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Home > News > Interview

The Rediff Interview/Dr Arjun Appadurai, anthropologist

The average Indian Muslim wants room to survive

August 04, 2006

It is not always that an academic book published by a university press gets national attention across America, and leads its writer to speak on National Public Radio and appear on several well-regarded television shows.

Unless, of course, the author is Mumbai-born Arjun Appadurai, whose book Fear of Small Numbers discusses why, in the age of globalisation, there has been a proliferation of violence and of ethnic cleansing on the one hand and extreme forms of political violence against civilian population on the other.

Dr Appadurai, John Dewy Professor in Social Sciences at New School University in New York, tells Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais that there seems to be an increasing and irrational fear of the minorities around the world and minorities, including in India, confront greater hostilities than ever before.

Your book has an intriguing title. Could you discuss its significance?

Minorities throughout the world are, somehow, the subject of anxiety. And in the last decade, despite the opening of markets, the free flow of capital and liberal ideas, minorities in many countries including India are facing greater hostilities than ever before, and in some cases, they face genocide.

There seems to be an increasing and irrational fear of the minorities. I have been interested in census statistics, how populations are actually enumerated. Apart from the question of being weak or subordinate, official enumeration is one of the ways minorities are created in the modern world.

The point here is that the idea of minority and majority was not always a part of human society. Human societies always had different groups; some were larger and some smaller; but the twin categories of minority and majority are modern phenomena.

The idea of majority and minority are intimately connected. The two arise together. And in the book, I observe that the idea of majority and minority in India emerges out of a procedural consideration having to do with minority opinions in key administrative committees under British rule. The idea of minority opinion did not arise in the first place out of national enumeration of population, but from this other administrative and procedural root.

But soon after this administrative concept came into play, the idea of minority and majority began to apply to core social groups and began to be institutionalised in the census.

How does the recent serial bomb blasts in Mumbai play into your broader theme?

The Mumbai blasts are part of a history that clearly involves several factors. One is the worldwide illicit arms trade that underlies everything from the Mumbai blasts to Hezbollah's rocket capacities in Lebanon, and has strengthened many other groups like the Basques and the Tamil Tigers that have nothing to do with Islam.

We should remember that it is not the Muslims only that are the beneficiaries of worldwide deregulated arms trade.

Second, in the South Asian story we have the bitterness of Partition. Especially in North India, and especially among Hindu nationalist groups, Partition is a wound and insult to the integrity of India, which created a perennial enemy, the state of Pakistan, and its supporters and sympathisers in Kashmir and in the rest of India.

That story could have been forgotten -- but it is never forgotten; it is kept alive and kept active by politicians, by religious leaders, by party ideologues and by parts of the media.

Thirdly, in Pakistan you have a society that is in fact theocratic, and there is no question that Pakistan as a State has pursued a variety of official, unofficial and individual activities calculated to unsettle India. However open-minded one is, one has to recognise it. It is also true that India has done its part to keep up the competition with Pakistan, to outdo its military capacities, to exceed its nuclear capabilities and to limit Pakistan's influence in Asia as a whole.

But there is no denying that as a theocratic State under military rule, Pakistan has pursued anti-democratic policies at many levels, and has been unable to free itself from using Kashmir as a distraction from its own internal crises as a civil society and a buffer state in the Great Game of Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and the United States.

Some secularists find it difficult to accept that in certain areas of India where the Muslims are dominant, they can create a feeling of terror among the Hindus. Do you share those reservations?

We have to accept that reality, and the fact that violence for political and religious gains is not confined only to the Hindu Right. We must also acknowledge that Pakistan is not something invented by the imagination of the Hindu Right. It is real. It is authoritarian. It is theocratic. And Pakistani civil society has moved closer to the Islamic right.

In India, there are some Muslims who sympathise with Pakistan. It is hard to tell whether it is the product of their being driven out of India, mentally speaking, or whether they had a prior affiliation to Pakistan. The more you are pushed out, the more you are going to identify with some place where you might be a first class citizen.

And yet, I believe that the radical, terrorist voices one hears in the Muslim communities in India are few and small. The average Muslim in India today has this request to the majority community: Give us the room to survive. Muslims in rural and urban India are not thinking of taking over India, but are asking whether they can live there at all.

Sure, there is a rise in the anti-Muslim sentiments across India. What has been especially worrisome is that this anger has been adopted by the middle class, the educated and the professionals across India. The very classes and groups who would have been ashamed to express strong radical religious sentiments in the 1950s and 1960s are proudly pro-Hindu today.

How did that transformation come about?

We must not just ask what Hindutva is about, you must also ask the question how it has changed in the last few decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, many middle class, educated professionals talked as if India's secularism belonged to everyone, and was not a favour handed out by Hindus to other groups.

In the 30 to 40 years since the high period of Nehru's secularism, the other trend in Indian politics, the pro-Hindu strand has become prominent. For me as an anthropologist, it is painfully obvious that it has become culturally respectable to run down and suspect the Muslim community.

You can now publicly question the political loyalty of the minorities, you can publicly question Muslims at all times, Christians at various times and Sikhs intensely in the 1980s, as you recall. Fortunately, the tide of anti-Sikh sentiments has turned, and their loyalty is not questioned now.

There seems some evidence to suggest that at least in some instances, minorities triggered the violence...

In that case, the state agencies can look into the problem. But when mobs take the law into their own hand and unleash violence, terrible things unfold. Study after study has shown that the retaliatory violence against the minorities is hugely disproportionate to the alleged crimes attributed to them.

Don't forget to read the next part of Arjun Appadurai's interview on Rediff.com next week!


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Number of User Comments: 57




Sub: Muslimms want to survive

I totally differ from Dr.AA. In India, the Muslims dictate terms in both central and state Government. The present Congress regime is famous for Muslim ...


Posted by srinivasan.v





Sub: history

If we look at the history of british india, we will find the hindu-muslim conflicts there, as much as today. It is only that it ...


Posted by pramod





Sub: muslims have already taken more than enough room and kept others to fight for thier survival.

Its no new fashion to take sides of the minorities if one wants to prove his secular credentials.Leave alone what Appadurai wants to tell us.In ...


Posted by kayvee





Sub: India is the Best

Further....if India is the best country, why is there so much turmoil. About 155 districts are engulfed by naxalism. They are targetting innocent police personnels, ...


Posted by Indian





Sub: India is the Best

It is great being an Indian. I say this inspite of the general belief that muslims are not treated well in India. Whoever says that ...


Posted by Indian




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