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India, Pakistan and the Majority-Minority Debate

IN CONVERSATION…Historian and author Prof Ayesha Jalal — Image courtesy Rawal TV

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have always questioned the secularism-communalism divide in India’s political discourse as a false dichotomy, says distinguished South Asian author and historian, Professor Ayesha Jalal, who teaches history at Tufts University, US, in a freewheeling interview with Dr Ather Farouqui, General Secretary, Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu.

Ayesha Jalal is the Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts University and a 1998 MacArthur Fellow and the celebrated author of The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan and, most recently of The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times and Work Across the India Pakistan Divide. In this wide-ranging interview, she spoke to the general secretary of Anjuman Taraqqi Urdu (Hind) New Delhi on a host of issues.

As a historian how do you look at the resurgence of majoritarianism and right-wing forces in the subcontinent in general and India in particular, against the backdrop of Narendra Modi emerging as the next Prime Minister and the BJP winning the recent elections with such a huge margin? To what extent is the neo-liberal economic policies responsible for such phenomena in India?

The rise of Hindu majoritarianism in India has to be seen in the context of the erosion of the Congress’s social bases of support, the rise of regional parties, and also in response to the expansion of the electoral arenas to include newly assertive castes and classes. The adoption of neo-liberal economic policies has largely followed rather than preceded these political developments, which have been helping reshape relations between the all-India center and the regions.

However, big business in a neo-liberal environment has ensured that money power played an unprecedented role in these elections. The scale of Mr Modi’s victory in terms of seats is to be explained by the collapse of the Congress both on the governance and organizational fronts and the failure of the regional parties of UP and Bihar to withstand the BJP onslaught. However, the win is not nearly as impressive if you consider the BJP’s vote share: 31% of the national vote has delivered a clear majority.

Following from the previous question, the defeat of the UPA has resulted from a host of different factors including their rampant corruption and populist policies reducing secularism to a mere hollow chant. Against this backdrop, what do you think is the future of India’s minorities? How do you think should they negotiate with the new establishment, especially since many Indians, especially Muslims, still haven’t forgotten the Gujarat riots?

I have always questioned the secularism-communalism divide in India’s political discourse as a false dichotomy. It is majoritarianism that needs to be contested by taking a firm stand on minority rights and federalism as intrinsic features of India’s democracy. India’s minorities, and Muslims in particular, have to overcome internal divisions and forge wider and more effective links with relevant civil society organizations in order to be heard and heeded. Tragic episodes in contemporary history cannot be wished away and must be remembered if they are not to be repeated.

It has been long argued that communalism, of course orchestrated, is responsible for many of the socio-economic problems of the subcontinent, chiefly poverty. However, the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party turned this theory on its head by asserting that corruption alone lies at the root of all ills that beset India and, by extension, the subcontinent. How do you assess the impact made by the AAP and its recent lackluster performance? Does it have the ability to counter Narendra Modi in the long run and provide an alternative to his ‘ development model of governance’ that is overtly pro-corporate?

HISTORY’S BIGGEST MIGRATION…The wounds of the Partition are yet to heal 

The reasons for the socio-economic problems of the subcontinent are multifaceted and cannot be reduced to either communalism or corruption. There is no question that the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party energized the narrative of citizens’ rights and responsibilities. This gave a new vitality to Indian political discourse and is a much-needed corrective to Modi’s narrative of economic development and good governance that is being promoted by India’s big corporate houses. But the Aam Aadmi Party is unlikely at this stage or in the foreseeable future to prove sufficient to counter the BJP’s electoral machine except in places like Delhi and, to a limited extent, Punjab. In the long run, a federation of regional parties is more likely to emerge as the principal challenger to the BJP.

How did Indian academia receive your re-evaluation of Jinnah in your book The Sole Spokesman (1985)? Are the divergent views on Jinnah in India and Pakistan being informed by historical re-appraisals or do they remain simplistic as ever marked by the adversarial stances of nursing festering wounds on the one hand or jingoistic fervor on the other?

The response to The Sole Spokesman in the Indian academia was by and large positive, even though some reviewers tried to read their own ideas into my analysis of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the demand for Pakistan. Occasionally, there were outright distortions of my arguments, for instance the view that I had argued that Jinnah wanted no Pakistan. What I did say in The Sole Spokesman was that the Pakistan that emerged in 1947 was far less than what Jinnah had been angling for. But the insistence on interpreting Jinnah’s use of the Pakistan demand as a bargaining counter as indicative of his lack of interest in Pakistan was a common misconception among some Indian reviewers.

Has there been any comprehensive historical research on the Evacuee Properties in the wake of the Partition of 1947?

There has been some work but I wouldn’t say that a comprehensive and systematic historical study on Evacuee Properties across the 1947 divide has been carried out.

Around two decades ago your essays argued that failure to assure substantive democracy and equitable development resulted in the discrediting and de-legitimizing of state sponsored nationalism. How do you look at it now?

I am not sure which of my essays you are referring to, but I did put forward an argument about the difference between a formal and a substantive democracy in my book Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia (Cambridge, 1995). There is no question that many more people are now asking questions about a democracy that does not go beyond the ritual of formal elections held at regular intervals. Demands for good governance amid rising expectations are leading some to question the main premises of state sponsored official nationalisms and fuelling regional counter narratives. This trend is likely to strengthen rather than weaken in the face of mounting challenges of governance and increasing polarization of politics.

In many parts of India there are assertions of historically subordinated communities of Muslims—now popularized as Pasmanda Movement, particularly since the implementation of the Mandal Commission (1990). How does it compare with contemporary Pakistan and Bangladesh?

While the Pasmanda Movement is specific to India, there have been comparable movements, albeit on smaller and more localized levels, in both Pakistan and Bangladesh to empower subordinate social classes, most notably working class women.

What kind of future for Urdu with its script do you envisage in India, especially after the Internet revolution with almost every Indian language losing its stronghold?

Written Urdu has lagged behind Hindi and English in India because Indian Muslims had to make choices of convenience to further their job prospects. There are plenty of efforts being made worldwide to make Urdu available for Internet usage and so it really depends on whether the speakers of Urdu in India opt to communicate in that script on the Internet or prefer to use English and the Roman script.

If a history of late colonial and post-Independence South Asia is to be written based on Urdu periodicals and Urdu memoirs, will it make any breakthrough? Is such a project even possible? How do the political ideologies and practices of the BJP and BNP compare with each other?

That will depend on the focus of such a late colonial and post-colonial history. A general history of late colonial and post-Independence South Asia using only Urdu periodicals and memoirs is unlikely to be considered definitive even if it is possible to do. However, a study informed by a set of inter-related themes that chart the role of Muslim thinking on key issues in the public discourse of post-independent India— such as the status of Urdu or that of Muslim personal law— is not only possible but will have importance precisely because of the nature of the main sources used.

In a recent interview for a national daily and a separate feature in the Outlook, the renowned Indian historian Romila Thapar spoke out against the current trend of banning books in India and how it is a manifestation of totalitarian ideologies gaining currency here. She also blamed the all pervasiveness of the global market economy for this. What is your take on this trend, if trend it is, and on the recent banning of Wendy Doniger’s books in India?

Banning books is not a policy that I can subscribe to and so I do not agree with the belated decision to ban Doniger’s book. To do so is to give undue importance to narrow minded bigotry but also assumes that people are incapable of deciding what to read and think and require monitoring by state authorities.

Do you think greater and more frequent cultural–academic exchanges between India and Pakistan will work towards greater peace in the region amidst the scenario of academics being associated with the establishment directly or otherwise and the mainstream academe becoming even more cut-throat than politics?

Not all academics have been co-opted by the establishment on both sides of the 1947 divide. The academy is by no means devoid of self-serving politics, but I doubt that they are quite as ‘cut throat’ and unconscionable as the question suggests. So I do support greater cultural and intellectual exchanges between the two countries, which I believe will help remove a great many of the misconceptions their people have about each other.

In terms of share in the structures and processes of power to the religious minorities, how do the three countries India, Pakistan, Bangladesh compare with each other?

I think all three countries have a long way to go to accommodate their religious minorities and give them their due share of power and resources. That said, it cannot be denied that the shadow of military authoritarianism coupled with religious extremism makes the task more difficult for Pakistan and Bangladesh. But at the same time, one can hardly be sanguine about the fate of religious minorities in India given the religiously orientated rhetoric and majoritarian politics of certain parties.

India’s tryst with rural and urban local bodies (Panchayati Raj Institutions, etc.) is empowering ordinary citizens and is creating fiercely politicized citizenry, notwithstanding the rampant corruption even in these bodies. Do you see any such agency of democracy gaining ground in Pakistan and Bangladesh? If not, why?

Pakistan and Bangladesh have their own versions of elected local bodies for which contests are bitterly fought. This has to do with the increasing realization on the part of the electorate of the importance of the nexus between elections and governance. So I see democracy gaining ground in both Pakistan and Bangladesh but it will still require uninterrupted political process before they can have a positive impact on the quality of governance.

Where do India and Pakistan stand with relation to their minorities? India has done some work for its religious/linguistic minorities but, in relation to Muslims, does not allow them to emerge into the common civic space, preferring rather to ghettoize them—for instance the centrally funded Universities for Muslims have completely failed to excel despite abundant resources. Many of these legitimize the degrees of the deeni madaris (seminaries) thereby bringing down the standard of mainstream academia instead of providing a “halfway-house” sort of arrangement and slowly amalgamating those who finish their education from these madaris into the common civic space. The resultant Islamophobia could destroy the image of Muslims further. How do you analyze this policy of appeasement of minorities without realistically addressing their problems?

India has to first and foremost overcome the bigotry that has become embedded in the thinking of sections of its population before the Muslim minority can find their true place in the country. The fight for minority rights in Pakistan has a long way to go and will closely parallel the struggle for citizenship rights. I am not familiar with the intricacies of specific universities in India to have a considered opinion on them.

What is the future of Urdu-medium higher educational establishments in Pakistan and where do they stand vis-à-vis academic excellence? Is there any serious academic journal for social sciences coming out from Pakistan? If not, why?

They have a long way to go in terms of achieving academic excellence. In the past there were serious academic journals in the social sciences, especially development economics that were published in Pakistan. Some relatively new private institutions are trying to revive that tradition.

Pakistani author Fatima Bhutto

The fact that women in Pakistan are writing in Urdu and English, and being appreciated, is an important development that I undoubtedly support. Among Pakistanis who do read, Indian authors in English are quite popular[divider]

About your analysis of Sir Syed, one can argue that you have missed the fact that Syed’s mission was to provide education to aristocratic elite and his writings are clearly biased against lower-caste Muslims as was the character of the MAO College. Don’t you think that had Sir Syed envisioned an egalitarian Muslim model, the movement for Partition would not have been dominated by elite Muslims and the history of subcontinent would have unfolded differently?

I think you have missed my writings on Sir Syed, as I have never overlooked the primary importance of his educational endeavors or denied that, given the political context at the time, he was exclusively concerned with the education and well being of upper class Muslims rather than the uplift of the Muslim masses. The second part of your question lies in the realm of pure speculation, as you cannot assume a course that is not grounded in the reality of politics in colonial India to begin with.

Among the Muslim and Communist leadership, one interesting thing is the domination of the upper crust despite the paradoxical ethos of these ideologies. How do you analyze this phenomenon in India and Pakistan? I cannot also resist the temptation to ask your opinion about the failure of left-wing politics in Pakistan.

You cannot read back into history and need to assess the situation according to what exists at any given moment in time. With the franchise restricted by education and property qualifications, and the unabashedly elitist nature of the educational system in British India, it is hardly surprising that the upper classes provided the leadership of both Muslims and Communists. Communism can sometimes provide a façade for continued elite domination of politics as happened during the long decades of communist rule in West Bengal.

How do you analyze the role of left parties in current Indian politics who have been described as mere fence sitters indulging in intellectual sparring with other political parties without affecting any relevant change on the ground? This despite the reasons behind the rampant rise of Naxalism in India, which could have been addressed by the left. What are your observations on this? Following from this, how do you view the Maoist problem in India and how serious is their challenge to the future government in Delhi? Is there a realistic way forward?

The Left parties that take part in parliamentary politics seem bereft of fresh ideas and are suffering from a crisis of leadership. The current Maoist challenge has its roots in the neglect and exploitation of the Adivasis in a vast swathe of India. It should be possible to address the problem by giving these alienated people their political and economic rights as is being done in West Bengal.

Pakistan is the country of your birth and India where your ancestral roots lie, so you are knowledgeable about both these countries—including their literatures—having written widely about both these nations and their shared and severed histories. How do you rate contemporary English literature and prevailing literary culture in both these countries, particularly in the light of the current popularity of Pakistani women writers, like Fatima Bhutto, Kamila Shamsie, Moni Mohsin, etc., in India? Are Indian English authors as appreciated in Pakistan?

Women have been writing in the subcontinent long before the current trend among the elite classes to publish works in English instead of Urdu or other regional languages. The reach of these works is limited as the reading public is still overwhelmingly Urdu. Original works in Urdu should be translated into English and other South Asian languages. The fact that women in Pakistan are writing in Urdu and English, and being appreciated, is an important development that I undoubtedly support. Among Pakistanis who do read, Indian authors in English are quite popular.

The interview first appeared in Outlook India magazine

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