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Anecdotes, Fragments and Uncertainties of Evidence

http://www.epw.org.in/showArticles.php?root=2003&leaf=10&filename=6342&filetype=html

EPW Special Article



Muslims and Others



Anecdotes, Fragments and Uncertainties of Evidence



Against the intensified communalisation of civil society and the emergence of new modes of racism in contemporary India, this essay juxtaposes different histories of the Other through critical insights into the construction and demonisation of the Indian Muslim, along with subaltern performers and indigenous people, among other minorities. Working through anecdotes and fragments, bits and pieces of history, and the backstage life of theatre, this disjunctive discourse on the Other attempts to trouble liberal assumptions of cultural identity by calling attention to the uncertainties of evidence by which ethnic identities are politicised in diverse ways. While critiquing the exclusionary mode of 'othering' minorities, the essay also calls attention to more internalised modes of disidentification and the double-edged benefits of political identity for the underprivileged and dispossessed, whose own assertions of the self invariably complicate official identitarian constructions.

Rustom Bharucha



Anecdote brings things closer to us in space, allows them to enter into our lives. Anecdote represents the extreme opposite of history – which demands an ‘empathy’ that renders everything abstract. Empathy amounts to the same thing as reading newspapers. The true method of making things present is: to imagine them in our space (and not to imagine ourselves in their space). Only anecdote can move us in this direction.

Walter Benjamin – The Arcades Project

Passing as a Muslim



In the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, which precipitated the worst riots since the Partition, I remember having a conversation with an Indian publisher that was sparked, unexpectedly, by my beard. The publisher looked at my beard, sniggered, and then remarked, somewhat derisively: ‘You must be an intellectual.’ I didn’t quite know how to respond to his sarcasm, so I said the first thing that came to my mind: ‘Actually I’ve been mistaken for a terrorist.’ To which the publisher responded without batting an eyelid: ‘It’s a good thing you haven’t been mistaken for a Muslim.’

This essay does not deal with performance as such, but with the performativity of everyday life, as articulated through such conversations. It is the fragment rather than the fully embodied narrative that concerns me here – bits and pieces of history, census reports, the backstage life of theatre, and anecdotes, which, as Walter Benjamin has reminded us, ‘bring things closer to us in space, allow them to enter into our lives.’ With this insight in mind, let us return to the conversation mentioned earlier.

Clearly, there is something deadly about its slippage of categories by which an ‘intellectual’ metamorphoses into a ‘Muslim’ via the mediation of a ‘terrorist’. Would it be any less deadly if we had to juggle the categories around – intellectual Muslim terrorist, terrorist intellectual Muslim, Muslim terrorist intellectual? These combinations are deadly in their own right, held together by the ‘communal unconscious’, which mutates in a state of secretion, even as riots subside, and things appear to return to normal. In actuality, nothing is normal these days. Indeed, would I be in a position today to acknowledge my resemblance with a terrorist, which is what I am made to feel every time I stand in front of an immigration counter? Perhaps not. Today I would be a lot more wary about making this equation, even in jest, not least because the possibilities of my actually being mistaken for a terrorist have increased. It’s dangerous passing as a Muslim these days; it’s even more dangerous to flaunt one’s affinities to a terrorist.

At a performative level, how does one read the situation of an intellectual ‘passing’ as a terrorist/ Muslim? First of all, one needs to differentiate the act of ‘passing’ for someone else from the more conscious subterfuge involved in ‘enacting’ the roles of an impostor, an impersonator, or an infiltrator. These roles are consciously strategised, even as their functions are rigorously concealed. After all, what kind of an impostor/impersonator/infiltrator would one be if one allowed one’s ‘true’ identity to be revealed through the camouflage of pretence?1  When one ‘passes’ for somebody else, however, the pretence is not voluntary – indeed, one may not necessarily want to pass as ‘Muslim’ or ‘terrorist’, but that is how one will be read within the larger codes and technologies of identification manufactured by governmental regimes and surveillance systems.

‘Passing’, therefore, operates like an unconscious reflex in the unscripted narrative of everyday life, until the sheer repetition of being mistaken for someone else compels one to confront specific signs in one’s physiognomy, gesturality, and behaviour that denote another identity. At this moment of reckoning, one may, of course, either choose to continue ‘passing’ for what one is not, or one could work against the signs of being mistaken for another. While the temptation to perpetuate a counterfeit identity has subversive potentiality, the imperative to survive on one’s own terms demands certain risk-free alterations in behaviour and appearance – for instance, one way of not being mistaken for a Muslim could be to shave off one’s beard.

The dynamics of ‘passing’ can be most easily read within the narrative of mistaken identity, which is perhaps one of the most ancient tropes of world theatre, as dramatised in Roman comedy, Shakespeare, Parsi theatre, The Importance of Being Earnest, and so on. Once provocative, these tropes have assumed the reassurance of archaisms: an object (a perambulator) or a sign (a mole on a cheek) facilitates the clarification of a lost heritage or genealogy, leading to a denouement. In contrast, there is no such resolution embedded in the dominant sign of the beard. This sign is not about marking an individual identity per se, but of annexing this identity to that of an entire community, if not a species. Once marked, ‘the Muslim’assumes a hyper-real significance, regardless of whether or not it is linked to a mistaken or real identity. A transcendental signifier, it assumes omnipresence, ruthlessly indifferent to the multitudinous realities of the signified.

As Osama bin Laden gets invisibilised, even as his spectre is kept alive, if only to justify the continued ‘war on terror’, how many of us remember the process of his demonisation which has now been normalised? For me, this demonisation was linked, at physical and visceral levels, to the marking of his beard. Most chillingly, I was made to confront this beard in a David Levine cartoon in the New York Review of Books, where it was rendered with liberal insouciance and wit as bin Laden was blithely defaced. All that remained of him was a long, straggling, greying, unkempt beard, cut just above the lower lip. A brutal framing, which brought to mind other such framings of minorities –notably, the black man as represented in Mapplethorpe’s widely circulated image of the ‘Man in a Polyester Suit’. Here, too, the man is defaced, cut above the shoulders, but with his penis exposed, firmly intact. While there have been many responses to this image, ranging from critiques of racism to fantasies of homosexual desire, it exemplifies, to my mind, Frantz Fanon’s uninflected injunction: ‘One is no longer aware of the Negro but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis.’2 Likewise, ‘the Muslim’, in the hate literature circulating around his unclean body, polygamy, and lasciviousness, is often equated with a circumcised penis; indeed, in actual acts of terrorism inflicted on minorities, it provides the ultimate evidence of ‘Muslim’ identity. ‘Laandya’: the Marathi word for an animal with its tail cut off, is one of the abusive epithets that have been hurled at Muslims in the post-Ayodhya communal crisis in India.

If the physical identifications of Muslims in the xenophobic backlash to ‘September 11’ coexist with the most terrifying misidentifications – turbaned Sikhs (Osama look-alikes) have been beaten up and killed on grounds of suspicion – it is because the epistemology of ‘the Muslim’ has solidified at global levels in the larger context of terrorism. Arguably, the Muslim today is an alibi for a ‘terrorist.’ Or else, within the even more insidious language of communal equivocation: ‘All Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim’ – the comment made by the infamous chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, on Star TV, shortly before he masterminded and legitimised the riots in Gujarat. (Riots that have been widely condemned by citizens’ committees and human rights tribunals in India as an instance of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing.) Not only is Modi’s communal logic devious, based on manufactured lies and a refusal to engage with the intransigence of defining a ‘terrorist’ in the first place, it doesn’t begin to acknowledge the variability and vast spectrum of social and cultural difference represented by Muslims in India today. By the diktat of Hindutva, they can only be one.

The Indian Muslim



Indeed, how does one begin to justify the homogenisation of the ‘Indian Muslim’? What would Muslims from Kerala, Kashmir, and West Bengal have in common, speaking as they do distinct languages (Malayalam, Urdu, Bengali), affiliated as they are to different parties and political cultures, linked (if at all) to national, sectarian and pan-Islamic movements in vastly different ways? Indeed, even if they share the same faith, notwithstanding the considerable differences among sunni, shia, sufi, bohra, khoja constituencies and any number of syncretic Hindu-Muslim sects and cults, can it be assumed that this faith is practised in the same way? The irony is that, for all its ultra-nationalist and pseudo-swadeshi rhetoric, the Hindu Right could be one of the most loyal upholders of the racial categories instituted by the British in the census reports of the late nineteenth century. Within the mechanisms, statistics, and nomenclature of such reports, the monolithic figure of ‘the Muslim’ (with regional variations) was constructed and disseminated, or as Benedict Anderson would say,‘imagined’.3 

Capitalising on its often self-authenticating evidence, the British divided the entire population of the Indian subcontinent according to fixed criteria of origins, customs, and laws, in order to determine specific religious identities.4 Instead of exposing the obvious mendacity of this colonial strategy, the Hindu Right has merely built on it to substantiate its own primordialisation of ‘Muslims’ as traitors and foreigners. Admittedly, the earliest tropes revolving around ‘Muslims’ were not unequivocal; indeed, the figure of the Muslim was even ‘split’, as early ethnographers and census officials vacillated between tracing the Arabic origins of hereditary Muslims who were subsequently indigenised in India, and the conversion of native Hindus to Islam. With growing evidence, it was accepted that the vast majority of Muslims were the descendants of low-caste Hindu communities who had converted to Islam in order to free themselves from the tyrannies of the caste system. Were these converts ‘lesser’ Muslims, or could they be regarded as more ‘authentically’ Hindu? While politicising such questions, the thrust of the census reports between 1872 and 1901 was to prove, as Gauri Vishwanathan has pointed out, that the Indian Muslim was not an ‘autonomous other’, but a ‘version of the Hindu’.5 

Underlying this need to prove that Muslims were different – but not essentially different from Hindus – was a scarcely disguised racial agenda. Indeed, early colonial ethnographers like Herbert Risley resorted to technologies like cephalic indexing, by which the heads and noses of Muslims were measured to prove that these individuals were not of Semitic origin, but of native stock from the poorer tribal communities.6  However, there was a hermeneutic twist in the argument: even as the vast majority of Muslims were identified as local converts, the entire community (‘Muslims’) was implicitly blamed for othering itself. Within the hegemonic logic of the colonial administration, it was assumed, as Vishwanathan points out, that ‘the idea of Muslims as “outsiders”…was propagated by Indian Muslims themselves’.7

Even beyond the boundaries of the subcontinent, this accusation levelled against the self-othering of minorities can be regarded as a familiar trope in the rhetoric of racism. Minorities worldwide are frequently blamed for othering themselves, as if ‘racial consciousness’ were ‘the cause of social division, rather than the product of preexisting patterns of discrimination.’8A familiar accusation could run along these lines: ‘They have themselves to blame; if they didn’t mark themselves as different, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.’ But who marks ‘them’ in the first place? Who others whom? In any process of othering, there has to be a posited self, against which the other is measured and judged. Who determines the ‘self’? What are the conditions of power by which this determination is made possible and hegemonised?

It could be argued that these questions play into the problematic of ‘othering’ in purely exclusionary terms and that there are far less black-and-white and oppositional strategies by which the self can be affirmed, invented, and re-invented through more internalised processes of ‘othering’.9 Certainly, it is necessary to recognise the uncertain dynamics of subjective agency and not just the more emphatic opposition by which seemingly incommensurable religious communities are pitted against each other. However, even as one acknowledges the obvious dangers of reducing communities to monolithic entities, one is still obliged to deal with the fact that this is how they are, indeed, constructed – and set against each other – in our increasingly communalised political domain.

Likewise, even as one can indicate the limitations of an exclusionary rhetoric in affirming, for example, a pan-Indian dalit (low-caste) identity through its absolutist negation of ‘the Hindu’,10 this seemingly self-defeating rhetoric has its own raison d’etre for downtrodden communities. Entrapped as it may be within a manichaean oppositionality to brahmanic Hindusim, can one deny the legitimacy and force of its articulation? With postcolonial hindsight, it is far too easy to condemn ‘essentialised’ positions outside the identitarian battleground in which minorities may have no other option but to affirm their identities for their survival and social mobilisation. Indeed, for whom is it possible to elide the stigmas attached to a low caste genealogy, heredity-determined occupation, poverty, social ostracism, and untouchability? These markers of dalit identity continue to deepen even as the politics around this identity are in the process of being problematised and internationalised.

While I do not deal specifically with dalit identity in this essay, I have tried to highlight its links to the political construction of other subaltern groups from low-caste minorities and indigenous communities. If I prioritise the exclusionary dynamics by which these communities are ‘othered’ over more ambivalent processes of self-identification in secular and cosmopolitan contexts, it is not because I undermine the possibility of individuals in negotiating cultural and political choices independently of the constraints of governmentality, heredity, caste, custom, and religion. But within the communalised politics of the Indian subcontinent today, the exclusionary dynamics in determining the Other are dominant, and arguably, they cut across classes and castes. While we do not have the privilege to ignore the politics of exclusion in seeking more inflected versions of our selves, I would acknowledge, however, that the enigmas of the ‘self’ are not thereby obliterated by the onslaught of political identification. In this essay, I will insert a few such illuminations of the ‘self’ to trouble the larger exposition of political and cultural identities, whose uncertainties of evidence are not always acknowledged.

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