Through a different lens

Print edition : May 12, 2017

At a relief camp for Muzaffarnagar riot victims at Malakpur village in Shamli district, Uttar Pradesh, in August 2014. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The book delineates the picture of growing Hindutva hegemony and the othering of the 184 million Muslims in India.

“THE kind of political questions raised by Orientalism, then, are as follows: What other sorts of intellectual, aesthetic, scholarly, and cultural energies went into the making of an imperialist tradition like the Orientalist one? How did philology, lexicography, history, biology, political and economic theory, novel-writing, and lyric poetry come to the service of Orientalism’s broadly imperialist view of the world? What changes, modulations, refinements, even revolutions take place within Orientalism? What is the meaning of originality, of continuity, of individuality, in this context? How does Orientalism transmit or reproduce itself from one epoch to another? In fine, how can we treat the cultural, historical phenomenon of Orientalism as a kind of willed human work—not of mere, unconditioned ratiocination—in all its historical complexity, detail, and worth without at the same time losing sight of the alliance between cultural work, political tendencies, the state, and the specific realities of domination? Governed by such concerns a humanistic study can responsibly address itself to politics and culture. But this is not to say that such a study establishes a hard-and-fast rule about the relationship between knowledge and politics. My argument is that each humanistic investigation must formulate the nature of that connection in the specific context of the study, the subject utter, and its historical circumstances.”—Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1978.

The Palestinian scholar Edward Said’s seminal work on “how the West created an image of the East as the ‘backward and regressive Other’” and employed and exploited that image to advance “the supremacist ideology of imperialism” is premised on addressing and drawing from multifarious streams and disciplines of life and knowledge. Saeed Naqvi’s Being the Other: The Muslim in India is evidently inspired by Said’s masterly socio-political-cultural exploration while training its focus on historical and contemporary India. The attestation of “otherness” in the title is elaborated upon in the introductory chapter itself as follows: “The Oxford Dictionary defines the ‘Other’ as ‘that which is distinct from, different from, or opposite to something or oneself’. In the late twentieth century, the Palestinian scholar Edward Said analysed this phenomenon. From this issued his seminal work, Orientalism, on the ‘affiliation of knowledge and power’. This is how the West created an image of the East as the ‘Other’. The supremacist ideology of imperialism is structured on this platform. Looked at through this lens, it helps us see how, in India, an entire community (the Muslim), which comprises over 14 per cent of the total population, has come to be seen as the Other, as something exotic, backward, uncivilised, even dangerous.” Said’s iteration on the broad approach to be followed for each specific study on the connection between knowledge and power gets reflected in the multiple dimensions pursued by Naqvi in Being the Other.

However, it is not a comprehensive academic treatise that Naqvi advances here. It is essentially the work of a journalist who has a deep and expansive understanding of life situations, ideas, and social, political and cultural practices that he encountered. Naqvi lays himself bare on his approach as follows: “When I began writing this book I intended it to be a memoir. However, in its final form, a part of it is a procession of images, ‘scratches on my mind’. The rest of it comprises my observations and eyewitness accounts of various seminal events in contemporary Indian history that have had a bearing on Muslims. Being the Other is also a lament for the vanished syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture, especially in that crucible of tolerance, the qasbah of Mustafabad near Lucknow, where I grew up.”

Three broad narrative strands could be made out if one were to classify this collage of experiences and precepts. A stream of discerning political observation is one of these key narratives. Another one is at the level of elucidations on an evolving social and cultural life, spanning a few decades on either side of India’s year of Independence, 1947. These two narrative streams are interspersed with impressionistic vignettes from all walks of life and society, which are anecdotal and edifying. Put together, these three narratives give brief and unique glimpses into facets of history, political and economic affairs praxis, lifestyle, arts, and literature. And, in keeping with Said’s Orientalism-based approach, these narratives cumulatively delineate the picture of growing Hindutva hegemony and the othering of the 184 million Muslims in India.

This multidimensional approach is embellished by Naqvi’s individual status as a leading Indian journalist over the last four and a half decades. He has indeed been a significant presence in the print and electronic media, interviewing world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro and contributing to the national and international media, including BBC News, The Sunday Observer, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, and The Indian Express.

Belied promise

Evidently, he was the product of a time when the othering of Muslims had not become as visible or pronounced as it is today. Naqvi places himself as follows: “I have had an eventful life, rich with experiences gleaned from this country and a hundred other countries. In that sense, I am the ‘other’ within the Other. I was fortunate in that the liberal, secular outlook gifted to me by my environment turned out to my advantage. In 1966, Pran Chopra, the first Indian editor of The Statesman, and the paper’s political correspondent, Inder Malhotra, sent me as special correspondent to Jaipur when I was still in my twenties. They were not Hindus with marks on their forehead; I was not a Muslim wearing the elder brother’s outsized shirt and the younger brother’s pyjamas that dangled above the ankles. We grew out of different faiths but had a common social meeting ground. This was the early promise of Nehruvianism. It was soon to be belied.”

The narrative of political observation unravels several facets of history that are seemingly deliberately under-discussed. Naqvi points out that while it was the British who were the first to exploit the divisions between the Hindu and Muslim communities during the days of the Raj and in the run-up to Independence, later some of India’s greatest leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, persisted with the same approach and at some levels exacerbated them.

The part that discusses the politics of Partition is particularly biting. It underscores that even Gandhi ji betrayed the faith of two firm anti-partitionists, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Badshah Khan. Naqvi highlights the fact that Azad saw Gandhi as the last hope to prevent partition and how his persuasions evoked an assurance from Gandhi that partition would take place only “over my dead body”. But this assurance, evidently, was betrayed. Not just that. Naqvi says that it was Gandhi who suggested that Azad need not be accommodated in the Cabinet. Being the Other quotes Gandhi’s letter to Nehru as follows: “There are many positions he [Azad] can occupy in public life without any harm to any cause. Sardar is decidedly against his membership in Cabinet and so is Rajkumari [Amrit Kaur]…. It should not be difficult to name any other Muslim….” Citing this, Naqvi asks: “Gandhiji is quite clear. All that Nehru needs to keep up the secular pretence is to have a token Muslim in the Cabinet. How different is this tokenism from the one in vogue all the years since 1947?”

Being the Other argues that the Partition story is incomplete and a lot more new material has to be incorporated, including the Transfer of Power papers published in Britain in 1983, to get a complete picture of what actually transpired. Naqvi notes that two years after the Transfer of Power papers were published, the Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal established in her Cambridge dissertation, “The Sole Spokesman”, that “it was the Congress which insisted on Partition. It was Jinnah who was against Partition.”

The author also points to a widespread perception that the call for partition was a bargaining ploy whereby Jinnah hoped to strike a better deal for Muslims in a united India. “But partnership with Muslims would have made it impossible for the Congress to achieve what Maulana Azad described as ‘unadulterated Hindu Raj’. Partition, in a way, was the gift the Congress gave to the Hindu Right, which, in the fullness of time, is today’s Hindutva.”

Hindutva hegemony

The book portrays this stream of Hindutva hegemony that arose even as India attained Independence, gathering momentum in the last seven decades through several occurrences such as the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the Gujarat genocide of 2002 and the Muzaffarnagar communal rampage of 2013-14. Being the Other lists Partition and the demolition of the Babri Masjid as significant happenings that widened the divide. Naqvi also points out that the political climate in the immediate South Asian neighbourhood created by the serial violence in Kashmir has also added to the othering of the Muslim. All this is further aggravated, by the so-called global war on terror, which seeks to portray, by design or by accident, almost every Muslim as a terrorist.

This context, the book observes, has resulted in the unambiguous hegemony of Hindutva over political, social and cultural spaces in the country. In the context of the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous State, where the political forces of Hindutva led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power without naming even a single Muslim candidate, this exposition of historical factors relating to the othering of the principal minority community is indeed worth debating. If the Uttar Pradesh election results and the anointment of an aggressive Hindutva warrior, Yogi Adityanath, as the Chief Minister are significant milestones in this march of social and political hegemony, other milestones along the path are the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq at Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) over allegations of storing beef, the cancellation of Pakistani ghazal singer Ghulam Ali’s concert, and the vilification of several Muslim writers and other cultural activists for a perceived lesser degree of patriotism.

Amidst this riveting narrative of political observation, Naqvi looks rather wistfully at his childhood and youth and at the culturally syncretic life of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb he enjoyed during those periods. He cites lyrical poetry exemplifying cultural syncretism to the core as follows: “These days people are ignorant of the eighteenth-century poet Nazir Akbarabadi’s poem, Kya kya likhoon main Krishna Kanhaiya ka baalpan (How should I write about the beautiful childhood of Lord Krishna), or Mohsin Kakorvi’s Samte Kashi se chala janibe Mathura badal, jab talak Braj mein Kanhaiya hai yeh khulne ka nahin (The clouds are moving ecstatically from Kashi to Mathura and the sky will remain covered with dense clouds as long as there is Krishna in Braj). These lines about Lord Krishna were written by a Muslim poet to celebrate not Krishna’s birthday but that of Prophet Muhammad! We were creatures of the Urdu composite culture. The label is self-explanatory. It carried the lilt of Brajbhasha, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, the flavour of life in the stretch between two great rivers which enclose the spaces where the legend of Radha, Krishna and Rama lived.”

The nostalgia and the craving for the “good old times” manifests at times in Being the Other as a decisive predilection for an elite, upper crest (upper caste) Shia Muslim ethos as a creator and cementer of social and communal harmony. This is clearly a limitation in Naqvi’s composite perception even as he makes a forceful presentation on the othering of Muslims in India. In spite of this limitation, this mixture of political observation, social-cultural vignettes and personal anecdotes marks an important document for debate, which in turn could become part of the several guidelines for possible social and political action.

Naqvi says that “when the reader has finished reading the book, I hope he or she will have gained a measure of understanding of what is being lost to communalism. Muslims aren’t the only ones who will lose, every Indian will. It doesn’t matter if you are Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jain or atheist—a country divided by sectarianism or shaped along communal lines will no longer be India. It will be a different country, a retrograde nation ruled by belief, superstition and authoritarian impulses, a replica of failed states and religious dictatorships around the world where tyranny has displaced democracy, human rights, justice and liberty for all.”