EXCLUSIVE: Jamia University’s heroines call out India’s institutional Islamophobia

Two young Indian Muslim women have become the faces of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Jamia Millia Islamia University, after videos of them shielding their male friend from police brutality went viral. 

Some hailed them for their bravery while others attacked them for their Muslim identity. Journalist Zulkarnain Banday spoke with Ladeeda Farzana and Ayesha Renna to find out more about the brave women and why they are currently protesting.

ZB: Tell me about yourself?

My name is Ayesha Ranna. I am doing my Masters in History, specialising in Modern History at Jamia Millia Islamia, and I am based in Malappuram in Kerala. I am married and we have been in Delhi for the last year.

I am Ladeeda Farzana and I am studying a Bachelors in Arabic at Jamia Millia Islamia. I am married and I came to Delhi this August.

ZB: Could you explain what happened that day when you saw your protest everywhere on the internet? What was your initial reaction? 

Ayesha: Initially we didn’t think that the video and pictures would go this viral because there were lots of pictures and footage where you can see police violence against students, so initially we thought this was one among many, but we never knew this particular incident would go viral.

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Ladeeda: We didn’t know this would go viral in such a way and it would be just family and friends sharing it, maybe it would inspire a few (laughs) people. We wanted to make ourselves heard and we were raising slogans from the top of our voices. We didn’t expect many crowds on that night. We climbed on the wall of the Mirza Ghalib statue because we wanted to make ourselves more audible.

Ladeeda, Ayesha and other female students defending their friend against police brutality.

ZB: Why are you protesting now?

Ladeeda: It is an existential question for Muslims in India. I am a Muslim woman and a citizen of India. As a citizen, this Act is going to violate my right because it’s against the Preamble of our Constitution. It is going to mainly affect India’s Muslims. As a Muslim woman living in India it is my right and duty to fight and resist.

ZB: Are you fighting for others as well?

Ladeeda: Everyone. Not only Muslims, but other communities who believe in the Constitution. We know that it is going to target Indian Muslims when clubbed with the NRC. Also, this is not the first time the government is demonstrating and promoting institutional Islamophobia by promulgating laws like UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), which disproportionately target Muslims. This trend has a longer history.

Ayesha: Apart from Muslims they are targeting other minorities as well. They believe if they target minorities they make them voiceless and disempowered.

ZB: I have been covering protests in Delhi since day one. I’m seeing anger in protesters, especially Muslims. Why do you think that is? Is it because this law is an existential threat for them or is it years of discrimination that has reached a tipping point?

Ayesha: It is all of that you have stated. The minorities in general have been suffering for a long time and currently I think it has reached to an extreme level. It has become a matter of existence, hence why you’re seeing the rage.

Ladeeda: All the issues combined like the Ayodhya verdict, mob lynching across the country and generally no sense of any justice. We also know what this regime has done in Kashmir. I don’t like to say this but Indian Muslims were silent because I think they were disagreeing with what this regime was doing in their own way, like through writings, art, paper presentation etc. However, now they are on the edge and close to genocide. We know they started with the Constitution and they can go to any extent. And when the Ayodhya verdict came Muslims were simply excluded from it. If the NRC becomes a nation-wide phenomenon, we will be physically excluded from our land. There are already detention centres popping up in various states.

ZB: Do you think Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) were particularly targeted by the police because of their Muslim character? 

Ayesha: When we analyse the crackdown that happened last Sunday in Jamia and AMU, both are minority dominated campuses. In a way they represent the Muslim community. There is photographic evidence and testimonies of our friends that the police also vandalised the mosque of Jamia and brutalised students praying inside. We can therefore see a pattern. They are particularly targeting our Muslim identity. Students were also asked if they were Muslim or Kashmiri. The police used religious and ethnic slurs as well.

Ladeeda: The protests took place 2-3 kms away from Jamia University, so why did the police enter the campus? And at the same time the crackdown happened at AMU. The situation there was very dangerous because there was no internet or telecommunications. We were not getting any news from there. I agree that because Jamia and AMU are minority institutions they were targeted. Isn’t this institutional discrimination? We saw how police entered the campus and started beating students and firing tear gas inside libraries, attacking worshippers inside the University mosque. This was a clear attack because of our identity.

ZB: Identity in this wave of protests is at the very centre of discussion. Why do you think that is? Do you think identity is an important aspect of these protests? Identity as a Muslim, identity as a woman? 

Ayesha: The people of the Sangh (RSS) are targeting identity. They want everyone to follow their beliefs and notions about how Muslims should live in India. We believe in the Constitution, which they want to change, and we are asserting our identity as a Muslim, as a woman and as a student. We are fighting for the representation of Muslims, Dalits, lower castes and other minority communities.

Ladeeda: Identities matter. This is not the first time attitudes towards Muslims have been laden with Islamophobia. We know the laws that are already in place targeting mainly Muslims and we know what they are doing in Kashmir. They say Muslim women are oppressed, they can’t do anything without a man, be it their husband or father, so when Muslim women come forward they target their identity, like the hijab etc. It is their agenda to deflect from the real issue.

ZB: Home Minister Amit Shah has said that Indian citizens don’t have to worry as this law is for minorities coming from outside, namely from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. What do you make of his statement?

Ladeeda: The same Amit Shah said that Muslims are not included in the Act. How can we believe him?

Ayesha: In West Bengal, Amit Shah clearly said that non-Muslims don’t have to worry about NRC and CAA. What does that mean? Also, if we look at the Act, it says minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – what about minorities form Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar? Why are those countries excluded from the list? Is it because Muslims in those countries are minorities?

ZB: What if the government went ahead with NRC? Do you think people, not only Muslims, the general public should stand in queues and submit their documents?

Ayesha: No. people should not. We will keep protesting in a peaceful manner. We know there will be provocation from the government and their supporters but we will continue protesting peacefully.

Ladeeda: Citizenship is a modern nation state concept. Now unfortunately I am living in a nation state. So citizenship is important for me. If tomorrow we are stripped of our citizenship, what is the value of living here? We won’t even have the right to talk.

I don’t think people should submit their documents at all. They should reject the idea of NRC as a whole and boycott the entire process. People should not allow this to happen in the first place. The demand is to scrap this law.

We have seen in Assam over two million people are excluded from the NRC, and even if one person is evicted from my country, where are my ethics?

ZB: Are you not scared?

Ladeeda: No, we are not. Why should we be scared? We fear Allah only. No one else. We know we are on the right path so why should we be scared of anything or anyone? We are keeping a low profile because we want to keep protesting and not get jailed and waste our time in prison. We want to be out protesting. We live to fight for another day.

ZB: So what next? Where do you see the protests heading to from here? 

Ayesha: We will be part of the protests. We are in regular discussions with the Jamia Teachers Association and the students of Jamia. We will be going ahead with our peaceful protest, like all the peaceful protests that are happening across India.

Ladeeda: We will be part of the protests that are happening all over India. In Jamia we represent the student community, so if I am in Jamia we will be part of the protest, and if I go back to Kerala, I will be part of the protests there. I will not stop.

ZB: How deeply embedded do you think is Islamophobia is in Indian politics, the media and in general society is?

Ladeeda: It is very deeply rooted. If a person uses some Arabic words when they talk, society gets scared. They fear the symbols that are attached to Islam and Muslim identity.

I think that this is the first sign of Islamophobia in society. We know when a female in hijab or a male wearing the topi (skullcap) is talking about their identity, the media quickly attaches it to violence.

The government in the enabler of Islamophobia. The laws they frame to target Muslims are well-known and this regime has weaponised social media platforms to demonise Muslims through fake news.

The basic problem is Brahmanism. If there are no Muslims left tomorrow they will turn their hate towards other minorities like Dalits, Sikhs and others. They want to make India a Hindutva Rashtra. And right now they are targeting Muslims because they are the second largest faith community in India. They won’t stop at Muslims.

ZB: Islamophobia is on the rise across the world. Do you think that is legitimising Islamophobia in India?

Ladeeda: Yes it is. Islamophobia is not new to India but yeah, the political environment across the world is fuelling it here and we know global politics is driven by Islamophobia. Also, the ideological basis of Islam is very strong and has the potential to challenge the existing world order – that is one of the main reasons why hatred is directed towards Islam and Muslims in a systematic way.

Zulkarnain Banday is an independent journalist and researcher based in New Delhi. He has previously worked with Hindustan Times and has been published in The Statesman, Caravan Magazine, The Dawn and Project India Magazine. 

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