India’s youth are completing the unfinished business of the freedom struggle
Many supporters of the ruling regime justify legislating differentiated citizenship rights based on religious identity, and the planned National Register of Citizens, as necessary for completing the unfinished business of Partition. In spirited denial, tens of thousands of youthful, middle- and working-class peaceful protesters coursing on to the streets around the country are completing the unfinished business of the freedom struggle and healing the wounds of Partition.
The Hindutva right believes that Partition will be complete only with the transfer of Muslim Indians to Pakistan and Bangladesh, and of the Hindus from these nations to India. They see Hindus as persecuted and trapped in the Muslim-majority countries in our neighbourhood, as well as in Muslim-majority Kashmir. They demonise Indian Muslims as a security threat to India, as violent, disloyal, intolerant – and misogynist and reproductively irresponsible. They never acknowledge the daily discrimination that Indian Muslims wrestle with.
The freedom struggle, on the other hand, was founded on the idea of equal rights of Muslims, and acknowledgment of their immense contributions to the making of India, to India’s social, cultural and economic life, and to the struggle for independence. This tradition, and the resolve to build a diverse, egalitarian and humanist nation, was first imperilled by the catastrophic ruptures of Partition. It was the moral lodestar of Mahatma Gandhi in the final months of his life which steadied India and steered it back in the direction of the values of the freedom struggle, aided by leaders like Nehru, Maulana Azad and Ambedkar.
But as the decades passed, with the rising clout and influence of Hindutva politics, and the parallel moral and political enfeeblement of secular political formations, it appeared that the legacy of the freedom struggle of humane and inclusive nationalism was fading and spent. In recent years, it appeared instead that muscular Hindutva nationalism had triumphed, that most of India had coalesced against the common “adversary” within, the Indian Muslim, and the enemy outside, Pakistan.
Political leaders felt emboldened to resort to openly venomous hate speech against Muslims, to communal distortions of history, to steps to “cleanse” our public life of Islamic influences by renaming roads and cities reflecting our common legacy, and to politically marginalise Muslims. A social climate of hate became increasingly normalised with brutal lynching of unarmed men by fevered crowds.
The 2019 elections results and the months that followed seemed to signal the hegemony of this social and political consensus, of the prior and higher right of the Hindu majority to the nation. Political parties almost across the spectrum, and all public institutions including the higher judiciary, the civil services, the armed forces, universities and the media seemed to accept this new consensus. The letter of India’s secular constitution was not altered, but its spirit and indeed its practice increasingly stood reversed.
But this long night of darkness has suddenly been interrupted by bursts of light in every corner of the land. I have in these weeks attended and spoken in protests in various corners of the country. Our young people are rebelling against the hate that older generations have raised them in. The popular movement led by India’s young for solidarity, for Hindu-Muslim unity, for a just and kind country, is picking up the unfinished business of the freedom struggle.
In every one of these, you find people of visibly Muslim identity walking, standing, cheering in the company of non-Muslims, waving the national flag, holding defiant posters opposing division and celebrating our unity and solidarity. It greatly reassures Muslim citizens that the attempts to reduce them to the orphans of Partition have failed, that millions in this country emphatically reject the divisive imagination for India of the Hindutva right, that this remains the India of Gandhi and Ambedkar, whose pictures are raised high in every protest.
These two leaders together embody both the politics and ethics of the movement stirring India today. There are three icons of every protest – the national flag, the national anthem and the preamble of the Constitution. With these, India is reclaiming the idea that to love one’s country and one’s religion, we don’t have to hate any other; that true patriotism and faith include within these the love of all humanity.
The running idea of every protest is the idea of solidarity, discovered and expressed by young people in their own ways. Students are thrashed by the police in their library in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and then detained; within hours, the same cold winter night, hundreds gather outside police stations and the police headquarters, refusing to disperse until the students are all released. Students are battered by masked goons in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the same nights students gather at the Gateway of India in Mumbai in spirited protest. Universities across the country follow.
You see solidarity shining through the posters. One reads: “There are two words which break my heart: These are – Except Muslim.” Another is “You divide. We multiply.” To protest the Prime Minister’s taunt that he can recognise protestors by their clothes, carol singers in Kerala wear skullcaps and hijabs while they perform Christmas songs. A young Hindu man travels from Jabalpur to the protest in Delhi, strips in the cold to his boxer shorts, and then asks the Prime Minister to recognise him by his clothes. In Jamia, Muslim students wear Santa caps on Christmas at protest sites. Newlyweds circulate pictures holding posters – “Say no to CAA NRC NPR.” Many write these in henna on their hands. Even dating sites like Tinder are used to spread information about the latest protests.
Resisting the Hindu Rashtra
The protest have also broken the fear. The posters are creative and cheeky. Many speak about the dangers of fascism, and the eerie echoes of Nazi Germany in India today. The similarities with Nazi Germany are indeed many. But Germany in the 1930s never saw the kind of pushback from non-Jews that India is witnessing today. And it never saw the federal resistance that many state governments are offering, by refusing to implement the National Register of Citizens.
Regardless of how long the current protests against the amended citizenship regime, and attacks against university students persist, they have accomplished one thing. They have demonstrated conclusively that there is no hegemonic consensus in support of the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. That significant numbers of people of various religious identities, including Hindu, are opposed passionately to the divisive and majoritarian Hindutva idea of India. That the idea of India for which millions battled during the freedom struggle, of a country which would belong equally to people of every faith, of which the markers would be hope and equality rather than fear and dominance, were still precious to millions in this land. They are on the streets reclaiming these values of our freedom struggle.