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'Indian society is still interdependent'

August 08, 2006 20:29 IST
Dr Arjun Appadurai, the Mumbai-born anthropologist, writer and professor at the New School University in New York says he is optimistic with Mumbai's message that attacks on its infrastructure and daily life will not become pretexts for internal witch-hunts and pogroms.

Part I: The average Indian Muslim wants room to survive

In the second part of his interview to Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor Features Arthur J Pais Dr Appadurai -- whose new book Fear of Small Numbers discusses why, in the age of globalisation, there has been violence and ethnic cleansing on the one hand and extreme forms of political violence against the civilian population on the other -- says the story of what has happened to the Sikhs in India gives him some hope.

"This suggests that the pendulum can go both ways," he says. "There may even be such a change toward the Muslims in India some day, although that is much harder to imagine in the global picture."

Having immersed yourself in the study of commercial carnage, do you as an individual find scope for optimism? Do you see a chance of things becoming better?

I am optimistic. My own city, Mumbai, has just sent out the resounding message that attacks on its infrastructure and daily life will not become pretexts for internal witch-hunts and pogroms. Maybe we need to move away from national loyalties, which can lead to ethnic chauvinism, and move towards urban and metropolitan loyalties, which put a premium on active tolerance and deliberate cosmopolitanism.

As a footnote, I may say that the story of what has happened to the Sikhs gives me some hope. Thus, you can have a group that was originally seen as extremely closely tied to patriotism and the militant defense of India against Islam, which became a pariah group after the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi, and was even subjected to carnage in 1984.

But nobody among the pro-Hindu community spends much time talking about Sikhs anymore. This suggests that the pendulum can go both ways. There may even be such a change toward the Muslims in India some day, although that is much harder to imagine in the global picture.

In Mumbai I was introduced, many years ago, by my friend Sundar Burra to a group of remarkable activists and their work in the poorest sections of the city. And I came across, in the year 1996, a still little-studied phenomenon -- the phenomenon of grassroots globalisation.

It was globalisation from below, that involved worldwide activists from nongovernmental agencies. The full story of these activists is the subject of a study that will soon be out as a book. I've tentatively titled it The Capacity to Aspire.

You argue that the Hindu majority is 'a double fiction in contemporary India'. Why? What is your objection to Hindus being termed a religious majority? Isn't it a reality that Hindus comprise about 85 per cent of India's population?

First, the category 'Hindu' is unthinkable in contemporary politics, apart from its birth in colonial ethnographies and census categories. Second, because of the deep divisions between the upper and lower castes that is always a feature of life in agrarian India, it has grown into one of the most important fissures in North Indian politics.

If you look at India as an anthropologist does, what you see is that it is made up of many small groups. A professor of mine once said, only half-jokingly, that India is historically made up only of minorities.

Caste society is a society which operates on small numbers. For example, if you take a group like the Kshatriyas, people of a particular dominant caste such as the Jats in the Punjab or Vokkaligas in Karnataka may not recognise the people in a group three villages away as belonging to the same general category as themselves.

But through a combination of political, administrative and cultural process, bigger social categories were constructed, and these highly localised groups began to see themselves as belonging to, pulled to a single group.

These large-scale new names and identities are certainly real. But they are not natural or eternal. They are historical and circumstantial. In other words, history creates large numbers on the foundation of the small numbers, which actually participate in ordinary social life.

You say that the concept of a 'majority' community can be harmful to a nation's social fabric. How?

One of the basic arguments of the book is that the idea of a majority can create uncertainty about the primary identity of a nation. In the book, I call this the anxiety of incompleteness.

What I mean is that in every nation State without exception, somewhere beneath the surface is the idea that a nation is composed of a single ethnic substance, some kind of ethnic purity -- and the idea of ethnic purity leads to the feeling that only people belonging to that ethnicity should be full citizens in that State.

And in a society like India, this is a huge problem because a certain group, in this case the Hindus, can view themselves as almost completely defining India but not totally. The problem -- the incompleteness -- is due to the presence of other groups, whether you call them minorities or strangers or guests or visitors.

Every Hindu Indian recognises that the land is not completely Hindu. In the book, I argue that this sense of incomplete purity does not necessarily lead to an effort to obliterate the minorities. But in many circumstances, it can lead to that. And we have seen increasing efforts in some parts of India, Gujarat in particular, to obliterate the minorities.

In human history, you have many cases where dominant groups rule the society but are not bothered by the presence of the so-called minorities. But the fear of small numbers in many countries can lead to the efforts to remove or eliminate the minorities.

Have there been historical instances of the majority not being afraid of the small numbers?

Take the Ottoman society or ancient Roman society, which were in fact large multicultural empires. These were huge social formations with dozens of minority groups within them. The most provocative case is that of the Jews under Islamic empires. Though they were sometimes persecuted and attacked, they were normally seen as an acceptable if minor group.

But in the modern world, as my book says, in the condition particularly of the globalisation, there is a tendency for an almost complete majority group to push for 100 percent majority status. This is the road from ethnic purity to ethnic purification or cleansing, as we saw in Serbia after the fall of Tito.

In such cases, the feeling is that we can be a pure country, an uncontaminated ethnic group wholly in control of our country, unsullied by the pollution of small numbers. A large part of my book is concerned with why this feeling arises in the last decade.

You talk about the paradox of violence against minorities increasing even as the notion of human rights is spreading across the world

The fact is that human rights resources are now available to many people. This is a new thing. In the old days, the majority community was less threatened because smaller groups did not have any basis to make strong claims.

Today, if you are Muslim or any other minority, you have a voice, you have the constitutional rights. This does not mean these rights are fully realised. As a consequence of this development, the inbuilt tendency for the majority to worry about minorities is further intensified. It is a worry that is particularly active in the minds of BJP ideologues and active cadres of the Hindu right.

It is also an argument with which they can approach others, who aren't BJP members, and say, look, if you are not careful you will lose your job. It is similar to the struggles against the Mandal Commission, which advocated greater affirmation action for Hindu minorities. The fear of increased claims by minority groups can be produced among decent people.

This can begin the journey from fear to suspicion to anger.

But these arguments have to be created, they have to be distributed, and they have to be put into textbooks, as we know them in India. Such arguments are inculcated systematically through the cadres and are put into political speeches. And they also profit from random events.

Such events can be faraway events, such as violence against one's group in another city or country; or the rumour of some sort of religious outrage; or news of a specific neighbourhood battle over space or processions; or legal battles over clothing or language in public schools.

These events provide the sparks. But the fuel is the deeper resentment that minorities in the era of human rights can make legitimate claims for improved status in their own countries or beyond.

You suggest that globalisation has actually increased the fear with which the Muslim community in India is viewed -- a claim that on the surface seems hard to accept.

In the global Islamic movement, there are certainly people who believe in radical forms of Islam, radical forms of political action, including armed terrorism. There is no denying it. What has happened is that your internal minority begins to be seen as a tool of the external majority.

The Hindutva people could say, these people are in small numbers here but they are connected to very big numbers worldwide.

As global Islam acquires more capacities for terror and armed violence in the Middle East and beyond, Hindu nationalist identity in India and other similar identities elsewhere in the world react by becoming predatory.

A predatory identity is one that is premised on the notion that its survival requires the elimination of its opposed religious or ethnic other.

Indian society is still interdependent, people know they need each other, whether they like each other or not. They have to work together, live together and function together. So it is not a natural tendency to say that I am totally different from you, I cannot have anything to do with you. But the Hindutva people try to do just that.

And to do that, the negative idea, of someone being different, hence unwanted, has to be created and instilled and socialised, either by religious organisations, political propagandists, or the leaders. Their main message, that my own group identity survives only when your group identity disappears, is unnatural -- but it is being articulated in many parts of the country against some minorities.

Arthur J Pais