Monday, July 24, 2006

Historical religious antagonism—When will we get a grip?

Looking at the unfolding events in Lebanon, it is hard to escape the feeling of helplessness. The problems seem particularly intractable because of deep historical grievances of the antagonists. Israel continues to use its Holocaust card successfully with the Europeans and the Americans. The Arabs—Muslims and Christians—on the other hand have innumerable tales of injustice inflicted on them during the 20th century and now. I see a parallel between this conflict and the persisting Hindu-Muslim tension in India.

This tension took prominence during the BJP years in there, when even riots that took thousands of lives were justified or tolerated in the guise of historical grievances or wounds. Let’s also not forget similar arguments presented during the Serb-orchestrated genocide in Bosnia during the 1990s.

An influential apologist for the cause of Hindu grievances during the BJP years was Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul. His infamous quote, “Ayodhya is a sort of passion. Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity,” appeared to justify a pogrom by Hindu rightwing zealots that claimed numerous lives, on the grounds that Hindu India, long wounded by invasion, was at last flexing is muscle in a manner that was understandable and inevitable.

Naipaul’s thesis was refuted by one of my favorite authors: William Dalrymple. Read his excellent piece on this in the Guardian review here

I recently emailed this article to a group of friends that unleashed a lively debate:

RC wrote:

Thanks. The issue is a complex one. And while my limited travels in North India provided impressions consistent with some of Naipaul's observations--invasions are not accidental and are never for the benefit of the invaded, true today as well--history must have a firm empirical basis; otherwise, it becomes a convenient ideological platform.

SA wrote:

Beyond the rights and wrongs of Naipaul's thesis - whose dubious empirical foundations are laid bare here - surely it is somewhat irrelevant to how communal relations should be handled today.

Even if grave injustices were committed in the past (as they certainly were, but then, in which corner of the world is that not the case?) that is hardly justification for some sort of historical retribution in the current age. Naipaul's statement about Ayodhya being a kind of passion and justified because passion leads to creativity makes him sound like a brown-shirted thug.

JA wrote:

I am not sure I agree with you, SA.

Much of what we do today is influenced by whether we feel guilty of or victimized by our past. So much depends on what we consider to be our past and this is where things go hairy. Like Kurosawa's Roshomon, we see events differently. They are subjective views, but for the observer it is objective. And this is what matters, since our reactions and what we do today are based on that. The problem with Roshomon is that there may have been other observers of the event who were never asked to retell their story. For example, as my friend Diana Saco would point out, history books may have looked very different if they were written by women. The Subaltern Studies tried doing that but met with an untimely death. But even they have problems. Neeladri, who is a Subaltern, did not write the last para quoted in the article about Romila and Bipin's books. To be fair, he should have. Those books also provided only a particular reading of history. Of course that reading was somewhat closer to Neeladri's views than those by the BJP government. My point is that we all take sides. In fact, we have to take sides. And what side we take depends on our inherited and shared experiences.

But your point is well taken that history should not be a justification of what we do today, because we should be capable of rising above our own past. Otherwise we fall into the same deterministic trap of Marxist theory and fatalism.

Perhaps Saurav Ganguly got it right when, in responding to a question about India's miserable performance overseas, he remarked that he did not believe in history.

SA wrote:

I think we may agree more than we disagree, JA. We are all creatures of our past, real or imagined. But we needn't be its captives.

I guess what I was getting at is that the positive question of what actually happened in India's long and chequered history is conceptually distinct from the normative question of how we should order a just society today.

The manner in which we approach the positive question is inextricably influenced by our experiences both as individuals and as members of the various sub-groups to which we owe alleigance (family, flag, religion, class, etc.)

But one starting point for the normative question may be to say: look, anything that happened more than X years ago, whether proven or dubious, flattering or unflattering, shall not constitute any basis for adjudicating between communities today. We could christen this the Sleeping Dog rule.

I realize that there are some problems with this normative approach, in particular, where to draw the demarcating historical line (e.g. a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict would hinge crucially on the value of X). But in principle I believe it may the only way to escape what you call the deterministic trap.

MC wrote:

Interesting discussion- I suspect that much of what "men" do and feel today is influenced by how they perceive the past. Much of what women across the world do or would like to do is probably influenced by how they feel about the present. They don't need to look at history to know that they are victimized . Either the existing laws (which usually are dictated by tradition/history - couched under different headings) or the implementation of these laws define their lives and therefore probably influence what they do. Positioning yourself as a victim or otherwise - due to a particular reading of history is a luxury afforded to men. This is not to say that women don't participate in this pursuit - just that fewer numbers of women probably do so.

Since regardless of the culture or the history - their place in the sun was never assured - whether they were in Bijapur or Vijaynagar- how could any event have further victimized them (hmmm maybe the Brits weren't that bad). Nothing wrong with passion - it does fuel creativity (Naipaul is right about that). However, Ayodhya did not result in passion alone - it resulted in challenging the rule of law.

Regardless of what we feel about history (and of course history is usually manufactured - but who cares it's real to us) - it does not justify breaking rules(and buildings and killing people). If those who feel passion for "Ayodhya" want to build temples (or whatever the heck they want) - they can air their views, petition the state - ask the people who ran the mosque (the Wakf Board) for space - all without breaking laws.Saurav was right...

MC also sent this excellent article on Ayodhoya.

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