Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Breaking Secularism´s cast(e): The curious case of the poor Indian Muslim

In an opinion piece in The Hindu on the 3 March 2011, Vidya Subrahmaniam wrote of her discussion with a group of Muslims in Deoband about the reported validation that Maulana Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, the controversy shrouded new Vice-Chancellor of the Dar ul Uloom at Deoband. These are her words;

I raised the Modi issue and was instantly put down: “We are not saying that Muslims should forgive Modi or forget 2002. But all of you in the secular media want the Gujarati Muslim never to get out of his grieving. Hindu or Muslim, the Gujarati is a businessperson, and that is what Vastanvi was trying to say.” The words stung but they were true. The Congress and the secular media wanted the Gujarati Muslim forever to fight Mr. Modi but neither was there to protect him.

Subrahmaniam should be credited for her perspicacity and sensitivity. This fact should be obvious to many an observer of the unfolding of Indian secular democracy, but has by and large remained unspoken.

The fact is that in addition to being pilloried as a result of the Orientalist and subsequently nationalist histories of India, the Indian Muslim is held hostage by another force that masquerades as its friend, the ‘secular’ Indian. The key article of faith of the secular Indian in contemporary times has been to moan the fate of poor blighted Muslim. Reams of paper, rivers of ink and oceans of tears are spent in this cause, to the extent that the cause of secularism – in this case the welfare of all minority groups in Indian – has become less of a concern, and has been replaced by a singular concern for the Muslim.The problem with the Orientalist and subsequently nationalist understanding of India is that it has understood India to be originally Hindu. All those who came ‘after’ are seen as the non-Indian, or less Indian. In the terms of scholarly debate, they are the ‘Other’ to the Hindu ‘Self’. Given the locus of dominant Indian nationalism in North India, the Muslim was seen as the ‘Other’ to the Hindu state, and blamed for all the shortcomings of nationalism, most significantly of all, Partition. Ever since, the Indian Muslim has been bludgeoned to the desperate condition they find themselves in today. The argument here is not that concern for them is misplaced. The argument is that by focussing on the Muslim ‘Other’ alone, what these secular Indians do is reaffirm the central place of the Hindu in the national imagination. The problem with Indian secularism is not the Muslim, it is the central place of the Hindu in the national imagination. This problem can be rectified only when we start realising that India is more than Hindu and Muslim, but includes tons of other minorities as well, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Adivasis, Dalits to name just a few. Displace this binary relationship, recognise the pluralism of the Indian reality, and we would have progressed multiple steps towards combating the problems confronting Indian secularism.

The question that remains unanswered in all of this however is why does the ‘secular’ establishment in India fail to grasp this seemingly obvious fact? Why does it persist in this obsessive focus on the Muslim and reaffirm the central place of the Hindu? The answer is once more hinted at by Subrahmaniam in her observation that ‘The Congress and the secular media wanted the Gujarati Muslim forever to fight Mr. Modi but neither was there to protect him.’ In her formulation of the problem, Subrahmaniam falls into the regular trap of identifying the Congress as secular, and the BJP as communal. We would grasp the nuances better if we harked to the words of Khalid Anis Ansari, a scholar researching the Pasmanda movement.

Ansari points out that ‘…there are a few differences between BJP and Congress … even when in the ultimate analysis they defend the same caste/class interests. For one Congress is dominated by anglicised and elite Brahmins, the BJP on the other hand is controlled by Brahmins from the rural or middle class backgrounds.’

In this formulation, Ansari helps us get to understand the obsession with the Indian Muslim. If one reads the ‘BJP’ and ‘Congress’ as symbols for opposing camps in Indian politics, and not merely – as normally done – as representative of the electoral parties, then one can see Indian politics as the struggle between the anglicised and elite dominant castes, and the rural and middle class dominant castes. The first group sold on the idea of western modernity, is empowered by its access to western cultural capital and drawing its power from international hierarchies, seeks to make a modern ‘secular’ India on these ideas. The other group as yet unable to acquire this western cultural capital, drawing its power solely from local hierarchies, seeks to delay this transition to western modernity until they too are in the seat of power. In the battle between these two dominant caste elephants, it is the Muslim grass that suffers. As Subrahmaniam rightly realised, the Muslim is by and large a pawn in the battle for access to State power. The ‘Congress’ claims to uphold Muslim interests, and the ‘BJP’ in response attacks them. In response to these attacks the ‘Congress’ calls the ‘BJP’ communal, and restricts our understanding of ‘secularism’ to essentially the Muslim cause. In the meanwhile secularism as a larger ideal of the protection of minority interests against majoritarianism falls by the wayside. What complicates this picture is that the battles are not between religious groups, but between caste (and especially dominant caste) groups. As such when the ‘Congress’ espouses the ‘Muslim’ cause what it is primarily doing is espousing the cause of the dominant Muslim castes. Further, it is quite capable of absorbing those people into its upper echelons who can walk the walk and talk the talk, be the Muslim, Christian or Hindu. All that is required is the ability to behave like an anglicised dominant caste. The power of the ‘BJP’ on the other hand, given its rural and middle-class character, is largely based on the assertion of ‘traditional’ caste structures. Thus this group too can make peace with non-cosmopolitan Muslim (or Christian) dominant caste groups toward the larger end of preserving rural social orders and traditional hierarchies.

Two lessons emerge from Subrahmaniam’s observations. The first that the solidarity that large portions of the secular lobby in India show to the Indian Muslim are motivated by the desire to wipe out their contender for power. Second, is the lesson that these political divisions in India, are not so much about religion as they are about caste power and caste battles. It thus appears that we would make some progress towards secularism if we complicated the picture of secularism in India to look beyond the Muslim, and also accounted for the manner in which both groups seek to establish the norms for gaining power in this diverse country.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 9 March 2011)

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