Shaheen Bagh BJP Row: Why Is It So Easy to Discredit Muslim Protestors?

Hindus view Muslims, and by extension residents of ‘Shaheen bagh’ as a homogenous category, where the actions of a few can immediately delegitimize others.

shaheen bagh bjp
Courtesy: ANI, Indian Express

A number of people who are residents of the Muslim majority areas Shaheen Bagh, Okhla, and Nizammuddin, reportedly joined the BJP on August 16. An induction ceremony took place in the presence of Delhi BJP leaders to welcome them into the party, with leaders speaking about how this shows the Muslim community’s faith in the party. BJP member Nighat Abbas who campaigned for the party in these areas, said, “There is a myth that Muslims are averse to the BJP which stands dispelled by people from the minority community joining the party”.

The event was reported on by major media outlets such as NDTV and Times Now as ‘Shaheen Bagh activists’ joining the BJP. The articles contained a variety of numbers, some saying it was 50 people, others saying it was 100. Later, Abbas mentioned that over 50 were from Shaheen Bagh, and the others were from Okhla and Nizammuddin, two localities that had escaped mention in the sensational breaking news. All initial reports mentioned 3 of these people by name- Shahzad Ali, a Dr. Mehreen, and Tabassum Hussain. BJP’s opportunity to claim its inclusivity for Muslims was soon ruined when the Aam Aadmi Party began to give media statements accusing the Shaheen Bagh protest and other anti-CAA protests as being scripted by the BJP for electoral gains. It is important to examine the media reportage and political back and forth taking place over this incident of new members joining the BJP. 

Firstly, the initial headlines show a clear attempt to sensationalise the event and frame all the Muslims who joined the BJP as protestors from the Shaheen Bagh sit-in without verification of their involvement in these protests. The reason the other localities were not mentioned is because those names simply did not command enough media space during the anti-NRC-CAA movement, the Muslims from those areas don’t have have extensive fake news campaigns launched against them, and ‘Okhla’ and ‘Nizammudin’ didn’t feature regularly in political speeches before the Delhi elections

Secondly, who were the people who joined BJP, what were their political affiliations prior to this, or what was the level of their engagement with the protests was not important for mainstream media outlets. No report has attempted to give a background of gynaecologist Dr. Mehreen, whose last name has not even been mentioned. Tabassum Hussain was a Aam Aadmi Party worker, and did not have any significant engagement with the anti-CAA-NRC protests. Shahzad Ali has in the past been affiliated with the Rashtirya Ulema Council (RUC), an orthodox, clergy-driven party, pro-BJP group of which he was the Delhi Secretary, and had also been associated with leaders of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), a group opposed by the BJP. Nighat Abbas clarified in a report by Peppertales, that Ali was not a anti-CAA protestor but had been campaigning to convince other protestors to join the party, and that both Dr Mehreen and Tabassum Hussain, although residents of Shaheen Bagh, had never protested against CAA-NRC. According to other protestors who spoke to us, Shahzad Ali had organized a meeting where he had invited Indresh Kumar, leader of RSS-affiliated Muslim Rashtriya Manch. 

It is clear then that the people who have joined the BJP are of a variety of political affiliations and opinions and may or may not have engaged with the anti-CAA protests. Shaheen Bagh itself is a large locality with thousands of residents who may have regularly been in the vicinity of the protests, without participating in them. However, the BJP’s efforts in campaigning with Muslims from these areas and in highlighting their joining of the party reveals the BJP’s clear understanding of its various voting blocks. The RSS-BJP is known to have one of the most insidiously wide reaching campaigning strategies- its different wings appeal to different social groups, many of whom are in reality opposed by its central agenda of forming a Brahminical Hindu nation. The RSS has under it, specific groups for women, Muslims, trans people, Dalits, Adivasis, and so on, and moulds its image to appeal to different groups- be it appropriating the figure of Ambedkar or instigating Dalits and Adivasis to commit violence against Muslims. In that context, this was an important event for the BJP to highlight in order to increase its appeal for Muslims in a city where it is attempting to increase its electoral support.

The BJP also perhaps understand the view that most Hindus, conservative or liberal, hold about Muslims, which AAP too attempted to capitalise on by calling the Shaheen Bagh protests a BJP plot. That the protestors decidedly remained leaderless in the spirit of collective resistance was used by all sides to colour the entirety of the protest as lacking integrity. Due to deep rooted prejudices, Hindus on all sides of the political spectrum, by virtue of living in a state where Muslims are ghettoized and stereotyped, essentially view Muslims, and by extension ‘Shaheen bagh’ as a homogenous category, where the actions of a few can immediately delegitimize all others. 

On one hand conservative Hindus may find appeal in various theories about the Shaheen Bagh protests that are commonly used to demonize Muslims- such as them being sell outs, them having ulterior motives to create violence, them being fed biryani by other political parties, and now, that they were misled by others into protesting. On the other hand, liberal support for Muslims, however widespread it may have been during the peak of the anti-CAA-NRC protests, is even at its best, conditional. Since even liberal Hindus, after all, answer to their Islamophobic castes and communities, their support towards Muslims is extended under the condition of not being proven wrong about their support. As a result, every act of every Muslim in this country is measured against the character of the entire community. Liberals were quick to withdraw support and condemn sit-in protests by Muslim women towards the beginning of the pandemic instead of extending understanding for the circumstances in which they may have taken that decision, they were quick to draw the line and condemn Muslims of Tablighi Jamaat when fake news stories about them spitting on nurses were floated around, and now, the line will be drawn at the apparent political fickleness and betrayal of the protestors. 

That the BJP benefitted by creating polarisation on the basis of the protests is true, but AAP has failed to understand that the BJP does not need to script an entire protest in order to create polarisation, which it has managed to do through sheer propaganda and fake rumours in other cases. Through their allegations, AAP has shown itself to hold the same views about Muslim anti-CAA-NRC protesters that BJP does, and made its priorities clear about which community it caters to. The Islamophobic ideas of AAP will only serve to further cement BJP’s dominance in Delhi in the future.  


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April 2024


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