Palestinian thinker Edward Said, the author of the seminal book, Orientalism has exposed the European colonial-era construct of the Orient or the East, the great historical Other of the West by flattening the former’s internal diversity and dynamism across time and space. He has also warned against the hegemony of social-political authorities in Eastern countries in homogenizing their communities by determining the meanings of religio-cultural markers as barriers between neighbors. In his later book, Notes from Exile, he has spoken against these native control-freaks including religious leaders who claim to be the spokesmen for their communities. Many of them fought against colonial modernity but with an eye to the past and often had played in the hands of colonial masters. Fatima Mernissi and many other Arab-Iranian feminists also had strongly contested the claims of the conservatives to speak for entire community, particularly, the women while insisting on lesser-known Islamic tradition of women’s role in public life.
Indian subcontinent is one of the worst examples where both Hindu and Muslim separatists and revivalists were instrumental in implementing the divide and rule policies of the Raj that finally led to the Partition. The legacy has direct bearing on our present predicaments.
In the European secular and Left discourses, debates between the exponents of French Republican idea of laïcité or strict segregation of state and public spheres from religious beliefs since the Revolution and the supporters of British/ American/Canadian multiculturalism were dominant in public sphere before the resurgence of the Islamophobic far right. The multiculturist milieu swings between assimilation and acculturation as the minority ethno-religious groups are expected to conform to majority culture in public life in the first process and retain its separate identity while adopting some aspects of the majority in the latter.
Secularism as a state policy of free but divided India was highly contested during the freedom struggle and somehow our forefathers had settled somewhere between Gandhian idea of the Sarva Dharma Sambhav and Nehruvian strict separation of the State and religions despite the clamor of Hindu supremacists inside and outside the Congress. But it was far from being a settled fact in our body polity and society. Short-term political opportunism of the Congress and regional parties which courted the socio-religious obscurantist forces has only undermined the secular principle.
Moreover, the internal as well as external geo-political dynamisms have allowed the resurgence of competitive communalisms and fundamentalisms across the three nation-states of the subcontinent and the larger south-east Asia. Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist majoritarians have got a huge shot in their arm by exploiting each other’s murderous campaigns in their countries. All these forces have been engaged in communal polarization by triggering riots, mass murders and forcible displacement aimed at long-term ethno-religious cleansing of the minorities in their respective countries in the name of Ram, Rahim and Buddha.
Syncretism Vs separateness
Given this scenario, I will not go by the usual secular Vs religious binary but will try to find a solution depending upon our past syncretism traditions as well as present political imagination about reclaiming the legacies of the freedom struggle. The assertion of Muslim identity and its markers is an imperative to reclaim the constitutional rights of religious and other freedoms as well as equality before law and socio-political and economic justice as enshrined in the Preamble. But it should not be practiced as an act of exclusive separateness of Muslim League era or a dictate from the above but an integral part of our civilizational plurality.
Moreover, shared faith of Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isai, mainly at the subaltern level, must be harnessed as our cultural resources for the current struggle against divisive forces.
Fundamentalists of all hues and self-appointed defenders of the faiths have detested this sub-continental treasure trove down the history. We have allowed it at our own peril. Considering the current context, we should no more allow Hindutva forces to monopolize the myths of Rama and Krishna et al. We should reclaim the earlier social greetings like ‘Ram Ram’ among others, that noted the rustic cordiality etc in contrast to the RSS war cry of ‘Jai Sri Ram’ that turned the plural versions of the godly King’s story into a tale of a revengeful warrior god.
Subversion of dominant versions of myths is an essential political strategy and tool for ideological battle as Rosa Luxemburg and latter-day Latin American Liberation theologists had argued over the meaning of Christ in their times. Even a similar strain was heard around Muhammad in Cairo slums during as late as first gulf war. Our homegrown Lefts must come out of their cocoons. Joint struggle on economic issues are crucial but the latest Delhi mayhem pointed to the absence of ideo-political moves for unity among Hindu and Muslim toilers.
Nilanjan Dutta, who was a co-panelist of Renna and Farzana at the festival had cited a powerful poetry from radical student leader and Telegu poet NK Rama Rao who is no more with us. The poetry was a riposte to the ABVP, the RSS student wing. The saffron brigade had raised the slogan—Lal Gulami Choro, Bolo Vande Mataram. Rao’s piece was titled—Lal Bono, Gulami Choro, Bolo Vande Mataram. As the current struggle has been reclaiming the spirit of freedom struggle pertaining to national anthem and national song as well as the national tricolor despite earlier controversies over them, let us dig up for more culturally inclusive but linguistically diverse idioms and symbols for inter-community affinities to fight against the fascists.