Indian to provide a set of documents to prove their citizenship. The implementation of the NRC in Assam saw the exclusion of over one million people, who were then deported to detention camps. Assam has a long history of xenophobia against Bengali immigrants (especially Bengali Muslims), a sentiment often given a progressive sheen under the rhetoric of “indigenous rights,” while simply serving to amplify state-centric frameworks of segregation and political borders. In 1983, over 2,000 Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh (according to unofficial counts, the numbers are a lot higher) lost their lives in the pogrom that came to be known as the “Nellie Massacre.” While Muslims had no doubt been the prime target of the BJP’s implementation of the NRC in Assam, the final result also saw the exclusion of a large number of Bengali Hindus, who comprised a significant section of the BJP’s voter base. It was in the wake of this that the CAA was implemented. The CAA would allow illegal migrants from the countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan to opt for citizenship as long as they were Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, or Parsis – as long as they were of any religious origin but Islam.

The CAA was passed on December 11th, 2019, and protests erupted almost spontaneously throughout the country. Shaheen Bagh, a neighborhood in Delhi’s Jamia Nagar area, emerged as the most enduring symbol of the anti-CAA protests. Though there are a few rich businessmen as well as professors who belong to the nearby university, Jamia Millia Islamia, Shaheen Bagh is largely looked upon by its more well-to-do neighbors in the adjoining areas as a “ghetto-like” locality of lowly-placed Muslims. Largely comprised of carpenters, welders, plumbers, and grill makers, it is a place to procure cheap labor, though its population is otherwise seen as “wild” and “uneducated” – definitely to be kept at a distance. Up until 1990, Shaheen Bagh had no electricity or sewer lines, and today potable water is still scarce – the children of poorer families spend hours fetching water from taps mounted inside the lanes. In a strange fact linking the history of the neighborhood with that of the BJP, a major population boom happened after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. Fearing for their safety due to communal riots, Muslims from mixed localities migrated to the area and set up homes. Today, it is a densely populated area with a fairly diverse population, with varying views when it comes to Islam. Nonetheless, the divisions between the social classes are well-marked and maintained and people belonging to these separate worlds respect the boundaries.

No one  in Shaheen Bagh is unfamiliar with Jamia Millia Islamia – they all know someone who studies or has studied there. For many of Shaheen Bagh’s youth, it is the institution of their dreams, a place where they one day aspire to study themselves. On December 15th, 2019, the Delhi police carried out a brutal assault on the university. They forcibly broke their way in, vandalized the institution, fired tear gas inside libraries, and violently beat up students. The brute nature of the incident – a display of state power in its naked ferocity – sent a ripple throughout Shaheen Bagh, a ripple that broke down the walls separating the people within. With no political backing or formal organization, the neighbors of Shaheen Bagh decided to come together, take to the streets, and block the highway.

Before looking more closely at the overcoming that took place in Shaheen Bagh, it is worth noting the “secular” left’s role in these events. As some friends wrote in the wake of the anti-globalization movement, the left “is an integral part of the neutralization mechanisms peculiar to liberal society.” This seems evident when one recalls that the first wave of discontent against the NRC and CAA was spontaneous and violent. Buses were vandalized, tires were burned on the streets, and railway property was damaged. The left, along with the liberal parties, responded by condemning the violence, distinguishing between “good” civil protests and “bad” violent ones. Once the left had established the grip of its informal bureaucracies on an ostensibly “leaderless” movement, it began to speak the language of democratic good sense.

These neutralizing mechanisms in the name of secularization were on full display during the protests at the university. “La ilaha illallah” (“There is no god but Allah”) were the words written on the walls of Jamia Millia Islamia in December that became the source of contention between, broadly, two student camps. On one hand, there were those who objected to the words’ effacement, reiterating that the CAA and NRC were an assault against Muslims in particular, and that Muslims needed to be able to assert themselves. On the other, there were students who were largely leftists and liberals – who had somehow appointed themselves as the spokespeople of the movement – who claimed that the words were “communal” and against the “secular” values of the movement. Painted next to these words, as if to defuse their effect, were slogans characteristic of the Indian left: “Secular India,” “Be United,” “Civil disobedience,” and “Sab ek hain” (“All are equal”).

In this incident, there are two things worth pointing out. The first is that the secularism the left invokes – that of Nehruvian democracy – was always premised on an inclusive exclusion, its “universality” nothing but a strategic cloak necessary at a particular historical juncture to establish certain boundaries, categories, and distinctions – and therefore legitimacy – for the fledgling post-colonial Indian nation-state. It would be wrong to understand this “secularism” as some sign of historical “progress”: far from addressing or changing the relations within the social body which were at the root of communal tension and violence, the Indian state’s “secularism” strategically recodified those same relations within the framework of the post-independence Indian state. In other words, this secularism is not opposed to communalism, but is perfectly coextensive with it – it is its other side. The second is that, in the name of some nebulous “unity,” by denying the specificity of the Modi regime’s anti-Muslim policies, and by policing the expression of religious minorities, the left plays a role not too dissimilar from that of the state: it adopts a discretionary gaze which allows it to make distinctions between “good” and “bad” Muslims.

In all this, the left reveals itself to be the party of counter-insurgency par excellence. The more our faith in the democratic fictions of the state breaks down, the more the left seeks to preserve them. The more it becomes obvious that the law is nothing but war itself, the more the left wants to reaffirm our faith in juridical fictions. The more it becomes apparent that we must organize amongst ourselves and build our own power – learn to share, care for, and protect ourselves and secede from the murderous games of the social – the more the left speaks of “civil society.” In the left’s scheme of things, all intensity must be neutralized, all discontent pacified, and then sacrificed on the altar of the state. Still bound by the historical shadow cast by Lenin’s corpse, the left dreams of its ideal nation-state, its ideal police. It prefers to forget that states only flower on the manure of broken bodies.

When the women of Shaheen Bagh took to the streets and blockaded the road, it was a monumental step creating a deep fissure in the oppressive geography of the metropolis. While public demonstrations in India are a dime a dozen, the irruption of the ghetto into the streets upsets the racialized logic of the metropolis, whose “public order” is premised on the exclusion of the “ghettoes” from “public space” – on synthesizing a memory which bears no traces of their existence. Hence the bizarre statement of the Supreme Court that protests must take place in their “designated” places, and the media’s outcry over Shaheen Bagh causing “public inconvenience.” Our modern liberal democracies are premised on the hypocritical fiction of a split between the spheres of the public and the private. The “public” is the sphere of serious politics whereas the “private” sphere of the home is depoliticized, to lend support to a whole network of dominations. Herein lies the novelty of Shaheen Bagh: the protests were led by the neighborhood’s women, the majority of whom were homemakers. In the literature surrounding the Indian nationalist freedom movement, one already reads about a women’s “emancipation” premised on preserving and enshrining their role as caretakers of the home, the spiritual private sphere, an emancipation premised on their exclusion from the serious sphere of politics. It is these hypocritical fictions to which the act of courage shown by the women of Shaheen Bagh laid waste.

In the cold December winter, underneath the tent put up at the protest site, women – mothers, grandmothers, and grandchildren – huddled together on mattresses and blankets to share their stories. They refused to be represented by any political party. Arrangements were made so that namaaz (the Muslim prayer) could be offered outside the tent. Along with their stories, people shared biscuits, juice, and tea. Iftar was served to women in the evening to end the day’s Ramadan fast. Hundreds of thousands of people started pouring in to share poetry and music, to laugh and to show solidarity.

The media and the political parties sneered: “How could these “ignorant” and “uneducated” women emerge from their “ingrained backwardness” and take to the streets in their hijabs? What did they know about laws and politics? Who was paying them?”  Yet beneath the jibes and condescending bluster, one could sense their fear.  Fear – because no matter how hard the media tried to spin Shaheen Bagh as a “Muslim issue,” it turned into a nationwide movement comprised of people from all religions and walks of life – Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Dalits, Jains. That people come together outside of institutionally mediated codes, that they share food, poetry, and music, that the demographic separations that undergird all technologies of government melt away, that the walls between us and the Other perish – not through the official channels of political representation, but through actual hospitality and the reception, into our lives, of the Other – all these things are intolerable to power. And ultimately, the fear that many other Shaheen Baghs would bloom.

In January 2020, I attended a sit-in protest organized by Muslim women in Kolkata’s Park Circus, inspired by the events at Shaheen Bagh. When I went there, I didn’t know anyone, but was hugged by an elderly Muslim man, a decorator at the nearby mosque who invited me to join him some day for a free meal. I felt a sense of belonging in a way the daily misery of capital’s atomized existence rarely allows us to feel. As night fell, I witnessed the diverse throng of people gathered there – people of different genders, religions, and castes – share stories, blankets, and food. In the distance, the local mosque bathed in the glow of the moon. Often, people would leave the site to go say their namaaz at the mosque, then return and resume their activities. There was something spiritual about that experience. The professional leftists, while appreciative of the number of people gathered, expressed their chagrin at what they perceived to be the protest’s religious element. It goes without saying, of course, that “professional” leftists are quite the religious zealots themselves. In Shaheen Bagh too, many had turned to God as a source for their salvation. Based on his experiences of the Iranian uprising before the establishment of Khomeini’s theocratic regime, Michel Foucault described “political spirituality” as “a certain practice by which the individual is displaced, transformed, disrupted, to the point of renouncing their own individuality, their own subject position. It’s no longer being the subject that one had been up to that point.” In this sense, if we can say that what emerged at Shaheen Bagh and spread across the country was a “spirituality,” this spirituality should not be understood as synonymous with religion – it is something common to all social upheavals, found both within and outside them, insofar as it entails a re-enchantment of the world and our relation to it.

Contrary to a “secularism” that merely channels and sacrifices all discontent on the altar of the state, my own impression was that this spirituality, far from being a “regressive” hindrance to the otherwise “progressive” nature of the protests, was one of its pillars of strength. One of the songs popularized during the anti-NRC protests was a rendition of the Pakistani Marxist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhenge” (We Shall See). Echoing Benjamin’s messianism, the poem, which was written as a protest against the tyrannical regime of Zia Ul Haq, talks of a time to come when thunder would crack over the heads of rulers, when crowns would be thrown off and thrones overturned, a time in which the coming of the messiah would usher in the end of all tyranny as Allah would rule through the people. Regardless of the shortcomings of the sit-ins – and there were many – they embodied Faiz’s figure of vision – “certainly we, too, shall see” – by giving us a glimpse of another space-time not governed by the logic of the commodity. Perhaps, also, they gave us an embryonic glimpse at another possible world.

This is why the government tried its best to use the media and its spokespersons to discredit the protests, citing “public inconvenience,” reducing them to a “Muslim issue,” and invoking the fear of a “dark future” of rapes and kidnappings if they succeeded. One of the functionaries of the ruling party even gave the call to “shoot the traitors!,” and another gave a bloody ultimatum: if the streets were not cleared by the time of Donald Trump’s visit on February 24th, 2020, he would take matters into his own hands. Violence erupted in northeast Delhi as Muslim neighborhoods, houses, and stores were targeted and burnt down by Hindu mobs, with the police either watching as mute spectators or being complicit in the violence. Four mosques were burnt down by rioters and over fifty people lost their lives, the majority of them Muslims. Fearing for their personal safety, many Muslims had to leave the neighborhood for their ancestral villages. Over 1,000 displaced Muslims sought shelter in relief camps. Even amidst this horrific storm of communal violence, the spirit of solidarity witnessed in Shaheen Bagh shined through, with Hindus and Sikhs coming to the aid of besieged Muslims. The state and the media quickly went into overdrive to paint the Delhi riots as a case of spontaneous communal violence, but nothing could be further from the truth. It was a programmed act of retaliation, an attempt to kill the protests raging throughout the country – to break their spirit – by instilling fear through brute force and violence.

Though we might be accused of embellishing the events at Shaheen Bagh – it is true that most of the demands articulated there didn’t exceed a democratic framework – such a limited understanding would be extremely reductive. After all, as Agamben noted in his reflections on Tiananmen Square, “democracy and freedom are notions too generic and broadly defined to constitute the real object of a conflict.” Elsewhere, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney warn us of “the false image of enclosure” that “convinces us that we are surrounded” and must “remain in the emergency.” This false image appears in the analyses that interpret what took place at Shaheen Bagh as a simple conflict between constituent citizen-subjects and the state. Refusing to acknowledge the fugitive spaces opened up by and within Shaheen Bagh, such an analysis already adopts the state’s gaze, enclosing us within the logic of the emergency. To articulate the real object of this conflict is precisely our letter’s modest aim.

Although the sit-in at Shaheen Bagh continued even after the riots, its strength dwindled, and COVID-19 would soon put an end to everything. As the phrase “social distancing” entered our political lexicon and became part of our everyday lives, after one hundred days, the women of Shaheen Bagh finally ended their indefinite sit-in and headed to their homes. In a final insult to popular memory, as if to make us forget the land of poetry that was Shaheen Bagh, the police cleared everything from the spot, making sure that nothing remained.

In our next letter, we want to write to you about the devastation the lockdown imposed, but we also want to share our thoughts about the persistence – as insurrectionary memory – of the experience of Shaheen Bagh.