The Shaheen Bagh protests, in creating nostalgia among Indian Muslims for a spirit of resistance, and by inspiring them to fight for equality with recognition of their identity, will continue to resonate beyond the time and space that tried to contain them.
EVEN after three years of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (‘CAA’) movement, the Shaheen Bagh protests continue to resonate as a powerful nostalgic moment of protest in the face of oppression. Identity is intrinsically linked with the idea of a past. So identity formation necessitates the creation of nostalgia that can anchor the aspirations of a particular identity and guard it against the pessimism of uncertain politics, giving hope for a better future.
Shaheen Bagh protests were a unique event in independent India where Muslims renewed and revitalised their nostalgia for resistance against the dangers of the politics of hatred. Nostalgia is a powerful weapon to develop the political consciousness of a people. If a community is devoid of any nostalgia of protest and struggle against oppression, powerful elites within a society might be able to successfully shift the blame of social problems and inequality from the oppressor to the oppressed.
A good example of this is the Black Rights Matter (‘BLM’) movement. Several decades after the civil rights movement, many mainstream entities in the United States had started to peddle narratives that race equality had been achieved and only those black people who were “lazy and uncouth” continued to languish at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The BLM movement was a return to the nostalgia of the civil rights movement, deriving its aspiration and capacity to organize and protest from earlier protests.
In India in the recent past, there has been no struggle where Muslims owned their identity and shook the pillars of oppression with their call for dignity. Their participation in the national movement is systematically being wiped off the pages of history and the leaders of the community are being invisibilised. In the face of the systematic and enforced disappearance of Muslim history of resistance against power, there was an urgent need for a new nostalgia, which would underline the unified identity of the citizens and the individual, and blur the dichotomy between the community and the nation. The protests have created a point of reference for Indian Muslims to fall back on and identify themselves as a community with its own socio-political aspirations.
The Shaheen Bagh protests were thus not merely directed against the CAA, but have and will continue to act as an agentive process where a new discourse of citizenship and individuality is created. The protests ushered a new consciousness and restored the confidence of the community to a point where a Muslim individual need not see themselves as an Indian or a Muslim first, but as a syncretic whole that holds the two (and more identities) within themselves.
The protests have created a point of reference for Indian Muslims to fall back on and identify. They ushered a new consciousness and restored the confidence of the community to a point where a Muslim individual need not see themselves as an Indian or a Muslim first, but as a syncretic whole that holds the two (and more identities) within themselves.
Muslims of India have lived in a perpetual fear of being tagged as communal by just a mere manifestation of religiosity in the capacity of positive freedom. Muslims for long have seen themselves from the lens of the majority. Even in Mandal politics, they found little fulfilment of their demands and aspirations. The protests at Shaheen Bagh and anti-CAA movement in general has developed a reckoning that Muslims need to perceive themselves as a community to gather strength for their holistic development. The protests underline that religion and the nation cannot be treated as divergent dichotomies. It was as if Muslims were proclaiming, “We are here and we demand acceptance.”
The protests were more about the acceptance that even while protesting for the safeguard of one’s identity, minorities must be accepted as dignified citizens of the nation. The protests had belief in the people of India, and hoped for understanding and solidarity. The enduring relevance of Shaheen Bagh is testament of a community bearing the weight of proving their nationalism finally demanding acceptance of their citizenship and religion without conditions.
An essential result of successful protests is that they generate a shared consciousness of people in action against the oppression of the status quo. Such protests are about people taking risks as they can no longer walk carrying the weight of grave injustice. In this sense, a protest finds deeper impact when people are willing to give more of themselves for the cause.
Muslims, while knowing the heavy consequences that their protest will incur, rose up to the occasion, energised by their sense of justice which compelled them to demand just and equal treatment as citizens of the nation. As Turkish-American sociologist and writer Zeynep Tufekci states, protests have a tendency to transform protesters from casual participants into lifelong activists, and this energy percolates into the society and has the potential to reshape it. The vast protests against the anti-encroachment drive in Shaheen Bagh is a manifestation of the consciousness where people, once aware of the potential of protest, tend to resist any unconstitutional action with more vigour and power.
The Shaheen Bagh protests resonate as a political event characterised by their spontaneity and Muslim identity. In their spirit to organise and resist without any leadership, the protests elevated protestors as leaders in themselves. They first denounced an Act of the Parliament, and then an officially designated protest space (Jantar Mantar). Muslim ‘ghettos’, hitherto perceived as breeding grounds for radicals and criminals, and stereotyped as unsanitary municipal black holes, sustained a nationwide protest for dignity and acceptance, proving their capacity to embrace the spirit of dignified existence.