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'Difficult to be a Muslim in India today'

August 29, 2006 15:53 IST

In a world of chaos and instability, where cultures, faiths and weapons clash with frightening frequency, the search for answers acquires added urgency. It is all scarily simple, argues Mumbai-born Dr Arjun Appadurai -- much of the world's current ills can be traced to the fear of minorities by the majorities.

It is irrational, it is illogical -- but it is, argues the John Dewy Professor in Social Sciences at the New School University in New York, who has set out his arguments in a recent book, The Fear of Small Numbers.

In an exclusive chat with readers, Professor Apadurai explains why, despite all the signs to the contrary, he is confident that Hindu-Muslim relations in India will improve. For those of you who missed this chat, here is the transcript.

Arjun Appadurai says, Hi, am ready to take your questions

Sharma asked, Professorsaab, namaskar. i am also a college lecturer like you. i think if minorities learn to coexist peacefully with the majority community, there will be no issues in our country. Problem is when they begin to think they can get away with anything because governments don't want to take them on because they are a minority. In India, the politics of comparative appeasement has led to a situation where the government is unwilling to act against Muslim troublemakers for fear of upsetting the minority community. What do you think?
Arjun Appadurai answers, Sharma: I appreciate the concern behind your question but I think it is very problematic to use the concept of appeasement which was used in relation to the rise of Hitler in Germany. Muslims in India are not a state within a state or a powerful military force. Nor are they in a position to dictate terms to the Indian state or the Hindu majority. So I would suggest some form of ethically engaged negotiation or dialogue is much more relevant than the idea of appeasement. Of course, what the content and purpose of such dialogue should be is a different matter.
Drupad asked, dr forget that wherever non-muslims were allowed to survive they had to pay far as the mughals in india are concerned...this policy was introduced just because akbar knew that he could not rule the country if he followed his religion to the letter...when aurangzeb came to power...he began to rule according to islam...and he did everything what a true muslim should destroyed thousands of temples thoughout india...this led to the maratha and rajput revolt
Arjun Appadurai answers, Drupad: I sense that you are an angry man. But let me address both your questions. As to the first one, about Islam allowing non-Islamic religions to survive, there are many examples in Europe, also under the rule of the Ottomans, and finally under the Mughals, to show that Islamic states and kingdoms have been quite tolerant of other religions, including Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. Today, in the Gulf states, there are many examples of Indian communities freely practicing their religion although they may be second-class citizens in other regards. As to your second point, I would point to the United States where there are Muslim communities all the way from Los Angeles and Detroit to Houston and New York which are quite deeply integrated into the larger community. I urge you to look at a recent issue of the New York Times which has a long feature on the Muslim communities resident in an area called Devon Street in Chicago which feel much better integrated in the US than in the UK. Please consider such examples seriously.
AMIT asked, Dear Prof. Appadurai, In your essay "Disjuncture and Difference...", you talk about the need to theorize more effectively the role of the imagination in social life. How would you fit the growing trend towards majoritarian fundamentalisms around the world within that paradigm?
Arjun Appadurai answers, Amit: I appreciate this question because it connects the issue of minorities and violence to larger questions about society and human nature. In my earlier work, I said the imagination was not solely a private or individual mental faculty but a social fact, something that was exercised by groups in a collective, interactive manner. Imagination is the primary social tool by which ordinary people find a bridge between their present situations and an idealized one.The trouble with imagination is that it can be generous to the hopes of others or less so. A challenge is to encourage forms of the imagination which are inclusive and plural and discourage those that are exclusionary and aggressive.
Princess asked, Dr Appadurai, how does one fight stereotypes, especially in this war on terror?
Arjun Appadurai answers, Human beings always need to simplify life since otherwise there is too much information and too much detail. Our challenge as citizens is to allow for the creation of stereotypes which can lead to further questions and further dialogue rather than to enmity and closure of dialogue. We can never get rid of stereotypes but we can have benign stereotypes.
Bijon asked, When there is a chance of terror in London, they issues notices to have stringent checking of South Asians that includes Indians like me. This seemed to be very logical to me, because in most, if not all, of the terror plot has some asian name associated with it. I suffer during travel but I support this initiative of heathrow management. I have to take the pain for my brother's stupidity. Similarly most of the terror plots in India has some muslim name associated with it. Why can't Indian Government issue a similar public directive? Isn't it logical under ground realities that entire Muslim community should be under scanner and more cooperation from Muslim population will be expected?
Arjun Appadurai answers, You've raised a very serious question. I think the recent British response to the airline bomb plot is in many respects exemplary. In Britain, there is a very sustained effort to balance multiculturalism with the need for public safety and security. So far as I can judge the British authorities are working very closely and very transparently with leaders of the Muslim communities in the UK in order to track down and control threats from terrorists. I believe the Indian government and Indian state authorities should also follow this path and enlist the capacities of moderate Muslim leaders to gain information and intelligence and preempt violence wherever possible.
GAURAV asked,  Don't you think that we should start taking care of the majority, the common hindu man in india, otherwise we might have more communal riots and more frustration like the medical students are expressing over reservation.
Arjun Appadurai answers, I agree with you that the broad improvement of social and economic conditions in India is a prerequisite for any cultural co-existence but it is not a matter of taking care of the Hindu majority first; it is a matter of addressing the primary problems of inequality, poverty and social exclusion that damage more than 50 percent of India's population. If this is done, the politics of majority and minority will itself become a minor issue.
Srinivas asked, Good morning Professor. As someone who has been born and raised in Mumbai what are the changes that you have seen occur in our city? Are sentiments excessively polarised? We have seen great calm in the city since the blasts. Would you think it is superficial and any other act of terrorism would provoke carnage?
Arjun Appadurai answers, I am still deeply attached to Mumbai and I believe that Mumbai's citizen continue to show enormous courage, grit and creativity in tackling problems of every time including, recently, the triple-header or heavy rains, train bombings and communal rioting. It is my ongoing interest to find out the reasons why Mumbaikars seem to have such a deep interest in living with each other even when there are constant political temptations to move away from each other. So in my almost 60 years of connection to Mumbai I remain amazed that the tolerance and cultural openness of ordinary Mumbaikars in 1950 is not dramatically reduced in 2006.
ramananda asked, sir, how would you respond to the statement that "all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims?"
Arjun Appadurai answers, This is a good point. I would stress the first part, namely that all Muslims are not terrorists; on the second part, I'd draw you attention to violent political action in Punjab, Assam, Telengana, Bihar and various other parts of India which have not involved Muslims at all. So the second part is incorrect. It is only today that Muslims in different parts of the world are in contact with each other, so we think they are the only terrorists. To correct this impression, speak to the families of any number of Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka about who has produced terror on that island. Were they Muslims?
Abhishek asked, Dr. Appadurai, do you think that Muslims, even moderate ones are responsible for rampant terrorism? And what does it mean to say "moderate" Muslim anyway; does it not mean that Islam is some sort of anti-civilization school of thought and those who believe that civilization should be only partially destroyed are called "moderate" Muslims?
Arjun Appadurai answers, I appreciate your sense of humour. It is obvious that in India as well as in every other society where there are large number of Muslims, there are Muslims who are staunch believers in peace, tolerance, dialogue and co-existence. To deny this is to make a joke out of diversity in the Muslim community and make a joke of this exchange.
ramananda asked, Sir, do you endorse or believe in the 'clash of civilisations' theory?
Arjun Appadurai answers, Like many scholars, I don't think the Clash of Civilizations theory is a good one, mainly because it refuses to recognize the huge diversity of opinions in any civilization.
Sharath asked, What is your qualification for writing on this subject?(apart from your knowledge from books) How long have you stayed in India? How many common people have you met. Or all this issome of your imaginative thoughts to write some novel..?
Arjun Appadurai answers, Most of us learn most of what we know by reading if we are lucky enough to be literate. In my case, I lived in Mumbai for my first 18 years and have been back there once or twice a year for 40 years thereafter. In the course of this time, I have talked to all sorts of people in Mumbai, from paanwalas and moneylenders to chief secretaries and advocates. I also continue to read as much as I can from books, newspapers and other sources. If you have some other methodology for developing your opinions, I'm sure you'll share your secret and promptly become a millionaire.
Precog asked, Hullo sir, i am a muslim man from mumbai. these are tough times for a muslim to live in mumbai as it is for muslims elsewhere in the world. i read your interview. do you really believe that the hostility towards the muslims will erode over time as it did for the sikhs
Arjun Appadurai answers, I think it is very difficult to be a Muslim in India today though it is a little better to be a Muslim in Mumbai. I think the example of Sikhs is the best example that change is always possible in relations between communities. I'm confident that Hindu-Muslim relations in India will improve but because we will live in a globalised world where remote events affect local realities, this is not easy. For example, till there is more genuine change in the political climate in Pakistan, Indian Muslims will always live under the shadow of Partition.
Arjun Appadurai says, am reading your questions. they're all fascinating.
gopalakrishnan asked, Sir, i agree that a number of muslims are soft in nature, but how come muslims are involved in any violent incident - be it Gazani Mohd., Babar or anybody? I was recently discussing this matter with a muslim friend when i remarked that had partition not taken place, all these blood shed like Babri Masjid, Gujerat riots would have been avoided. For this he replied that it is a wrong statement. By nature muslims are restless and killing others is in their blood - e.g. Iron-Irtaq war (between muslims). What do u say for this statement?
Arjun Appadurai answers, As I said a few minutes ago about stereotypes, everyone is entitled to create stereotypes, including stereotypes about themselves. In this case, your Muslim friend provides a classic example of racism directed at himself. No community has any characteristics coded into their genes or their blood. That is an elementary and decisive finding of modern social science.
mala asked, It is extremely disturbing to note some racist comments posted here.Dr.Appadurai would you say that in general in South Asia people freely express their racist comments without fear as there is a general insensitivity towards such issues and being liberal minded and secular are considered to be anti national?
Arjun Appadurai answers, I think you're right that there are different protocols and sensitivities surrounding exchanges like this, depending on where you live. But there are always people who will take advantage of anonymity to abuse the privileges of communication.
Arjun Appadurai says, I have to get away now. Thank you for your questions. I hope I was able to address some of the issues that came up in this forum. I appreciate the frankness of your opinions and I hope you appreciate my honest effort to respond. My apologies to the many participants whom I could not respond directly to today for reasons of time.

Dont miss:

Part 1 of the Rediff Interview with Dr Appadurai:
'The average Indian Muslim wants room to survive'

Part 2 of the Rediff Interview with Dr Appadurai:
'Indian society is still interdependent'