Piece de resistance

Shaheen Bagh shows the spirit of pluralism and religious diversity

Piece de resistance

Lead the way: Can the movement sustain itself and inspire other suchlike?



Enough has already been said and written about Shaheen Bagh: the meaning it has attached to the aesthetics of resistance, or the way it has activated our politico-ethical sensibilities, and given us the strength to see the discontents of the CAA, and reclaim our potentially inclusive India. However, an amazing phenomenon of this kind — the spontaneous confluence of human souls for a higher cause — ought to make us reflect on the emergent liberating discourse.

To move around Shaheen Bagh is to experience the therapeutic power of femininity. As you see innumerable women — young and old, students and housewives, rich and poor — occupying the public space, singing the National Anthem, pledging for an inclusive India, and articulating their anguish over the discriminatory character of the CAA, you feel the arrival of a new possibility. It is different from the toxic culture we have been used to: the recurrence of brute masculinity manifesting itself in mob lynching; the cacophony of Jai Shri Ram; the militarisation of consciousness, legitimising violence; and the aggression in a discourse of nationalism that engages in an act of othering the stigmatised minorities. At Shaheen Bagh you experience the grace of femininity, the epistemology of motherhood, and the ethics of care. And hence, when they resist, their rebellion reveals what Gandhi strove for — patience and endurance, ahimsa and satyagraha, sacrifice and prayer, and love and courage.

Furthermore, in a patriarchal society, women have often been reduced to one of two categories — either passive objects, or attractive ‘dolls’ for masculinist consumption. However, as you see the march of women (even mothers with babies), the light in their faces, and the energy with which they raise slogans, you witness a spectacular metamorphosis: from docile objects to creative subjects, from mere victims to satyagrahis with politico-ethical agency.

Is there a colour of religion in a movement of this kind? Well, it cannot be denied that we live in a society characterised by the ghettoisation of space. No wonder, Shaheen Bagh, for any observer, would look like a predominantly ‘Muslim’ site. And your eyes are bound to see the visible identity markers: say, Muslim women with hijabs. Well, people from other communities and faiths — university students and teachers, civil society activists and left-liberal intellectual elite — often come and show their solidarity. However, it would not be entirely wrong to say that Shaheen Bagh has a distinctively Muslim fragrance.

I see it in two ways. First, it has to be understood that with the rise of Hindutva and resultant Islamophobia, the Muslims have been living with severe ontological insecurity and existential crisis. And as they see a visibly anti-Muslim orientation in the CAA/NRC, or for that matter, in every gesture of symbolic violence the ruling regime emits, it is natural that as a community, they would feel an urgent need to unite, resist and retain their identity markers with heightened community consciousness. Hence, the use of cultural symbols need not necessarily be constraining or regressive. We know that even Gandhi used cultural and religious metaphors, attached new meanings to religiosity, and evolved his art of resistance. Hence, the ‘Muslim smell’ of Shaheen Bagh need not frighten the secular liberal, if it is seen with empathy.

Second, it is equally important to be careful. A movement of this kind should not be allowed to be hijacked or used by the clergy, or the culturally regressive/patriarchal Muslim fundamentalists. The reason is that Hindu fundamentalism or majority communalism cannot be combated by yet another discourse of fundamentalism or minority communalism. Instead, we would fall into the trap of non-productive blame game. A liberating movement needs a discourse of inclusion and pluralism. It is like saying that one is a Muslim; but one is not merely a Muslim. Or, for that matter, one is a Hindu; but one is not just a Hindu. Religious identities need not restrain our horizons.

Shaheen Bagh is endowed with a great possibility. What is promising is that it has not yet been communalised. It invites, absorbs and welcomes. Despite its ghettoised location, it continues to radiate the idea of India which was beyond the imagination of Savarkar and Jinnah. As you look at the posters, you notice the spirit of pluralism, religious diversity and social justice. What attracts you is the iconography of Gandhi and Ambedkar, and Maulana Azad and Bhagat Singh.

Furthermore, the presence of the National Flag at every corner indicates the urge to deprive the Hindutva forces of monopolising the discourse of nationalism. In an environment that nurtures the seeds of authoritarianism, any critique of the ruling regime runs the risk of being castigated as anti-national. Possibly, the presence of the flag (even children’s faces are being decorated by the three colours) indicates the added anxiety to prove that even if one is a Muslim dissenter, one is a ‘nationalist’.

Can a movement of this kind be sustained? Or is it possible to hope that in the coming months, Shaheen Bagh will inspire other pockets of resistance? Or is it that the government, with its hyper-masculine brigade of ‘nationalists’, coercive as well as ideological machineries, and narcissistic leaders, would try to finish this act of awakening of people? Or is it that we will eventually regain what a violent/divisive/patriarchal society, with its culturally regressive nationalism, has always tried to repress: the language of the art of resistance, the experience of religiosity as the power of love, and the idea of India as an oceanic civilisation not bound by the parameters of homogenised and militaristic nationalism?


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