Identity wars trump class wars for India's poor
By M J Akbar
It doesn't quite work out for the workers of the world as Karl Marx had envisaged. They do seem to have something to lose other than their chains. Poverty is not the only definition of India's poor. The struggle against economic injustice isoverlaid by wars of identity, principally caste, creed and faith. This is the biggest barrier between Indian Marxists and the Indian poor.
The former will not compromise with theory. The latter will not compromise with practice.
If class had been the principal motivator of political allegiance, Prakash Karat would have been in power in Uttar Pradesh, not Mayawati. Muslims, mired in growing despair, are reluctant to join the Naxalites in Jharkhand since they cannot comprehend atheism. India should have buzzed with the whirr of revolution, for it combines stark poverty with obscene disparity. But identity continues to be more inflammable than hunger. Hunger will always remain a crucial determinant in any election season, but it is not the only game-changer.
The rising tide of identity-insecurity across the country can be measured by the eagerness with which any community seizes the chance to project itself as a victim. These grievances are neither fiction nor an alibi. They are based on immediate experience. The last few months have brought submerged passions to a boil in a manner witnessed only during periods of deep social crisis.
The Church, using its international reach, has converted the attacks on prayer halls in the South and tribals in Orissa into a global story, persuading Rome, Washington and Paris to berate India publicly. There can be no justification for suchassaults on places of worship, for that undermines the humane values of Indian society and the basic tenets of our Constitution. But the narrative does not end there.
Hindus have also reasons to be upset. They hear India's Prime Minister intone that he is embarrassed by the rebukes he heard in Washington and Paris. That much is acceptable. But they do not hear India's Prime Minister tell Washington and Paris that some fundamentalist Christian missionaries , buoyed by fabulous donations, have said blasphemous things aboutthe most venerated Hindu gods. The Prime Minister cannot speak for only one side of the equation. I doubt if the same largely American missionaries would have attacked the Holy Prophet of Islam with equal impunity. Implicit in their vituperation is the assumption that Hindus are a "soft" target.
Hindu sentiment is equally perplexed at the ferocity with which the idea of a resting place for Amarnath pilgrims was opposed by many Kashmiris. This resentment is not addressed towards non-Kashmiri Indian Muslims because they had nothing to do with the Kashmiri outburst. But when they see Kashmiris travel and trade freely across the subcontinent, Hindus wonder if they have become second-class citizens in their own country. The denial of courtesy towards pilgrims hurts at the deepest point in the psyche.
The rage of Muslims has crystallized into outrage. The two current focal points have become the cynical hypocrisy of the Maharashtra government in the handling of riots in Dhule and Malegaon, and the killing of terror "suspects" at Jamia Millia and its myriad consequences, not the least of which has been the conduct of the Delhi police. Trapped in the contradictions of its own deceit, and blessed by the protection (given through public statements) of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and home minister Shivraj Patil (who claimed credit for the operation), the police seems to have embarked upon a policy of offering scapegoats for mass consumption. Muslims cite the manner in which the police once flaunted Tauqeer as the "mastermind" and India's "Osama bin Laden" but today dismiss him as a "media creation". And so when plainclothes policemen come in a black Hyundai without number plates enters the Jamia area on the night of 16 October to pick up yet another suspect, it meets with instantaneous public resistance.
The credibility of the police, and the government, has disappeared. The Congress has lost the plot, and presided over a meltdown in inter-community relations. Traditional tactics - create fear, and then offer to become guardian in exchange for the Muslim vote - no longer work.
If governments only managed to hurt themselves, there would be nothing to fret about. One of the great blessings of democracy is that it gives opportunity for every government to commit suicide through a thousand self-inflicted cuts. The worry begins when the nation starts to bleed as well.
Indian Muslims are bitter, but it would be very foolish of them to permit this bitterness to ferment into bile. Any government is a passing phenomenon; the nation is a permanent asset. Governments can fracture; a nation must hold. When those in power fail, it becomes vital that we, the people, Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and Christian, reach out to preserve the common good. Common sense is often the best recipe for the common good; alas, that is the first thing that a victim abandons.
Appeared in Times of India - October 19, 2008