The rows over JNU and Rohith Vemula have been missed opportunities for the Muslims of India to express their solidarity with other marginalised communities
Over the past year, we have all been witness to the inappropriate handling of our educational institutions. From the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India to the de-recognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle of IIT Madras to the avoidable ‘institutional killing’ – under the garb of suicide – of Rohith Vemula, we finally come to the sedition charges against JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya.
A community in deep slumber
If these incidents are a harsh reminder of how political interference with zero regard for the autonomy of universities is jeopardising the future of students, they also hold lessons for another section that is often at the receiving end of government callousness – the country’s Muslims.
These incidents must surely have agitated India’s Muslim citizens, as they are one of the many sections of the population that are marginalised and persecuted – including dalits, adivasis, women, and sexuality minorities.
However, even as the impact of these incidents was increasingly felt across the nation, the Muslim religious leaders of India were busy issuing statements about why homosexuality must not be decriminalised and why the Supreme Court does not have the right to interfere with the Shariah. Muslim mohallas were amplifying qawwalis and religious sermons, and Muslim youth were either preoccupied with their jobs or seeking solace for the wrongs done to the community by immersing themselves deeper and deeper into the narrow confines of religion – or worse.
This is how a community in deep slumber is allowing one more opportunity of making a statement of intent and unity slip away.
When was the last time that Muslims gathered in large numbers to protest or to demand their right to education and jobs, whether through affirmative action or other means? As a matter of fact, the community didn’t even protest when the current state government of Maharashtra quashed the quota for Muslims in education. Just recently Hardik Patel mobilised the Patel community and demanded OBC status for them (although it’s not worth the demand), as did Jats in Haryana and Gujjars in Rajasthan. Women’s groups, the LGBT community and the youth with their ‘Kiss of Love’ campaign have all at some point organised themselves, raised the issues that are integral to their development, and demanded their constitutional rights. But seldom have we seen Muslims coming out in large numbers demanding their rights.
The limited circle of Muslim protest
We have seen some agitations by the Muslim community, but these have been few and far-between, and were confined in each case to the issue of infringements, real or imagined, of the Shariah and religious laws of Islam. These include the Shah Bano case, the banning of Salman Rushdie’s and Taslima Nasreen’s books, and, most recently, when a peaceful protest turned violent in Malda over a statement by the rightist leader Kamlesh Tiwari against the Prophet Mohammed. These incidents tell us what the priorities of the Muslim community are – and not the false implication of Muslim youths in terror cases, fake encounters, riots and the inequitable distribution of education, health and jobs.
Importantly, violence never helped the Muslim cause. On the contrary, it has only reinforced the stereotype amongst other citizens that Muslims are a violent community. That narrative is then used to justify violence – past or present – against the community. In addition, communal passions are further roused with acts of violence such as in Malda. The statement by Kamlesh Tiwari did not directly or indirectly affect the question of Muslim survival or act as an impediment to the exercise of their fundamental rights. But it was still blown up into large-scale violence. Muslims, represented by the particular group in Malda, had no qualms about taking the law into their hands when their religion/religious laws/holy book/revered personality was disgraced.
There can be no denying the fact that the Muslim community is heterogeneous, consisting of many sects. But at the same time, the community becomes a silent spectator when their education reservation is taken away, when their educated youth are falsely implicated in terror cases, or when activist-lawyer Shahid Azmi – a messiah for the young men who were falsely implicated in terror cases – is killed. Perhaps one is expecting too much from the community to come out in solidarity with Rohith Vemula or Kanhaiya Kumar.
Precious opportunities missed
It would be disheartening to see the community extending support to the JNU protestors only after the detention of Umar Khalid. What with the present trend of creating a punching bag where a Muslim name is involved, one wonders whether the community would even come out in support of Umar, since the matter does not concern Islam or Allah.
As they witness the branding of Umar as traitor and religious fundamentalist on prime-time news, Muslims must ask themselves whether they can afford to lose one more opportunity of making a statement addressed to the state apparatus – that they are in complete solidarity with other dispossessed communities and individuals, who are victims of the same oppression inflicted by the present and the former governments.
The worrying question is: when the main agenda today is not just to arrest Kanhaiya or Umar or throw Rohith out of the hostel, but to assail free thought, speech and action – how much injustice needs to be suffered before Muslims wake up?
Shadab Arab is a research associate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.