The Politics of presence in JNU: Najeeb Ahmed, the Muslim identity and the Left’s hypocrisy

The Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO) is just like RSS– communal–said one of my dear comrades from the All India Students’ Association (AISA), with visceral disdain once we got back from a protest at the CBI office after a student from our campus in JNU went missing.
Najeeb Ahmad was a first-year student, meek and quiet, who had gone missing post a scuffle with a group of right-wing students; however, in the right vs. left narrative, it didn’t strike many that Najeeb had gone missing and was consistently denied justice specifically because he was a ‘Muslim’.

When Muslim groups stated the obvious, there were claims that it was an attempt at ‘communalising’, the disappearance, Najeeb was just a ‘student’ of JNU! I didn’t feel it was right, but I didn’t know enough then to articulate why using ‘communal’ in such a reckless manner was wrong. Is it ‘communal’ to identify religion as a sociological category of existence that intensifies discrimination? In that sense, is SIO or any ‘Muslim’ organisation in India, ‘communal’ if it understands this ‘social category’, and organises Muslims based on this identity to speak for justice? ‘Up, Up Secularism; Down, Down Communalism!’ is a slogan many of us use to start any protest in JNU, often having no idea of its history and the insidious manner this binary is being used to shut minority voices of dissent rather than question power. I think it’s time we stop using this term ‘communalism’, as every time we do that it results in blowbacks, and recognise that to be a Muslim is to have your very citizenship questioned by your mere existence like Najeeb, and to organise based on this identity then isn’t ‘communal’, as even leftists misunderstand.

Ideally, in a Communist Utopia, people would have risen above their immediate, ‘community’ identities to embrace merely the materiality of a fragile existence, where identities wouldn’t crystallise into anything ‘essential’. However, liberal democracies are far from Communist Utopias, and the state, or rather those in power, use identities to profile and define as a threat, often the most marginalised groups of people and call them ‘communal’. Liberal Democracies survive on the constant creation of an enemy, appropriate pain from collective mainstream consciousness- market it, create the dangerous, irrational ‘other’ and survive through the sustained ‘othering’, to the point of dehumanisation. ‘Communal’, ‘terrorist’, ‘fanatic’ is dog whistles that hit a deep paranoiac space in  the Malayali- dominantly liberal left psyche, that once labelled, it becomes impossible to talk to the person on the opposite side as language has enabled a dehumanisation which makes it ‘okay’, to inflict pain and  violence on this perceived enemy. Now, why is that? I think it’s because we are deeply afraid of ‘Human Aggression’; it’s a fear possibly deeper than the fear of death itself. We’d rather die than be betrayed, humiliated or let anyone we love to be attacked. Now, this has a problem when there is an attempt to create a collective psyche because it always needs the fear of the enemy to survive.

Liberal politics, even if its left lenient, is very good at tapping into this deceptive phobia and a lot of insanity can be covered up under the constant rhetoric of potential attack and intermittent shocks created through media spectacle and state rhetoric. Narratives can now easily be made, random statistical facts connected and ‘exceptional’ situations created to profile and survey these ‘communal’, ‘fanatic’ and ‘terrorist’ forces when real issues like political representation and voice remain. So now the possibility of ‘Muslim Aggression’, in its perceived ‘communalism’ is used against a minority to silence it’s very material and psychosocial qualms.

The American Empire was the first to master this in recent history, through the whole discourse of ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Radical Islam’- which was started for an imperial mission outside, but  however has ended up as blowback with  increasing surveillance and profiling of its own citizens, mostly its racialised black and brown minorities. White nationalists talk about the end of a glorious white race(as if there is anything essentially white!) that is threatened by the ‘Radical Islamists’, ‘Black Gangsters’ and ‘Mexican Rapists’. Even if many regular Americans think of white nationalism as ridiculous, constant exposure to this rhetoric creates a real fear which enables ‘exceptional’ use of power, through ‘war on terror’, ‘war on drugs’ and most recently a ‘war on immigrants’ and over a period of time even allows for a ‘scientific’, ‘statistical’ and  ‘academic’ study of these ‘threats’.

The Indian state had benefitted much from the paranoia that burst out post 9/11 in America, thanks to a burgeoning global industry of academic-military and media complex that attempted to understand these “threats” through incessant debates which have only legitimised the phobia rather than question its irrationality. It shouldn’t have been a surprise for us when a course on ‘Islamic Terrorism’ was introduced on campus. The stupidity of it was funny but sadly, stupidity can be toxic. Terrorism and Islam have been used so often together that it has caused a cognitive fusion in many minds. Articles had to talk about why talking about ‘Islamic Terrorism’ was just as absurd as to talk about ‘Jewish Terrorism’, ‘Christian Terrorism’ or ‘Hindu Terrorism’.

Much like White nationalists, Hindu nationalists have benefitted the most from the corporate media that uses Islam and Terrorism alternatively, as it’s becoming quite an accepted idea in many parts of the country, the potential threat- aggression of Muslims, and it is conveniently pitted against ‘National Security’. Of course, this isn’t to place the fear of the other, within the short span of merely two decades. We have always been afraid of ‘difference’, in the case of mainstream Kerala, it was always the ‘Muslims’ not the Christians and Communists as much. However, the logic of Hindutva that operates now in its micro fascistic ways even through those it oppresses the most has exploded beyond control, that words like ‘fascists’, ‘fanatic’  ‘communal’  ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘terrorist’ are used carelessly against any political force that has considerable Muslim presence, even if not an  ‘exclusive’ Muslim presence, rather than critique the actual source of power.

The murder of a student SFI leader Abhimanyu on Maharajas Campus in Kerala was a traumatising eye opener to this reality for me. Endless scholarly articles, news debates and social media discussions associated the horrific activities of a few members of PFI, a party with considerable Muslim presence, but not exclusively, to philosophical and political trends in WANA and other Muslim majority nations of South Asia. Accusations of Salafi Jihadism, Maududism, Qutubism and Wahhabism to be the cause of the violence was put forth along with theories of Saudi Funding, SIMI terrorism and in the worst cases, even funnily ISIS. It’s difficult to think beyond all this scholarly jargon, which ultimately was often just lazy journalism, which confirmed existing stereotypes, in a dangerous sensational way, without looking at the peculiarities of Kerala politics and the precariousness of Muslims in politics. Why do genuine domestic qualms about material and political existence by Muslims in the Indian state always get treated as a global conspiracy?

To be a Muslim in itself is a politically charged precarious situation to be in, in an ever-growing Hindu Nationalist country and to assert political visibility is almost suicidal. The Muslim in Kerala always needs to prove his /her (especially ‘his’) Nationalism, Secularism and hatred for Terrorism, in whatever way the state defines all of these. The so-called ‘Muslim Organisations’ which, I repeat aren’t exclusively ‘Muslim’ organisations are vulnerable unlike how media reports make them out to be. It’s this very vulnerability, the trauma of always being dismissed, erased and invisibilised that informs their political practice. It’s hilarious when organisations like CPI (M) patronisingly calls for ‘class’ politics rather than caste or community without examining its own community base; or when Congress calls forth Nationalism, in a state that has, again and again, failed its Muslim and Dalit citizens and has often opportunistically used ‘Secularism’ for electoral gains. What ‘Secularism’ as a binary of ‘Communalism’ in the current Indian state implies is the extermination of Muslim presence in liberal democracy by hypocritically saying it is communal, without any self-reflexivity. In a ‘Hindu State’, it has meant arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial or encounter killings, incarceration and in some cases even death sentence without a fair trial for its Muslim and Dalit citizens.

If Kerala wants to fancy itself as some kind of liberal utopia that is now being destroyed by ‘communal’ forces or increasing ‘religious fundamentalism’ which strangely is disproportionately Muslim, well then we need to rethink how our textbooks killed, all those who talked about justice by either calling them ‘fanatic’ or invisibility the voices of dissent.

Let’s talk about the ‘real’ history of exclusion, which hasn’t been written, where Marx says the conflict of contradictory forces happens for transformation. I doubt if he would have agreed with the expulsion of a minority, (whose citizenship itself is always under scrutiny) from the political presence in a liberal democracy to be definitional of class politics. Of course, he wouldn’t have agreed with the theory or current practice of many of these dominant ‘‘Muslim’’ parties, but he would have placed it in the specificities of a political understanding that is attempting to merely survive, to exist. Maybe he would have expanded his theory to include the psycho-social in his Political Economy. And who cares about Marx anyway today, we Malayalis have become sick of his language and Socialism, or the critique of Capital (which no doubt is brilliant) isn’t exclusive to Marx.

The author is currently pursuing Masters In International Relations from Jawaharlal University, Delhi

Courtesy: Two Circles



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