Why Can’t Indians Have A Debate Without Bringing In Race And Religion?

Posted on July 19, 2016

By Anil Mammen:

It almost looks as though we do not have a common ground to discuss social issues anymore. For instance, consider casteism, a practice common even among Christians and Muslims in India. The moment you mention caste, standing on a non-communal ground, caste interests will immediately term it an internal Hindu issue that can only be discussed on a Hindu platform. Or you are faced with the inevitable question — what about ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Christian evangelism’? Why don’t you talk about that?

Of course, I can talk about it. But why am I asked to talk about it? What is the intention behind that question? Is it to score a religious point or is it to establish a sense of neutrality? Ultimately, every political argument today is converted into one about religion and religious identity, which locks even the non-partisan into a religious position (forced to defend one against the other). It is almost as though we are genetically ordained to take certain argumentative positions based on which religion we are born into, reducing all of us in the process to narrow singular identities. So, every Muslim becomes a potential terrorist. Every liberal Hindu, a westernised bigot. And every Christian, a potential evangelist.

Sample Subramanian Swamy’s ‘tweet solution’ to combating terrorism:

And how does a Muslim become a Virat Hindustani? Simple. Just acknowledge his or her ancient Hindu ancestry. Historical ambiguities and migrations of various communities across centuries don’t matter. The culture and traditions of Adivasis don’t matter. If you are an Indian, your forefathers were definitely Hindu. No questions asked. And hopefully, then you would stop asking questions about caste. It would have been annihilated forever as a Virat Hindu family matter. Atheists, communists, liberals, scientists, sociologists and other non-religious identities don’t matter in this scheme of things. They are peripheral distractions with which you are trying to fool yourself.

Let us consider another common social issue, which in itself has no religious connotation: freedom of expression. Let’s say you bring up Wendy Doniger. In no time Taslima Nasreen will be brought up. Or Salman Rushdie. From a neutral ground of free speech, the argument is quickly brought down to one concerning the freedom to offend Hinduism vs. the freedom to offend Islam. It’s no more an argument to establish neutrality but one to defend a certain kind of partiality.

To consider the issue of how perceptions of our own identities have been messed up by the colonial project, or to consider historical contexts, inequality of power relations and multiple identities of each individual are just pseudo-academic gimmicks to avoid getting to the point according to this new game of religious polemics. History has shown us time and again how majoritarian bigotry (or the bigotry of the powerful) needs to be resisted much harder than the bigotries of minority communities – Nazis vs. Jews, White American racism vs. African American resistance, Iraqi Sunni aggression vs. Yazidis, Men vs. Women (patriarchy vs. feminism) and so on. It is also obvious that the majority-minority markers shift based on contexts. If you use the Christian marker, then many white Americans, as well as African Americans, fall within a majority category. So is the case with Dalits when they are classified as Hindu. However, when politics plays out, markers shift and power relations are exposed.

Even the most rigid ideological positions of the 20th-century now seem quite sophisticated compared to the religious-cultural street fights of today. Is this what a post-ideological world sound like in India? Or is this the high-point of anti-colonial nationalism, where under the guise of guarding spiritual traditions, you condemn what were once globally accepted liberal ideas like the right to personal liberty (including cuisine and ways of living) and the right to criticise one’s nation?

The nature of dominant voices has evolved over time. The idea has always been to maintain the status quo (or accommodate changes to suit one’s convenience) and keep dissenting voices from spilling out onto the streets. The critical difference between then and now is that the dominant groups of those days never doubted their dominance. So, they avoided talking about themselves and pretended to listen to dissenting voices. Today’s dominant group has taken the fight on to the streets, and are running a PR campaign to tell others that they are indeed the dominant group now.

It is a fight to reclaim “cultural purity” by chasing out one’s own colonial demons while pursuing the “western dream” — material prosperity for oneself. At the cost of rivers, forests and mountains. At the cost of dismantling the traditional ways of living of our indigenous communities. By sweeping social inequities under the carpet. If you are to consider this as a persona, you can see that it is an intensely troubled persona: “For my economic development, I shall shake hands with Islamic and western leaders. I will talk of universal brotherhood and the common threads that bind us. I will praise them and would like to be praised by them. But in my own house, I’ll fight anything resembling them or their values. But wait a minute, do I resemble them?”

Featured image credit: REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash.

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