Saturday, October 08, 2005

Community, culture, killing

I have been yanked out of blog-o-bernation by a request from Uma to comment on a recent post of hers that has generated a flurry of reaction. You'll have to read that first and at least skim over comments made by Sandesh, Pankaj and Bimlesh, among others, to understand why I think this is worth responding to. So much has been said already that it's hard to respond point-for-point, but here are a few thoughts.

'Jumping Into Wells' - When I saw the title, I instinctively thought of Jallianwala Bagh. When Dyer's troops started firing, there was no place to run and many people jumped into the well in the middle of the garden to escape being mowed down by gunfire. We are still jumping into wells in the postcolonial state, and now we are doing it to escape from each other, with the state (our beloved independent superpower-wannabe state) occupying the role of active facilitator (supplying lists of residents, failing to register FIRs, mucking up prosecutions, not offering witness protection of any sort so that the few brave ones inevitably turn hostile, etc.), or passive bystander on the most charitable reading of what is going on.

Do we know what secularism is, as Uma suggests? Listening to her recount the litany of communal pogroms that have scarred our 58 year existence, you would wonder how she can assert this with such confidence. And yet she's right. Because at some level, we have known about secularism for centuries. I'm not talking about Anglophilic Nehruvian secularism; I'm referring to the matter-of-fact, implicit, unacknowledged secularism of places like Cochin with its Jewtown and Dutch fort and Christian churches, of Hyderabad with its Urdu-inflected Telugu, of Punjab in the time when one son in every Hindu family converted to Sikhism. I'm referring to Sufi saints venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike, to Bombay apartment buildings where bawas and banias and bohras jostle for space. The remarkable thing about all of this is its taken-for-grantedness, so that if you stopped to point it out or make a big deal of it, people would think you were a little bit strange. Secularism isn't even the right word for this. I'm talking here about cultural eclecticism, miscegenation, the blurring of boundaries in daily life. We know how to live like this, and this everyday secularism is far more vital, more culturally rooted and will nourish and sustain a civilised public life far more effectively than the most high-minded and progressive laws.

Much of this flows inevitably from the constraints of living in a crowded country that has received waves of visitors over the centuries (the aryans 'migrated', the muslims 'invaded'), most of whom stayed. What happened when 'they' stayed? Did 'they' change 'us' more than 'we' changed 'them'? Would 'we' be able to recognise 'ourselves' without 'them'? If you're an upper-caste, Hindu, North Indian, Hindi-speaking supporter of the Sangh Parivar, one simple thought experiment you might perform is to strip Hindi of every single word derived from Arabic or Persian (do you even know which ones these are?), remove every vestige of Mughlai cooking from the food you eat and refrain from all invocations of that 18th century Euro-American idea that came to be known as nationalism, much less that 20th century set of beliefs that would be called fascism. Then see if you recognise yourself. (Oh, and if you're 'Aryan', go back. Go back to wherever you came from - and no, I'm not carrying a brief for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.) And before you begin protesting at my having singled you out, know that I'm doing this because you are at the top of every single hierarchy that is relevant in contemporary Indian public life. That is not to say that you are responsible for all its ills - rather, that you wield the most power and, therefore, that your deployments of victimisation narratives ('Hinduism is dying out') are the least credible.

This is also why responses to Uma's article that demand a recognition of minority-inflicted violence are missing the point. No one is denying that members of both communities have committed abuses. And I am certainly not arguing that one sort of killing is more justified than another. But when both sides in this conflagration use victimisation narratives, the fears and concerns of an 11% minority whose levels of socio-economic attainment are demonstrably below those of the majority, appear much more persuasive than the rhetoric of self-proclaimed leaders of the much larger, more powerful 85%, who claim that their community is disadvantaged.

Finally, I'm not interested in engaging in some nostalgic reading of history here ('we lived in harmony until the British came and started their divide and rule heraferi...'). And I have no intention of overplaying the depth of our peaceful co-existence. The sort of co-existence I have been talking about has often been superficially civil or only part of the story: the instances of progressive and heartwarming co-existence I mentioned at the beginning of this post have always sat alongside strict and deep-rooted communal rules about purity and pollution - rules that dictate whom we can eat with, marry, or let into our temples. What I'm trying to say is that running through these fossilised communal prejudices are equally 'authentic' indigenous veins of peaceful co-existence, which we have to tap into in order to recover a more civilised public life.

In any case, Uma's piece is really about the unjustifiability of killing. Her critics have raised various arguments that seek to contextualise majoritarian anger, but does any of that morally justify killing? Is this even something we should be debating?

and why not, for arguments sake, take up the cudgels for the dravidars (note the 'for arguments' sake': I myself am a bong-bram, which, based on my limited reading of proto-history, means I am half-dravidian ethnically- I think the term is Eastern Bracycephal or some such, and if Aryans really were booted out I'd be in a sort of limbo)?
Kannagi's world, evidently, was very different from the present-day "Hindu" society- apparently it was non-casteist. Considering the fact that the pre-aryan south had a completely different pantheon of deities than the hindu ones, it is perhaps fair to say it wasn't Hindu at all, in which case Hinduism is not Indian either.
Sorry for the puerile words- just trying to demonstrate the futility of exclusionary thought. Also, I know what I've said above reads like some Tam extremists dream of past glory, but the problem is, in spite of my tremendous interest in the proto-history of the south, the only places where i've been able to find any information on its society, its culture, its arts and letters- are sites like Compared to the glut of material on the vedic age, there is precious little on the ancient south, at least for a layman like me without access to university journals and research papers.
Sorry about the long comment.
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