There is that memorable line in a Professor Higgins’ song in the film My Fair Lady — Hollywood remake of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion — that says “why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Let us understand that when we recommend that Muslim men jettison the skull cap and Muslim women the burqa, we are saying “why can’t a Muslim be more like a Hindu.”
Both recipes involve a fundamental violence which sadly informs much of the world’s cultural history namely, a dominant desire to essentialise identities, demarcating the “authentic” from the “inauthentic” — constructs sought to be forged by cultural elites often with a nod from the state.
This historical putsch concomitantly finds inclusion in school textbooks wherein different inhabitants of a common geographical/demographical space are inscribed in specific and essentialised forms of representation; often a Muslim is shown as one who wears a beard and a skullcap, a Hindu one who wears a tilak, and likewise, a proper and authentic woman as one who wears a sari, and so on.
These procedures of typifying cultural identities in history, we must understand, are indubitably aspects of the exercise of cultural and complicit state power. Thus in Nazi Germany, the star of David which represented Jewishness in totality, was asked to be exterminated so that a pure nation could be obtained.
If this is accepted, then Ramachandra Guha’s formulation, however well-meant it be, clearly seems to be victim to a hasty capitulation to a cultural praxis replete with negative consequence. Should we concede the Guha formulation, we cannot but have to concede a few others — the demand for example in the developed democracy of America that Sikhs remove their turbans in order to normalise their claim to American citizenship. Or, think for a moment that the Jihadis in Kashmir were to say that the Pandits must jettison the sacred thread and the vermillion tilak — be more like the majority Muslim community of Kashmiris —inorder not to give offence as a permanent “other.” How would that be any different from our seeking Indian Muslim — men and women-to recast their accouterment so that the majority eye sees them as not cocking a cultural snook at what a set of people have determined to constitute “authentic Indianness?”
The fundamental misstep here is; one that came up so stridently at the time of the rightwing attack on Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s “Italianness”— to subordinate constitutional citizenship to cultural citizenship — a great danger among polities where many cultural minorities coexist with an overwhelmingly dominant religious/cultural majority. Needless to say, this is a route that leads to Savarkar.
The Guha formulation also leaps rather unthinkingly over another equally fundamental fact: What about the millions of Muslim men and women who wear neither skull caps, nor burqas, or the many more millions of Hindu men and women who wear neither the vermilion tilak nor the sacred thread nor the sari, or many famous and lesser known Sikhs who sport neither a beard nor a turban? Are all these also, therefore, lesser Muslims, lesser Hindus, lesser Sikhs? And who is it that says so?
A concomitant human reality of great consequence — one to which Mani Shankar Aiyer has recently drawn attention in his NDTV blog column — can be ignored at much collective peril: when a minority identity is hemmed in and sieged, the self-respecting instinct always is to flaunt an essentialised identity all the more as an act both of dignity and defiance.
During the Algerian revolution against French colonial rule, “liberated” Algerian women, took to the veil with a vengeance, as it were to counter-alienate the coloniser as the intrusive “other”. Indeed I recall a famous instance in our own modern history: JBS Oberoi, sociology professor at the Delhi School of Economics, than whom no more liberated a man, responded to the Sikh killings of 1984 by for the first time sporting a beard and donning a turban, clearly as a conscious ideological riposte to the targeting of Sikh identity.
In seeking, therefore, to find answers to cultural assaults and violence outside of the stipulations of the Republican Constitution through a sort of educated common sense, we only take a shortcut to abetting a dominant cultural ideology and it bolsters in an oppressive state rather than help resolve an issue which involves fundamentally the subversion of the principles of a pluralist democracy. One would suggest that with the experience of the partition behind us, this is one temptation we had better not only resist but actively give battle to.
Ideas Series: The Minority Space
Ramchandra Guha-Harsh Mander debate about the invisibility of Muslims and reforms within continues
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