“India,” “Secularism,” and Its Dissenting Authors Or “Der Āyad, Durust Āyad, but is this even an arrival”?

by Huma Dar

“Prominent writers in India are collectively protesting what they consider an increase in hostility and intolerance, which they argue has been allowed to fester under the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by returning a prestigious literary award.”

Referring to attacks against Muslims, including the killing of a man who had been suspected of slaughtering a cow, he said, “This is not the country that our great leaders had envisioned.” (Ghulam Nabi Khayal, Sahitya Akademi Award, 1975)
The newsfeed on most South Asian social media has been deluged by articles like the one in The New York Times above. However, one has to wonder what kept these literary “stars” from this praiseworthy gesture of returning their State-given awards when the Gujarat pogroms were going on in 2002, or against the pogroms that followed the demolition of Babri masjid in 1992/3, or against the genocide of Sikhs around 1984, or heck, against the ongoing genocide in Indian Occupied Kashmir or that of Dalits…
My apologies for this query, which despite seeming cynical at first blush, is actually a probing of the very problematic and exceptionalizing notions of “India as a nation” and “Indian secularism” that these authors and poets valorize, explicitly or implicitly, through this joint gesture of returning their awards or through their separate oeuvre at large. It is precisely these twin concepts of unprobed “Indian secularism” and even more foundationally, the unproblematized, dehistoricized, and normalized idea of “India as a nation” (see The Indian Ideology (2012) by Perry Anderson for a resounding deconstruction of this) that are the fecund incubating grounds of much violence – violence which is Brahminical, colonial, and Islamophobic at the core. This is true not only with regard to the acts of spectacular violence, like the mob lynching of Muhammad Ikhlaq in the current context of Dadri, at the contemporary moment of Modi-fied India, but also for the billion and one banal acts of quotidian casteist, colonial, and communal violence that fertilize the roots of the phenomenon in modern India. This is especially true for the comparably spectacular violence of the allegedly “secular” contexts – the genocidal violence of the Indian state in Kashmir, Punjab, Hyderabad, Assam, Manipur, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, in every Dalit basti et al – that preceded the current Hindutva regime (and co-exist at any given time). In fact, it can be argued that the exceptionalization of India not only papers over much of this epistemic violence by making it invisible but actually enables it by helping it elide scrutiny. Thus no gesture of protest, however “well intentioned” it might be, will bear fruit until and unless the very problematic exceptionalism that undergirds the allegedly “secular India” is deconstructed.

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