The anti-CAA stir of 2020 needed the universality that today’s farm protests have
After the long silence since 2014, India is now erupting with various collective mobilisations. Last winter, we saw a major movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Shaheen Bagh, and this winter, we witnessed a mobilisation at Delhi’s borders. But though both are against unjust legislation, they have been received differently. What can this difference tell us about political mobilisation and the place of ethics and public morality in collective mobilisations?
Anti-CAA protests had begun over the question of citizenship for the dispossessed, but they got reduced to an issue of citizenship of Muslims. For the first time, we saw the movement being led and represented by Muslim women. They, too, suffered harsh winter nights in the open, just like the women and the elderly from Punjab and many other States during the ongoing farmer’s movement. While Yogi Adityanath took a jibe at Muslim men sitting at home while their women took to the streets, a judge this time offered unsolicited advice of taking women and elderly back to their homes. Muslim women as anti-CAA activists also raised a more universal concern that the protests were not just about citizenship for Muslims, but about saving democracy and the Constitution. Similarly, the farmers argue that their agitation is not just about Punjab or farmers, but also about food security and against the model of development and corporatisation of agriculture across India. Left-liberals and students had joined the anti-CAA protests to express solidarity with Shaheen Bagh agitators, and similarly, Left-affiliated farmer’s organisations, Khaps, women and farmers cutting across region and religion have joined the protests at Delhi’s borders this time.
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On the part of the government, too, both the movements were treated with similar disdain initially. An entire election was fought on Shaheen Bagh with no success for the BJP; the agitation was stereotyped as ‘anti-national’, portrayed as an obstacle for daily commuters, and ended with riots and violence. For the farmers’ stir, the government resorted to similar dirty tricks — it called the farmers ‘Khalistanis’ and the movement as one being led by rich farmers, and finally, it peddled the idea that the contentious laws were being resisted only in Punjab and Haryana. However, the government of the day has been more cautious in dealing with the agitating farmers and has at least produced the optics of being willing to hold a dialogue.
The differential treatment of the two movements should account for how popular consciousness and imagination work. In the farmers’ movement, the agitators remained steadfast in their ‘universal’ approach right from the beginning. Though the movement was spearheaded by the Sikh community, a religious minority, it was about being a farmer, not a Sikh or a Jat. The ethical advantage of the ‘social’ identity of a farmer over ethnic or religious identities of being a Jat or a Sikh produces a more universal appeal. This is an advantage that was denied to the anti-CAA protests. It becomes easier for the government to stoke prejudices against the anti-CAA protests as long as they remain, even if just symbolically, an agitation by a religious community.
One could ask how else should the Muslim community respond to a law that singles them out. Protests by Muslim women, and more importantly elderly women, made a perceptible difference in the way the movement was received. It carried a different moral weight. Acceptability and empathy are linked to the vulnerability of the minority and the anxiety of the majority. Absence of social conditions for ‘creating’ anxiety among dominant social groups makes it that much more difficult to create false narratives. The anti-CAA protests were limited by their religious stamp and enabled by the unfair vulnerability of elderly women and children. Something similar happened with the violence against students in Jamia Millia Islamia — they were students first and Muslims later.
It also vindicates what Amartya Sen argues in his book, The Idea of Justice, that any identity that is imagined in the singular will remain a source of violence. It is in multiplicity that dialogic conditions are created. The clear advantage that the farmers’ movement has is its multiplicity. It belongs to various regions, even if it is being spearheaded by the Jats or Sikhs of Punjab; it has women, Left-affiliated unions and even wage-workers and Dalits working for the rich peasantry extending their support. The future of the anti-CAA mobilisation will depend on what kind of multiplicity it can manage to find to counter the singularity imposed by the majoritarian imagination.
The question of belonging and trust also emerges. The popular image of Muslims as a community of rulers continues to be derived from the past, against the present reality of a group afflicted with great social disadvantage. And hence, empathy and compassion become difficult to achieve, because this translates into blatant prejudice and a source of anxiety. In addition, Muslims are also seen as a global community rather than a national one. With more than 40 Muslim nations across the globe and Islam being tipped as the fastest-growing religion, counter-mobilisations of the anti-CAA kind will have to find ways to penetrate the popular consciousness, stitch these disparate factors, and forge a more amicable imagination.
The growing indifference towards violence against Muslims can only be countered through a renewed sense of belonging. Islam, as a religion that has originated ‘outside’, will have to contend with religions such as Sikhism that have their roots here, and those without a demand for separate nations. Sikhs as Khalistanis can be put down with force, but not Sikhs as farmers. Could a debate on an Indic-Islam version create this sense of belonging? Sufism and the culture of Dargahs (mosques) as common places of worship could offer us clues about what this composite culture might look like. The challenge of building counter-mobilisations for self-representation ought not to be shaped by the majoritarian gaze.
Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU