The fear of losing everything gives many Indian Muslims the courage to speak up against the Modi regime, even though they are facing a violent police crackdown.
On September 19 2008, as a student at Jamia Millia Islamia, a public university in India's capital city New Delhi, I was compelled to think about my identity. Was it an Indian first or a Muslim? The police had barged into our neighbourhood Jamia Nagar, and killed two students from the university. Soon after the entire neighbourhood was demonised as a 'terrorist hub', making us all look like potential militants. The incident was imprinted in public memory as the ‘Batla House Encounter’, the authenticity of which remains challenged as many locals and independent human rights groups call it a "cold-blooded murder".
What remains unchanged ever since is that our neighbourhood carries prejudice and suspicion. We became social outcasts, the so-called ‘others’ who were pushed into ghettos.
The same ghetto happens to be next to Jamia Millia Islamia, an institution that has produced many great minds and famous Indian personalities such as Bollywood movie star Shahrukh Khan, and today it's teeming with young students who are at the forefront of a crucial agitation, which, for the first time, challenges the authority of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The protest is against a ‘draconian’ law called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which gives non-Muslims in South Asia an opportunity to become Indian citizens, while excluding Muslims. The CAA becomes lethal for Indian Muslims once it's combined with another controversial measure called the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Once implemented, this dangerous mix will jeopardise the citizenship status of India's 200 million Muslims, and could go as far as robbing them of their voting and property rights.
Eleven years have passed since the fateful Batla House Encounter. The question of my identity that once haunted me has resurfaced in my mind, although in a different form. In 2008, I was compelled to think about whether I was an Indian or a Muslim first. It took me a while to separate the two. I am a Muslim first when it comes to the question of believing in the unseen. And I am an Indian first when it comes to upholding the country's secular constitution. Whoever complicates the two is the enemy of my country, I realised years after the two students were gunned down in my neighbourhood.
Now with the passing of the CAA in Indian parliament, a law ratified by the Supreme Court of India, I'm battling with one of the worst infringements of our time. It's no longer about how I feel. I'm being exposed to complete annihilation. It's clear that the questioning of my Indianness in 2008 was the first step to the erasure of my legal identity. With the CAA in place, the process of exclusion has begun. The tentacles are out to hunt every single one of us down.
The fear of CAA and NRC has brought tens of thousands of people out on the roads. While challenging the mighty security machinery of the Indian state, they are even ready to face bullets. They show unflinching determination to Gandhi-style non-violent civil disobedience. Five days into protests, three youths were shot dead and several hundred students injured, many are in a critical state, battling death. Yet, the youth refuse to give up. Much to the government's surprise, a large number of people from other faiths--Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists--are opposing the law, extending solidarity to students protesting both in New Delhi and other parts of India.
Although India's Home Minister Amit Shah gave an assurance that Indian Muslims have "nothing to fear about", people are unwilling to take his words at face value. The Home Minister has been criticised for either "lying" or "misleading" the public on several issues in the past.
It's common knowledge in India that when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat state in 2002, he along with his Home Minister Amit Shah, who is now India's Home Minister, did not react in time to contain the fast-spreading riots in which about 10,000 people were slaughtered, mostly Muslims, and over 150,000 were displaced. Modi and Shah are widely believed to have had a hand in the carnage, many calling it a "state-sponsored massacre".
The troubling context behind the rise of Modi and Shah is deeplying worrying for Indian Muslims. Although many of our right-thinking friends who voted for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014 and then again in 2019 in bigger numbers always defended their electoral choice by saying Modi was the man of "inclusive" development, those words sounded hollow since India's minorities, especially Muslims, barely stopped feeling vulnerable to mob attacks in the name of cow vigilantism or for simply sporting a beard or wearing a skullcap.
Now 70 years after India's independence from the British colonialism and after choosing a "secular India" over "theocratic Pakistan," we can't stop feeling that we've been pushed to the brink of extinction.
The laws like CAA and NRC are not only violating the spirit of India's constitution, but also mocking our deceased forefathers who embraced India, thinking the country belonged to them as much as it belonged to the people of other faiths.
Now that their future generations are being subjected to draconian laws as disgraceful as Adolf Hitlor's Nuremberg laws, Indian Muslims are forced to come out on the street and speak up against these transgressions.
We are staring at the possibility of being sent to detention camps, as thousands of people, mostly Muslims, have already been detained in the northeastern state of Assam, where the government is also building massive prison facilities, which mirror the Chinese concentration camps for Uigher Muslims.
Prior to the passage of CAA in parliament, Indian Muslims came across too timid to speak for their rights as a Muslim. In the last three decades, the far-right always scored political points over secular parties by associating Islam with terrorism, causing serious damage to the reputation of Muslim community. As a result, an Indian Muslim felt cornered, always put on the spot to prove their loyalty to India.
But the CAA protests are changing that. Indian Muslims are now asserting their identity because the law excludes them from the system precisely because of their faith.
This sort of response to social injustice is perfectly summed up by German philosopher Hannah Arendt, who said decades ago in the context of German Jews: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as an upholder of rights of man or whatever.”
This assertiveness of Indian Muslims, which had been absent in the face of rising xenophobia, gives us some hope. It's perhaps the fear of losing everything that gives us the courage to speak up.
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