Outrage in South Asia
by Koenraad Elst on 23 Feb 2009 4 Comments

On 25 and 26 September 2008, the Paris-based South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (SAMAJ) held a conference about “outraged communities: investigating the politicisation of emotions in South Asia”. The texts of the contributed presentations have now been published in the December 2008 issue of SAMAJ (integrally on-line at http://samaj.revues.org).

Let me say first of all that the meeting was great fun, it was well-organized, intense, at a higher pace than outsiders tend to expect from the easy-living French. It offered me the opportunity to meet Djallal (André) Heuzé, whose critical but well-informed book on Hindu nationalism I once reviewed. I didn’t even realize until afterwards that the spice of sharp debate had been missing. All vocal participants seemed to be in agreement on the essentials, especially the secularist consensus that religious conflicts and “outrage” are mere masks for some socio-economic interests or for generally human motivators such as emotions.

Theological motives for such phenomena as jihad are ruled out beforehand by these social “scientists,” possibly the consequence of their inability to deal with profound ideological issues. This approach prevents them from ever understanding religious “fanatics,” for whom these ideological concerns are all-important. Thus, all those numerous analysts and commentators who have explained Islamism as a reaction to poverty or neo-colonialism have never been able to account for the involvement of wealthy Western-educated persons like Osama bin Laden, who sacrificed a life of luxury because he got serious about his religious commitment. Much less have their sociological models ever been able to explain the purely Islamic motivations expounded in the final writings of terrorists like Mohammed Atta of Twin Towers fame and Mohammed Bouyeri, murderer of Islam-critic Theo van Gogh.

The presentation, “Constructing Outraged Communities and State Responses: The Taslima Nasreen Saga in 1994 and 2007” by Ali Riaz, surprised me by actually mentioning the reason why Bangladeshi medic and novelist Taslima Nasreen has a death sentence on her head, viz. because she denounced the persecution of the Hindu minority in her novel Lajja (Shame, 1993). When she toured Europe in 1994, where trendy intellectuals tried to bask in her reflected glory of brave dissent, all the supposed quality papers (Le Monde, Der Spiegel etc.) pretended that it was her long-standing feminist positions that had brought the death sentence upon her.

In reality, while her feminism greatly displeased the Islamic clerics, it was only when she took up the cause of the hated Kafirs that they cared to sentence her to the ultimate punishment. But of course, no public figure concerned about his respectability wanted to be seen drawing attention to a case of Muslims as oppressors and Hindus as victims. It seems we have now come to a point where an India-watcher with presumably serious professional ambitions can afford to deviate from this secularist party-line. Then again, while a Muslim can afford to, for a non-Muslim it would still be harmful to his career prospects.

My undivided praise goes to Nicolas Jaoul for his talk on “the post-Khairlanji protest in Vidarbha” by SC Mahars against the murder of four fellow caste members by members of the locally dominant Kunbi OBC. In this case the protest movement was successful, leading to effective judicial punishment for the culprits as well as provoking a rise in reporting and police registering of similar complaints on caste atrocities. The campaigners demanded a full and effective death sentence for the main culprits, a demand deemed inhuman by secularists when voiced against convicted terrorists like Afzal Guru.

I understand that Hindus are tired of the outsiders’ reduction of Hinduism to caste, only caste and nothing but caste. However, the eagerness of all enemy forces, and equally of sincerely curious impartial observers, to investigate caste conflict simply reflects a really existing problem. Contrary to what you could expect in the general media in such cases, Jaoul did not conveniently blame “Hindu fundamentalism” or some such ogre. But neither did he report any constructive intervention by the organized Hindu movement. When I asked him about the role of the political parties in the Khairlanji events, he said the BJP has tried to instrumentalize the issue by blaming the ruling Rashtriya Congress Party, but that there were also personal links between some culprits and the BJP. The self-described vanguard of Hindu society had better live up to its progressive boasts and deal with this injustice on a priority basis, not opportunistically, but as a matter of principle.

Sikhism too has its instance of “outrage,” viz. against all forms of Sikhism that diverge from the line laid down by the anti-Hindu religious separatists. Here, a paper discussed the indignation in organized Sikhism over the performance by Baba Gurmeet Ram-Rahim Singh, leader of the Dera Sacha Sauda sect, impersonating Guru Govind Singh. Unlike the SC Mahars’ outrage in Khairlanji, but just like Muslim outrage over Taslima Nasreen’s work, this is an instance of a ruling group incensed by the impertinence of a dissident’s presumption of equality, not of an oppressed group revolted by the ruling class’s brutal atrocities.

One of the paper’s presenters said off-hand that the Khalistani struggle had been started in reaction to the Delhi pogrom of 1984, which killed about three thousand Sikhs. When I pointed out that that pogrom by Congress activists took place more than five years into the Khalistani struggle, her co-presenter corrected her, restating the well-known fact that it had started in the clash with the Nirankari Sikhs on Vaisakhi (13 April) 1979. That’s when the separatists attacked a Nirankari procession in Amritsar, killing some “heretics” (who acknowledge Sikhism’s Hindu roots, in contrast with the dominant separatists’ fabrication of an anti-Hindu inspiration as underlying Guru Nanak’s mission) and losing some of their own men too.

The courts released the Nirankaris arrested for killing these “Sikh martyrs” on grounds of legitimate self-defence, a verdict which the Khalistani aggressors considered a great injustice. That had been yet another instance of the dominant group in Sikhism getting “outraged” at the insolence of a non-dominant group and the indignity of getting treated as mere equals in law with their heretical opponents. So, some outrage is the underclass’ or the subalterns’ indignation at being oppressed, but some outrage is indignation at the underlings’ defiance against the prevalent power equation. 

Also very interesting was the paper by Aminah Mohammed on the agitation in Lahore against the Danish cartoons. Apparently the movement openly took inspiration from the agitation in 1927 against the book Rangila Rasool, culminating in the murder of its publisher Mahashay Rajpal. The then murderer was now celebrated as a hero and role model. The demonstration was organized by Barelvi clerics, who are usually the moderates, relatively speaking, in an Islamist scene dominated by the Deoband school. Often they are the target of attacks by more militant groups, and in this case too. But their leadership role in the anti-cartoon agitation shows once more that the desire to outlaw and thwart any irreverent utterance about the Prophet is not the monopoly of “fundamentalists” but a common platform uniting the Muslim mainstream.

Christophe Jaffrelot contributed a paper on the Hindutva effort to create outrage on the Rama Setu issue. He emphasized first of all that the current initiative to make a passage in the Indo-Lankan rock formation known as Rama Setu originated with the NDA (BJP) government. Only when the whole enterprise was adopted by the new Congress-dominated government did Hindutva groups start protesting; and we too know the hollowness of much Hindutva campaigning.

Predictably he strictly ignored the one genuine cause of Hindu indignation in this context, viz. the fact that the government came out with statements denying the historicity of Rama, whereas it always takes care to pay respect to all non-Hindu myths in sight (e.g. the myth of Apostle Thomas founding the Kerala Christian community, to which secularist politicians and polemicists routinely pay lip service, even though Western scholars including Pope Benedict XVI have debunked it).

Jaffrelot gleefully described how Hindu nationalists frantically tried to create some outrage among the Hindu masses, how they had to move their planned demonstration from Tamil Nadu to Delhi for lack of a groundswell of indignation among Tamil Hindus, and how their argumentation made up for lack of religious cogency with an array of modernist (economic, ecological) considerations and purportedly scientific (NASA-produced) “evidence”. In the end it sounded more like a cabaret than a scholarly paper; he was constantly mocking the Hindutva activists whose arguments he was discussing.

Indeed, he’d be in serious trouble if he had given any other community this treatment. But with that, he was not ruffling any feathers; it was simply the mainstream view in this specialist congregation. Nobody in the panel even took the trouble of attacking Hindutva, for the demonization of Hindutva is a well-established position and needs no extra arguments. Any other evil in the South-Asian communal scene is now measured by its alleged degree of likeness to Hindutva, the acknowledged standard of evil.

At the same time, the indignation routinely implied in any mention of Hindutva is now no longer to be read as a warning of imminent danger. The bogey of “the threat of rising Hindu fanaticism” is still bandied about in the general media and in Christian missionary information channels, but insiders of the Indian Studies professions are confident that Hindu nationalism is well past its prime. They actually rejoice in seeing how the evil of Hindutva is now clearly superseded and rendered ineffective by the self-defeating incompetence or downright stupidity of Hindutva. They are confident that the combined anti-Hindu forces, such as Dalitism, the Christian Mission, Jihad, foreign-owned media and consumerism, are driving nail after nail into the coffin of Hindu resistance.

That’s not me saying so; it is only my attempt at accurately conveying an impression current among the India-watching establishment. Mentally, they are already dancing on Hindutva’s dead body.

The writer lives in Belgium; he is a renowned scholar on India 

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