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Nation and its discontents — A minority perspective

Tanweer Fazal, professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, speaks to Nidhi Gupta about how minorities negotiate nationalism, arguing that identities are context-specific and subject to change.

NIDHI GUPTA  27th Oct 2012

Sikh leaders saluting the Khalistan flag at the Khalsa Raj Parade in Fatehgarh Sahib, Punjab, in 2010

hat are some of the key questions you have sought to highlight in your research?

A. I have looked at the idea of Indian nationalism from the minority perspective, particularly for Sikhs and Muslims. Over the years, there have cropped up a number of ways that nationalism in India has been conceptualised, but within this discourse, there exist different kinds of minorities, religious and lingual groups whose integration has been considered problematic based on their origins. In the process, I have tried to trace the history of the idea of minority itself and tried to explore the vexed relationship that minorities have with the idea of nationalism. I also posit that this is a cyclical phenomenon — communities oscillate between viewing themselves as minorities and nations, as per circumstances.

Q. What historical ruptures have informed these minorities' sense of selfhood?

A. The entire process began during the colonial period, when British rulers started using enumeration as a tool of nation-building. Consciously or inadvertently, groups began to assert themselves as separate from the larger mass that was seen as Indian. For instance, while Sikhs earlier inter-married with the Hindus, and their gurus were accepted as spiritual figures by their Hindi-speaking counterparts as well, the colonial move to recruit only Keshdhari Sikhs in the army led to a disruption, initiating the reformist Singh Sabha movement and leading to the Gurudwara reformatting itself in 1925.

Similarly, the Muslims began to see themselves as a separate entity when the Government of India Act 1905 elaborated on the representation principle, raising the hackles of a certain group of rich, influential Muslims, who then formed the Shimla delegation and got the idea of separate electorates introduced. This was further enhanced during the 1919 conference.

Around 1947, both communities started imagining themselves as a nation. They felt that they had rights and protection but needed more. Like Jinnah once said, we have minority rights, but this implies dependency, whereas in a nation, we'd all be equal. This idea gained momentum during the 1940s and led to the formation of Pakistan, but by 1972, with the formation of Bangladesh, the idea of a religion-based nation had collapsed.

The Sikhs too began to assert themselves, as a result of which the Hindi speaking parts of Punjab were removed. By the 1980s, the Khalistan movement had gained traction, which again led to realignment of the states along lingual lines. In this manner, the state has accommodated these various cries of self-determination within its folds, endowing and appeasing them with 'protectionist' policies.

Q. What is post-colonial India's conception of a nation-state? What theoretical/historical strains inform this understanding?

A. India has borrowed its idea of the nation-state from the West. Our nationalists were always a bit diffident about India's right to self-determination, because unlike European countries, India is not homogenous in any sense. So Jawaharlal Nehru came up with the idea of unity in diversity, to give some sense of cohesion to a people as multifarious as ours. This is also where the idea of instituting Hindi as a national language came from, sidelining Bhojpuri, Maithili and other forms of khadiboli bhasha. The Constitution adopted a majoritarian framework, which is keen on assimilation of minorities but rests on the premise that terminal loyalty has to be to the state. This is not necessarily Hindutva nationalism, which came about with the rise of the BJP in the 1970s-80s. This new brand considers only those of religions born in India, such as Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains, and excluding Muslims and Christians, to be true Indians.

The Constitution adopted a majoritarian framework, which is keen on assimilation of minorities but rests on the premise that terminal loyalty has to be to the state.

Q. What space do minorities occupy in this setup, constitutionally speaking? Have these been satisfactory through the years?

A. The Indian Constitution boasts of guaranteeing minority rights in Article 29-30. It talks only about cultural rights, specifically the right to establish educational institutions to preserve one's culture. The rest — such as right to worship, right to free speech etc. — are all available to everybody. This implies problematic issues of recognition.

It has been argued that prior to Partition, minority groups had greater rights. They had a political presence, thanks to the separate electorate system which ensured relatively adequate representation. Even when the Constitution was made, all these rights were guaranteed. But Sardar Patel, who was the chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minorities, Fundamental Rights, etc. asked to re-open the debate in 1949, arguing that with the creation of Pakistan, there was no reason for minorities to get special rights in a democratic framework like ours — at best, they should be seen as cultural entities.

In actuality, minorities are robbed of their rights because they've been reduced to being a cultural artefact, without much representation. I am not making a case for separate electorates but merely putting things in correct historical perspective. Most of the people I spoke with in fact respect the Constitution and consider it a sacred contract. It is the implementation which is actually not happening.

Q. How do the minorities and the nation-state negotiate with each other today?

A. They negotiate their survival within the nation today through the processes of 'minoritisation' and 'minorityism'. Every time the nation-state asserts itself too strongly, minority groups, out of a sense of real or perceived threats, begin to build cultural boundaries — this minoritisation is an external process. Minorityism refers to the occasional sops that the state provides to these communities, as in the Shah Bano case, where the state allowed personal code of conduct to rule over a Supreme Court ruling. This process of addressing only identity rights involves a certain political acumen — governments cultivate cultural spokesmen who also create the demand for identity and become the representatives of that identity. For instance, opening schools in minority dominated areas, which would improve living conditions, does not make big political news, whereas grants to madrassas do, making both the 'representative' and the sanctioner happy.

The Sachar committee report was a departure from this kind of token minorityism — it quite realistically emphasised security, identity and equity as issues that minorities suffered from. It talked of educational, economic and infrastructural deprivation. But as always, it is the implementation that has been problematic.

I believe that both 'minority' an 'nation' are terms representing fuzzy identities. For one thing, the overarching belief that a community's origins matter in their inclusion/exclusion in the 'nation' is false. Both Sikhs (indic) and Muslims (non-indic) are treated in the same way — with a degree of suspicion. Secondly, these communities choose to see themselves as minority or nation depending on how the state treats them. A section of the Sikhs still believes they are a nation, though they have renounced the idea of Khalistan. Indian Muslims too have drawn the line between qaum (nation) and millat (spiritual community) saying that while their qaum is the same as the Hindus, their millat is transnational.

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