There is an anecdote in Salvador Dali’s Diary of a Genius, where he recounts telling three men from Barcelona, nothing that occurs in the world astonishes him. Upon which a well-known watchmaker among them asks Dali, if he saw the sun coming out in the middle of the night, wouldn’t he be astonished? No, said Dali, it wouldn’t bother him the least. The watchmaker confessed, if he witnessed such a thing, he would have thought he had gone mad. To which, Dali replied with witty assurance, “I should think it was the sun that had gone mad.”
The modern counterparts of Dali’s watchmaker believe there is something mad about the student protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). In fact, the madness lies elsewhere.
Muslim students, finding their place as equal subjects under the law shrinking drastically after the CAA was passed by both houses of parliament last week, have reacted sharply. Protests were spearheaded by two Muslim educational institutions, Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. The logic of the government had reached them. But more significantly perhaps, what reached them was a sense of suffocation.
Since 2014, there has been an unprecedented attack on Muslims in social spaces. It started with the lynchings on rumours of beef eating and transporting cattle. The territorialisation of the Hindu nation had begun with that move. Muslims were asked to mind their eating habits, keeping the sentiments of the majority community in mind. There was also an additional charge of ‘love jihad’, a Hindu rightwing conspiracy theory of Muslim men conning Hindu women to marry them to populate their religion. That added a patriarchal barbwire to the territorial game.
When Hindu Bengalis outnumbered Muslims in failing to prove their citizenship status in the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, the BJP government in the state rejected the NRC. Soon after, home minister Amit Shah, announced a nationwide NRC. The idea behind the drastic move became clearer after the government declared its intentions to pass the CAA.
The CAA has been decried as a gross violation of Article 14 of the constitution that grants equal rights to all persons and does not discriminate against anyone under the law. To concerns raised by the opposition in the Rajya Sabha on the Bill leaving out India’s largest minority, the Muslims, Amit Shah wondered why the members did not appreciate the inclusion of six other communities (Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parsis and Jains) for this special provision. He asked a significant question: Does the inclusion of Muslims alone make a law secular? That, he said, is a very narrow idea of secularism.
The story so far reveals a step-by-step ostracisation of Muslims from the body politic of the nation. The natural habits of Muslim life were targeted first. Next on target was the natural law of belonging to the nation, either by birth or by blood. Muslims were slowly being erased from their natural relationship with the nation. It was a clearly political move to define India’s new, political relationship with Muslims.
The protest against the CAA and the NRC by students of Jamia on December 15 ended in a fierce crackdown by the police. There were stone throwing incidents, and the burning of vehicles. The students were quick to publicly dissociate themselves from the violence. The men in uniform entered the university campus and beat up students in hostels, canteens and had no respect even for the library. There were unforgettable images of broken doors, broken chairs, dupattas left on the table, and blood.
The university proctor said that the police entered without orders from the authorities. Later in the evening, students were taken away with their hands over their heads. “Are we criminals?” a woman, her hands in the air, asked before a television camera. After poor labourers and immigrants, it was the turn of Muslim students to bear the brunt of the new territorial game.
What is really going on? To begin with, Muslim students have refused to obey the new diktat on the erasure of their Indianhood. They shout slogans, run, raise their finger in protest, and cry in exasperation. This is a condition that does not come naturally to students. It has been politically inflicted on them by the state.
To use Dali’s obverse logic of perception, it is the state that has gone mad. Beneath the rhetoric of development and cleanliness, the political agenda of reducing the status of minorities is in full swing. The students know that. And they have the language to articulate what they know.
The madness of the state is symptomatic of the dark region between fantasy and reality. The Hindu rashtra imagines a nation where Muslims have no political teeth. The idea of that nation is desperate to come into being. The madness of the state is the revelation of that desperation. It is a shadowy madness. To improvise T.S Eliot’s Hollow Men, it is the shadowy madness that falls between the idea and the reality of Hindu rashtra.
This madness also tends towards a politics that is not natural. Any politics that seeks to destroy the other’s natural relationship with itself and the body politic is the politics of un-naturalisation. It is unnatural politics. This is the madness of fascist politics that transforms into the madness of the state.
There is another crucial element to this madness. It explains the spectral violence that we see being unleashed on the Muslim labourer by the Hindu vigilante and the Muslim student by the state. It is the madness inflicted on the Muslim body. The disappearance of the JNU student in October 2016, Najeeb Ahmed, is an exception. All Muslim bodies cannot (be made to) disappear, like Najeeb. The body of the Muslim is not a natural body, seen through the prism of a certain religious idea of nationalism. The presence of the Muslim body is a contradiction to that idea. The other’s body seeks and lives by another law: it is an anthropological crisis, with a sacred (and metaphysical) dimension. What to make of, what to do, with this body?
The attack on JNU students in 2016 was more of an ideological attack. There was a stringent effort to criminalise their ideas. In contrast, the attack on Jamia is a physical attack, on the body of students. Defiant Hindus are an ideological problem. It lies in what they think. Muslims are a more ‘natural’ problem.
The minority body must be made to accept the law of subordination. No one said it in a more chilling fashion than the Palestinian poet, Najwan Darwish, in his poem, In Hell: “Today’s executioners are more professional: / They put the gas chambers / in their victims.” Fascism in our times wants to subordinate the victim psychologically. The Muslim must live the daily subordination of his status as a citizen and a wo/man of habit. This mental subordination must reflect in the body. After all, be it the idea of superiority or inferiority, or that of a free or subordinated body, it is something that fills the mind with elation or horror. The bare bodied protest by the male students of Jamia on Monday testifies to the perception that sovereignty of the Muslim body is under attack by the state.
The students of Jamia and other universities, refused to bear this feeling of subordination. This feeling of suffocation is both real and imagined, both present and future. It anticipates the growing suffocation of the politics of subordination, the desire to create inferiorised citizens. The students’ protest strikes at that madness with its own madness, the madness of resistance and hope. Students refused the diktat of un-naturalisation, this unnatural politics.
The incident at Jamia evoked spontaneous protests by students from all over India, in Hyderabad, Patna, Kolkata, Lucknow, Varanasi, Mumbai and Kerala. A wave of solidarity arose from these cities to tell the Muslim students facing injury and fear that they are not alone. Protests by civil society in Delhi have also put their strength behind the students. The Jamia vice-chancellor, Najma Akhtar, publicly stood by her students and demanded a high level enquiry to allegations of police excess in the university premises.
In a protest at India Gate on December 16, students read out the preamble of the constitution to remind themselves and the people of India, how the first words of the nation ring in our ears. What they tell us. How close, or far away, we are from those words. It begins with the word, ‘We’. The ‘we’ is being robbed from us today. We are not made to feel us. We must recover those words. Recover us.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).