I came across the concept of privilege very late in life. Being from an upper-middle-class Hindu family, I had always believed that our differences could be bridged and that we could exist as one people if we were empathetic towards each other.
This was before I came to DU to study literature, where I saw so many different kinds of people that I started to wonder what it would actually take to be united as one. The answer, ironically, was the national politics ever since the BJP government’s second term began: ignore and eliminate differences for the sake of one, unified, non-existent identity.
When the CAA-NRC issue became a topic of discussion and frustration all around the campus, I remember wanting to get rid of my privilege.
More than a year after the Shaheen Bagh protest, I had a conversation with Sara Haque, an Assamese Muslim, who did her graduation from PGDAV in the South Campus of DU, and now studies at Ambedkar University with me.
“Privilege is relative, right? I knew that, but that still doesn’t change the fact that when you’re directly in a position where you’re the other that the person in power is talking about, it’s just you, everything intersects at you. Everything is different then. You actually feel very vulnerable about the situation at that moment,” said Sara. When she said this, she was referring to her position on the margins as a Muslim and an Assamese Muslim minority.
I could understand what she was saying and why she was saying it, but the only way I could access her position was through my identity as a gender-fluid person. My identification with her was therefore very remote. After all, my identity was not threatened by the CAA bill, hers was.
We are all against CAA-NRC, but do we have the right reasons for it?
The anti-secular position of the bill is the strongest point that we have fought against. But the discourse around CAA in Assam, where the NRC originated, was never centred on religion, to begin with. “The way in which the implementation of the CAA is going to affect Assam is very different from the rest of the country, due to the vastly different factors of socio-cultural nature,” Sara told me when I asked her to tell me about why Assam was opposed to the bill.
The CAA bill states that people of all religions, except Muslims, will be allowed citizenship in India. This means that immigrants from Bangladesh have nowhere to go, except Assam. Odisha and West Bengal have already refused to take in immigrants. So why exactly is this problematic for Assam?
This is where Sara gave me a really important history lesson.
“When we say ‘Assamese’, it doesn’t mean people of one particular religion. It means people of all religions who are Assamese, who are khilonjia (indigenous). We have a very wide diversity of people from various religions and tribes. And there are a lot of indigenous people who, to date, are unclassified. Gopinath Bordoloi, who was the first CM of Assam, fought a really difficult struggle to prevent the unification of Bengal and Assam before our independence.
If you unify the two states, it is essentially homogenizing. Bengal is so much more politically influential in national politics than Assam and it always has been. Assamese cultures and Assamese languages would have consequently faced erasure,” she explained.
Sara was talking from the perspective of an Assamese.
During the anti-CAA protests in the Indian mainland, the primary issue that was being brought up was the anti-secular nature of the bill. As a Muslim, she had a stake in that discussion, but as an Assamese person, the primary issue for her was not that of the exclusion of Muslims from the immigrants allowed into the country.
“If there are immigrants from Bangladesh, they are not going to settle in Delhi. Those immigrants are essentially the same people who live in and around the North Cachar hills. These communities already carry scars from the Bengal partition. The situation is already bad. People in the mainland also forget that the land, the resources, and the cultures that will be faced with the influx of immigrants, and therefore the dangers of becoming a settler colony, are of Assam. That is what we are against. We do not want any more settlers here, irrespective of their religion.
We are not one community that wants to protect our land and resources, and our languages and culture. We are a lot of very minor communities, who already do not have access to resources in their own land because of the political and social upper hand that other people have,” she said.
Here, she was referring to the awareness that Bengali speaking Assamese people were in significant numbers as compared to non-Bengali speaking Assamese people. This awareness first came to the fore in the 1979 electoral roll, when the agitation started and was conclusively justified in the 2011 census. The indigenous populations were already a huge minority in the state. This issue wasn’t being talked about anywhere when the CAA bill was being hotly protested against. The focus was entirely on the exclusion of the Muslim community, and intersectional identities like Sara’s were not being talked about.
If I give up my privilege, I give up my ability to understand where my privilege comes from. One of the reasons I hold relative privilege over Sara is my identity as a Hindu majority, the other reason being my identity as not being an Assamese. If I give up my privilege, I lose any possibility of relating to the minorities that Sara represents.
I can empathize with Sara’s stance on the issue, but there is a line that I cannot go beyond. “People with relatively secure identities can’t see how a certain politics affects someone with many intersecting identities, most of which are minority identities. You can have all your intentions out there on the table, and all your intentions may be well and good, but there’s this one certain point where you have to step back and let us bring our subjectivity to the forefront and talk about it,” Sara said.
The anti-indigenous aspect of the anti-CAA discourse in Assam isolated Assam in the eyes of everyone that I was in touch with when the issue blew up. Most of them saw Assam as being selfish, even Xenophobic.
I could not say anything about the issue because, on the one hand, I was against Islamophobia, and on the other, I respected Assam for standing up for what it thought is right for its people. But there was also the conflicting idea that Assam’s stance was anti-refugee and therefore anti-humanitarian.
But what is it that we perceive as Assam when we make those statements?
Without Sara’s history lesson, I would have gone on through my life without actually developing a stance on the issue, because I wouldn’t have felt the need to educate myself about the origin of the problem. I held a relative privilege over her back then, and I still do.
The only difference is that back then I was unaware of the nature of my privilege in the context of this issue, and how that affected my perception of the issue.
When the Shaheen Bagh protest was at its height, I wanted to get rid of my privilege and stand up for the Muslim communities across India. But that was just an expression of frustration and confusion.
“If your identities are from the less privileged ones, then you will realize that something is not affecting you in a good way, it’s impacting you negatively. And when you belong to those identities that are not from the margins, then you mostly don’t have an idea of the privilege that you’re in, right?
We should start seeing how everything, like from where we belong, what is our name, what is our surname, what is our gender, where are we located at that point, everything is going to affect our place in the society, and how the society is going to affect us personally,” Sara told me.
A lot of things come with this realization.
If empathy and the need to stand up for your peers and for humanity compel you to learn about the reality of issues, who do you listen to? What sources of information and what channels of communication do you trust?
And even if you get the right information, information that matters and effectively contributes to your perception of an issue, how do you decide when to stand up in solidarity and when to simply listen?
I think that learning and standing up in solidarity go hand in hand, but both cannot happen at the same time. We must be receptive enough to learn, which is impossible when we are engaged in action. And we must be informed enough to act, which we cannot be while we are listening. This dynamic between learning and action informs where we stand in relation to any particular issue.
If I accuse Assam of Xenophobia, I am not looking at the root of the anti-CAA discourse. And if I question Assam for being ignorant to humanitarian causes, I am being ignorant of the cultural, indeed humanitarian crisis that Assam is primarily engaged with. And if we are opposed to the CAA bill, are we really justified in attacking Assamese politics? What do we stand for?
Even as Sara was opposed to the implementation of the CAA bill in her state, she was in solidarity with protestors in Shaheen Bagh. When I asked her about her perception of the incident, this is what she said: “It was my first time experiencing a unified political stance against the government so close to me. Shaheen Bagh became the blazing torch of this movement. It just reaffirms the idea that resistance and protest doesn’t come from a place of equality. Things were really bad at that time, but Shaheen Bagh gave you hope that we could bring some change. Change never happened, but anyway, we tried! It was really moving and has had a huge impact on me.”
Even as I was safe and secure, away from the spaces of agitation, I felt trembles going through me whenever I thought about the gravity of the issue that the people were standing up for. My empathy was deepened. But Sara’s empathy carries more weight than mine. “We, as in me as Assamese, never thought that this would ever happen. We had always been hearing stories about incidents happening in Kashmir. As an Assamese living in Delhi, and as an Assamese Muslim living in Delhi, it was really nice to see the solidarity, to see that some people actually cared about Muslims in the country,” she said.
Her intersectional identity and her awareness of it empower her to bring her voice to the table. But that power is taken away when we ignore the anti-indigenous tangent of the discourse surrounding the CAA bill.
We take away her right to talk about an issue that affects her more directly than it affects most of us. We also take away her right to stand up in solidarity with the Muslim minorities, because we implicitly perceive Assam as anti-humanitarian. Clearly, an issue that is a matter of black-and-white for us is a much complex socio-cultural and historical problem from the point of view of intersectional identities. Therefore, to advocate on behalf of someone who is more justified to be the one doing the talking is unethical and detrimental to any cause.
In the end, I feel like the Shaheen Bagh incident and the anti-CAA protests have been ineffective and muddled up with misunderstood events and political stances, even though they were beacons of hope and empowerment for many people like Sara.
In her words, “My personal stand was different from what I was seeing in the mainstream, from people who were advocating for my identities. A lot of it was traumatizing. A lot of it happened in my own campus…but the atmosphere outside was also resilient, hopeful, and also empowering to a certain extent. I have mixed feelings about that time.”
There is no one failure from those incidents, but multiple failures. Every failure counts towards a voice left unheard and a community’s problems left misunderstood.
But even now, there is reason to keep fighting.
The more we know, the better equipped we are to fight against political and cultural upper hands that privilege holds over those who will suffer and are suffering.