To protest or not to protest? The dilemma facing India’s Muslims

Members of the Muslim community protest against BJP leader Nupur Sharma over her derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad. | Picture: Getty Images

With the government going after protestors in several states following protests against the remarks against Prophet Muhammad made by the now-suspended BJP spokesperson, the question facing the Muslim community in India is whether they are paying a heavy price for protesting over the issues concerning them.

Zafar Aafaq |

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NEW DELHI — The strong police response to the protests by members of the minority Muslim community over insulting remarks against Prophet Muhammad has sprung up a debate among the community about whether public protests are an effective way to express displeasure and build pressure on the government.

Two teenagers have been killed and dozens injured in Ranchi, Jharkhand while in Uttar Pradesh the administration has resorted to mass arrests and bulldozing of homes of the alleged protesters. The government action against the family of student leader Afreen Fatima has left many shocked and angry. 

This question that arises in this situation is whether Indian Muslims paying a heavy price for protesting over the issues concerning them? Experts within the community overwhelmingly argue that silence never helps. 

“It can not be put in black and white. There are grey areas too,” Maulana Mahmood Madani, the president of Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (JUH) told in response to the question of whether public demonstrations are the right strategy.  

“Peaceful protests are a right of the citizens and if some people want to protest then others should not stop them. Nor should the government stop them. But if the protest is not peaceful or there is apprehension that it won’t stay peaceful then in such a situation it should be avoided,” he said. 

He said that the protests should be held to make demands from the government and “not directed at common citizens or any community.”

“Our religion teaches us to show patience. Any move that we take has to have a strategy and proper thinking behind it. We should not take abrupt action,” he said. 

In May when the Gyanvapi mosque issue was making headlines after a court-ordered survey claimed to have found Shivling in the mosque premises, Maulana Madani issued a statement appealing to Muslims not to hit the streets and refrain from public demonstrations. He also urged other Muslim groups to avoid interfering in the matter. The appeal did not go well with some sections of the community who argued that removing the option of protests from the table was not the right move.  

Anas Tanweer, a Supreme Court lawyer, said that protesting is a right of the citizen and must be exercised, however, “we must not lose sight of our senses.” 

“We must understand where we stand and that there are people to get us and kill us. We must avoid falling for the bait. It may not be idle but at the end of the day we must save our lives.”

Tanwir said that the community should learn “how and when to declare and cherish the victories and how and when to call off protests. When we are weak we can not go full throttle. We must know how to survive this long-drawn battle.”

No prominent leader or an organisation had given a call for protests yet people hit roads just after prayers in different cities last Friday. While it is seen as a “spontaneous outburst of anger”, there is also concern that such reactions give cause to the adversaries to target the Muslim community. 

Saleem Engineer, the general secretary of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, told that public demonstration is an effective way to express discontentment against the government in democracies. 

He, however, added that the nature and strategy of the protests should be decided at the local level in cities and towns by “responsible people with proper consultation”. “The protests should be conducted under the watch of such people to keep a check on anti-social elements,” he said.  

For Hussain Haidry, film writer and activist, the question of whether to protest or not is a tricky one. “There is no central leadership that can make calls or decisions on when to protest and when not to.” 

At the same time, if in a town or city some people protest on some issue that concerns the community one cannot possibly distance oneself or say they are wrong, he said, citing the example of protests over remarks against Prophet Muhammad. “This is essentially yet another Hindutva attack on Muslim identity. Some use the religious argument of blasphemy but it can also be framed with the socio-political argument of hate speech by a state representative. The difference of opinion, so to say, does not exist on the wrongness of the issue at hand here, but perhaps only in the way it could be presented for protesting—and even those are not strictly mutually exclusive of each other as the hurt of the whole society remains the same nevertheless,” he said. 

Shams Tabraiz Qasmi, a journalist who runs the news portal ‘Millat Times’ said the leadership has “to do more” and “can not wash off its hands.”

“A large chunk of the Muslim community, especially the youth, are in favour of protest and they want leadership to come forward and give direction. It is the responsibility of the leadership to take reins into its hands otherwise we might see a repeat of what happened last Friday when people came out on the streets on their own and then things went out of control at some places,” he said. 

Ladeeda Farzana, a Muslim student activist who emerged as one of the icons of the anti-CAA movement, however, believes that the fight has to be always there on the streets. “Silence is not the solution, fight is the solution. The street is for the people.” She cites examples of black people in the United States and Palestinians to back her view. “If we do not raise our voice then no one will know what is happening with us. The attack on Muslims will not cease if we stay silent. So it is better to fight.”

A similar view was shared by Khalida Parveen, a social activist based in Hyderabad. “If we do not protest what option do we have,” she asked. “Even in silence, they will not let us live peacefully so it is better to fight.”

“We can not fail our people who are losing everything for the rest of us,” said activist and writer Sara Ather who thinks that the adversary intends psychological subjugation by not just attacking the body of Indian Muslims but importantly their dignity. “They break down homes and make it a spectacle so that the tremors of horror reverberate for years to come.”

Zafar Aafaq is a journalist based in New Delhi covering politics and human rights. He tweets @zafaraafaq