Debate: The Real Reason Why Farmers’ and Anti-CAA Protests Have Been Perceived Differently

While the Hindu Right has very deliberately tried to co-opt Sikh identity for decades now, Muslims have been constructed as an enemy for the sustenance of a monolithic Hindu imagination of India.

Even at the time of the farmers’ march on the Red Fort, I recall a doctoral research scholar who has been languishing in Indian prisons for a year. A forgotten one? Perhaps not for those who still believe that attacks on identity are to be confronted with the reassertion and reclaiming of identity. On January 28, 2020, Sharjeel Imam was arrested, ostensibly for calling a chakka jam.

Imam, and indeed the larger movement, drew flak then for demanding that those who participated in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) struggle do so on the terms of Indian Muslims. That critique has persisted till today, with a recent article by professor Ajay Gudavarthy using the same line to instruct the anti-CAA protestors on what they can learn from the farmers’ agitation.

Mainly, he offers two points of comparison: first, that the farmers’ protest was more inclusive than the anti-CAA movement, and relatedly, that the anti-CAA protests prioritised religious identity, and ‘failed to prevent the protests from being read as those led by and for Muslims’—where the farmers’ movement was successful because it managed to avoid being read as a sectarian protest led by Sikh farmers.

But is this comparison fair? In my view, a closer look can lead us to a much more nuanced and complex understanding of the issues at stake.

Also read: Debate: Shashi Tharoor and the Liberal Paranoia of Muslims Asserting Their Identity

‘Muslims must fight as Muslims if attacked for being so’

First, let us turn to questions of identity. One of the most popular slogans at the protest site of Jamia Milia Islamia University during the anti-CAA protests was ‘Tera Mera Rishta Kya, La Ilaha Illallah’. Though there were several secular critiques of its “Muslimness” that called for broader engagement with the ‘non-Muslim’ population, the slogan’s appropriateness couldn’t be contested.

After all, the CAA was directed specifically towards excluding Muslims. This, coupled with the threat of a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), meant Muslims were specifically targeted.

Women protest at Shaheen Bagh. Photo: PTI

Muslims knew they were being targeted for their religious identity, not their caste, or profession. So, to recall Hanna Arendt, as I have discussed elsewhere, we must remember ‘if one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew’. Professor Gudavarthy’s comparison fails to acknowledge that Muslims had to fight as Muslims when being attacked for being Muslims.

The same is actually true for the farmers’ agitation as well. The professor has himself said that Muslim and Sikh farmers are fighting with the identity of “farmer” first. This is what it needs to be. The farmers are attacked as farmers through these agricultural laws, are pushed with their backs to the wall by neoliberal “reforms”, and hence are justly assertive about their farmer identity.

Even when they have included broader issues of social justice, like political prisoners, democracy and secularism, they have done so as farmers much as Muslims at the anti-CAA protests themselves did.

Also read: From CAA to Farmers’ Protest, the Changing Colours of the Hindutva Activist With Pulwama Tattoo

Farmers and Muslims in the nationalist imagination

The real reason why the farmers succeeded in presenting as concerned with broader issues, while Muslims did not, lies in the spectacular difference between the two identities: Rustom Bharucha clearly points out how Muslims have been othered and constructed as an enemy for the sustenance of a monolithic Hindu imagination of India.

For more than a century, the Hindu right has been using two categories to further the othering. One is co-option, seen in the narrative of ‘ghar wapsi’; and the second is exclusion, that imagines Muslims as foreigners and invaders whose loyalties lie with other countries.

Farmers' protest

Farmers raise slogans during a protest in support of the nationwide strike, called by farmer unions to press for repeal of the Centre’s agri laws, in Amritsar, Tuesday, December 8, 2020. Photo: PTI

Both these imaginations make Muslims an impossible category in India. Either their lineage must have some Hindu roots, making them, as per Bharucha, a ‘version of Hindus’, or they must be traitors.

The other, ‘liberal’ and secular imagination of the Indian nation also conducts its own kind of otherisation. This was seen in the way Muslims offering Namaz in numbers on the road during the CAA protests were treated as a matter of spectacle and mediated romanticism. My experience during the anti-CAA protests and conversations with several students and agitators (specifically not leaders) made me realise that Namaz was, instead, imbued with the idea of resistance.

The Sunnah and references to the Hadith shape the everyday interactions of Muslims. It definitely doesn’t mean that there is any homogenous impact on heterogeneous Muslim communities, but it plays a significant role. Reciting the Al-Asr provides the strength of patience and endurance, and Al-Nass and Al-Falaq fortify us when seeking refuge.

These Suras have relevance beyond their spiritual enquiry for several Muslims, they offer the strength to walk through the murky lanes of struggle. The Namaz, while making claims to public space during the protest, also seeks spiritual strength when asserting Muslim religious identity.

This assertion of Muslimness, while fighting for the Indian constitution, offers an alternative imagination: that of composite nationalism. And indeed, that composite nationalism worked for a while, making the movement broad, bringing common people out in numbers to claim their Republic. It also made Hindutva forces uncomfortable enough to cause one of the most gruesome riots in recent memory.

The real reason the state cannot conduct a similar pogrom against farmers has much more to do with the farmers’ relation to the imagination of the nation. Surinder S. Jodhka points out how the idea of nation or ‘Mother India’, and the idea of the cow as mother, is connected to the land and its tillers. It cannot be sustained without taking farmers within its fold. The poster of the film Mother India (1957), as Jodhka points out, shows Nargis Dutt carrying the plough and sickle on her shoulder.

This is also the real reason why jibes at farmers’ protests, calling them Khalistanis, Maoists, anti-national and so on, could not get the same acceptance as the othering of an already othered community. Whereas farmers are a fundamental asset in the making of the nation, Muslims are an undesirable liability for its growth.

Also read: The Dissenting and Defiant Citizen Is Indian of the Year

How the Hindu Right has tried to co-opt Sikh identity

Professor Gudavarthy tried to make the comparison between the two movements more sustainable by emphasising the Sikh identity of the farmers. But he again failed to point out the stark differences: the Hindu Right has very deliberately tried to co-opt Sikh identity for decades now. Gopal Singh, in a 1994 paper, noted how the RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindutva forces try to identify Sikhism as an extension of Hinduism.

The nodal point of Hindutva’s claims over Sikhs come from the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur Singh’s protection of Kashmiri Pandits, and Guru Gobind Singh’s creation of the Khalsa Panth to fight Mughal militaries. All this even though the gurus fought not against Muslims to protect Hindus, but to fight against injustices and exploitations. As Gopal Singh argues, Guru Gobind Singh fought his first battle against the Hindu kings of the Himachal hills.

Representative image. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

Notwithstanding these claims and counter-claims, the representation of Sikhs as the nationalist army, stands at the peak of nationalist imagination in films and also make them a part of caste-Hindu imaginings, where certain castes “protect the rest”.

The myth of every masculine Sikh fighting for the nation further gets attached to their rural identity as the son of a farmer. This mingling of the Sikh soldier identity with the village and its relation with the farming community and nationalism can be seen in the persistent farm metaphors used in patriotic Bollywood songs, notably ‘Sandese Aate Hain’ from the film Border.  

So, to remove Sikh farmers from the national imagination and place them on par with other “anti-national” categories is not as easy as it was in the case of the anti-CAA protests. In mainstream Hindi language films, Muslim soldiers have to “prove” their loyalty. Sikh soldiers are represented as the very embodiment of nationalism.

The visual imagery of nationalism thus carries with it along with several other components – a farmer with plough and sickle standing on his land, a cow grazing the field, and a Sikh soldier in army uniform saluting the national flag. Meanwhile, an “anti-national” is always a Muslim man with a beard and skull cap, either planning to overthrow the state with the support of Pakistan, or betraying friends in everyday life.

This is the real reason why it was so easy to arrange a pogrom against Muslims just by evoking imaginary nationalism and its inherent enemies who could be, as our prime minister said, “recognised by their clothes”.

The farmers’ protests and its diverse claims, along with its efforts to make them visible in the streets of the capital, are a welcome move for the health of our democracy. It is another moment of significant resistance against the Hindutva-neoliberal rule of the current government.

But to place this struggle in contrast to anti-CAA movement and making one teacher and the other a student, as professor Gudavarthy did, serves no purpose. Rather, we must think through how both movements, with their own individual identity assertions, can further create a new language of democratic protest – where the calling for a mere chakka jam would not amount to sedition; where Muslims can fight as Muslims when attacked for being Muslims in the same way the farmers can; where the streets of the Indian capital would no more be an elite Savarna occupation—rather, farmers, women, Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, labourers, migrant workers and other people at the margin in any segment can take them over to rewrite and reclaim the meaning of the Republic.

Abhik Bhattacharya is a doctoral fellow at School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi, and works on systematic exclusion and urban spatial segregation of Muslims in Jharkhand.