Sen and sensibility
Stating the obvious and explaining what needs no explanation are not always avoidable. Nor can we escape familiarity, though it may only breed contempt. This is especially true of Hindu-Muslim relations in India, largely defined by differences. A correction of perception one has of the other has to be emphasized; but the more this is attempted, the more it results in the two communities going round in circles again.
In English essayist William Hazlitt’s words, ‘The spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it.’
So what is wrong? Why is it taking so much time? The approach has to be medical: treat to cure, if possible; otherwise treat to ameliorate the condition, but above all, diagnose first. There is another medical principle that applies just as well: not all diseases are curable, but all diseases are treatable. This means where cure is not possible, treatment is primarily aimed at improving the symptoms.
Hindrances to better Hindu-Muslim relations can easily be pared down to a set of familiar perceptions of the Muslim community, which are located in the country’s historical pasts and reinforced by the way Muslims (who though numerically less than Hindus are still statistically strong at 130 millions) are seen to be addressed by the country’s secular foundations.
India’s reputation as a modern secular state has been beset with many attacks on the country’s concept of secularism itself. These attacks have ranged from some intellectual-political positions to a scoffing Western criticism. But it is in the criticism offered by the so-called Hindu nationalists that such censure finds its most potent form, and which ultimately decides the quality of inter-community relations.
These, as mentioned earlier, are ‘familiar’ criticisms because they are repeatedly offered but are fairly recent if India’s wide history is taken into account. It is important to note that such criticism of Indian secularism overlaps criticism of Muslims themselves. However, often it is not Muslims but non-Muslims who fend off or address such criticism.
An interesting rebuttal is to be found in Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s essay ‘Secularism and its Discontents’. No quoting out of context here or selective quoting, as is often alleged of Muslim writers like me.
In his essay, Sen starts the section on the perception of Muslim disloyalty with (guess what) the inevitable cricket match as the yardstick of patriotism.
He states: “Spirited anecdotes abound this subject, varying from alleged frequency of Indian Muslims spying for Pakistan to their tendency, we are told, of cheering the Pakistan cricket team in test matches (whether or not Indian Muslims do this in any significant number — I do not know of evidence in that direction — I ought to confess that this non-Muslim author often does just that, when the Pakistan team plays as well as it frequently does).” Sen is confessing to supporting the Pakistani team in an India-Pakistan match. What should we make of this? Nothing, of course. When there is nothing much to be read between the lines, nothing much should be read.
When discussing sectarian relationships of this nature, a repeat of some ‘irritants’ already taken up in earlier blogs in some manner is inevitable. The ‘cricket-match yardtsick’ therefore could not escape Sen’s attention, just as mine. And presently, here is another ‘field experience’ that is as frequent as the ‘cricket-match yardtsick’ allegation itself.
My own personal memories of some of non-Muslim girls I knew in college are those of their gloating in the appeal of Wasim Akram, the former Pakistani cricket captain. One girl would have his postcard stuck up in her memo book.
It is true that Muslim kings invaded this country, and demolished not just temples but pillaged her resources. In the context of Indian secularism today, Sen argues that it is “not essential to make any claim on how Muslim emperors behaved”. The “‘guilt’ of Muslim kings need not be transferred to the 110 million Muslims” of today’s India. It is one thing for Sen to say this, quite another if a Muslim author were to state the same thing, mind you.
Sen further states that there is no “serious evidence” to prove political disloyalty on behalf of India Muslims.
Hindus themselves have had many different views of past Muslim rulers, as Sen points out, and he goes so far to assert that the view of Mughals as intolerant of Hindus is largely a contemporary political construct.
He cites an essay by Sri Aurobindo, ‘The Spirit and Form of Indian Polity’ (Arya Publishing House Calcutta, 1947). Sri Aurobindo writes: The Mussulman domination ceased very rapidly to be a foreign rule…It was as splendid, powerful and beneficial and it may be added, in spite of Aurangzeb’s fanatical zeal, infinitely more liberal and tolerant in religion than in any medieval or contemporary European Kingdom or empire.”
Sen instantly adds a courageous concurrence: “It is hard to construct a picture of persistent persecution of Hindus by Muslims kings — tempting though that hypothesis clearly is to some Hindu politicians.”
In the study of religion, there is something called ‘a priori’, as opposed to ‘a posteriori’. ‘A priori’ denotes that which is ‘prior to or independent of human experience observation’. It also denotes a state of pre-existing identity. One potent criticism of secularism offered by Hindutva proponents draws from this ‘a priori’ concept. It reasons that India is predominantly presaged on an overriding Hindu culture.
This notion transforms itself into a contesting claim, vis-à-vis Indian Muslims, who in this context, seem to be struggling to remain who they are: Indian Muslims. A hostile view of Mughals and the violent Partition are perceived as logical constructs that have helped sustain the taint on Muslims as a community that has not — and never wants to — integrate.
Is India largely, culturally Hindu? Does an overarching Hindu identity loom over the Indian identity? What is Sen’s take? He states: “Even if the religious identities were somehow ‘prior’ to the political identity of being an Indian, one could scarcely derive the view of a Hindu India based on that argument alone.”
This has been a country of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis Buddhists. There were Christians in India when there were none at all in Britain, Sen states. Moreover, there have been strong agnostic and atheistic Indian traditions, like that of Carvaka and Lokayata schools of materialism, which had no place for God. ‘Lokayata darsana’ was an Indian philosophical school ‘restricted to the experienced world’. Hinduism itself has many plural shades. Lord Rama is a divine entity in largely in north and west India but Rama is no more than an epic hero in Hindu Bengal, Sen states.
So Sen says: “…deriving an Indian identity from a Hindu identity…fails to recognize the implications of India’s immense religious diversity”. He then adds that “Hindu traditions do not constitute a melting pot in any sense whatever.” That however need not keep Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Parsis from living together in “great harmony and mutual tolerance…”
Sen’s essay also addresses the charge that Indian secularism has promoted asymmetry and favoritism, commonly called appeasement, such as the Muslims’ privilege of having their own set of personal laws. Sen feels that such laws are not in any way unfair to Hindus, but to Muslim women. He also notes that polygamy as a “provision is extremely rarely invoked by Indian Muslims”. (In an earlier essay, I had addressed polygamy as an effort to get more out of Islam than there is.)
Finally, turning to the “cultural critique” of Indian secularism, Sen states that even if Indian culture was basically Hindu culture, it would be “very odd to alienate, on that ground, the right to equal political and legal treatment of minorities”.
In America, there is this famous debate over whether it is a melting pot or a salad bowl? No matter how well you toss a salad bowl, the individual ingredients retain their size, shape, colour and identity. Yet they are called a salad because they come together. On the other hand, in a melting pot, different ingredients blend together and are no longer recognizable in their original form. They give one another a bit of their own essence. The debate is still on. What then is India? A multi-ethnic stew of a thousand races, religions, castes, cultures and language — perhaps.