Connecting the colonial past to the Hindutva present, Muhammed Nihad P V delves into both the current crises facing Muslims in India, as well as their reliance on Allah and ultimate justice in their struggle.
The Politics of Spectacles
Grand performances to proclaim the possession of power had always been integral to the political spaces of tyranny. No matter what form it takes the need to invoke fear among the subjects through staging spectacles remains the part and parcel of its political action. The British colonisers took control of Delhi at the start of the nineteenth century, reducing the Mughal emperor in power to a largely ceremonial role. In retaliation, the 1857 revolt against the British erupted. With the suppression of the uprising, the British likely brought about the city’s most significant character change since Nadir Shah took it over in the seventeenth century.
The British evicted Muslims from the city, believing them all to be rebels and hence criminals, and executed anyone who might be thought to have had a part in the rebellion. As a measure of punishment, the British seized a sizable quantity of property from people who had no chance to return to it. In their words, “as the bulk of the prize was taken from the houses of Musulmans and their owners being executed from the Town as Outlaws, they have no opportunity of claiming their property.” The two sons of the exiled emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar were killed in front of him before he was banished to Rangoon. The execution of “such men” (Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s sons), according to a colonial officer, “will strike terror and produce a salutary fear through the Mohammadan population.” The poems of Ghalib clearly depict the suffering imposed on the Muslim inhabitants and the atmosphere of fear and anguish created by the British colonial forces. Some of the famous lines written in the context go like:
bas ki fa.āl mā-yurīd hai aaj
har silah shor englistāñ kā
ghar se bāzār meñ nikalte hue
zohra hotā hai aab insāñ kā
chauk jis ko kaheñ vo maqtal hai
ghar banā hai namūna zindāñ kā
shahr-e-dehlī kā zarra zarra ḳhaak
tishna-e-ḳhūñ hai har musalmāñ kā
“Surely today every English Tommy is Almighty God
Now every man going from house to the bazaar is panic-stricken
The marketplace has become a slaughterhouse and the house
looks a prison
The very particles of dust in Delhi thirst for the blood of
The sense of loss and the magnitude of suffering are epitomized in a melancholic representation of the situation by Mir Taqi Mir:
dillī jo ek shahr thā aalam meñ intiḳhāb
rahte the muntaḳhab hī jahāñ rozgār ke
us ko falak ne luuT ke barbād kar diyā
ham rahne vaale haiñ usī ujḌe dayār ke
“Delhi was a chosen city of the world
Where only the select lived
The cruel fate looted and ruined it
We are natives of that ruined city”
Heinous acts of the Colonisers left the community shattered and the result was a gruesome spectacle: A spectacle of grandeur for the perpetrators and a spectacle of distress for the Muslims of Delhi. The praxis of domination here emerges out of the will to establish a system that in totality has a propensity to totalise itself, centre on itself, and eternalise its current structure forever. Spatially, it makes an effort to contain all exteriority that is conceivable. On earth, the Leviathan eliminates as many “others” as it can while obstructing any forces that would oppose its advance. As Ghalib rightly puts it, “the very particles of the dust in Delhi” is bloodthirsty. The city of Delhi didn’t reach this state on its own, but it’s the fetish of the British to trample over the lives of Muslims that made it into a “slaughterhouse”.
Mir lamenting over the loss of the city sheds light on the other side of the spectacle. Domination is also an act of power and pressure. Domination is when someone forces someone else to engage in a system that they find abhorrent. They are forced to carry out deeds that go against who they are and what they stand for historically. Delhi, which hosted a large number of eminent literati, artists, architects, soldiers and religious scholars from different parts of the world has now become a barren land devoid of any scope for prosperity. Earlier, a home for the “muntakhab” (the selected ones) has been now conquered and occupied by the ruthless British invaders. Muslim soldiery and the intelligentsia were forced to either serve the new “godheads” or leave the city.
What is most intriguing in the narration of Ghalib is the phrase attributed to the British in the beginning line. “Fa.āl mā-yurīd” (85:16) is a Qur’anic usage (wasf) that describes the sovereignty and authority of Almighty God. It means ‘the one who does whatever he wishes’ or the one who really facilitates whatever happens. Hence, the analogy might seem like a mere exaggeration. But on the contrary, it could be a witty attack on the arrogance and audacity of the British. By exercising performative violence and facilitating a temporary spectacle, they assume themselves to be in the supreme position of “the divine sovereign”. While drowning in the contingency, they vaunt themselves for their self-assured permanence and the ability to give and take lives. Following the verse in the Qur’an which contains the aforementioned phrase, the ends of several tyrants and persecutors who claimed divinity and sovereignty are mentioned in brief. They were deceived by the splendour of the spectacles they staged. They were hypnotised by the mere appearances of their political actions that sought dominance. Active agency in the temporary performances delivered them a false sense of entitlement to the real control of affairs. Little do they know that God, the one who holds the absolute dominion “surrounds them” (85:20) and their spectacles with his permanent power. It is from the vantage point of this firm belief that “the other” views the world and sets out for the path of resistance.
Hindutva’s Politics as Performance and a Site of Anxieties
In India, there is no pre-defined nation, but a state that sustains itself with the state apparatuses. Post-colonies tend to accept and employ the territorial ideology and spatial order once established by the colonial masters. The case here is not different. While evaluating the idea of a nation in India through the lens of the mode in which it is imagined, it becomes clear that there is no decisive cultural or social homogeneity present to elicit a shared feeling. Due to the lack of a social mechanism that can crystallise and create a collective entity, the creation of a “we” depended on the antagonism directed towards the colonisers until their retreat. The withdrawal of the British resulted in a void which was later filled at the juncture of the partition. The establishment of Pakistan got projected as the birth of an enemy against whom the diverse population could again unite. Moreover, the partition rhetoric strengthened the hostility towards Muslims and the formation of the Indian state turned into the inaugural moment of a new anti-Pakistan/Muslim nationalism which proclaimed the end of tolerance towards Muslim political demands. Thus in India, Muslims who are a religious minority got chained to the nominal status of a mere cultural identity. Simultaneously, Muslim political agency was rubbed out and their existence was made subservient.
The rise of Hindutva and its project of “centrifugal ideologisation” (Malesevic, 2010) got strengthened with the ascension to electoral power. They continued the project utilising the state apparatus, and in background the fabrication of a singular national history aimed at boosting the enmity against Muslims was gaining great momentum. The Hindutva intelligentsia’s sophistry in carrying out the saffronisation of history often failed in beautifying the ugly face of the mission. The final attempt was to jump onto the decolonial bandwagon. The Hindutva idea of decolonisation on one hand is all about devaluing the Left/communist as well as the Dalit discourses for having a clear Western orientation and terming Muslims as the “foreign” other. On the other hand, they are in search of an exceptionalist narrative of past Hindu glory thinking within the frames set up by colonial knowledge. To distinguish the “other” from the natural citizens of the land, a sense of “us” and “them” is created through icons, stories, and narratives. These narratives translate into spectacles staged to exhibit power and routinise dominance.
The violence of Hindutva is performative to its core and it seeks to establish its organisational strength as a spectacular public force. At the core of such performances lie certain anxieties. They address those anxieties effectively with a strategy of staging a series of violent public spectacles using the rhetoric of ethno-religious unity against the internal threat of Muslims. This year’s Ram Navami celebration distinctly illustrates the pattern. Large-scale violence was reported in many states including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Bihar West Bengal, Goa, Mumbai, and Delhi on the occasion. Several Hindutva organisations staged processions with thousands of people wearing saffron shawls, carrying weapons and loud DJ sets blasting songs with lyrics spitting anti-Muslim hatred.
Apart from the physical assaults that even took lives, in majority of the sites, the Hindutva mob had an urge to vandalise localities in the vicinity of masjids. In Khambhat of Gujarat, the procession organized by the Ram Sena started from the Ram temple at Shakarpur village. When the procession came near the mosque which is close to the Ram temple, the participants started raising slogans like “Jai Shri Ram”, “Jai ranchod miya Chor”, “Topi valo ko bulvayenge, Dadi walo ko bulvayenge Jai shri ram jai shri ram”. These slogans carried a tone of threat to the “disloyal” Muslims; if they wish to live in this country they will have to chant “jai shri ram” or mould their lives according to the Hindu will. In Muzaffarpur of Bihar, Hindu groups waved swords and danced in front of a masjid. They also desecrated the masjid by putting up a saffron flag on the top.
Masjids are predominant symbols of Muslimness and they provide a congregational space for the community. By disrupting prayer gatherings and attacking the structures of the Masjid they wish to prevent Muslim mobilisations. This very motive is apparently visible in the targeting of Muslim-owned businesses and buildings as well. By hoisting a saffron flag on the premises of a masjid the desire to impose Hinduness on the Muslim subjects is fulfilled. The hijab ban in the educational institutions of Karnataka is another crystal clear instance of how the sites of Hindutva performances are actually sites of anxiety. Although the “front stage” justifications of the ban used tropes like “uniformity” and “secularism”, the unhinged goons inside and outside the campuses loudly enacted the anxiety. The indigestible element there was the visibility of Muslim women in the educational spaces.
Similar is the case of “Friday”, which is a day of importance for Muslims everywhere. Demonstrations and protests could be easily organised by Muslims on Fridays since there is no separate effort needed to mobilise people. After the BJP spokesperson, Nupur Sharma’s derogatory remarks on Prophet Muhammad, Muslims of the country gathered outside Masjids after Jumuah prayers demanding action against the culprit. The police and paramilitary forces deployed by the state along with the local foot soldiers of Hindutva brutally attacked the peaceful protestors. A few Muslim protesters were killed after police opened fire in some places and many sustained severe injuries. Many more got arrested in different parts of the country. In many major cities including Hyderabad, there were huge deployments outside masjids during jumuah prayers for the next few weeks. The anxiety, here is about the potential of organic uprisings that Muslim congregations hold. Hence, the performance requires men in uniform to stabilise fear.
In most of the places affected by the Ram Navami violence, after the rampage of the Hindutva mob, the state machinery furthered the spectacle by demolition drives. In Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone anti-Muslim violence that emanated from Ram Navami processions left a trail of destruction for the Muslim community. Dozens of Muslim houses were set on fire by Hindutva rioters. A day after, the Madhya Pradesh BJP government demolished several homes and shops belonging to Muslims citing reasons like “pollution” and “illegal construction”. The national media smoothened the process by conforming to anti-Muslim myths and terming the whole chain of events as mere Hindu-Muslim “clashes”. Myth is a cultural mechanism that creates order and coherence in any social universe through spectacles. Every nation accumulates a collection of myths to support its historicity, strengthen its cohesion, and justify its actions. In that sense, as Irfan Ahmad argues “Media are narrators par excellence of a nation’s myth” (Ahmad, 2014).
Media also add to the grandeur of the spectacle. In Uttar Pradesh, the anti-Muslim demolition drives carried out by the Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath were applauded on national television. His acts were eulogised as “Bulldozer Justice” and he was given the name “Bulldozer Baba” which was effectively utilised in the recent assembly election campaigns. During the celebration of India’s 75th anniversary of independence held in New Jersey, USA, the Indian Business Association displayed a bulldozer adorned with posters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath. On the same day, the 11 convicts who gang-raped Bilkis Bano in her village in Randhikpur during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 were welcomed home with garlands and sweets by their families and members of Sangh Parivar after they were released by the state government. Both the instances of symbolic violence glorifying the violence at work are actually part of an “insatiable cannibalism” entrenched in the psyche of the oppressor (Dussel, 1985).
When it comes to the question of the complicity of the judiciary as a catalyst in these performances, we could see that it wavers between active and passive participation. On one hand, as in the case of the Hijab ban in Karnataka, the judiciary even employs hermeneutics to interpret the religious texts and practices of Muslims, and render the Muslim existence docile to the Hindu state. On the other hand, it couples with the collective conscience, as was in the recent judgment in the Ahmedabad blasts. A special court designated for the speedy trial of the 2008 Ahmedabad serial bomb blasts case sentenced 38 of the 49 convicts to death and 11 others were sentenced to life imprisonment until death. All 49 convicts are Muslims and this is the highest number of convicts to be sentenced to death in a single case in India’s legal history. The judgment was mainly based on circumstantial evidences that are generally discarded by the court. The unusuality in the verdict that reduced Muslim lives into mere numbers didn’t trigger the usual anger over capital punishments among “progressive circles”. The sentence testified to the fact that the collective psyche of the majority in India has given legitimacy to the “killability” of Muslims. All these incidents make the reality of Indian courts discernible to Muslims. Like Joseph K in Kafka’s novel “The Trial” opines, “It is an aimless institution from any point of view. A single executioner could do all that is needed.” Joseph in the story was quoting his own experience (Kafka, 1925). In other words, the judiciary here is not a justice system but a legal system that caters to majoritarian legality. The court meets a Muslim subject not in response to his or her quest for justice, but to meet its own yearning to justify itself.
Altogether, as how Thomas Blom Hansen observes, “the entire show” becomes a “classic illustration of media and politics as permanent performance and spectacle.” Throughout this process of performance, the ethos of the dominator is rooted in hatred and envy. The other’s mobility and steadfastness disgust the dominator; even the other’s presence or existence, are intolerable to the dominator. How fragile the dominator is?
The Theology and Triumph of Counter-Spectacles
“But this cry—Allahou Akbar!—terrorizes the vain, who see in it a project of decline. They are right to fear it, for its egalitarian potential is real: to put men, all men, back in their place, without any form of hierarchy. Only one entity is allowed to rule: God. No other entity is granted this power to exercise against one’s peers or against God.”
-Houria Bouteldja, Whites, Jews, and Us Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love
“But We wished to favour those who were oppressed in that land, to make them leaders, the ones to survive (triumph),”
– The Holy Qur’an – 28:5
What reaction must a person resort to when surrounded by a mob that reeks of sheer arrogance and brutal inhumanness backed by the state-given impunity to use violence over others and stage it as a spectacle? They intend to impose fear and create a world where humans are supposed to fear and bow down in front of fellow humans. While the humanist suggestions to deal with the situation might once again ask you to remain peaceful and submit yourself to the powers already trying to enslave you, a person with a more humane understanding of this world would think of ways to crush the arrogance and hit right on the psyche of those overwhelmed by the sense of dominion.
Muskan Khan, a Muslim student in Karnataka’s Mandya who was heckled by a group of men with saffron scarves in front of her college for wearing a hijab, chose to respond in this humane way. Her organic will to expose the contingency of the power those goons hold and proclaim her faith in the permanence of divine rule and power took the form of a chant, “Allahu Akbar”. Let’s say that it wasn’t a well-thought action, but the Muslim self in motion is in a perpetual state of thinking and this “thinking in motion” is well guided by an undertone of subservience to the divine command. It is at the same time, based upon a phenomenological experience that is processed through the lens of particular epistemological predilections. Just like the metaphysical obedience to the rule and will of God which is characterised by the reliance on divine revelations, believers engage in the act of metaphysical disobedience against all the pretentious godheads claiming the absolute position of divine permanence. This disobedience is also inspired by a source of knowledge and power in exteriority, from outside all regimes of knowledge. The manifestations of this disobedience don’t always appear as belated actions, they sometimes also erupt in spontaneity. The “Allahu Akbar” moment in Karnataka was one of those spontaneous eruptions.
After her house was demolished by the Uttar Pradesh government and her father got arrested as a vengeful act against their active involvement in political issues related to the Muslim community, Afreen Fatima, a Muslim student leader, told Maktoob media in an interview: “For Hindu supremacists, it is a fetish to see Muslim houses crumbling, Muslims going to jails, and Muslims getting demonised and dehumanised on national television daily. That is their idea of fun. I think we are not willing to give that to them. We are not going to shed a single tear. As far as the entire Muslim community is concerned, we are strong and we will survive whatever will come. Islamic history shows that we have survived situations way worse than this.”
Raihanath Kappan, the wife of Siddique Kappan, a Muslim journalist who was wrongfully arrested by Uttar Pradesh police for attempting to meet the family of a Dalit girl who was gang raped and killed by a group of upper caste men in Hathras, similarly responded to Maktoob media: “My husband set out for a good cause… There are many people who want to see me in tears, and I am stubborn not to show them.”
What we find common in both of their words is the courage and the will to exercise the power to act as a subject rather than an object in the entire “spectacle of misery” that the oppressor plots to stage. The political space that emerged here is community-centric. The strong faith anchored in the sovereignty of God enables the believers to remain steadfast and triumphant. On a larger level, it triggers a dynamic communal movement that is organic and transparent. The occurrence of which swallows all dominant performances. Both the spectacle of the state and other pretentious displays of sovereignty—the ability and will to take life and to punish—are destroyed at that moment. Exactly as how Guy Debord views it, “Religion is the only trend in which humanity attributes power and responsibility to a source outside ourselves” (Debord, 1992). The omnipresence of spectacles and the spectacular technology and tactics they use have not disproved or diminished this trend. When Afreen invokes Islam and the history of Muslim societies, she gives meaning to her sufferings, and gains an overpowering confidence against the Hindutva plot to depress her. By recalling the historical roots, her memory of belongingness resists all attempts to dehistoricise Muslim existence and hinder the communitarian becoming of Muslims.
Beeyyumma, mother of Zakariya, a Muslim youth who was falsely accused and imprisoned in the 2008 Bangalore blasts case once said, “There is a sarkar (government) above all sarkars (governments), and above all courts, there is the court of divine justice”. For Beeyyumma, a decade long fight for her son’s return in the court rooms is not an end in itself. Her strong conviction in the divine justice outstrips the fear and alienation that the Indian juridical machinery provides.
All of the above reactions convey an important principle. Liberation is not an intrasystemic action. It is a practice that subverts the oppressive phenomenological order and carves out a path for metaphysical transcendence. When a Muslim confronts Hindutva on a theological plain, he or she discovers the shallowness of the opponent. The discovery begins with a realisation that what Islam provides to the Muslim self is a potential triumph. It is from this radical comprehension that we must think of our praxis of resistance. Every passing moment is painful, therefore liberation is also the suffering of the old for the triumphant birth of the new, the just.
- Abdel Haleem M. A. (2010). The Qur’an: English Translation and Parallel Arabic Text([Rev. New ed.]). Oxford University Press.
- Ahmad, Irfan. (2014). “Kafka in India: Terrorism, Media, Muslims”, in Robin Jeffrey, and Sen Ronojoy (eds), “Being Muslim in South Asia: Diversity and Daily Life” (Delhi, Oxford Academic 2014)
- Debord, Guy. (1992). “Society of the Spectacle”. Rebel Press, London.
- Dussel E. D. Martinez A. & Morkovsky C. (1985). “Philosophy of liberation”. Orbis Books.
- Hansen, Thomas Blom. (2004). “Politics as Permanent Performance”. In. John Zavos et al (eds). “The Politics of Cultural Mobilization in India”. Delhi: Oxford University Press. Pp. 19- 36.
- Kafka, Franz. 2010 . “The Trial”. Camberwell, Victoria: Penguin Books.
- Malesevic, S. (2010). “Nationalism, War and Social Cohesion”. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34(1), 142-161.
Muhammad Nihad PV is a Master’s student of Sociology at the University of Hyderabad. He works part time as a journalist. Follow him on Twitter @nihadbinnisar.