Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Positive Politics and Karbala: Reflections in honour of Imam Hussein, Prince among Martyrs

When Mr. Iqbal Mohiuddin rose to address the gathering at the Seminar on Positive Politics, organized for the Popular Democratic Front in Margao on the second day of the New Year, he did not begin by greeting the audience on the commencement of the Georgian New Year. On the contrary, he presented to the largely Muslim audience, his greetings on the start of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar, and then subsequently went on to also greet them on the start of the Georgian calendar.

It was a pity that Mr. Mohiuddin did not continue his address with a reflection on the solemnity of Muharram. The solemnity begins on the first day of that month, and culminates on Ashura (ten in Arabic), the tenth day of that month. This period marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and many of his band of followers, on the burning plains of Karbala, a city now in modern day Iraq. Had he done so, he would have in one stroke, placed before us the challenge of and for positive politics that faces us in India today.

Imam Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and a claimant to the office of Caliph (the leader of the Muslim community). This position however was taken up by Yazid, seen in some traditions as a tyrant. Imam Hussein, seen as the righteous was halted at Karbala enroute to the city of Najaf, where his caravan, comprising women and children, was besieged, and under the burning sun deprived of water for days. On the tenth day, Imam Hussein was martyred in battle, and his body mutilated, but only after he was forced to witness the death of his sons and brother, at the hands of the forces of Yazid. It is in commemoration of this cruel killing of the virtuous grandson of the Prophet, that every year Muslims, and among them especially the Shia, gather to mourn in the months of Muharram and Safar.

The narrative that the story of Karbala builds up for us is that of the conflict between good and evil; between the path of righteousness, represented by Imam Hussein, and the path of corrupt and deviant State power, represented by Yazid. In standing up, and eventually dying for his convictions, Imam Hussein is configured as the Prince among martyrs laying the foundation for a culture, like that of Roman Catholicism, which holds a special place for martyrdom. This notion of martyrdom however transcends the usual idea of dying violently. Tradition also suggests that ‘one who dies in the love of the Prophet’s family, dies a martyr’. The path of imitation of their lives (of virtue) then also leads us to the hallowed stature of martyrdom.

It was thus appropriate that a Seminar on Positive Politics should have been organized within the first ten days of Muharram, and regrettable that despite this obvious alignment of dates, the connection was not made by any of the speakers.

The Seminar made a few important shifts that we should take note off. It was a move toward rearticulating the nature of nationalism in India. If nationalism, especially since after the Mandal Commission Report, has been articulated largely in upper caste (Hindu) or Brahmanical terms; speakers at the seminar indicated clearly that there another kind of nationalism was possible. This would be a nationalism that draws from the experiences and vocabulary of those excluded from the Brahmanical framework; Muslims, Dalits, other minorities. In terms of politics the seminar indicated that it was time to break out of vote-bank politics, where these communities are merely paid lip service, to move into a politics where rights are addressed and governance is the focus.

Nevertheless, various occurrences at the seminar indicated that it emerged from the same (problematic) soup of Indian politics. For example, assertions were made that prior to the arrival of the British, it was the Muslims who ruled, and there was none of the persecution that is today faced by a variety of groups across the country. My differences with this statement are not the obvious. That Muslims ruled prior to the British, and subsequent to the Hindus, is an invention of the British historians of India. The so-called period of ‘Muslim rule’ was a period marked by the rule of Turko-Afghans. Their religion happened to be Islam, but these Muslims were marked by sectarian and regional differences that marked them significantly. Also, they proved also the wisdom of Chanakya’s observations regarding real politic. In order to accommodate the demands of their realm, a number of these ‘Muslim’ rulers were Muslim in name alone, and consequently gave the rigid and doctrinaire Muslims of the time more than a few lines of worry. Secondly, these ‘Muslims’ ruled with the active support of brahmanised local elite. As such, power structures, as viewed from the dalit groups below, remained pretty much the same. That is to say, caste violence, endemic to the subcontinent continued to be a marked feature of ‘lower’ caste Indian lives. If we are to build a genuinely cooperative (and positive) politics, then it is imperative that we look beyond the ‘religious’ framework bequeathed by the British when we both, seek understand our past, and also move forward.

Finally, while I can understand the need to retrieve Islam and Muslims from the character-assassination it has been subjected to, we also need to realize that making such blanket statements as ‘there was no persecution under Muslim rule’ lulls us into a sense that merely being Muslim is enough to be good. Clearly this cannot be true. Mere confession of a faith is not enough, one has to also walk the path of the Prophet and the Imams, not merely literally, but mystically as well.

The more problematic aspect of the seminar was the fact of its structure. It was essentially a platform to launch a new political organization in Goa. Nothing wrong in that. However if we are to move toward new politics, then we need to also move away from the kind of organizing that is disrespectful of the audience. One cannot promise a seminar (necessarily dialogical), lump the audience in a room and then subject them to speech after speech, with no room for participatory discussion and dialogue. A movement toward positive and genuinely democratic politics will have be one that articulates a more respectful and dialogical consideration for the audience. Indeed the battle of Karbala was also marked by parleys, which resulted in some switching sides, more significantly some moving over from the side of Yazid to that of Imam Hussein.

Via the ‘Seminar’, the Popular Democratic Front has made its first appearance in Goa. If the reports about this mobilization from the states of the South are anything to go by, if the tenor of the speeches were anything to rely on, it would be interesting to see how they manage to gather groups in Goa toward more emancipatory agendas than the ones we are used to seeing in the quickly deteriorating situation of the secular and democratic Indian republic.

(Published in the Gomantak Times, 7th Jan 2009)


Abhik Majumdar said...

Interesting article, enjoyed reading it. Agree with more or less every single point you've made. Maybe your language and tone are too mild, though. A little more emphasis in strategic areas won't hurt :)

Orlim Gaum Rakhon Manch said...

Very well written and reserched .