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For several weeks now, Indians from dozens of cities have taken to the streets to protest a new citizenship law that explicitly excludes Muslims. Initially, students from select Muslim universities protested peacefully, but as the police began to beat them and deploy tear gas and water cannons, a growing number of people—of all stripes—have joined the protesters. The groundswell continues.

In many places, such as New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, protesters have relentlessly turned up every day and night since Dec. 15. With Delhi’s High Court refusing to evict them from their place of protest, they are resolute. Little red dots that depict mass protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act constantly expand on this interactive map, covering all corners of the country. 

On Jan. 22, the Supreme Court of India heard more than 140 petitions requesting to repeal the act and gave the Indian government four weeks to respond—but refused to stay the law. 

The nationwide protests have thrown up important questions of identity, religion, and belonging, some of which have driven a wedge within the progressive circles opposing the designs of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for Hindu supremacy. What is the identity of the Muslims who started and joined these protests in large numbers? Should Muslim demonstrators protest as Muslims or as Indians who happen to be Muslim? Is their primary identity their religion or their nationality?

Thousands of Muslims have simultaneously held up the Indian national flag and chanted “Allahu akbar” while demonstrating for a secular India. While critics see this as an affront to the idea of an inclusive India—in that they are deploying religious symbolism to argue in favor of secularism—others argue that religious freedom is an integral part of a secular nation. But one other way of seeing it is that when a religious community is persistently marginalized, demonized, and persecuted, asserting such religiosity is empowering in itself. 

After several weeks of street protests, more than 25 lives lostbusinesses stranded, and thousands of lives disrupted, one could call this the second revolution to reclaim a secular India. (The first time was when India fought the British to ultimately gain its independence, in 1947.) And if this is India’s second war to reclaim its progressive identity, it is also the second time the country’s 200 million Muslims are being asked to define their identity. 

At the time of India’s independence, there was rigorous debate on whether India should adopt Hindu nationalism, along the lines of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, or a more open form of Indian nationalism—one where a principle of secularism would separate the state’s activities from matters of faith. 

India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and other senior leaders put their weight behind a secular vision of the country and sealed it by incorporating the ideals of justice, equality, and religious freedom into the constitution. But while Hindus were never asked to prove their allegiance toward India, Muslims constantly were. And seven decades later, both implicitly and explicitly, they are asked to assert if they are Muslim first or Indian first.

The ruling BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are heavily influenced by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a young independence activist who openly admired Adolf Hitler. When Narendra Modi was elected prime minister in 2014, many RSS supporters felt that the moment they had waited for since India’s independence had arrived—finally, Hindus could reclaim their historic dominance over the lands India was built on. 

The Citizenship Amendment Act was the tool to realize just such a dream. The act fast-tracks Indian citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, and Christians from neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. By excluding Muslims, the legislation creates a two-tiered structure for Indian citizenship. When combined with the proposed National Register of Citizens, where every Indian resident is required to show documents to prove citizenship, it is a perfect recipe to disenfranchise large groups, especially Indians of lesser means, who are more likely to not have the right paperwork, and Muslims. 

Unlike any other time in the past six years of Modi’s rule, many Muslims took to the streets for the first time in December. At one of the protests in Delhi last month, two Jamia Millia Islamia students, Ladeeda Farzana and Ayesha Renna, protected a male student from a police force that was increasingly violent. Farzana later wrote about the demonstration in a Facebook post: “Some liberals dictated us to refrain from chanting ‘Insha Allah’ and ‘Allahu Akbar’. … Those slogans are our spirit, our imagination and the one which refines our existence.” She went on to write that she had abandoned secular slogans. 

But arguments like Farzana’s have created a rift within the progressive movement to uphold the country’s constitution. “The answer to Allahu akbar is Har Har Mahadev,” said one protester at Mumbai’s famous Gateway of India last month. Har Har Mahadev has, over time, become a Hindu war cry against Muslim invaders. “We should keep religious slogans out of these protests. We are fighting for a secular idea of India,” she added.

The opposition politician and commentator Shashi Tharoor added to that argument when he tweeted: “You can’t fight Hindutva communalism by promoting Muslim communalism. Identity politics will destroy India.” His concern was that it would play into the ruling party’s narrative that Muslims are not Indian first. But an opposing explanation comes from Muslims such as Hilal Ahmed, a fellow at the Nantes Institute for Advanced Study, who said India’s Muslims are asserting a new political identity and are strengthening India’s secular credentials.

The question then is whether Indian secularism is so fragile that exhibiting religious symbols would shake its foundations. When Muslims are persecuted for being Muslim, what is a better response than to exhibit their Muslimness? Hannah Arendt wrote, “When one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.”

On Jan. 5, two Hindu women in Chennai joined their city’s protests wearing hijabs. “Our fight is against authoritarian rule. They command us to not eat beef, we eat beef. They demand that we stand up during the national anthem, we sit. They ask us to disown our Muslim friends, we become Muslim,” one of them told me, requesting anonymity.

The current Muslim reaction hasn’t erupted in isolation. The Modi government’s revocation of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s special status and the BJP’s plans to build a Hindu temple at the site of a demolished mosque are just some of the recent developments to have riled up India’s Muslims, already feeling under siege after decades of simmering tensions. December’s citizenship law was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. 

When a particular community is repeatedly pushed against the wall, closely identifying and displaying their religious symbols is only natural. I know of several Muslim women who had never donned a hijab but wore one to the protests. Abandoning religious symbols is a privilege accorded to the majority. 

As the students continued protesting on cold Delhi nights, Modi said those who burnt buses in the name of protests could be identified by their clothes. It was thinly veiled attempt not only to paint the entire Muslim community as violent but also to intimidate it by threatening to identify them and retaliate with all the state’s might. When the prime minister of the country can alienate an entire section of the population whose welfare he is responsible for, what other way will they protest unless by asserting such identity?

Perhaps taking a cue from Modi’s words, on Dec. 19 Delhi police arrested a man who had nothing to do with the protests simply because, it turned out, he looked Muslim. A journalist captured the entire incident on camera. On Jan. 5, masked men and women attacked students and teachers of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, injuring dozens of them. According to a hidden camera report by a national news channel, one of the perpetrators admitted on camera that he attacked a man with a “flowing beard [who] looked like a Kashmiri.”

By wearing headscarves and skullcaps to the protests and chanting religious slogans, Muslims defy these threats to silence them. Instead, they assert their right to be a visible part of secular India. When the grip of Hindu supremacy is loosened, one might see a gradual decline in the assertion of Muslim identity. But for now, India’s protesters will continue to have a debate within a debate, and at least some participants will stand up to attacks on secularism by being Indian Muslims—and showing it. 

Published in: Foreign Policy
Published on: January 24, 2020