By Huma Dar
Prominent writers in India are collectively protesting what they consider an increase in hostility and intolerance, which they argue has been allowed to fester under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by returning a prestigious literary award. Referring to attacks against Muslims, including the killing of a man who had been suspected of slaughtering a cow, he said, “This is not the country that our great leaders had envisioned.” (Ghulam Nabi Khayal, Sahitya Akademi Award, 1975)
The newsfeed on most South Asian social media has been deluged by articles like the one in The New York Times quoted above. However, one has to wonder what kept these literary “stars” from this praiseworthy gesture of returning their state-given awards when the Gujarat pogrom was going on in 2002, or against the pogroms that followed the demolition of Babri masjid in 1992/3, or against the genocide of Sikhs around 1984, or heck, against the ongoing genocide in Kashmir or that of Dalits… My apologies for this query which might seem cynical at first blush, but is actually a probing of the very problematic notions of India and “Indian secularism” that these authors and poets valorise, explicitly or implicitly, through this gesture or through their work. Brahminical, colonial, and Islamophobic at the core, it is precisely these twin concepts that are the fecund incubating ground not only of the acts of spectacular violence in the current context, at the contemporary moment, but also of the banal acts of quotidian violence that fertilise the roots, leave alone of the comparably spectacular violence of the allegedly “secular” contexts, that preceded and co-exist at any given time.
This is a “secularism” easily deconstructed to reveal its Brahminical, colonial, and Islamophobic impulse. Its paradigmatic failure is in Kashmir. India has long sought to bolster its “non-Hindu” secular credentials on the backs and mass graves of freedom-loving Kashmiris. Kashmir is paraded as the “Muslim majority state” that “opted” for India “instead of Pakistan,” deliberately obfuscating facts to the contrary. The hollowed-out “democracy” as imposed on Kashmir, abundantly littered with the rubble of fudged elections, a population blackmailed into voting, and pimpish collaborators, is nothing but a facetious mask to disguise the ongoing genocide. Modes of governmentality honed over millennia on Dalits, including naked parades, sexual torture, forced feeding of faeces and other excreta, rapes, massacres, and arson, are deployed on recalcitrant Kashmiris fighting for our collective right to self-determination. The genocide in Kashmir is marked by Brahminism as well as by Islamophobia. The latter comprises bans on eating beef (it being a major source of animal protein for the poorest in South Asia, as well as being the cheapest animal for the obligatory sacrifice on the Eid al-Adha), frequent bans on the obligatoryFriday prayers at some of the largest and most popular Jamia Masjids, internet bans on Eid days, torture via forced sloganeering of Brahminical Hinduism’s chants, and the selective targeting of Kashmiri Muslims in the entire unit of J&K under Indian state, as well as in India itself. So ironically India’s secularism fails precisely and fully at its much-trumped out test case: Kashmir. And on all three charges: Brahminism, “colonialism”, Islamophobia.
This is a “secularism” that allows and encourages a de facto genocide of the Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasis (despite strict laws on the books) via its Brahminical state apparatus. This is a “secularism” that allows, encourages, and rewards a de jure genocide of Kashmiris, Manipuris, and Nagas et al via explicitly colonial (and Brahminical) laws like AFSPA, PSA, etc. designed and deployed via its state apparatus. Of course, these genocides are deeply imbricated in the increasing capitalism of the Indian society and its rapacious plunder of labour and resources, akin to the USA’s capitalism being inescapably intertwined with slavery and settler-colonialism.
This is a “secularism” where Muslims and Christians never have the space to critique, to be full-fledged citizens. This is a “secularism” where they have to pay the price of even willy-nilly belonging to “non-Indic” religions — the “Indic” in, and of itself, comprising multiple acts of epistemic violence — by being forced to perform “more loyal than the king.” This is a “secularism” where APJ Kalam — Gita-spouting, RSS-kowtowing, proudly-ignorant-of-the-Qur’
ān, nuclear-project-heading President of India — can be touted as a Indian nationalist “despite being Muslim.” This is a “secularism” where dyed-in-the-wool Indians like Shahrukh Khan or Naseeruddin Shah have to face vitriol or protests replete with “one-way tickets to Pakistan” if they ever dare to praise Pakistani cricketers or Pakistani hospitality based on their own individual experiences.
So returning back to the dissenting authors and their protests… There’s a saying in Farsi that made its way into Urdu: der āyad, durust āyad, or better (arrive) late than never. However, in this case, one has to ask: is this even an arrival?
—The author is a lecturer in the Asian American & Asian Diasporas Studies Program of the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org