On Being Indian: The Organic Intellectual, Mystical Poetry, and Lineages of Indian Rationalism (Westland Books) by Amit Chaudhuri was originally delivered as a talk at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi in February 2020. The book explores the question of what it means to ‘be Indian’ by exploring the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests. The book is many things — a record of the various events and utterances, part analysis, intellectual and cultural history, and literary criticism. This long essay is an exploration of how such a critique might be written.
The following is an excerpt from the book.
On 14th January 2020, my wife and I visited the Park Circus protests in Calcutta, which, like the one in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, were arranged and dominated by Muslim women, most of them in traditional burqa. Large posters of Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose, and B.R. Ambedkar, as well as a plethora of Indian flags, surrounded us. This was happening across the country: the appropriation and reinvigoration of national symbols (some of them, like the flag, commonly claimed by political parties or patriots; others, like Ambedkar, seen as the icons of certain groups or communities, like the Dalits or the ‘left-liberal’ intellectuals) by a mainstream of men and women transformed by, and contributing to, the anti-CAA protests, including, of course, much of the Muslim population.
In the process, the flag changed from being the empty symbol it had been under Congress rule, waved during Republic Day parades, or the instrument of intimidation it had become under the BJP—when you could be beaten up if you didn’t stand up for the national anthem or vociferously echo the cry Bharat Mata ki Jai! The national flag became a sign promising a number of new meanings.
Similarly, Ambedkar, it seemed to me, was being reinserted—both as the face of a historically oppressed group, the Dalits, and as a drafter of the Constitution—into the national consciousness far more persuasively than various seminar discussions in the last decade had managed to do. The traditional intellectual’s attempts to bring Ambedkar into the discussion as part of a critique of the blindness to caste hadn’t foreseen the extent to which he could be invoked, universally, in the context of democratic rights. And the role that the Indian flag could play in protest had not been previously imagined. To lift symbols (the Constitution, a picture of Ambedkar, the national flag) and bring them together with the features of various other realities (religion, the burqa) was to make an argument, to create a new case for reimagining the human and the political. The connections these juxtapositions asked us to make—between posters, flags, and women making speeches, or cheering, or distributing tea and biscuits—involved reusing our powers of reasoning rather than tapping into a readymade vocabulary of dissent.
As we entered the Park Circus maidan, we saw a young woman in a burqa at the microphone (speaker after speaker, mostly women, would follow) raising slogans. Then she began to speak in Urdu/Hindi, pointing out the privileges she had as an ‘educated’ woman, which, she said, was why she was standing before the microphone: she was aware of her rights, her haq. ‘Some of us may be students here, some of us may be children, but none of us are stupid.’ Indeed, there were children present—high-spirited, but certainly not bewakoof: stupid or gullible. After chanting a few more slogans, the young woman said: ‘The name of Gandhi came up earlier, but I confess I was never a wholehearted follower of the Gandhian way. I’m an admirer of Subhas Chandra Bose.’ There was applause. ‘But now, when I see how our students are being beaten up, I feel great pride and begin to understand the value and fruits of ahimsa [non-violence].’ She raised slogans for the students of JNU, Jamia and AMU; the crowd joined in. The man standing next to me said: ‘She’s my wife.’
I liked that she’d presented the arc of her thought to us: that Gandhi’s appeal to her had been a qualified one until she had realised, in the last month, the purpose of ahimsa. This was in keeping with the various throwaway remarks made by organic intellectuals from July 2010 onwards: that there were no readymade resources for political protest if protest was not to become a repetition of pieties, that reasoning needed to be enlisted and put to work.
We, too, began to participate in protest as a form of logical thinking: a reconsideration of the language and uses of nationalism, that took nothing for granted, neither an inherited iconography nor the presence of children in a gathering. For my part, I inferred that deep religiosity—of which the burqa was a sign—was not incompatible with being deeply invested in the secular. In fact, it seemed possible that ‘secularism’ had always been impelled and renovated by the wisdom that is made available to people through religious inheritances. The space of religion and the space of the secular state weren’t distinguished by a demarcation in Park Circus, as in the European idea of the secular. The secular state didn’t just accommodate various religions, as in the Indian conception of secularism. Religion didn’t mean opposing the secular or delegitimising it as ‘pseudo-secular’, which was the BJP’s model. The religious was an indispensable component of the secular.