Hindu Vivek Kendra
«« Back
Identity wars raging in India

Identity wars raging in India

Author: M.J. Akbar
Publication: Arab News
Date: August 10, 2008
URL: http://www.arabnews.com/?page=7&section=0&article=112620&d=10&m=8&y=2008

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 Valley's politicians is even less so. These politicians, whose concern for Jammu is, to put it politely, less than emotional, are merely seeking to fertilize the shrunk seeds of a now arid insurrection. What we are seeing is street wars over rights and possession in a multiethnic, multipolar 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. But, as always, it is the degree that becomes the problem. Democracy cannot be digested when raw, and turns poisonous when overripe. 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. 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 hemorrhage 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 energize 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 recognize the need for creating for what might be called artificial political space for Muslims. Mrs. Indira Gandhi 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.

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. Unable to afford their traditional self-image, they are now seeking identity-assertion through visual metaphors of faith such as short pyjamas, long beards, and rimless caps. 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 Makkah. 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 centers 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 organization.

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 would 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.

- M.J. Akbar is the chairman of the fortnightly news magazine Covert.

Back                          Top

«« Back
  Search Articles
  Special Annoucements