Monday, August 11, 2008

Identity Wars

Byline by M J Akbar: IDENTITY WARS

Identity wars are raging both on and just below the surface of India. A few acres of land for pilgrims to Amarnath is not the real issue. The hyperventilation of Kashmir's valley politicians is even less so. These politicians, whose concern for Jammu is, to put it politely, less than emotional, are merely seeking to fertilise the shrunk seeds of a now arid insurrection. What we are seeing is street wars over rights and possession in a multi-ethnic, multi-polar state that has gone flabby with complacency at the top and corruption from top to bottom. Competing identities, released from any discipline by a democracy where appeasement has become the key to electoral success, are constantly trying to encroach across political and psychological boundaries.

To a certain degree this is inevitable. Competition is an integral part of freedom. But, as always, it is the degree that becomes the problem. Democracy cannot be digested when raw, and turns poisonous when over-ripe.

After 1947, free India realigned itself around language. India has always been a mix of linguistic regions, but there had never been political empowerment around linguistic identity. A linguistic region, Rajasthan or Orissa, might have dozens of principalities; conversely an empire might stretch from Punjab to Bengal and govern in a state language that belonged to no one, Persian or English.

Indians relished the post-feudal-colonial states as a historic gift. We know how possessive they became about language in the South. But even Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who share so much linguistic and cultural overlap, have developed completely different politics. Till the early Eighties, they shared the same political mood, but now their regional parties have no influence in the neighbouring province. The formation of smaller states like Jharkhand, Uttaranchal and Chhattisgarh proves that the Indian polity retains the elasticity to accommodate fresh identity-pressures without injuring the whole.

But two powerful identities could not find political space in modern India, the Dalits and Muslims. The principal reason was that there was neither geographical nor linguistic consolidation in these two communities. In that sense, Dalits and Muslims can be called the two national communities of the country. Kashmir might be Muslim-majority, but Kashmiri Muslims never identified with Muslims in the rest of the country, and Muslims elsewhere returned the dubious compliment. This is why the Jammu agitation does not carry the spark of communal violence that can spread into the Ganga-Jamuna belt. The best that the few acres would elicit from non-Kashmiri Indian Muslims would be a shrug. Similarly, Nagaland might be a Christian-majority state, but the other Indian Christians do not see it as part of any common identity. Indian Christians do not have a specific political space either, but they are too thinly spread. Sikhs, in contrast, are in a consolidated area with a specific language and thus have successfully wrested a state that was denied to them in 1954, when linguistic states were chalked out.

The linguistic realignment of India became an effective bar to the rise of new leaderships, since states are the natural cocoon for emerging leaders. No one sought this deliberately, but even accidents have consequences. Muslims, in any case, were never going to be trusted easily after the creation of Pakistan, and the continuing haemorrhage in Kashmir. If India is determined about anything today, it is about its unity.

Dalits had one advantage; they were above suspicion. And so their first genuine leader, Kanshi Ram, could energise a dormant community through radical slogans that might have provoked violence if it had come from anyone else. Kanshi Ram, a genius, found a brilliant successor in Mayawati. She knitted an amazing coalition that made her Chief Minister of India's most important province and empowered Dalits to an extent that can change the social dynamic of Indian society.

The Congress used to recognise the need for creating for what might be called artificial political space for Muslims. Mrs Indira Gandhi was far more conscious of this than her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. She always tried to keep a Muslim or two in the Congress mix of Chief Ministers. She gave Bihar its only Muslim Chief Minister, Abdul Ghafoor. Her most daring experiment was to make Abdur Rahman Antulay Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 1980. Antulay underestimated his opposition and overplayed his hand. Maharashtra is not going to get a Muslim Chief Minister again.

Neither Dalit nor Muslim has been able to grow at the pace of the Indian economy. For Muslims this is especially frustrating because they remember their past as a success story. The Muslim stereotype used to define all the pleasure of high living: great cuisine, a fine dress sense, education, high poetry. Unable to afford their traditional self-image, they are now seeking identity-assertion through visual metaphors of faith: short pyjamas, long beards, rimless caps, spotted male foreheads. For those who might wonder about the last, an increasing number of Muslim men create a dark spot on their foreheads to suggest that they are saying the namaaz so often that a spot has formed. It is a pious fraud, of course, but prevalent nevertheless. (Muslims do not wear rims on their headgear because a rim would prevent the forehead from touching the floor during namaaz.) There is also a new hum around shrines: travel east and west of Delhi and you will see fresh building activity around shrines, mosques and madrasas.

All this is public activity. The Hindu sees it, accepts it, and carries on with his own life and religion. There is an equal upsurge in Hindu religiosity, whether on evangelical television or in the number of Kanwariyas going barefoot to worship Lord Shiva. There may even be an unstated competitiveness, but the Muslim and Hindu tides take care not to flood beyond their own territory.

But there is always a flashpoint lurking in the subconscious, waiting to explode. The trigger is hurt, a grievance that emerges from a perceived sense of injustice. The Hindu who has quietly watched mosque and dargah expand around him, explodes when a few acres are denied to pilgrims on the arduous trek to Amarnath. He has seen Haj Houses sprout around him for Muslims on their way to Mecca. These Haj Houses are not loaned to the community for the two months involved in the two-way journey for Haj; they have become community centres all year round. He asks a question: why should he be denied a place for tired feet on the way to Amarnath?

There is fundamental disconnect at a critical seam: the Muslim sees himself as a victim, the non-Muslim views him as a perpetrator of turbulence and injustice. The image leaps across time, bypassing inconsistencies, ignoring facts. Foolish politicians like Lalu Yadav, who seek the mass by pandering to the extreme, do Muslims great harm. His latest, in which he has the company of Mulayam Singh Yadav, is to offer SIMI a certificate of innocence even while the government of which he is a part goes to the Supreme Court to ban the organisation. If Lalu Yadav has the courage of his convictions then he should resign on this issue. If not, he should keep his garrulous tongue under control. The extremist Muslim, of course, takes comfort in such contradictions, and retreats to his haven convinced that between corruption, complacence and appeasement his excesses will remain unpunished.

This is a moment that demands sagacious leadership. The government is lost in gazing at its navel, or in the manipulation of currency notes, with neither the language to soothe a wound, nor the will to confront an aggressor. An individual can afford the luxury of indifference. A nation cannot.


Rajiv said...

After months of wtitings, which were filled with an obsession to oppose the current government, comes an article which is more like the MJ whose writings I got addicted to. Please continue. There is more to write about than just Bush, Manmohan Singh and Sonia.

ram said...

A well thought out and cogent article. Alas our political,leadership could use MJ's logic and commonsense to nip problems in the bud instead of allowing matters to go out of hand. The average Indian is religious, peace loving and interested in bread and butter issues like good governance , law and order. We hope and pray that India gets a more responsible and responsive Government for all Indians instead of Dalit/Hindu/Sikh Government!!!!


Mahendra said...

Personally speaking if the term "Secular" is removed from our constitution it will bring lasting peace and prosperity amongst Hindus and Muslims.

That's because
a) Hindus will feel secure in their only country (Nepal is too small)

b) Muslims would realize that aggression is NOT an option (look at statistics)

c) Politicians won't able play vote bank politics

d) The focus will automatically move towards economic prosperity.

Hari Potter said...

Great article Akbar sab. Call a spade a spade. No one has so far come forth with blatant support of SIMI from Lalu & Mulayam.

On question of identity, I would say it's the communal & caste politics started by Congress that is the root of all this. The BJP has at least tried to integrate the dalits into it's fold (although angering Muslims post-1992). I really think what happened in Kashmir is the increasing anger of national Jammu Hindus being sidelined & identity being taken at face-value at expense of Kashmir with majority Muslims with seperatist aspirations.

Nandini said...

I agree with the aboce comment. After months of opposing Nuke Deal, MJ has gone back to his natural state. This is the kind of writing which makes you want to read again and again. As he saya, the main reson for the problem is the gap between the 2 perceptions. Hindus' persception about Muslims Vs the Muslims' perception of themselves. Who / What can bridge this gap?

Anonymous said...

You correctly said that Dalits and muslims never get their voice heard in this democratic country. J@K is burning and polticians are writing just letters to eachother. What a pity.