TW: Mentions of rape
The NRC (National Register Of Citizens) exercise in the Northeastern state of Assam had excluded about two million Indians, mostly Muslims of Char-Chapori regions, from the final version of the Register and had left them threatened with the inevitable prospect of either deportation or detention centers.
Related to this political development and in another long series of discriminatory measures against the Indian Muslims, the central government in December had announced its intention to replicate the Assamese model and to institute a nationwide NRIC (National Register of Indian Citizens) in due time. It was hailed to be a purported attempt to distinguish ‘authentic’ citizens from ‘illegal immigrants’ in India and for its successful implementation had depended upon the amendment to the Citizenship Act of 1955 (CAA) that would grant Indian citizenship to the ‘persecuted religious minorities’ of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis from the neighboring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
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The CAA and the NRIC had been widely publicised as two different exercises but their conjunction very evidently only hinted towards one clear ideological motivation: the persecution of Indian Muslims. With NRIC proposed to identify ‘illegal immigrants’ and the amendment aimed to guarantee refuge to ‘persecuted religious minorities’ from three predominantly “Muslim countries”, the role of anti-Muslim propaganda to mobilise this discursive bifurcation between the ‘authentic’ citizens and the ‘illegal immigrants’ had not escaped critical public scrutiny.
Though the NRIC-CAA exercise leaves other marginalised communities such as the indigenous tribes, Adivasis, LGBTQIA+, and women threatened with the possibility of statelessness also, it had been suggested that the exercise primarily gravitates towards the ethnic cleansing of Indian Muslims. The introduction of the category of ‘religion’ in the Citizenship Act through this amendment, it had been pointed out, was not only aimed at eroding the secular constitutional framework of India, but also at demonising its Muslim citizenry in the majoritarian imaginary.
It is no wonder then that many political analysts and activists had speculated that the ultimate aim of the CAA-NRIC, through a carefully organised bureaucratic and administrative machinery, is to systematically alienate, degrade, and dispossess Indian Muslims of their homeland and to transform India into an anti-Muslim Hindu Rashtra—an idea with roots in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Later, the partition of the Indian subcontinent to create the sovereign nation-states of India and Pakistan, an event that remains indelibly etched in the modern history of the two nations and continues to determine the socio-political relations in the present, had led to an unprecedented outbreak of communal riots, migration, and mayhem that had left millions dead on both sides of the border.
At a greater disadvantage on account of their physical susceptibility to male violence as well as their rootedness in the community and cultural notions of ‘shame’ and ‘honor’, however, women’s experience(s) of the Partition―contrary to the homogeneity imposed upon them by the patriarchal nationalist histories―had differed from that of men. In addition to being subjected to mindless slaughter and dismemberment, women had suffered rape, genital mutilation, abduction, and murder (sometimes at the hands of their own family members and kinsmen) in the name of ‘honor’ of family/community/nation.
Not only this sexual violence, but also women’s traumatic experience of forced religious conversion and cohabitation with their rapists in their adopted communities had not found any reference in the nationalist histories of independence. Furthermore, subsequent attempts by the two nation-states to recover the abducted women through a mutual agreement had replicated the gendered violence of Partition that had remained outside the experiential reality of men.
The state measures such as the annulment of interfaith marriages―despite the women’s successful assimilation in their new communities and protest against ‘recovery’―with a patriarchal/paternal ‘responsibility’ to institute them under the guardianship of ‘right’ men and ‘right’ families had inflicted a violence that still needs recognition and academic analysis. Though the oral histories by Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, and Kamla Bhasin had attempted to redress this major lacuna in the Partition historiography to a certain extent, their inordinate focus on the women from Hindu and Sikh communities had compromised their project of re-writing a comprehensive women-centered Partition history. It is this marginalisation of Muslim women in lopsided oral histories that can be understood to be a central facet of their contemporary struggle against the communal underpinnings of the CAA-NRIC.
Rightfully concerned at the looming threat of a material dispossession―and the loss of a socio-cultural, political, and national identity―the Indian Muslims had been at the forefront of massive public protests and demonstrations against the CAA-NRIC. An equally remarkable facet of anti-CAA protests had been the overwhelming participation by Muslim women in the indefinite sit-ins across the country. With lessons from Kashmiri Muslim women’s decades-long revolt against a neocolonial Indian state, the reverberation of Aazadi slogans at women’s protest sites like Shaheen Bagh and Hauz Rani in the national capital had demonstrated a growing social awareness and fearless assertion by Indian Muslim women within the political landscape introduced by the CAA-NRIC.
However, Muslim women’s unapologetic and fearless assertion of their religious identity through the practices of offering namaz and keeping rozas on a stretch of occupied land to defend the secular values enshrined in the Indian constitution at sites popularly designated as “Muslim zones”, “Muslim ghettos”, “terrorist hideouts”, and “mini Pakistans” had gone beyond a simple response to the communal polarisation embedded within the CAA-NRIC. Their indefinite sit-ins across the country had sought to not only remind a belligerent State of the plural and secular values enshrined in the Indian constitution, but also of the horrendous atrocities suffered by women during the Partition violence, the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, and as recently as the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots in UP.
The Muslim women’s protest undoubtedly had been in the defense of cultural syncretism and religious pluralism that suffer erosion when States either act as a mute spectator or actively orchestrate pogroms against their religious minorities. But, privy to the gendered violence of the Partition in the subcontinent and its nefarious ‘unfinished business’, their rejection of the CAA-NRIC had moved beyond a struggle for socio-religious equality. Instead, their protests had attempted to highlight the often overlooked and marginalised intersection between gender, nation, and religion.
As they had attempted to foreground, the exploitation of religion as a category only leads to the selection of certain women’s bodies as distinguished sites of male violence and to the advocacy for an ill-guided majoritarian nationalism that affects women differentially. With Bilkis dadi named as one of the most influential persons of 2020 by the Time Magazine recently, it is necessary once again to critically revisit the debate that Muslim women’s anti-CAA protests had inspired and to take it forward collectively.
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