“Oh mankind, we created you all from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other. Verily the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you”
(Al Quran, Surah Al Hujurat, Ayat 13)
When Jat-Pat Todak Mandal (the Hindu reformist group of Lahore), which had invited Ambedkar to deliver its annual lecture in 1936, asked for, and received the text of the speech in advance, it found the contents “unbearable”. Unbearable because it dared to call spade a spade. This “text in search of the audience”, as someone put it, later became the Annihilation of Caste–a book that teaches us why we shouldn’t mince words in articulating the truth. And therefore, here I am attempting to pen down something that may ruffle a few feathers. For me it comes with “a lump in the throat and a sense of wrong”, all that Robert Frost felt was enough of a reason to write.
How would have Gandhi felt when he was pushed out of the railway compartment at Pietermaritzburg station in South Africa? That night of June 7, 1893 came alive for me when I got a whiff of it recently–though in a completely different context. A casual interaction with a colloquial “mullah sahab” proved to be a crash course for me in all that was, and is wrong with us. On one hand it gave me a sneak peek into a well established inegalitarian order prevalent within the Muslim society of Kashmir while on the other revealed to me the intransigent nature of the supposed “sacred” ideological apparatus that legitimises it. I had witnessed others bearing the brunt of this order earlier as well. But here was someone, for the first time in my life, with a rictus of arrogance stretched across his face, talking to me as a self-convinced superior. Whether I bought into his nutty (il)logic or not, didn’t seem to matter.
It all started with a simple question about different attires donned by the Muslim religious clerics–as a mark of differentiation between a Sayed cleric and a non-Sayed cleric. Conjuring up Arabic verses with a dash of rhetorics and theatrics, he authoritatively maintained that Sayeds were inherently superior to other Muslims “as was inferred from the Quran and the Hadees“. “It is in the blood”, he argued. I retorted, ” having read Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, from cover to cover, this is exactly what he wanted to prove: Aryan blood was superior to non-Aryan blood, a case for biological inequality”. With a straight face the mullah sahab said, “don’t try to complicate the matter, you don’t need just brains to understand everything, rationality has a limited scope in divine matters”.
Aghast and appalled, I was reminded of few instances that encapsulate the bankrupt standards that we, as a self-aggrandizing and to some extent a narcissistic society, have accepted and normalised: an IAS friend of mine once confided that endogamy was an irrevocable rule in his family; my own aunt wondered sometime back how a neighbour of ours could look good and wear nice clothes simply because he belonged to an “xyz” caste; one of my relatives on his death bed asked his son to swear that he would not marry the girl he loved, because she belonged to some “lower” caste. (These things are happening in Kashmir!!)
Tyranny of Identity
We undoubtedly live in a collectivist culture that has suppressed an individual. Ascriptive identities call the shots. These are frozen and meant to cage you. Also, these are zero-sum i.e. if you are “this” you can’t be “that”. But can identity be permanent? Will someone else define “who I am”? Remember, we don’t remain the same person throughout our lives. Pratap Bhanu Mehta aptly captures it, “we easily ascribe identities, nest them in a particular set of expectations and confidently proclaim obligations that follow thereof… here naming has become a substitute for knowing”.
Absence of subaltern perspective
Just like feminism is considered “redundant” in Islam by some Muslims (because essentially Islam is supposed to have provided equal rights to women), a case for subaltern narrative in Islam may seem uncalled-for. But is it really? The South Asian sociological landscape has had an amorphous interaction with Islam. The hierarchies and the ranking systems of the traditional order have, to varying degrees, managed to survive and seep into the new Islamic society. Some may argue that it is just an issue related to the implementation of basic Islamic principles. True, but to get the implementation right we need to get the discourse right. For that to happen, voice has to be given to the millions of silenced-cum-tamed Muslims in South Asia.
Let’s acknowledge the fact that the compulsions of a lowly “political-economy” have eclipsed the moral imperatives of Islam. To restore its egalitarian credentials, and in the interests of broader human reason, someone will have to stand up to the customised versions of this divine religion. But if is not us, the Muslims, then who; if not now, when?
Butan-e-rang-o-khhon ko todh kar millat mein ghum hoja
Na Toorani rahe baqi, na Irani, na Afghani
Demolish the idols of colour and blood and lose yourself in the community
Turanians, Iranians or Afghans – all distinction vanish