An eminent theatre director of yesteryears recently remembered his childhood days in a small town in Bihar in an interview. Within the many incidents he spoke about, he named Muslim households that were of utmost importance while playing Holi and his household from where the Moharram procession started. As he described the milieu in which he was brought up, he mourned quite involuntarily about a loss of innocence in his personal life and the life of his town and the country.
Many people around India can recall several such incidents, and often when people voice their memories, they are accused of romanticising the past. They are told that Hindus and Muslims have always had separate Mohallas and a tenuous distrustful relationship. This kind of romanticising keeps us from facing the reality of our actual inter-faith relationships in the country.
Let’s ask people for one overarching example since 2014 of an event, a gathering, a village ritual that has, in fact, been started with this spirit of romanticised amity between the two communities. I think people will find it very hard to name one. Even if the past is romanticised, the incidents mentioned are true. And if it was fiction, then why do we not have fiction anymore? What has made the nature of the lie so difficult to exist, even if one chose to go with the sceptics?
My argument against the sceptics is significantly experiential. As the theatre director mentioned, I have lived in places where Hindus and Muslims lived together without it being a talking point. In my college days, I played football for clubs run by Muslim families or boards, and we played against clubs with predominantly Hindu players and staff. I went to college where Hindus and Muslims formed the teaching and student body, but again this was not the talking point. I think the sceptics have a theoretical point which is not supported by my memory, and if I have a memory bias ( as is the claim with various others like me), one should be able to find matching incidents since 2014 as well.
The change is increasingly palpable every month. The Modi government can get away with anything as long as it is done to Muslims. It can form new laws that marginalise the community, openly support people who call for genocide, set up detention centres for Muslims, and bulldoze Muslim households at pretty much no real backlash to its position. If anything, the position gets stronger for hardliners.
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The bulldozing of activist Afreen Fatima’s house unsurprisingly comes at the heels of an international embarrassment that the Modi regime dragged the entire country into by its spokesperson spewing uninformed malicious statements against the Prophet Muhammad. These statements, which were defended as ‘bitter truth’ by several Modi supporters in and out of mainstream media, are made without any notice to a historical method and ahistorical morality. The entire issue became a PR fiasco that the Modi government had to issue statements internationally to distance itself from its spokesperson, calling her and the MLA’ fringe elements’.
Anyone who is following Uttar Pradesh on the ground saw this coming. UP is the new Gujarat ( Karnataka heading that way under Bommai), where an absolutist majoritarian agenda is pushing its way through sheer performance. The performance of majoritarianism that the BJP continuously puts out and accelerates when it faces a backlash, as it did in the case of the international pressure to take action against the statements of the BJP spokesperson whose words have led to riots and lives have been lost.
By demolishing Afreen Fatima’s house, the BJP has again performed to the gallery. It has issued statements of religious tolerance internationally, and to allay any fears of its majoritarian coterie, it has made the political point clear by the demolition.
For a few days, we will expect some rush of news which will either claim that Afreen Fatima is a dangerous terrorist ( already there are claims that the government has found guns from her house . Why that should lead to demolition is anyone’s guess ) and some furore on the internet by liberals bleeding and baying for justice.
In the backdrop of this is a tacit formulation that the Modi government is pressing forward, which is that the current crisis is a Muslim Crisis or, more particularly, a crisis in Islam.
The ‘Crisis in Islam’ is a formulation that has been pressed from the 1st Bush regime, which was the beginning of many far-right to centre-right, pro-market regimes. The crisis in Islam is an idea of connecting freedom movements such as Palestine and Kashmir to militant organisations such as Al Qaeda and JeM and claim that all protests by Muslims are fundamentally emanating out of an Islamic identity which is Pan Islamic, non-cosmopolitan and although located in different countries, fundamentally disloyal to nationalist agendas.
However, these narratives, which I will save for other columns, are hugely under-told in the face of the narrative against Islam and trying to paint it as one idea. This is far from the truth in any case, as any severe look at post-colonial Islamic states will reveal. If anything, Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, Morocco and Kashmir have seen immense disturbances and arguments between the pan-Islamic identity and the nationalist Islamic identities of the key players in the movements.
What I want to bring to focus here in the Indian context is why the majoritarian Hindu population is so akin to forgiving the Modi government even when it does not agree to such violence. Those who want the violence against Muslims have already fallen into the trap of Hindutva, which in my view, is just the face of a deep crisis in Hinduism.
Hinduism is a deeply contested idea, but one can reasonably identify a set of classical values, both good and bad, as essentially intrinsic to the Hindu experience. These values have traditionally ranged from celebrating specific festivals, being discriminatorily caste conscious in the realm of the private sphere of marriages, access to resources that are used privately ( water, fields, property), and an interest in the afterlife.
This was to lead Hindus to an essential degree of fulfilment irrespective of the thousands of differences between groups and sects.
At the heart of this was also a bow or a gesture to subjectivity. From the early 11th century, for instance, the Navya Nyaya school of Hinduism debated ideas of a moral philosophy based on what was known as ‘Pramana -shastra’ in which proof of argument is at the core. The school looks at four primary ways of gaining knowledge ( or pramana) using Pratyaksha ( Perception), Anumana ( inference) , Upmana ( analogy) and Sabda ( testimony). The Navya Nyaya school also borrowed heavily from Buddhism, predating it by five centuries at least.
One could say that this is an unfair assessment of Hinduism, for Hinduism is, in fact, casteist brutality. I agree with the critique of Hinduism as a brutal discriminatory system, but in this argument, I am alluding to the importance of subjectivity even within the immorality of Brahmin domination.
Subjectivity is so intrinsic to Hinduism that religion with many conceptions of god would be impossible to hold otherwise. The arguments of saints and rebels against Hinduism have always been against the orthodoxy of those who have tried to ‘ fix’ Hinduism by making it singular.
The desire to fix this subjectivity has been an ambition of many kingdoms and religious leaders in the past, and perhaps other than the systemic annihilation of Buddhism in the region ( starting in the 2nd century by king Pushyamitra who persecuted Buddhists en-masse ). It would be difficult to find a parallel to Hindutva’s success in destroying the importance of subjectivity from the Hindu mind.
We must make a note of the fact that even the Navya-Nyaya school is one of the 6 ‘astika’ ( believer) schools of Hinduism. There were at least four more that were ‘nastika’ (non-believers).
For electoral gains, the BJP has developed a novel formula over the years. Its real credit is to think that the minority does not matter. That if it has a minority of the majority vote for it, it would still comfortably make it to power.
However, it must perform to its audience to remain in power. An audience which is steeped in the tension between neo-liberalism and the roots of its theological construct. The breaking of the Babri Masjid in peacetime ( the partition riots were parallel to a real displacement) was the beginning of resolving the tension and crisis in Hinduism. It allowed Hindus in India to take their attention away from the questions of their religion in the face of modernity, which all believers have had to grapple with in the post cold war era.
The collapse of giant certainties like communism led to the need for new ones. And one such certainty is Hindutva. We see echoes of this in Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere as the world veers to annihilating subjective achievements of the past and replacing them with objective simplicities like claiming glorious histories without any historical method.
The bulldozing of Fatima’s house is a scar on Hindu consciousness. And another step in asking, even if Hindus continue to misunderstand Islam, how will Hindus save themselves from Hindutva.
Image Credit: PTI
Abhishek Majumdar is a playwright, theatre director, and scenographer based out of Bangalore. He is also Visiting associate professor of Arts at New York University Abu Dhabi.