Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Muslim and the Catholic in Goa and India

This column is being written from Delhi where I have just completed a tour of North India with a bunch of Americans. It was while on this trip that I realised, with a fair amount of horror, the extent to which the Indian national identity is built on the idea of the image of an all-encompassing gentle Hinduism and an evil and barbaric Muslim. Despite the overwhelming Persian influence on this region, brought by the Islamic Turko-Afghans, at almost every site the tour guides stressed a ‘Hindu’ linkage where the Muslim emerged only as a destroyer of the wonder that was India. More often than not these stories twisted facts around to emerge with the Muslim as the villain of the piece.

Visibly agitated, I was asked the question if whether having a Muslim guide would have given us a different perspective. Thinking through this question I realized with sinking heart that this would not be a solution, since the nationalist narrative has effectively worked out the space for the Muslim. There is the good Muslim as represented by Akbar who is supposed to have Hinduised himself, and the bad Muslim represented by Aurangzeb who apparently violently asserted an Islamic identity over a syncretic option open to him. Whether they actually were or were not as this history represents them to be, is not really a choice open to the common man: we have to accept them as such, and then either praise or vilify the appropriate Emperor.

Arriving in Delhi this realization was further affirmed when I flipped through the brochure of a prominent centre for Islam in India. The Centre continues within a tradition that understands ‘Indo’ as code for Hindu, accepts the proposition that Islam is from outside and can never truly be internal(ised) but asserts at the same time that one can be a good Indian Muslim. This assertion, it should be pointed out, works for a particular class of Indian Muslims—the upper class/caste—who stress their foreign origins, and derive social distinction vis-à-vis the lower caste Indian Muslims from it. Further, their emphasis on clarifying the “true” meaning of Islam creates a space where their access to the text is privileged. This emphasis on the text of Islam, rather than the happy soup of lived practice inspired by the message of Islam, in fact creates the necessary background for fundamentalist Islam. In sum this acknowledgement confirms their place as leaders and representatives of Indian Islam and denies any space for lower class/caste Muslims to stress their vision of what it means to be Islam, a vision that could possibly escape the fundamentalist readings of what it means to be a Muslim.

In Goa, the Muslim shares a similar fate. There is a similar celebration of Hindu nationalist myths with the Muslim either erased or cast as the bad guy. The celebration of Indo-Portuguese art is a good example. The term Indo-Portuguese in fact operates as code for Hindu-Catholic and celebrates their union. The term leaves no space for the influence of the Islamicate in Goa, which though plentiful is expelled. The celebration of Indo-Portuguese art therefore casts the Muslim as the eternal outsider to Goa, while creating Goa as the legitimate space for the Catholic and the Hindu. This equation operates for only a certain kind of Catholic though, the upper-caste Catholic. The upper-caste Catholics are able to link up with the Hindu imagination for the nation through stressing their Brahmin, Kshatriya backgrounds. At the same time a textual interpretation of the religion stresses their distinction from the lower-caste Catholic masses. Both ways it leaves the lower class/caste Catholic without an option. It delegitimizes the easy mix of local and Catholic belief that marks Goan Catholicism and also leaves a lower-caste Catholic with no way to link up with a nation that is imagined primarily in upper-caste terms and pride in racial origin.

For years now the Muslim problem in India has been imagined as precisely that: as a problem of and by Muslims. Increasingly though we are coming to realize that this problem is the result of the history of Hindu nationalism and impacts equally on all communities that are not Hindu and upper-caste, or do not share in this exclusivist vision accepting a subordinate role within the narrative. In Goa our belly-gazing has still not allowed us to realize what exactly is going on, but for those who are willing to see, the writing on the wall is pretty clear!
(This essay is dedicated to Khaled Anis Ansari thanks to discussions with who I have been able to view the Indian Muslim community from a radically new perspective, which has allowed me to relook the Goan Catholic community as well.)
(Published as "A Celebration of Nationalist Myths" in the Gomantak Times, 30 January 2008)

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