May 30, 2020
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Ghetto Of Cynicism

Exploring the challenges posed by communal neuroses in society

Ghetto Of Cynicism
Religion, Religiosity And Communalism
By Ed. Harbans Mukhia , Achin Vanaik , Praful Bidwai Manohar
Manohar Rs 400; Pages: 273
A discreet little note on the copyright page informs us that all except two of the papers collected here were published earlier in a special issue of a particular journal "on the communal problem in India". However, that was way back in 1994, long before this recent entertainment through which the Party of December 6 has been made aware of its still untouchable condition. Atal Behari Vajpayee has become the Prime Minister Who Never Was. And that which is so confidently singular in the book's project—"the communal problem"—may well soon proliferate into a plurality of noxious communalisms as the BJP alternates between sulking and plotting, unable to decide whether to own or disown the piles of rubble which its demolition squads produced in Ayodhya on that distant winter morning.

Still, it is a measure of the quality of many of the contributions to this volume that even in this fast-changing situation, their insights and analyses have worn so well. In 'Radicalism of the Right And Logics of Secularism', Aijaz Ahmed criticises the practical default of the Left in addressing the problematic of nationalism in our time: "A national definition of the polity—in other words, the cement of a national project—is an objective requirement of the material processes that have been unleashed by the very terms of economic and political modernity. If the Left cannot provide that cement, and if the liberal centre begins to collapse, an aggressive kind of rightist nationalism will have to step into that vacuum to resolve a crisis that is produced by the objective processes of state formation and capitalist development—and the right-wing nationalism is bound to take advantage of precisely that misery of the masses and the petty bourgeois strata which the liberal model promised to alleviate, but did not." The compensatory identities so much in evidence—caste, community, region—are merely symptoms of the failure to crystallise a radical secularism. The anodyne liberal secularism of the Congress variety is hopelessly incapable of meeting the challenge of Hindu communalism with its enviable ability to focus the radical discontents that are abroad in our society. The fact that the Party of December 6 is unable to generate a radical programme which can actually translate those energies—beyond demolishing ancient monuments, defacing nameplates and terrorising weak and defenceless persons—is something to be grateful for. But heroic gratitude can hardly be the sum of the Left's historic responsibility.

A number of the contributors to this volume—Harbans Mukhia, Zoya Hasan, Manini Chatterjee, Kamal Chenoy, Dipak Malik—revive our fast-fading recollections of the dreadful times through which we passed on our way to December 6. This is an enormously important task because we will be unable to put that dreadful date behind us until we have come to terms with its full, poisonous potential. After all, it is not surprising that there are a certain number of communal neurotics in societies such as ours. Nor is it surprising that there are political parties which seek to profit by exacerbating those neuroses. The really horrifying thing is the inability and/or unwillingness of the State—constitutionally secular but also, and beyond definitional ambiguity, committed to the chastisement of criminal violence—to deal with instance after instance in which its own agencies have been proved, beyond the shadow of reasonable doubt, to have acted criminally. The fact that this violence was communal—whether in Hashimpur, or Bhagalpur, or Delhi in 1984, or Bombay in 1992-93—is a significant detail. But it can hardly be an extenuation, let alone an exoneration.

Tanika Sarkar has done pioneering work on the oddly unnoticed educational design of the RSS. However, it is hardly enough to content ourselves with saying that in these RSS schools "seemingly precise information about disjointed queries is actually systematically organised to project a communal myth". Unarguable—but unsurprising. That "actually systematically" begs all the crucial questions. Mushirul Hasan has written thoughtfully about "minority identity and its discontents". He figures in his own narrative in the third person. His first-person account of his emblematic, if harrowing, experience of those discontents would be worth watching out for.

Some of the pieces fall prey to identifying those religious distillates—"essence of X"—which are widely prescribed for the maladies produced by actually-existent religions. It's a kind of homeopathy, I suppose. Rajeev Bhargava's astringent and even surgically sharp analysis of the variety of secularisms is a far cry from such soft-headed essence-mongering. But it might not be significantly more effective in dealing with the brutal communalism of the marketplace. Still, it might help us understand why we secular folk are ineffectual. And how we might escape from the ghetto of cynicism and irony and despair in which we are presently imprisoned.

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