July 05, 2020
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Landscape On Shaky Tripod

Plus ça change.... Caste, gender and communalism were three issues flagged in the first Outlook. Those movies are still playing.

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Gujjars agitate for reservation in Rajasthan
Photograph by PTI
Landscape On Shaky Tripod

Outlook’s inaugural issue of October 18, 1995, could well be the rearview mirror in which the past can be framed for outlining the contours of change India has undergone over the last 23 years. Three stories are pertinent here: the findings of the first-ever opinion poll conducted in Kashmir; extracts from then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s incomplete novel, subsequently published as The Insider; and Prof Mushirul Hasan’s column describing how Muslims are caught in an image trap. All three talk of phenomena relating to power, or the state of being powerless—and how they interact.

When the inaugural issue hit the newsstands, enraged nationalists, who hadn’t yet become as virulent as they are today, wondered at the sagacity of statistically determining Kashmir’s alienation. Their anger was understandable—Outlook’s opinion poll showed 72 per cent of Kashmiris fav­oured independence, 77 per cent said a solution to Kashmir couldn’t be found within the framework of the Indian Constitution, and a whopping 90 per cent categorised human rights violations as “very high”.

Kashmir is trapped in an official statistical narrative, comprising cut-and-dried elements like the annual death toll, the number of ceasefire violations by Pakistan and voter turnouts. Depending on the rise or dip in these figures in comparison to preceding years, it is determined whether Kashmir is on the upswing or downswing. Such a narrative can’t quite explain why Kashmiris rush to impede security forces engaged in operations against militants. Or why a Burhan Wani becomes a role model for millennials who hurl stones at men in uniform.

It would seem Kashmiris rem­ain politically and emotionally stuck where they were in 1995. But that can’t be determined with certainty because of the improbability of a media outlet today conducting an Outlook-like poll in Kashmir. In these hypernationalistic times, it will be slapped with sedition charges. Peace in Kashmir is linked to the kind of nationalism propagated, and subscribed to, outside the province. It is now a proxy tool for stoking anxiety among Hindus elsewhere for communal mobilisation—one more reason why the Indian state and Kashmir will remain entangled in a bloody embrace.

Dalits reel under a mundanised violence vitiated by the ‘social patent’. Muslims, like Akhlaq, are viciously othered.

Extracts from Narasimha Rao’s novel, a fictional account of the grimness of Indian politics, were salacious. One that jumps out to grab attention in 2018 reads: “Sex was like itch to Jeevan; the urge to fornicate wasn’t very different from the urge to urinate…. He treated them all with equal contempt.” Over the last 23 years, the grapevine had always been abuzz with stories in which the priapic itch drove men in positions of power to metamorphose into sexual predators. Women rarely complained—they weren’t expected to.

In 2018, patriarchy has been dented because of the rampaging #MeToo campaign. At least in metros, it will have certainly lowered the threshold of tolerance for sexual exploitation, whether masked or defined, at the workplace. Not only will bosses need to find a cure for their itch, a new protocol for male-female interaction at the workplace will have to emerge. Or else males, particularly those with fiduciary duty to their subordinates, will continue to be named and shamed.

But campaigns like #MeToo cannot enduringly tame pat­riarchy unless there are structural changes. This cuts right through to a welter of fundamental issues, often conflictual. Why are there so few women bosses? Is it because there is a glass ceiling, which requires the hammer of reservation to shatter it? But in India, class and caste undercut the idea of gender-based reservation, as was repeatedly demonstrated every time attempts were made to set aside one-third of seats in the Lok Sabha and state legislatures for women. The bill for women’s reservation was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in 1996. It has yet to become a law.

The bill encounters stiff opposition from politicians bel­onging to OBC groups. They see it as a conspiracy to reverse the gains they made via Mandal, which consolidated them and bequeathed them a unity of purpose. OBC politicians believe their grip over power is destined to grow as their community is numerous. From their perspective then, des­pite a patriarchal tinge to their vocabulary, the bill is seen as a subterfuge to maintain caste hegemony. This is because the bulk of seats reserved for women would be cornered by those from the elite castes: wealthy, educated, politically savvy. They say they would be willing to vote for the bill only if OBC, SC and ST women are guaranteed a percentage of the one-third seats reserved on the basis of gender.

Their proposal isn’t acceptable to the BJP, Congress and Left parties. They think introducing quotas within a quota, on another logic, would not only dilute but contradict the philosophy of gender-based reservation: women encounter discrimination and exclusion because of patriarchy, not exclusively due to caste. (Indeed, they face discrimination caste-internally.) Intertwining gender and caste thus could prompt the judiciary to strike down reservation for women, they fear. Because it would imply gender alone is not the historical reason for the exclusion of women.  

Testimonies in the #MeToo campaign are proof that class and caste privileges do not insulate women from sexual violence and discrimination. Yet their severity and frequency are far more for women of subaltern groups—their discrimination is doubled. In 2010, the Supreme Court uph­eld the validity of OBC reservation in panchayat elections. It is possible to argue the verdict paves the way for quotas-within-quota.

That caste-based reservation continues to be contentious is in sharp contrast to the expectations at the time Outlook was born. Just two years before, in 1993, the Supreme Court had upheld OBC reservations. It was believed Mandal would become a stable element in India’s political architecture. That hasn’t happened. In fact, there is a race among socially advanced groups—Patels, Marathas, Jats, Kapus et al—to prove they are socially and educationally backward and claim reservation. Either the Indian state will have to rebuff their claims or it will have to remove the Supreme Court-mandated 50 per cent cap on reservation to accommodate them. In both scenarios, social discontent and conflict will roil India.

The emergence of new pressure points in caste politics is in addition to the changing nature of assertion and suppression of Dalits. In 1997, two years after Outlook was launched, the Ranvir Sena, a dominant caste militia, gunned down 58 Dalits in Laxmanpur Bathe, in Arwal district of Bihar. Such largescale caste massacres have undoubtedly become rare.

#MeToo cannot alone tame patriarchy. Is there a glass celing that awaits the hammer of reservation?

Dalits, however, still reel under a mun­danised, everyday violence. India is perhaps the only country to have spawned the concept of the social patent—dominant groups appropriate forms of social conduct, sartorial choices and facial/hairstyles for themselves. A social patent determines who can sport a moustache, take out a wedding procession or ride a horse to the bride’s place, even wear a white shirt. Basically, even symbolic acts that can inject a sense of worth in Dalits. Infringement of social patent rights invites violence.

Their infringement, paradoxically, testifies to the growing confidence among Dalits. The deepening of democracy has given their presence in just about every part of India a new political meaning. Politicians cannot be indifferent to them. And reservation has provided them a modicum of mobility, motivated them to take to education, and created an articulate section unwilling to accept the oppressive rules of the past.

Conversely, their social and economic betterment incites anxiety among dominant groups, who balk at the shrinking of disparities. They enforce social patents to underscore their continuing dominance in a changing world. The violence in Bhima Koregaon was at once a story of Dalit assertion and the pushback of dominant groups against it.

Prof Mushirul Hasan’s The Image Trap is the third piece from Outlook’s inaugural issue that stands out in the rearview mirror. In it, Hasan writes, “There is still talk of a ‘Muslim mind’, a ‘Muslim outlook’, and an inclination to construe Muslim identitarianism around Islam. A sense of otherness is conveyed thus.” Twenty-three years later, Muslims experience their othering almost daily, either lynched in the name of the cow or set upon for dating Hindu girls. Even a fight in a game of mohalla cricket or mere accident is turned into a Hindu-Muslim conflict.

Fomenting riots was once the most favoured tactic of creating the other. The Congress, too, resorted to it, at times in tandem with the radical segment of the Hindu Right. Such violence was opportunistic, often confined to three-four electoral constituencies. It lacked ideological and normative justifications, precisely why restoration of peace was always followed by attempts to bridge the chasm between Hindus and Muslims.

By contrast, Hindutva engages in a blanket othering of Muslims and this flows from its ideology. It is consequently not considered normatively aberrant, but a permanent condition of existence to strive for. After the horrific communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, Narendra Modi, who was then chief minister, did not seek to stitch together Gujarat’s social fabric. In fact, he engaged in further othering the Muslims by disparaging them through coded phrases such as “hum paanch, humare pachees” to win two elections in a row. Likewise, ideology was harnessed in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 for harvesting votes.

Full-blown riots can’t possibly become a constant feature, signalling as it would a social meltdown and the government’s inability to govern. Ideological purposes are consequently served through everyday communalism that do not allow untangled communitarian relationships to be knitted together again. In such a situation, Modi’s silence on the targeting of minorities, or his construction of the shamshan-qabristan binary during the 2017 UP assembly election campaign, renders the othering of Muslims a legitimate project.

It is slowly becoming political common sense that one way to counter Hindutva is to disallow the BJP from acquiring a monopoly over the religious realm. It isn’t necessarily a faulty strategy. Yet it is hard to tell whether Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples, his emphasis on his Hinduness, will wean away Hindus from the BJP. A more effective method might be to debate the nature of Hinduism and outline a competing archetype to the BJP’s Hindu.

Even as the battle for India’s soul is fought on many fronts, the war on corruption will remain a matter of rhetorical flourish. Stories of corruption have dogged every government that lasted for five years since 1995. It now haunts Modi’s regime. India is corrupt because the cost of fighting elections has grown exponentially. Until this is addressed, India’s polity and democratic accountability will continue to get skewed, regardless of the zeal of crusaders against corruption.

In 2018 then, there is as much of 1995 present as there are perhaps elements of 2041. As in the past so in the future, exuberant expectations of change will have to contend with darkled forces representing the status quo, even regression. Worryingly, this contest seems to be turning India into a violent democracy.

Ajaz Ashraf is a senior journalist.

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