‘Hindu radicalisation the lethal challenge’

Interview with Irfan Ahmad, political anthropologist.

Published : Jun 26, 2022 18:00 IST

PROF. Irfan Ahmad is a political anthropologist with a broad range of theoretical and ethnographic interests in research, teaching, writing, and speaking. Currently a professor of Anthropology-Sociology, Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul, he was previously a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany. Before that, he worked as an associate professor of political anthropology at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, and a senior lecturer in politics at Monash University, also in Melbourne, where he taught for five years (2009–13). Before moving to Australia, he taught at Utrecht University, Netherlands, and the University of Amsterdam. In this email interview, he speaks of Muslim backwardness, radicalisation, and similar shibboleths in vogue today and why he believes “the Hindu question” must be addressed before “the Muslim question” can be solved.

Do you think Muslim youth in India are being radicalised? And if so, what is the genesis of this process and the role of the Jamaat-e-Islami (formed in 1941) in this?

The word radical is ill understood and hugely politicised, especially after the 9/11 [ terror attacks against the US in 2001] when the West tied it to Muslims. The Indian media copied their Western counterparts. In this usage, radicalisation is a word of abuse: a combat concept! It means that as a faith Islam is violent, backward, and hostile to modernity, democracy, etc. However, when [used in the context of] … figures like Gandhi, radical becomes positive. For instance, to author Mira Kamdar, Gandhi is “one of the most radical thinkers… who ever lived”. Radical in this sense is also used for thinkers like Judith Butler and Jacques Derrida, whose books are published by the British publisher Verso in a series named “Radical Thinkers”.

In my first book on the Jamaat-e-Islami (Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami, Princeton University Press, 2009), I argued that “whether or not and how much the movement activists in a given polity will become moderate or militant depends not only on their own desire but equally on the state’s willingness to change as well as the contours of the state’s structure”. Twelve years later, I see no reason to revise my argument. In fact, the lethal challenge India faces is Hindu radicalisation. Is not the open call for genocidal violence against Muslims by Hindu ascetics in a Dharam Sansad in Haridwar (in 2021) a sign of Hindu radicalisation? Hindu radicalisation is a real threat precisely because it has the backing of the state, influential politicians, and even parts of the judiciary.

The demolition of the Babri Masjid is said to be the catalyst for Muslim insecurity and Islamic extremism in India. What is your view?

Certainly, the planned destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 increased insecurity. But this does not mean Muslims were secure before. A series of anti-Muslim pogroms occurred well before 1992: in Moradabad (1980), Nellie (1983), Hashimpura (1987), and Bhagalpur (1989). I am consciously calling them pogroms, not riots. The Bhagalpur pogrom continued for two months. For something to continue for months requires meticulous organisation and, notably, approval from or inaction of the administration.

The insecurity Muslims face today has many aspects: what they can eat; how Muslim women should dress, how they can walk and conduct themselves in public spaces; whether or not Muslims should sport a beard or wear skullcaps. These were also present before 1992, during the so-called secular era of [Jawaharlal] Nehru. Clearly, their scale and ferocity were not what we see today.

To understand everyday insecurity, we must examine state policy and practice. We have many myths about Nehru as a secular, agnostic, rational person radiant with scientific temperament. But Nehru made no attempt to make India constitutionally secular. The word “secular” was inserted into the Constitution long after Nehru’s death. Importantly, if Nehru was secular, why did he take no action against those who, in 1949, illegally installed Hindu idols inside the Babri Masjid? Why, in 1950, did Nehru indirectly support the building of the Somnath temple? Nehru’s Hindu majoritarian impulse was also amply manifest in the 1950 presidential ordinance, which disallowed reservation benefits to Dalits if they embraced Christianity or Islam.

As for the post-1992 insecurity catalysing Islamic extremism, I have already argued that we cannot grasp it without accounting for the fact that the Indian polity in general—not simply this or that party—took a radical Hindu turn and Islamophobia became its axis. This is not to ignore the question of caste, especially the Mandal issue and the rise of V.P. Singh, Lalu Yadav, or Mayawati. Currently, many leaders as well as much of the social base of these very caste groups have differently joined the nationalist Islamophobia.

In Kerala, the Jamaat-e-Islami has a wide media network, including the print media. Its interventions often appear to be progressive in nature, but are they really?

There is no evidence to suggest that the Jamaat-e-Islami’s interventions are not “really” progressive. We should judge an organisation on the basis of its practices rather than on intention, which some may doubt. The Jamaat and its affiliates in Kerala have stood for many progressive causes and campaigned against Coca-Cola, “development” schemes targeting tribal people, and ecological degradation. The expectation from the Jamaat to be progressive will be moral if there is a simultaneous expectation from the larger political environment, of which the Jamaat is only one constituent, to be also progressive and anti-Islamophobic.

Is it not curious that almost nobody doubts the RSS’ commitment to the tricolour despite the fact that until the [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee era, the RSS never hoisted it, and the outfit instead firmly believes in a parallel bhagva jhanda (saffron flag)?

What about Indian Muslims and electoral politics?

After Partition, there was no new Muslim party. In fact, a Congress stalwart like Abul Kalam Azad, who had served as Congress president twice, advised, not out of his sovereign will, Muslims to shun politics. In Uttar Pradesh, the first Muslim party appeared only in the late 1960s. Disenchanted with the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal, which refused to take Muslim issues seriously, Jaleel Faridi, a medical doctor, formed the Muslim Majlis. The peak of its success was winning two seats in the [1977 Uttar Pradesh] Assembly election. Of course, the Muslim League existed in Uttar Pradesh, but unlike in Kerala, it barely had an impact. In 2008, Mohamad Ayyub, also a medical doctor, formed the Peace Party of India. In the 2012 Assembly election, it won four seats. In 2017, it won none. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) was historically limited to Hyderabad. Now, it is expanding to Bihar, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh. Its electoral impact is severely limited so far. Thus, whatever Muslim parties exist now, they are mostly spectators, not game changers or even game influencers.

To assume that a well-articulated agenda common to all Muslim parties exists seems inaccurate. However, what appears common is concern about the educational and sociopolitical empowerment of Muslims, who are grossly under-represented in every key domain of life. For much of its history after Independence, the Congress party mostly paid lip service to problems specific to Muslims. With one noticeable exception. After the 2006 Sachar Committee Report, the Congress government took some steps to address the issues. However, these did not prove quite effective. After its defeat in 2014, an internal review by the party concluded that its “minority- appeasement policy” contributed to its defeat. It has since not mentioned the word “Sachar” or “secular”. Instead, the Congress is busy proving that it is more pro-Hindu than the BJP.

““Whatever Muslim parties exist now, they are mostly spectators, not game changers or even game influencers.””Irfan Ahmad

The Union government shut down the MediaOne TV channel of the Jamaat-e-Isami on the premise that its functioning was undermining national security. The Kerala High Court refused to lift the ban. How do you read this move from the government and the judiciary?

The ban on MediaOne TV is arbitrary and undemocratic. The reason why the government targeted MediaOne is simple. It is largely independent and has resisted being the yes-man of the regnant power. This is how the media ought to work vis-à-vis any regime, whether the BJP, the Congress, or the “socialists” like Nitish Kumar.

The Kerala High Court endorsing the ban is, of course, disappointing. This is exactly why I argued earlier that we will not have a bright, humane tomorrow unless a radical transformation of and in the polity occurs.

Do you think Indian Muslims should support the proposed Uniform Civil Code (UCC)?

This question should be posed not to Muslims alone but to all communities, including Hindus and the many tribal communities. In a diverse country, to formulate a UCC is not easy. If the motive is to ensure gender equality while respecting cultural diversity, a non-coercive climate of discussion should be forged first to work towards that goal. Even here, we still do not have clarity over what exactly is the standard or principle that will constitute uniformity. However, if the premise is that unity entails uniformity, then the move is deadly. Based on this logic, we should likewise have uniformity in languages, customs, culinary practices, religions, and so on. This notion of uniformity emanates from the logic of nationalism according to which homogeneity is its precondition and purity its goal.

What amazes me is that advocates of the UCC never talk about a uniform health care system. Why do we have a chain of five-star hospitals for the super-rich but no solid health care infrastructure in most rural parts of India?

Do you not think that the Indian Muslim community should review its strategies given the changing national scenario? What do you think would be the cost of not adapting to the new situation?

No sensible person or community opposes change or adaptation. The crucial question is this: is the “national scenario”, to which Muslims are being advised to adjust, based on justice, fairness, equality, and pluralism, the core of any genuine democracy? Does “the changing situation in India” represent their hopes and traditions? If it does not, then the advice of adjustment is unfair because a polity that does not represent their traditions, aspirations, and well-being is not a democracy in the first place. Consent and participation in power, not coercion and expulsion from power-sharing, mark democratic Weltanschauung.

What is responsible for the overall backwardness of the Muslim community?

Before I come to the factors responsible for the backwardness of Muslims, consider the explanations for the backwardness of Adivasis and Dalits, which is rarely attributed to their culture or religion. The variables enumerated instead are economic, sociopolitical, and governmental.

In contrast, the backwardness of Muslims is traced to religion or “introversion of Muslims”, a phrase used by the anthropologist Thomas Blom Hansen. This is similar to what Mahmood Mamdani calls “culture talk”. For instance, in Islam and the Muslims of India (2008), S.S. Gill identified “theological obstacles to modernity” as a key problem Muslims must overcome. Similarly, in Indian Muslims in a Whirlpool (2008), Ramashray Upadhyay maintains that Muslims are steeped in “medieval slumber”. In the preface to Upadhya’s book, Jagmohan, a former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, repeats the same line of thinking. The sociologist N. Jayaram holds a largely similar position. Clearly, this position is dominant but not original; it is lifted from the colonialism-inspired Orientalist knowledge of Islam.

We, therefore, need to think why one standard of explanation is used for the backwardness of Adivasis and Dalits and quite another for Muslims. Are not these explanations themselves political, far removed from “facts” on the ground?

My own position is that, as in the case of Adivasis and Dalits, there are both internal and external factors. But the external ones outweigh the internal ones. For instance, recurring pogroms causing massive destruction to sources of livelihood, properties, educational institutions, and businesses push Muslims backward such that it takes a generation or more to get back to where they were.

““‘The Muslim question’ is’“the Hindu question’ in the same way ‘the Jewish question’ was primarily ‘the Christian question” in Europe.” ”Irfan Ahmad

Is there any ground for assuming that madrasa education perpetuates Muslim exclusivity and inclination towards religious fundamentalism, if not extremism? Do you favour the modernisation of Madrasa education?

To your first question, my response is: there is none.

There are many problems in the madrasa system that require reforms. For instance, its infrastructure is outdated and teacher salaries abysmally low. More urgent is the issue of how many madrasa graduates get employment in private or government sectors. The notion that madrasas teach fundamentalism or extremism is copied from Western Orientalism. It is important to ask, even if rhetorically, which madrasa the Hindu ascetics in Haridwar who called for genocidal violence against Muslims studied in?

As for “modernisation” of madrasas, it is welcome. But we must ask who is asking for reforms and for what goals? In my view, there is a need to modernise government and private university systems too. But why is nobody talking about it? Similarly, why is there no demand to modernise gurukuls, Vedic schools, etc.? It is instructive to note that the demand to modernise madrasas figured prominently in the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto.

If you were to suggest five guidelines to the Muslim community on equipping itself to face the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow, what would they be?

I will suggest only four.

First, the conversation we are having pertains to what in colonial India was called “the Muslim question”. However, when examined closely, “the Muslim question” is in fact “the Hindu question” in the same way “the Jewish question” (on which Karl Marx too wrote) was primarily “the Christian question” in Europe, and “the woman question” during India’s independence campaign was actually “the man question”. Opposed to the education of both untouchables and girls, Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw educating girls as “de-womanising” them. So, the first critical step to address the challenges Muslims face is to abolish the “the Hindu question” of which “the Muslim question” is an upshot. Without its abolition—a major task, indeed—there can be no genuine way forward for the betterment of Muslims’ condition.

Second, the choices Muslims have, or rather, they are left with, are few. Those choices will bear fruit only when the polity of which they are a part but from which they have been effectively set apart is sincere [about letting] … them pursue their choices. So, the second step is the necessity of the polity to let Muslims make undictated choices. Clearly, these choices should reflect the diversity of their lives in different parts of India—a diversity in tune with their religious traditions and in which boring questions like Indian first or Muslim first do not even arise.

Third, there is a crying need to purge the political system of xenophobic nationalism, much of which revolves, inter alia, around the othering of Muslims.

Fourth, Muslims must focus on educating current and future generations. By education, I do not mean getting degrees but also political education. It is indispensable to harness an awareness about the Constitution, about civil and citizen rights, and to make alliances with individuals and groups committed to similar causes. For this to be effective, an adequate share and participation in legislative bodies and in the economy is essential. In politically educating themselves, Muslims should get help from non-Muslims wedded to justice, equality, freedom, and beauty. Once equipped, they must help other marginalised groups—beyond their creedal, ethnic, or caste affiliation—acquire this education.

Without corresponding solidarities and camaraderie, the promise of democracy may well turn into its sheer opposite. My hope is that the awful all around us will not vanquish that which is beautiful but nearly absent from much of public life.

Abhish K. Bose is a journalist based in Kerala.

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