Contesting Communalism(s): Preliminary Reflections on Pasmanda Muslim Narratives from North India by Khalid Anis Ansari

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Abstract: The purpose of this study is not to contribute directly to questions of why, how or what
of communalism but rather to employ the extant body of knowledge to represent and interpret the
articulations advanced by activists associated with the Pasmanda1 movement—a movement of
subordinated caste Muslims in India. The movement aspires to organize various subordinated
Muslim castes,

2 which form about eighty percent of India’s largest Muslim minority, in order to
challenge the hegemony of the high caste ashrāf or sharīf Muslims. The Pasmanda movement has
complicated the politics around Islam and Muslim (minority) identity, which has been seen as
monolithic in public discourse. The movement, claiming to represent the concerns of Bahujan
Muslims drawn mostly from artisan or working-class background, has challenged the fascination
of old Muslim elite with cultural and symbolic issues. In marked contrast, the Pasmanda activists
have foregrounded organic social issues related to everyday struggles for survival thereby
creating a new counterhegemonic discursive space.

When Bashir cheats Ahmad, Ahmad thinks Bashir is a cheat. When Moti Lal cheats Ahmad, Ahmad thinks Hindus are cheats. Similarly, when the (Muslim) Bengal Government prohibits cow-killing in many places, as a preventive measure against riots, protests are feeble and anti-government; when a Congress government takes similar steps, protests are strident and anti-Hindu, and the cry is raised (and believed) that Islam is being
emasculated and down-trodden (Smith, 1943, p. 208).

The epigraph from Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s classic Modern Islam in India, written in the crucible of the anti-colonial struggle in the 1940s, sets the tone for this discussion. Smith clearly indicates how similar events of conflict are interpreted variously when the religious location of the performers is considered. So, an episode of deception in the interpersonal domain where the protagonists belong to the same religious community is treated differently when compared to one where they belong to a different one. The same logic applies to a bureaucratic move where the government is perceived to be managed by a political party supposedly representing the interests of the adversarial community. The epigraph clearly indicates the deep-seated suspicion between ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ and provides a glimpse into what could be said to constitute the field of ‘communalism’ in India. An early attempt by Smith to define communalism holds it as “that ideology which emphasizes as the social, political, and economic unit the group of adherents of each religion, and emphasizes the distinction, even the antagonism, between such groups; the words ‘adherent’ and ‘religion’ being taken in the most nominal sense” (p. 185). A relatively recent
review (Upadhyay & Robinson, 2012) posits that ‘communalism has been commonly understood in the literature as conflicts over secular issues between religious communities, particularly between Hindus and Muslims’ and that most ‘deliberations around communalism’ link it with ‘the colonial period’ such that ‘the concept has acquired a definite and definitive association’ (p. 35; emphasis in original). While acknowledging the empirical evidence of inter-religious conflicts in the precolonial period, they propose that those instances ‘cannot be said to have taken the form of full-blown communalism’ (p. 35). However, as the definitions above suggest, communalism is
variously presented as a concept (‘ideology’), phenomenon (violence/riots/pogroms) or even as an attribute (‘full-blown communalism’), each with porous borders that witness frequent sliding of meaning from one element to another.

33 Pathan quips at the “peculiarities of scholarship on ‘communalism’”: ‘Communalism’ seems to suffer from
contradictory characteristics: It is a modern phenomenon which is the result of colonialism or one which can be dated back to age-old conflicts between the Hindus and Muslims since the medieval era. It is a product of modernity versus a remnant of ‘primitivism’ in modern India. It has been considered the nemesis of secularism or the means to achieve secularism; a lack of secularism as well as an excess of it. ‘Communalism’ is the result of the failure of education or the regrettable success of Western education. It is majoritarianism, but politics of a similar characteristic have been expressed by minorities as well (2014, p. 1). 79 Prabuddha: Journal of Social Equality (2018) 1 Another work (Berenschot, 2011, pp. 19-38) catalogues six approaches employed to explain communalism in India: namely, the primordialist, ideological, instrumentalist, socialconstructivist, social-psychological and relational. The ‘primordialist approach’ concentrates on the force of ethnicity to form one’s world-view and enable social action. This is by and large an essentialist view as it construes primordial attachments to be an intrinsic part of human nature unamenable to alteration. It foregrounds a thick conception of cultural difference and argues that
solidarities necessarily forge around these cultural markers and the process of Othering is a natural state of affairs. Hence, present day riots are explained by relating them to past conflicts between religious groups. One may note that this is also the classic colonial position and is often invoked by religious nationalists, both Hindu and Muslim alike (Gaborieau, 1985; Robinson, 2000, 2008). The ‘ideological approach’ explains the recurrent incidence of
communal violence to the pervasiveness of communal ideology in the public sphere. In the contemporary period the proponents of Hindutva and Islamism represent this approach. Those building their politics on communal ideology concentrate on ‘organisation’ and ‘propaganda’ to serve their ends (Ahmad, 2010; Chandra, 1984). The ‘instrumentalist approach’ articulates communal violence as a political strategy that serves the interest of powerful elites. Paul Brass, who has noted the presence of ‘institutionalised riot systems’ in major towns where communal violence has been endemic stresses ‘the functional utility of the persistence of Hindu-Muslim riots in India for a wide variety of interests, groups, institutions, and organizations, including ultimately the Indian state’ (2003, p. 24). The close relation between elections and the occurrence of communal violence has also been emphasized
(Wilkinson, 2004). The proponents of ‘social-constructivist approach’ argue that communal identities are social constructs. In their reading communal antagonism is not a ‘given’ reality but has formed over time through a complex interaction between state policies (colonial and postcolonial), political manoeuvrings and wider socio-economic developments. The constructivists have especially foregrounded the role of discursive frameworks (cultural interpretative systems) in making sense of communal violence (Hansen, 1999; Pandey, 1990). The ‘social-psychological approach’ privileges the actor’s point of view and focuses on the motivations and drives of those
who participate in violence. In short, riots occur because they serve various psychological needs (Kakar, 2000). The last one, the ‘relational approach’ underscores the shifting patterns of social interaction between and within conflicting communities and locates violence in the network of relations that produce solidarity and fragmentation in society. This approach encompasses economic, civil society and institutional arguments (Basu, 2015; Engineer, 1995; Varshney, 2002).

Clearly, explaining communalism has been a prolific academic enterprise4 and one could tend to concur with the suggestion that ‘no single causal explanation of Hindu-Muslim riots and antiMuslim pogroms will suffice to explain all or even most instances of such collective violence in India’ (Brass, 2003, p. 22). While most of the literature on communalism has been ‘centrally 4 See Heehs, 1997 and Upadhyay & Robinson, 2012 for useful reviews.
80 Prabuddha: Journal of Social Equality (2018) 1 concerned with causes’ (why?) (Pandey, 1990, p. 12), Brass and Pathan focus on the production of riots (how?) (2003, p. 16) and the conceptualization of communalism (what?) (2009, p. 2) respectively. Here, the attempt is to explore through the Pasmanda narratives how the issue of
communalism is discussed in the margins of the Muslim social space and the conceptual problems—role of orientalism in knowledge production on South Asian Islam/Muslims, the questions of subaltern solidarity and agency, the process of community reform and democratisation—that are posed for the Pasmanda movement in particular and social-scientific knowledge generally.

Despite the definitional ambiguities associated with ‘communalism,’ one may note that historically the term underwent a change in the emphasis on meaning—from the earlier colonial references to sectional demands by religious communities to the later references to episodes of Hindu-Muslim violence5 (Pandey, 1990, pp. 6-9). In this space, the usage of the term ‘communalism’ broadly implies the latter meaning. In terms of philosophical and methodological assumptions, the study may be construed as a constructivist and situated work.

6 In this sense, it would be useful to revisit Foucault’s relationality between power and knowledge ‘[such] that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not
presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations’ (cited in Howarth, 2002). In ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ Foucault marks a distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘effective’ history with the latter ‘being without constants’ (1984, p. 87). If the practitioner of effective history or the genealogist “refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, if he listens to history, he finds that there is ‘something altogether different’ behind things: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms” (p. 78). Once the supra-historical and objectivist pretensions of traditional history are done away with, the genealogist is left with the task of exploring the historical emergence and formation of discourses, categories, social formations and so on. But since all discourses are constituted within the play of domination and power a genealogist also has to show ‘possibilities excluded by the dominant logics of historical development. In this way, the genealogist discloses new possibilities foreclosed by existing interpretations’ (Howarth, 2002, pp. 72-73). In this sense, the ‘final trait of effective history is its affirmation of knowledge as
perspective’ (Foucault, 1984, p. 90). It is to the Pasmanda perspectives on communalism that I will now turn.

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