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Beyond Demonstrations and Protests

By Mohammed Ayub Khan

Protests and demonstrations have been a part and parcel of India’s forms of collective action since the early days of the anti-colonial movement. In post-independent India, they have only multiplied with the increase in the number of groups asserting their reinvigorated identities or making demands on the state and on other groups. From the harmless rallies taken out to create awareness about cancer to the more violent demonstrations in support of Telangana – they operate in varied forms.

Some of the common extra-parliamentary opportunities for protest include work stoppage, blocking of roads and railway lines, forced strikes, etc. The arena for such opportunities has been described by Partha Chatterjee as ‘political society’, in contrast to ‘civil society.’ In this framework civil society refers to ‘institutions originating in Western societies which are formed on legal norms and moral ideas of fairplay.’ In contrast, political society refers to an arena where the claims on the government are not made within ‘the stable framework of constitutionally defined rights and laws’ but are arrived at through ‘contextual and unstable arrangements’ which can be illegal and violent.

Mirroring these national trends, Indian Muslims, too, express their frustrations/demands/grievances in the public arena. These need to be understood in the broader perspective, instead of treating them as a distinctive anomaly limited to a particular community. However, the intense glare of the media, time and again, is so focused on the Indian Muslim community that it appears to be a phenomenon uniquely associated with them, which is fallacious.  This tendency is not limited to the recent past but can be traced back to the days of the Khilafat agitation. While much ink is spent on violent incidents associated with it in its later stages, not enough has been written about its many non-violent initiatives like the sending of a medical mission during the Balkan Wars or the collection of donations for the victims of Smarna.

As stated above, there are variations in the types of protest in which Indian Muslims participate. One can list a multiplicity of factors for these protests: religious/communal/linguistic sentiment, the organizational strength of groups/leaders claiming to be the representatives of the community, intensity of competition between various groups targeting the support of the community, the control that the leadership or elders have on the youth, the strength and influence of lumpen elements, the interests of political parties, proximity to elections, knowledge (whether real or fictitious) about incidents supposedly outraging the community’s sentiments, past history of communal incidents, networks between organizations and individuals of various cities,  etc.  There is never a single factor which can be pinned down as the spark that leads to protests/demonstrations. It is always a mix whose composition differs from case to case and explains why people of a particular locality of a large city take part in such demonstrations while others don’t.

Before moving any further, it is important to repeat that the above set of factors operate for other communities as well and are definitely not a unique Muslim phenomenon. One of the oft-repeated myths is that it is only the Indian Muslims who display concern and outrage over the maltreatment of their brethren in faith elsewhere. The numerous interventions of other communities who engage in similar outrage should dispel such misconceptions. The protests in India over the ban on Bhagavad Gita in Russia or the Wisconsin Gurudwara shootings are but two recent examples.

The limited space of this short essay wouldn’t allow me to sketch a comprehensive analysis of demonstrations around India and, therefore, I will limit myself to Hyderabad before concluding with some prescriptions for developing a new paradigm of demonstration and protest. However, it should be cautioned that the examples of the two ‘types’ (demonstrations and protests) discussed here are neither comprehensive nor exhaustive but have been observed to be indulged in more regularly over the years and largely focus on the role of youth in them.

Hyderabadi Muslims protest and demonstrate in a myriad of ways and over a variety of issues. Some of the original demonstrations have been about faith, related to such religious commemorations as the Muharram and Milad-un-Nabi processions. The Muharram processions have been a somber affair and have largely been peaceful unlike in Lucknow or some other cities of the sub-continent. The Milad-un-Nabi processions organized by socio-religious organizations like the Tameer-e-Millat were also for the longest time peaceful. The largest procession was organized by the Tameer-e-Millat which usually started from the Afzal Gunj area and culminated in a public meeting at the historic Makkah Masjid, the Aizza School grounds or the Exhibition grounds. There were very few instances of trouble associated with these processions and they passed off peacefully most of the time. The speeches given at the jalsa were of largely religious nature and didn’t deal with controversial issues which could cause public disorder. Remarkably, they remained peaceful even during the heydays of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janam Bhoomi dispute. The Milad-un-Nabi procession of the Tameer-e-Millat was permanently cancelled in the years after the demolition of Babri Masjid. The space created here was taken over by other smaller organizations and remained largely uneventful until the past few years when a new phenomenon began to take place in the city.

Since early 2000s, the number of processions taken out by Hindu organizations has increased substantially. Earlier only two processions – Bonalu and Ganesh Chaturthi – were organized on a massive scale. But in the past decade, a whole new set of processions began to be taken out for previously unheard of commemorations like Hanuman Jayanthi, Shiva Parvathi Kalyana Yatra, Shobha Divas, etc. Even festivals like Dussehra began to acquire militant tones with the processionists carrying swords and lathis. As a direct reaction to this, Muslim youth, increasingly becoming free of the control of political and religious leadership, also, began to independently organize Milad-un-Nabi processions at the mohalla level. They started indulging in various innovations mimicking the Hindu groups: the setting up of elaborate pandals in street corners (some with musical fountains) and DJ music. They also started to take out loud processions where they danced to Punjabi qawallis blocking the traffic. The overlapping of Hindu and Muslim religious festivals in the past five years has led to instances of violence and deaths. Despite numerous fatwas issues by religious authorities against such indulgences, the youth continue to engage in them. More than a display of religious piety, such activities, (borrowing a thesis developed by the anthropologist, Oskar Verkaaik), can be classified as expressions of ‘fun’ or ‘excitement’ which serve as ‘a marker of identity that separated the young men from older generations and other ethnic groups’ and which ultimately leads to violence.

These same expressions can also be observed in the protests held by Muslims in Hyderabad. There are instances where the majority of Muslims genuinely feel outraged as in the case of the rape and murder of Rameeza Bi in a police station, the siege of Kaba by militants, the occupation of Palestine, the destruction of Babri Masjid, the Gujarat and Assam riots, the publication of blasphemous cartoons and literature, etc.  These are all serious concerns for the community but the role of the youth in them adds to their complexity. In many instances they impulsively participate in the demonstrations based on incomplete or misleading information. For example, when Jerry Falwell made insulting remarks about the faith, the community misunderstood his identity as a (religious) minister to that of a government official and began holding demonstrations against the US government.

It is the responsibility of the community leadership as well as the broader society and media to disseminate complete and truthful information without resorting to sensationalism. There is also a need to channel the enthusiasm and energy of the youth into more constructive actions, while keeping in mind their natural need for ‘fun’ and ‘excitement.’ Some headway is already being made in this direction. For example, instead of taking out rallies, the youth donate their blood and distribute fruits to patients in the hospitals. Similarly, during the Kurnool floods and Assam riots, they launched fund raising drives for the victims and engaged in healthy competition with other mohallas and groups.

Lastly, it is very important to bring in several structural changes like strengthening the nation’s ‘civil society’ and transforming the ‘political society’ in such a way that even it is reined in with the ‘rule of law.’  The mainstream media and the larger society also need to turn its long and intense gaze away from the country’s Muslims and look at things in a broader perspective. The results would be surprising – Indian Muslims are not very different from other Indians.

[Mohammed Ayub Khan is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at McMaster University, Canada. He is a keen observer of trends in Indian politics and culture. He can be reached at ayubkhan2020@gmail.com]

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