Towards the end of 2019, India witnessed massive protests that spread across the country. This was the first time in a hundred years that Indians had taken to the streets pervasively to protest the erasure of Islamic lifeworlds in India. While the Partition of India, and the formation of Pakistan, affected North West and East India in the mid-20th century, it was neither caused by nor a cause for the erasure of Islamic ways of being in South Asia. In fact, the last time that erasure was a cause for mass protests was during the consolidation of secular liberal political institutions in colonial India at the end of World War I. At this critical juncture, many anticolonial leaders argued that this consolidation was leading to a secular colonization of the Indian mind, side-lining Indic and Islamic social and political imaginaries in India. If colonized peoples unquestioningly accepted secular institutions, they would also have to transform how they understood their existence itself.
A hundred years later, the 2019 protests followed a series of perceivable anti-Muslim legislations passed by the Hindutva-influenced Central Government of India. The first of these legislations caused India’s only Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to be put under a brutally enforced “lockdown.” Without internet, under a permanent state of curfew, and overrun by more military personnel than ever, public life in Kashmir, the most militarized place in the world, appeared as a blank space in the news. Residents of the state could neither dwell in the streets of the places they inhabited, nor on social media. Instead, what the rest of the world saw was Hindu nationalists, triumphant that (their) politics had subsumed diverse modes of life within the territorial bounds of the Indian nation. In its desire to be the only subject of history, a new kind of nationalism was replacing liberal imperialism as the agent of erasure.
In the legislations that followed, a concerted pattern to erase Islam as an internally diverse way of being in India, a country with over 204 million Muslims, emerged. Undocumented Muslims across the country were distinguished from non-Muslims and the former were declared as illegal residents of India. The justifying rhetoric for these inhumane laws asserted that India was a Hindu country, ignoring how the social ecology of Islamic ties to India has taken shape over a millennium, and rarely as a homogeneous and prescriptive adherence to a religion. Islamic imaginaries of place, dwelling, and modes of being in India have always been constituted by a great deal of ambiguity, contradiction, polyvalence, and wonder, expressed through vastly diverse everyday practices; languages and scripts; literature, and poetry; music, art, and architecture; trade and instruments of commerce; education; and ideas of common life and the good itself.
The 2019 protests sought to remind Indians of this long imagined social ecology. As protests began to take place across India, protesters followed the lead taken by Muslim women in imagining the language, sites, and modes of protest. Protests did not merely take place in the usual designated and repetitive spots for civil disobedience in the cities, but also in smaller towns and villages, breaking the myth that Muslims are an urban community in India. The spaces, food, music, clothes, stories, and slogans at the protests were deliberately presented as compressed, performative, and non-discursive modes of being, through which Muslims had significantly shaped the idea of dwelling in India. In multiple moments across protests, events, and their moral implications in the varied histories of Islam were enacted or narrated. These pasts of Islam became a revolutionary foundation for the future through which protestors could relate to those who have been persecuted across space and time.
Some were uncomfortable with this mode of accessing a past, calling it “dangerous,” and insisting that if a past had to be accessed it should be the “secular,” and arguably plural anticolonial past of India. Yet, to be secular, or to use a word commonly encountered in Indian politics, secularist, within the totality of involvements protestors were drawing from, meant zeroing in on a particularly short past, that is the past of Indian anticolonialism stripped off its radical claims of sustaining the epistemic freedom of one’s mind.
The protests reminded us that such epistemic freedom did not require consistent political principles. Rather, it blossomed through imaginaries of places of inhabitation, loci of dwelling, spaces of collective imaginaries, and worlds of belonging. When this was brought to the fore of public life, centuries worth of thinking and living could reject the diminution imposed by both liberal imperialism and rabid nationalism on less powerful forms of life. In reconfiguring their disfigured, interrupted genealogy, they have given us visions of anticolonial futures from worlds of the past.