Maa aur Mulk – the non-negotiability of Muslim identity

Indian Muslims

Salma Usmaani, who works with an international cosmetic brand in Dhanbad, said, “We just want to live in peace…the government needs to understand, ‘Maa aur mulk badla nahi jaata’ (The mother and the country cannot be changed).”

Indian Express report from Wasseypur, Bihar, on an anti-CAA protest, Jan 22, 2020.

The assertion in the comment above, while not explicitly equating the mulk with maa, can be reasonably seen as be making that very correspondence. Just as one does not (or cannot) change one’s mother,  similarly one does not (or cannot) change one’s country. 

The word translated as ‘country’ here, mulk, is a common enough one, used by one and all across the subcontinent to denote not just the country or nation, but more generally, home, as in the colloquial expression, “mai muluk ko jata (I am going to my home).” 

But, regardless, it denotes a sense of possession, of belonging –  and, in a more technical sense, even dominion. For example, the sura al-mulk in the Quran relates to the mulk of Allah;  the political title, Nizam-al-Mulk, for example, denotes lordship over a territory. It also means a bounded territoriality. 

Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali has examined in an academic article the relation of the terms ghar (home) and mulk (country) in the 1999 Bollywood film Sarfarosh. In it, she observes, the Muslim protagonist Salim’s “identity is resolved as he convinces Ajay [the Hindu protagonist] that he also believes that this mulk is his ghar.” That scenario of forced convincing as the expected burden of Muslims is enacted repeatedly in India, only more insistently in current conditions. 

The thrust of the statement from Wasseypur about the impossibility and absurdity of changing one’s  “Maa aur Mulk,” is quite obviously in response to the persistent charge against Indian Muslims, explicit or implicit, of not belonging to India – but instead, to Pakistan, which, as that bigoted logic goes, they had desired. 

But it is also serves as a wider and deeper retort against the logic and rationale being offered for the CAA, that, for the refugees and persecuted minorities whom the law aims to benefit, India is the only mulk they can come back to as their own – while for Muslims, there are any number of Islamic mulks to choose from, including Pakistan. According to that logic, also employed generally every now and then,  the “Go to Pakistan,” exhortation becomes broadened to “Go anywhere in the Islamic world.” The Wasseypur “Mulk aur Maa,” stand rejects that malicious insinuation. “We are not going anywhere; the question does not arise – this is our mulk and our maa, for now and forever,” is the message being hurled back. 

The declaration of the mulk being like maa works in a third way as well. It re-inserts the Muslim position as equal citizens on an equal footing into the narrative about nationalism and patriotism, especially the one about fealty to Bharatmata as carried out by the sons-of-the-soil-theory proponents as their monopoly. 

The mischief, meanness and bigotry in rationales like these cannot be under-estimated. While for the Hindus (this suddenly includes everyone not just from Hinduism, but also from Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism etc) there is just one nation they can call their own, the Muslims of India not only do not belong exclusively to India, but also their mulk is the entire “Islamic world,” or for simplicity, any and all Islamic nation-states. 

Such a characterization and  accusation found expression early, certainly in V.D. Savarkar’s writings, where his demands were for a totalitarian fealty to the Hindu nation, while making it clear why the Muslims of India could not be considered Hindus: 

For though Hindusthan to them is Fatherland as to any other Hindu yet it is not to them a Holyland too. Their holyland is far off in Arabia or Palestine. Their mythology and Godmen, ideas and heroes are not the children of this soil. Consequently their names and their outlook smack of a foreign origin. Their love is divided.

Savarkar’s nationalism demanded undivided love for the mulk and, in his analysisthe separation of Fatherland and Holyland did not allow that.  

In this connection, it is worth considering if Buddhist majority nations accuse their citizens, majority Buddhist in the case of countries such as Sri Lanka and Myanmar, of divided loyalties, since their Holyland is arguably India, different from their ‘home-countries’? Will Hindu-American citizens of United States, say, be under perpetual suspicion because their Holyland is not in the US?

But the women at Wasseypur, as also elsewhere in the country, are making the pitch of undivided love for their mulk-that-is-India, despite the rhetoric of a supposedly different Fatherland and Holyland. Their pitch centers on the claim that their mulk is their motherland – they do not seem interested in arcane arguments about a Fatherland and Holyland based on “Aryan forefathers,” that someone like Savarkar evoked. 

To reiterate, the crucial point the comment above seems to be making by the allusion to the figure of the Mother is the importance of considering a place – especially what one considers one’s country of birth – as sacrosanct. The statement also is hinting at the absurdity of having to prove loyalty towards the country of one’s birth. That relation, as between a mother and her children, should not have to be explained or proven; it is self-evident. That relation constitutes a primal identity and incontrovertible proof of belonging. Such an identity – and identification – is above reproach and non-negotiable; it is the terminus ad quem all such intrusive interrogations of identity.

As academic and Trinamool MP  Sugata Bose details in his book, The Nation as Mother, the adoption of a Mother as a symbol of the nation has roots in 19th century nationalism, as, for example, in Bankim Chandra’s invocation in his poem, Bande Matram (Hail Mother). 

Be that as it may, statements such as the ones in Wasseypur also underscore the deep hurt that the Muslim community is facing. While the accusations of “always cheering for Pakistan,” have dogged them for very long, the recent legal onslaught to constitutionally codify their “otherness,” has made this an existential issue like no other. What should not have to be explained and spelled out – that the mulk is also maa – is now, by urgent necessity, having to be stated in public. And by none other than by Muslim women, who have also been consigned more often than not to the private sphere of home. 

A few years ago, an academic paper such as, “Negotiating the Mohalla – Exclusion, Identity and Muslim Women in Mumbai,” highlighted how Muslim women in majority-Muslim areas of Mumbai  “often had less accessibility – and more stringently imposed curfew timings and dress codes – to public spaces and the public sphere compared to women who lived in mixed community areas of the city such as Bandra and Andheri.” 

While that might still be true in large parts of India, the Muslim women who have on their own bidding been holding fort, often round-the-clock, at places like Wasseypur, Shaheen Bagh, Park Circus, Ghanta Ghar, Sabzibagh etc, are defying all stereotypical perceptions and expectations. They are not even from the urban elite, and as some may like to frame their positionality, they bear multiple marginalities, in terms of class, caste, religion and gender. Yet, they have swept away all so-called disabilities and have emerged as torchbearers in the fight against the latest injustice. A national daily was forced to reckon with this phenomenon and title its report: “From anti-CAA protests, to JNU and Jamia, why women are leading the fight.”

Wasseypur, situated in the backwaters of Bihar’s coal-country, attained its fame, or notoriety, with the release of the Bollywood movies, the Gangs of Wasseypur series,  gritty tales of power and violence in the area. Its protagonists were mostly men, each outdoing the other in ruthlessness. It seems the women of Wasseypur are made of sterner stuff than that, without needing to take recourse in violence. It is these Dabanggs of Wasseypur who are countering the overreach of the state which seeks to undermine their place as full and natural citizens. 

A  review of a recent book of Nehru’s writings, titled, Who is Bharat Mata?, informs us about Nehru’s surprise during his early travels through India when met with cries of “Bharat Mata ki jai.” 

[H]e would often be greeted with the roar ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ and he would ask who was this Bharat Mata. His audience, Nehru wrote, would be bewildered and seek an answer from Nehru himself. Nehru would explain that, “Bharat Mata was essentially these millions of people.” You are parts of this Bharat Mata, Nehru would tell his listeners, “you are in a manner yourselves Bharat Mata.” And Nehru recalled, “as this idea slowly soaked into their brains, their eyes would light up as if they had made a great discovery.”

The women of  Wasseypur and all fiery spirits they represent are also putting it across loud and clear that not only is their reverence and belief in maa (Bharat Mata) and mulk (India) unquestionable, but also that they themselves are part of Bharat Mata – and its history, while also making it anew.

Aviral Anand is a socially-concerned citizen of the world, currently based in Delhi. He believes in all kinds of solidarities with global struggles, such as the working class, indigenous and other marginalized peoples’ struggles around the world.



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