The Muslim Face – on policing the resistance from within

The recent furore in the University of Yale for inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to deliver a speech has been for me the most unsettling of all the controversy that had Hirsi Ali in it. The thing about Hirsi Ali is that she is representative of the dichotomy that ex-Muslims in general, and ex-Muslim women in particular, have to go through, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority. One is to be seen as a traitor of one’s community for speaking out against the atrocities committed within and other is to be seen as an apologist for speaking out against unwarranted and bigoted suspicion and fear with which Muslims are seen by the majority. Kenan Malik has spoken about this in his article “Is There Something About Islam?“, in which the following anecdote is very telling.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

Ayaan chose to not be that real Muslim and chose to be the traitor. For which she became the darling of the conservative and the right, while attracting the scorn of liberals and leftists from privileged classes.

And it is this dichotomy that unraveled at Yale, once she was invited to speak. There are two things to be considered here. First is the academic freedom of Hirsi Ali as an ex-Muslim woman. Michelle Goldberg in the Nation have put this matter very well, by comparing Hirsi Ali’s and Steven Salaita’s cases.

… it’s worth recognizing that arguments privileging “respect” and civility above freedom on campus are always double-edged. If you believe that Hirsi Ali shouldn’t be allowed to speak because she denigrates Islam and makes many students uncomfortable, then it’s hard to see how you can simultaneously claim that Salaita, a professor who has tweeted, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” deserves a place in the classroom.

Second is the expectations that are put upon ex-Muslims when they choose to criticise Islam and the practices within their respective communities. Here is the letter by the Yale Muslim Students Association, where the following statement is something that I found to be extremely repugnant.

While we have legitimate concerns from what we know, and while we cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies, we are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.

Not only does the above statement have the implication that they are being generous by not denying her her experiences, but they expect her to limit her expression to her experiences and “expertise”, read she’s not qualified to speak on Islam. So she is allowed to express herself but not allowed to interpret her experiences with Islam. Similar arguments were made by Hindu apologists against Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit ex-Hindu writer and academic, for his trenchant and passionate criticism of Hinduism. In fact as a friend once pointed to us in Nirmukta, Hirsi Ali’s and Ilaiah’s experiences parallel each other. Both are denied the right to be passionate and also denied the right to hate the very institution that was the cause of their experiences. Despite being much close to oppression than privilege they are denied to opine and interpret on the same institution in the manner they deem fit.

But it doesn’t stop there. Here is the statement by the Yale Humanist Community, one of the signatories of the above letter,

As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience.

True, she may not represent the totality of the ex-Muslim experiences, but her experiences do belong to that totality. Her experiences and interpretations of the same constitute the larger ex-Muslim experience, and she has every right to be taken as seriously as any other ex-Muslim in that regard. One may disagree with plenty of her opinions, especially ones regarding minority rights of Muslims, but one simply doesn’t get to trivialise her experience by making such patronising statements as saying she does not represent the whole.

Another argument that comes against Hirsi Ali is that feeds the anti-Muslim/Islamophobic frenzy of the right and the conservative. But how fair is it to police her speech and expression by putting the blame of bigotry of the, well, bigots on her? Bigots have historically appropriated and misconstrued sane arguments for their own agenda, many a times even by going against the original intentions. How fair and constructive is it to point fingers at her, instead of engaging her?

Such policing and patronising of resistance within Islam while bringing down the credibility of secular humanism, greatly harms the larger struggle for a tolerant and secular future. Excluding the likes of Hirsi Ali will do none of us any good.

The Muslim Face and the Image of Islam

Two articles have prompted me to write this post. One by Kenan Malik titled “Is there something about Islam?” and the other by Mehdi Hasan titled “What the Jihadists Who Bought ‘Islam For Dummies’ on Amazon Tell Us About Radicalisation”. Both deal with certain crucial questions that are almost always missing in current discourses on Islam, Islamism, and Islamic Terrorism. These questions are especially necessary when the world has to deal with the current crisis of the Islamic State in the Arabic world.

To what extent does Islam Influence the actions of Muslims, especially actions that are violent?

I understand that many here would have problems with me quoting Hasan, and for valid reasons, but his article is an interesting read if anybody is interested in understanding how or why the head-choppers of ISIS are behaving the way they do. He doesn’t answer them, but does present us with an approach in which non-Muslims can deal with these issues. The first question that needs to be answered is what is the relationship between the scriptures and the actions of Muslim terrorists. Hasan gives us the example of two self-proclaimed Jihadists, Yususf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, who pleaded guilty of terrorism in Syria and who have also recently (after returning from Syria) reported to have bought a book titled Islam for Dummies. Hasan tries to argue that religious literacy has little to do with acts of violence by believers, in the name of their belief.

I for one, do see the point in his argument. Take for instance, the self-proclaimed Caliphate of ISIS and compare that with the historical Sunni institution of the Caliphate. The first Rashiddun Caliphate that was established after the death of Mohammed was structured according to the Islamic nation built by the prophet in Medina. This Islamic polity was based on the Constitution of Medina, a charter signed by the leaders or representatives of various warring tribes in the region which is today known as Hejaz. One of the responsibilities of the Caliph was also to extend protection of life, trade, property and personal faith of non-Muslims who pay taxes, in accordance with Islamic conjectures, and who owe their allegiance to the Caliphate as its subjects. Apart from that the first four Caliphs were also elected by a constellation of leaders (and also some elected representatives) of all tribes that follow the Muslim faith and accept the Caliphate (this primitive system of representational/oligarchic democracy is also believed to have its roots from the then defunct Roman Republic). All this is very much unlike the murderous gun-trotting butchers that call themselves the Islamic State.

Malik too raises this argument in his article regarding violence committed by Muslims, and the portrayal and treatment of such violence.

The relationship between religion, interpretation, identity and politics can be complex. We can see this if we look at Myanmar and Sri Lanka where Buddhists – whom many people, not least humanists and atheists, take to be symbols of peace and harmony – are organizing vicious pogroms against Muslims, pogroms led by monks who justify the violence using religious texts. Few would insist that there is something inherent in Buddhism that has led to the violence. Rather, most people would recognize that the anti-Muslim violence has its roots in the political struggles that have engulfed the two nations. The importance of Buddhism in the conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka is not that the tenets of faith are responsible for the pogroms, but that those bent on confrontation have adopted the garb of religion as a means of gaining a constituency and justifying their actions. The “Buddhist fundamentalism” of groups such as the 969 movement, or of monks such as Wirathu, who calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden”, says less about Buddhism than about the fractured and fraught politics of Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

And yet, few apply the same reasoning to conflicts involving Islam. When it comes to Islam, and to the barbaric actions of groups such as ISIS or the Taliban, there is a widespread perception that the problem, unlike with Buddhism, lies in the faith itself. …

Before we continue, it has to be noted that neither Hasan nor Malik (or even me for that matter) declare that the radicals or fundamentalist never justify their actions or opinions on the religion that they follow. The point here is that the assumption that everything that Muslims do wrong is primarily because of whatever is written in their scriptures is not only lop-sided but also extremely problematic. Most of the time, the role of the religion is usually a cover for power struggle or for a very heinous practice. Take for instance, the practice of female genital mutilation among certain group of Muslims, and Sati that was practiced in India. In both case the proponent or the apologists argue(d) for it as a part of their religion, while neither is in any manner or interpretation prescribed in either religion. While the media has been reporting brutal murder of Shias, Christians, and Yazidis by the ISIS militants, not many are reporting the fact that it is the Sunni Muslim Kurdish militias in northern Iraq and eastern Syria that are putting up a brave fight against the ISIS. Even the part where the same Kurdish militias created a humanitarian route for both aid and supply, and an escape to a safe region for their Yazidi counterparts was heavily under-reported by major international news media, including Al Jazeera (see here and here). Another thing that did not come up in the news was how the world’s largest Sunni Muslim nation, Indonesia, dealt with advocates of ISIS, by instituting an outright ban of and a threat of revocation citizenship (see here and here). Both these examples are to give a context of the perceptions and narratives.

Who is a true Muslim? And who represents Muslims?

Malik also raises the question of the what, or rather who, is representative of Islam and Muslims in general.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

“You’re not a real Muslim.” Why? Because to be proper Muslim is, from such a perspective, to be reactionary, to find the Danish cartoons offensive. Anyone who isn’t reactionary or offended is by definition not a proper Muslim. Here leftwing “anti-racism” meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry. For many leftwing anti-racists, opposing bigotry means accepting reactionary ideas as authentically Muslim. For many rightwing bigots (and, indeed, for many leftwing bigots, too), there is something about Islam that makes it irredeemably violent, even evil, and that makes all Muslims potentially dangerous.

Here also, liberal so-called anti-racism becomes a vehicle for buttressing the most reactionary, conservative voices in Muslim communities and for marginalizing the progressive. It becomes a means of closing down debate, censoring criticism, and giving power and legitimacy to “community leaders’ spouting the most backward of views. “The controversy over the cartoons”, as Naser Khader observed, “was not about Muhammad. It was about who should represent Muslims. What I find really offensive is that journalists and politicians see the fundamentalists as the real Muslims.” Which is why many Muslims, ironically, often have more liberal views on free speech than many so-called liberal non-believers.

[...]

… The problem is also the attitudes of non-Muslim commentators, policymakers and activists, both liberals and bigots, as to what constitutes an authentic Muslim, the failure to see beyond the conservative or the reactionary as the true Muslim, the inability to distinguish between the faith of ordinary believers and the politicised use of faith for reactionary ends by power-grabbing, control-seeking individuals and organizations. The problem is also government policy, particularly in the West. Policy makers have all too often treated minority communities as if each was a distinct, homogeneous whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. They have ignored the diversity within those communities and taken the most conservative, reactionary figures to be the authentic voices.

We need to seriously deal with popular image of Muslims, among non-Muslims. Take for instance, the Shah Bano case and the Indian National Congress’s bending over backwards for reactionary and regressive Muslims. This case is very much apt to describe what Malik is trying to say. Despite the support and advocacy by several major Muslim and ex-Muslim personalities, politicians, organisations, NGOs, academics for the Supreme Court judgement, the ruling INC misused the overwhelming majority it had in the Parliament to overturn the judgement putting Muslim women at the mercy of the regressive elements within the community. Let’s also take the fact that many a times when a non-Muslim politician belonging to centrist or centre-left political party has to reach out to the Muslim electorate they would usually pay visit to some very questionable and controversial ulemas and community leaders for their campaigns, whose influence and social capital within the community itself would be very limited.

To conclude, a nuanced treatment of the subject is the need of the hour. Divorcing Islam from Islamism and Islamic terrorism is not the way to go about, but neither is looking at the phenomena of Hamas, Hezbollah, and even ISIS purely from a anti-religious and anti-theistic stand. While fighting against Islamic radicalism and fundamentalism without apology is extremely necessary, it is equally necessary to recognise and promote the efforts from within the community against the regressive elements, by recognising the diversity within the Muslim world. Doing that is neither fence-sitting nor apologism.

On Why Gandhi Is Casteist

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Today in the morning I was greeted by an article in the Open Magazine on my news feed. The article titled Arundhati Roy’s Ahistorical Fiction, was a retort to Roy’s speech for her Mahatma Ayyankali address at the University of Kerala, where she was quoted for criticising Gandhi’s “casteist tendencies“. Before I continue I must say this beforehand that I am not without problems with Roy’s work, especially with her recently published introduction to Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, but for different reasons. This post is not in defence of Roy. My problem here is with writer’s assertion of Gandhi’s anti-caste credentials.

From the time of Gautam Buddha in the 6th Century BCE, several great reformers have attempted to reduce or eliminate the injustice and inequity created by the caste system in India. They did not succeed. It was only in the 20th century that, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the people of India made the struggle against the caste system an integral part of their quest for freedom from British rule and succeeded in declaring untouchability a crime under the Constitution of the Republic of India.

The entire article is sickeningly dedicated to maintaining Gandhi’s messianic status as some kind of anti-caste revolutionary. The author makes several incorrect assertions in the article, but I will list down only some of them (or at least ones I found to be extremely disturbing).

1. Let’s begin with the paragraph quoted above. The author sweepingly declares all anti-caste movements, except that of Gandhi’s as a failure. He even went to the extent of appropriating the hard work of Ambedkar, the Constitution of India and the stringent anti-discrimination laws put in place by the Constituent Assembly, to Gandhi. The fact that Ambedkar was the chairman of the Drafting Committee and that Gandhi wasn’t even present in the Constituent Assembly, escaped the attention of the author. Furthermore, he forgets that it was because of Ambedkar’s prolonged efforts that led to the Untouchability Offences Act and the Protection of Civil Rights Act to be legislated in the year 1955, not Gandhi’s. The only thing that can be attributed to Gandhi would be that it was under his leadership that the Indian National Congress included ‘abolition of untouchability’ in its manifesto, nothing more.

The greatness of Gandhi lies in the fact that in the course of his public life, he came to realise this, and once he did, he struggled hard to break out of it. He tried to exorcise the devil. He went out of his way to serve those who were referred to as ‘untouchables’, helped them gain a measure of self-respect by calling them Harijans, the ‘children of God’.

2. He went out of his way to serve those who were referred to as ‘untouchables’… What exactly did he do? It would be pertinent here to point out that Gandhi for most of his life did not engage or endorse any anti-caste movement, including the 1927 Mahad Satyagraha, despite the fact that he was in a position to do so (he acquired the titles of Mahatma and Bapuji shortly after his return to India in 1915). It was only in the mid-20s that he began engaging publicly and politically with caste, and even when he did, he (deliberately or otherwise) confined himself with the practice of ‘untouchability’. His opinions regarding caste and intercaste marriage evolved at a very glacial pace, and I suspect it was because there was no other person other than Ambedkar who continuously challenged him and his authority. Still, we find the extremely regressive writings coming from him till the late 30s, for instance the infamous 1936 article in the Harijan The Ideal Bhangi, where he stated the work of a bhangi, which is to clean other people’s shit, as an honourable occupation,

I call scavenging as one of the most honourable occupations to which mankind is called. I don’t consider it an unclean occupation by any means. That you have to handle dirt is true. But that every mother is doing and has to do. But nobody says a mother’s occupation is unclean.

He in fact even blamed the Dalits for their own plight and dehumanising social stature, and demands that they give up their “filthy” habits.

I know many scavengers eat carrion and beef. Those who are doing this must abstain. Many of them are given to the evil habit of drink. Drink is a bad, filthy, unclean, degrading habit. A man who drinks intoxicating liquor forgets the distinction between wife, mother and sister. I would beseech you to give up all evil habits…

Some will obviously argue that his sanctification of sanitation work as “honourable” was not superficial as he himself practised it in his ashram in Sabarmati and demanded his other inmates and even his wife, much to their chagrin, to do the same. True, he did clean toilets and even made his followers and comrades do the same, and he did so as an act to demolish the basis of untouchability. But that doesn’t change the fact that he wasn’t casteist. Why?

3. Opposing untouchability does not mean opposing caste, just the way opposing slavery doesn’t necessarily mean opposition to the idea and construct of race (case in point, the racist anti-slavery crusader Abraham Lincoln). This is the biggest and the most glaring fallacy in the author’s argument, and similar arguments are made by several historians and intellectuals (you will find some of them at end of the TOI news article that I have linked above). Gandhi till the fag end of his life believed in caste (which he called varna) and advocated against intercaste marriages. He was also trenchantly and adamantly against any kind of affirmative action or separate electorate for the non-Savarnas, to the dismay of both Jinnah and Ambedkar.

But still you will find all kinds of Savarna historians, from the marxist Romila Thapar to the liberal Ramachandra Guha, defending Gandhi’s anti-caste credentials one way or the other. The reason for this is obvious. After Periyar, Gandhi (apart from Shahaji II of Kolhapur and maybe Vinayak Savarkar) is the only Savarna historical figure that came the closest to actually doing something for the Dalits. Yes, he’s the second best Savarna anti-caste “revolutionary”, but turned out to also be the most blatant casteist of the lot and the best advocate of status-quo of his time. And it is but a natural reaction for the Savarnas to hold on to his Mahatma-ness in the face of damning evidence. Any attempt at questioning Gandhi at the caste front, makes you either an attention-whore or a someone incapable of seeing the greatness of the Mahatma. Here, the Hindutvavadis have nothing worry about, and righfully so, because they still have Savarkar who with regards to his engagement with caste is far better than Gandhi.

But the progressive Savarnas need to buckle-up, because even their Goddess has now started questioning the progressive credentials in ways they did not expect.

BDSM and Burqas: an argument against the veil

 

When one thinks about BDSM, first things that come to mind are leather costumes, nipple-clamps, collar belts, whips, and so on. But believe me when I tell you that BDSM actually made me rethink my stand against ban on burqa.

I can assume that most liberal-minded (for the lack of better words) out there, even after being repulsed by the practice, would tolerate it as something confined to a private space, which is an individual’s sexuality (I sincerely hope so since I do occasionally indulge in it). What makes it so tolerable? The things that people do in the name of BDSM can be categorised as torture, slavery and even rape. There is a good amount of possibility that physical injuries will be inflicted. But there is one crucial factor that makes BDSM so radically different from torture, slavery and rape, and even tolerable for many. Consent.

But, questions arise. Why should consent sanctify something that is otherwise considered morally reprehensible? Thought experiments on consensual slavery is brought up, to drive the point home. But another crucial difference between a consensual whipping and inflicting of pain, and a hypothetical consensual slavery would be that the former allows one to retain their agency. When I enter into an agreement with a partner to be whipped or slapped, one thing is very certainly and explicitly agreed upon: I can unilaterally withdraw my consent at any point in the act, even for no reason at all. That’s why we have “safewords”. My point here is that, consent is only morally valid if the party concerned doesn’t have to give up their agency, i.e., the liberty to choose and the liberty to withdraw consent. It is such consent that differentiates (hypothetical) consensual slavery from any kind of unpaid labour, rape from sex, and BDSM from torture.

Now let me come to the Burqa and the bans instituted by France and Belgium, and reinforced by the EU court. One of the central arguments, or at least the ones I have come across, against the ban is that the right of a woman to choose to cover her face in public, even if she cites religious reasons. The big question that comes here is, while they “choose” to cover their face in public do they retain their agency? For me the answer was completely clear: No. It never has and it never will. Without a face, I’m pretty sure it’s extremely difficult for a person to assert their identity as an individual. And when that happens exercising one’s agency is very complicated. But if one assumes that a woman with her face covered can somehow retain their agency, then the assumption would entail a possiblity that the said woman can say no to the niqaab at any point? Notionally, it should, but it doesn’t. One only has to look around the world, to see that societies that doesn’t require woman to have a full face covering have very small proportion of women actually wearing the veil, and most of the time there would be external factors influencing the decisions of these women.

It is this lack of agency that one must take into account before defending the veil, no matter what you call it, burqa, niqab, jilbab, etc. But do I still support the blanket ban on face-covering by Belgium or France? I’m not sure. The anarchist in me is still reluctant to embrace it. If such a ban were introduced in India, I would have fought against it vehemently. Here I’m also considering my right to wear whatever I feel like, without having to give a reason to anybody, including the state.

A Retort to Bret Stephens

This WSJ article is making rounds declaring that “a culture that celebrates kidnapping is not fit for statehood”, referring to the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers. With an assertion that one has to ask uncomfortable questions, Bret Stephens (the author) demands to know why Palestinians condone and celebrate the violence committed by some people among them.

Two things that came to my mind while reading the article:

a. The decree that a purportedly violent culture doesn’t deserve statehood.

Whether or not the Palestinian/Muslim culture is violent is a separate question altogether, but the assertion that for statehood a nation has to be non-violent is laughable. The very fundamental of any given statehood is violence. It is in fact, described as a social community that monopolises violence.

And also look who’s talking: a person coming from a nation-state built on the legacy of mass-murder, mass-kidnapping, mass-thievery, and at least two centuries of chattel slavery. But the same is the case of every other nation-state in the world. Each has a legacy of unspeakable brutalities committed in their name, and none have actually repented or gone through “moral rehabilitation”. India, Pakistan, ChinaTurkey, almost every other Western European nations, and any nation-state you name will have its own baggage of violence.

The author cites post-war Germany as having gone through moral rehabilitation, which in itself is questionable, but one can’t help but overlook the fact that anti-semitism was neither an indigenous invention of the Germans nor was it a patented ambition of the Nazi Germany. There was a reason why Hitler, Mussolini and Franco came to power, and were allowed to do the things they did against the Jewish people. There is a reason why almost all of the European nations were keen to have them leave for Israel. And there is also a reason why most of the Jewish refugees either left for the US or were sent to Mandate Palestine. I hope Stephens do not forget that.

b. The expectations of moral integrity from Palestine, without expecting the same from the Israelis.

Are the latter not guilty of condoning everything that Israeli state has done to the Palestinians, including the virtual disenfranchisement of an entire population, occupation of Palestinian homes, killing and displacement and forced impoverishment? Or is it so that because it’s done by the military and not average Israeli citizens it becomes legitimate? Maybe I misread him but at one point it seemed like Stephens was implying that getting killed by the military is different than getting killed by average people. Such blanket absolution for sovereign state militaries is quite common. We hear it in cases like Kashmir, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. And it’s such normalising and legitimising of state violence that is problematic, because it sends out a message that violence inflicted by any powerful authority is fine and justified.

Also such high expectations put on the colonised to be peaceful and morally upright, is reminiscent of the expectations of moral integrity and non-violence that the British colonial discourse had put on the Indian anti-colonial movement, especially after the Chauri Chaura Incident of 1922.

The BJP and Bangladeshis

With a recent outbreak of ethnic violence in Assam, the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants have been raked up with every party taking a stand on immigration.

One can see parallels between the “Bangladeshi problem” of India and the “Mexican problem” of the United States, with conservatives demanding for stringent immigration laws and deportation of everyone who they deem as a illegal infiltrators on one side and the liberals and the left accusing the former of being xenophobic (“communal” in India and “racist” in the US) and of fomenting an environment of fear and paranoia.

Now, whether or not immigration laws and enforcement of such laws are fair is a different matter altogether. What I am interested in is the Hindu Right’s obsession with the Bangladeshis. A friend of mine shared an article published in the Pakistani newspaper The Dawn (Indian elections: What taking potshots at Pakistan really means)

When Giriraj Singh talks of sending all those who oppose Modi to Pakistan, he obviously does not mean the Hindus. He wants to say that if the Muslims don’t vote for the BJP, which they don’t normally, they are the enemy.

This should put in perspective how the BJP imagines a Bangladeshi to be and their distinction of a “refugee” from an “infiltrator”. It would be foolish to think that a party with a Hindutva background, a Hindu Nationalist as its Prime Ministerial candidate (whatever that means), and with clear intentions of favouring Hindu Bangladeshis over Muslims, would hold a secular and impartial view in this matter. Talking about immigration and its legality is entirely different from targeting people of a specific nationality. The latter has specific mala fide intention of targeting Muslim Bengalis in West Bengal and Assam. This fits well with the narrative of the “immigrant vote-bank” which has little substance, lots of xenophobia (which in case of Assam borders on racism) and a sprinkle of the usual fear-mongering fantasy: “they took our jobs“.

On Appropriation of Ambedkar

When Caravan published Arundhati Roy’s piece The Doctor and the Saint, I was one of those who celebrated it as the next big thing that was to emerge in the Indian academic circles. Roy’s essay constitutes the first half of Navayana’s annotated edition of Bhimrao Ambedkar’s seminal work ‘The Annihilation Of Caste’. The article, like every other work by Roy, sparked instant controversy. Almost in every controversy, and even in the sedition charge, I was one of the scores of Arundhati Roy Fans who not only argued for her right to expression but also the arguments she raised in her works. But this time, my support for Roy is only limited to her rights and liberties, and not the case she and Navayana is trying to make.

I was always of the opinion that Roy because of her activism understood very well how power works. Whether one agrees with her or not, one can not deny that her activism and her politics was always to put attention on the expendables of India. She was the one who made the following statement,

‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’

What baffles me is the most is that both Roy and S. Anand, publisher of Navayana, did not see that their action amounted to something as indecent as appropriation. Even this Scroll.in article misses the point. And so do every other privileged activists and writers.

The Dalit anger and resentment against both Roy and a Navayana is best articulated by the irreverent Anoop Kumar here at the The Round Table India (not the nationalist one).

You need Omprakash Balmiki’s Jhootan’s English version to know the caste horror. Need Fandry to get shocked. You required 60-70 years to discover Ambedkar..You also require your own high priestess to now interpret Ambedkar for you. To tell you what was right and wrong with Ambedkar. To force you to even start reading him..

How long this will go on man, just how long!

To be honest even I was of the opinion that all this resentment was highly misplaced. If for Roy reading Ambedkar’s work felt “as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows”, reading Kumar for me felt as if somebody snapped me out of the delusion that I’m blind. Blind to my privilege and the privilege of the likes of Roy and Anand.

In none of my rants I suggested that it is about her essay actually. I do not care what she has written on Ambedkar or on anything else she wrote about in her essay. My rants are about something else. My rants are about what she actually represents before us, not as a person, but as someone who gets two national magazines simultaneously to provide her ample space – to talk about her essay, about caste, about dalits, about Ambedkar – which is so cruelly denied to us, is shut for ever. Not even Ambedkar could ever breach it, till he got discovered by people like Ms Roy.

Closely related with what she represents to us is another issue of the whole politics of her introducing Ambedkar’s seminal text to the world, to upper castes, to western world as has been continuously professed by her publisher and his friends – both desis and whites- telling me in no uncertain terms that this publication is actually not meant for me, for dalits, for all those who know their Ambedkar but for upper castes who have refused to read him and for western academia who have yet to discover Ambedkar. Your introducing him will make them all to read more about Ambedkar they say.

And they are accusing me of wrongly calling you a messiah!

You are already a messiah, Ms Roy!

Declared and accepted by many, all those who actually matter in this country. It is not for nothing that national magazines provide you so much space on issues they care two hoots about. What is it if not the ardent belief of your followers on your miraculous power to make people read something that they have avoided their whole lives?

And like what happens with every messiahs, you already have very cunning followers who are quoting your messiah status for their private gains, cheating gullible masses who believe in your messiah-ness.

I am merely resisting your messiah status now being thrust on us. Just for the simple reason that it is more difficult to dislodge a messiah, a mahatma, than to create one. We spent some seven decades and enormous efforts in dislodging one, thrust on us quite forcefully, by others who also were as persuasive as you are today in claiming that it was only in our best interests.

Sangh may not make a debut in Kerala, but…

Video: Audience at ViBGYOR protest vandalism by RSS workers

400 and more. All shouting in unison “RSS GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK! GO BACK!”.

So proud to be a Malayali, right now (I can’t believe I missed out on this video for so long). The video shows the reason why the Sangh will never crack into the state, any time soon. The following is a quote from a friend.

“I do not believe in banning the RSS. It has a place. It has a place in the shadows, the last benches, the corners which the broom has missed, the gutter left neglected over the years. It is a badge of shame we didn’t clear out with the other bric a brac from the dusty attic of our past, a rabid cur we skirt past on the road, a lunatic’s abuse heard from afar and immediately forgotten. Such is the place of the RSS. And I believe it should continue to occupy its place as a constant reminder of the darkness that can envelope us if there are no lights kept burning, those of tolerance, pluralism, free speech and ever widening knowledge. No, I certainly do not believe in bans. But they should know their place and know it well. 400 people in the audience during the screening shouted “RSS go back” and back they went. Because, those 400 voices represent the true voice of this great nation.”

~ Gautam Benegal

“RSS workers stop screening of ‘Ocean of Tears’ at film festival”

But there is still much to be concerned about. The police did not arrest the vandals even though they assaulted some of the audience members. Almost a week later, we hear about police brutality against some of the ViBGYOR activists, a female filmmaker AND their female lawyer and her children, for staging “Vagina Monologues”. So while we revel at the unanimous rejection of the fascists by the audience, we should not forget that Kerala is not exactly the vacation spot for progressives and liberals. If anything it’s getting worse.

These incidents seem unusual in Kerala, a state known more for its liberal values, high literacy rates and excellent social indices. Historian J Devika believes that the attacks are a fallout of the success of Sangh Parivar members in getting Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism pulped, and are a sign of the national assertion of what she calls “Moditva”.

“These are goons, and what we see is not a rise in their intellectual confidence, but in their brazen determination to inflict violence and terrorise others,” said Devika. “Interestingly, their supporters in the police have also found it easier to hit out now, and the most vulnerable sections they can target are precisely young people who identify with the non-mainstream left.”

According to Devika and Sasi, extremist elements – with the help of the police and the media – have been trying to whip up “Islamophobia” in Kerala. Said human rights activist BRP Bhaskar, “The Modi factor is giving them more encouragement.”

Weeping for the Modern Caste-Hindu?

Jakob de Roover

Outlook recently published, on their website, Jakob de Roover’s reaction to “l’affaire Doniger”. In the article, de Roover cooks up a story to explain how the “deeply flawed” narrative of the caste system and the Hindu religion is responsible for the creation of Hindu fundamentalism.

What brings Hindu organizations to filing petitions that make them the butt of ridicule and contempt? Whence the frustration among so many Indians about the way their culture is depicted? Why is this battle not fought out in the free intellectual debate so typical of India in the past?

S. N. Balagangadhara

Nevermind the fact that the inspiration of this story is S. N. Balagangadhara, the Ghent University professor and beacon of caste-Hindu privilege blindness and arrogance (“how can we conclude from just 38 murders that caste discrimination exists in India?”), the story even in its isolation stands as a shining example of caste privilege apologia.

What comforts me is the prompt responses it received from Nivedita Menon (first published by Kafila and later by Outlook) and Prashant Keshavmurthy of McGill University.

The following is from Nivedita Menon’s article,

So let us imagine another growing child— not De Roover’s boy, but his sister. She hears (and retains) some other stories that the boy chooses to forget or ignores —the cruel slashing of Surpanakha’s nose for her merely expressing desire for a young handsome man, the even more cruel abandonment of pregnant Sita, the Lakshman Rekha that she is called upon to observe every single day of her twentieth century life—imagine her excitement when on growing up and entering the world of scholarship, she comes across Indian feminist scholarship that attacks both Western Orientalist critiques of Hinduism as well as nationalist responses that reconstruct a Golden Age before “Muslim invasions”—for instance, Uma Chakravarty’s critique of the ‘Altekerian Paradigm’. Or Iravati Karve’s Yuganta. Or Nabaneeta Deb Sen’s account of women’s Ramayanas in which Rama is a far cry from the ideal man. Village women sing “Ram, tomar buddhi hoilo nash’. Oh Ram, you have lost your mind. Molla, a Shudra woman in the 16th century wrote a perfect classical Ramayana, which the Brahmins did not allow to be read in the royal court. Chandrabati’s version that told the Ramayana from Sita’s point of view was criticized as a weak and incomplete text by the same arbiters of taste and morality.

Imagine this young woman trying to engage her sulky brother in dialogue as he rants about the denigration of Hinduism. Imagine the absolute lack of empathy from his side as he fulminates…

Imagine after this, the daughter of the Dalit woman who cleans the toilets of that young Hindu boy’s home. Imagine her excitement at learning, if she ever reached school, that one BR Ambedkar had torn apart the entire foundation of the religion so celebrated by the boy and his family. Or that Ranganayakamma had written a book called Ramayana The Poisonous Tree, saying we should reject it because it supports the powerful against the powerless. Or that EV Ramasami had deconstructed the story of the killing of Shambuka by Rama for daring to recite the Scriptures despite being a Shudra.

Imagine the fact that this girl would literally have been invisible to the sulky boy as the household spun silently around him on the labour of women and lower castes, as he prepared to go to America ‘for a few years.’

For De Roover and his ‘Hindu gentleman’, sexuality is not the problem, mention of caste discrimination is. By putting Christian distaste for both sexuality and caste in the same basket, De Roover is able to suggest that both critiques are tainted. But of course, some of us may want to take a more nuanced position, celebrating sexuality and attacking caste oppression, even if critique of the latter comes exclusively from ‘the West’, which of course, it does not.

And this one is by Prashant Keshavmurthy,

One doesn’t have to have read the theorist of post-colonial identity, Edward Said, to expect a modicum of reflexivity in the use of such categories of identity. Nor does one have to be familiar with the English poetry (that adapted an American Modernist minimalism by discovering its elective affinities with ancient Tamil poetry) and scholarship (bringing European Folklore Studies and semiotics to bear on pre-modern Tamil and Kannada literatures) of the founder of South Asian Studies in the University of Chicago, A.K. Ramanujan, to expect a minimum of intellectual sophistication in not simplistically equating ethnicity with scholarly identity. So much for shallowness and theoretical poverty.

In the end I’d like to say that, de Roover’s Hindu Boy is not a fictional character, but a real one. I see him in my family, in my father, my cousins, neighbours, roommates, friends, on the social network, everywhere. He definitely exists and he is someone to be wary of, since avoiding him is not an option in India right now.

On Comparing Tragedies and Responsibilities I

“Don’t worry, christianity harmed and killed just as much people and destroyed properties. Or maybe more?”

“That’s nothing. Christians can do twice as much in half the time. next time, call a marine.”

“Why don’t you mention what the Christians are doing?”

These are some of the comments that a post on The Paleolibrarian Page on FB, regarding the recent attack by the Islamist organisation Boko Haram in Bama, Nigeria, had attracted. These comments made me think about two things.

a. How justified are we in comparing tragedies?

and,

b. Is the responsibility collective in cases of such deadly sectarian violence? How de we know?

In the case of (a) I would first like to assert that there are two kinds of comparisons: one that compares the gravity of each tragedy and the other with an intention to bring in some commonality in human suffering and make one tragedy a part of a collective human tragedy.

The first kind of comparison is more disconcerting to me as I find it to be an exercise in dehumanising of the victims of a tragedy. When one compares tragedies and crimes (especially crimes against humanity) it almost always is with an underlying intent to trivialise the suffering of the victims, and includes overtones of victim blaming and a self-defeating whataboutery and buck passing. This comparing of tragedies is very common in India and those of us taking a stand for secularism and justice, are more often than not faced with such horrendous questions as “What about 1984?” or “What about the Kashmiri Pandits?” or “What about the hungry children?” (this one was specifically asked to me by many different people, whenever I brought up Section 377 after the Supreme Court verdict). The comments on FB quoted above are very similar to such “what about” questions. The difference, is that a “what about” question is bigotry under the pretense of humanitarian concerns, while the quotes are assertions (possibly stemming from an urge for political correctness or misplaced priorities). Comparisons and pitting of tragedies and crimes against one another does nothing but justify violence, yet people resort to such hypocrisy. Why?

Mind that such comparisons do not come from the victims or even objective observers, but from people with specific political ideals to follow and cases to make. Those people who want a clean conscience even if they make an irrational argument. Take the hungry children question, for instance. It was first thrown at me by a pro-Modi and pro-BJP atheist. His contention was that there are more important things to worry about, than LGBT rights. And hence I should worry more about the poor and “hungry children”.

Nevermind the fact that he was dictating me on what to and what not to worry about, his entire argument ignored the possibility that there might be gay or genderqueer children that are poor and hungry as well. The reason I feel why he maintained his stand was possibly because of the then recent decision of his favourite party to remain homophobic.

Comparing tragedies involve a whole lot of omissions. Comparing criminalised sexuality with malnutrition takes a whole of lot of bigotry and privilege blindness, and a deliberate disconnect from reality, and it is the same for every other comparisons.