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Plurality and difference: South Asian case

An analytical gaze at the past to understand the regional fissures

Plurality and difference: South Asian case

Renowned Indian thinker Ashis Nandy while commenting upon the contemporary situation of post-colonial South Asian states particularly India, Pakistan and Bangladesh made an interesting observation. Pakistan is not what India is; India is not what Pakistan is and Bangladesh is not what either India or Pakistan is. All three states have projected themselves as mutually exclusive and distinct political entities. The state narratives of the three countries affirm the identity of their respective people by negating the presence of the other.

It has started sounding like a cliché but the affirmation of the self, whether national or individual, generally rests on the negation of the other. In the process of affirming of the self, what gets sacrificed is the will to celebrate what we share and the resolve to coexist.

Several years ago we at the Government College University had the pleasure of inviting Prof. Iftikhar-ul-Awwal, from Dhaka University as a foreign faculty. He did use the epithet of a Bengali to be used for him. He insisted that he was Bangladeshi and not Bengali. For the historians, to unravel the knotty issue of Benagli/Bangladeshi identity is far too recent to make proper sense of.

While taking a cue from the Harvard historian David Armitage, we ought to delve deep into the past, what is being called as long duree history — to make sense of the present and also of the future. As back in history as we go, the better view we have, which in turn will help us plan about the future with greater clarity and sense of purpose. The fissures that South Asia seems to have been plagued with warrant us to take a deep breath and turn our analytical gaze at our past. But mind you, the gaze has to be analytical.

South Asia has been variously described by academics and scholars but the overriding commonality of that region is two-fold. One, its centuries-old history that has witnessed the coming up of one of the earliest human settlements — the archaeological sites of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa followed by Gandhara Civilization around Indus and its tributaries provide an avid testimony to its antiquity. The second distinctive feature is its plurality which is illustrated through the religions, the cultures, the social norms and linguistic as well as demographic formulations, which will be our main concern here.

Caste, kinship and tribal distinctions inhered in the already divergent social scenario complicate it even further, bringing to the fore myriad sub-social stratums existing parallel to each other. Varna system, Jatis and Got(ras), on the one hand have perpetuated the social norms predicated on exclusion but curiously enough it has stopped short of ‘othering’ the other caste groups. Brahman, for instance, as a highest social group in the subcontinental setting tended to exclude the people belonging to a different caste(s) while acknowledging their importance in the sustenance of the Varna system. Other castes were as much a part of that system as were the Brahmans. That Varna system prevented Hinduism to be a proselytizing religion unlike the Christianity and Islam.

Thus despite many pitfalls, one can not accuse Hinduism of wilfully imposing itself on others. One however must not cast aside the perilous implication of such social ordering as it impeded the social/occupational mobility. Despite such rigid social ethos, the worth asking question is the method of its negotiation with the revolts which erupted from within that organisational structure. Buddhism, Jainism and then Sikhism posed challenge to the perpetuating hegemony of the high caste in that Varna system. Mahavira’s Jainism had its meek existence without any political overtones.

As an outsider, it appears to me as an ideological appendage to Hinduism. One must not however forget that Jainism posed a challenge to the Brahman supremacy, the position that its adherents still hold quite doggedly. Buddhism and Sikh mat had, despite the miniscule numerical status of their followers, asserted themselves and secured a social space for themselves. Buddhism challenge was stalled after the Mauria period in the early medieval period. Buddhism retained its social and epistemic distinctiveness but failed to hold its ground politically. Thus it has been politically peripheralised.

The same holds for the Sikhs. Despite the fact that they managed to carve out a socio-cultural space for themselves in the midst of ambivalent cultural interface between Muslim Ashraaf and the Hindu high caste, Sikhs though grudgingly gave in to the political supremacy of the latter. Ranjit Singh’s rule on the Punjab may not be considered as an aberration but it certainly was a one-off incident.

With the onset of the modern period, colonial dispensation gave primacy to numerical strength in its strategy of co-opting the native populace. With the introduction of census in 1872 and then the reform under Lord Ripon laid the foundation for the re-alignment in the inter-communal relationship. Sikhs after re-inventing themselves through Sang Sabha and later on Akali Dal, were left with no recourse but to join Indian National Congress. Curiously enough, the Arya Samaj’s antipathy towards the Sikhs had become a flickering memory.

Political exigency took better of the Sikhs. In the project of India as a nation state, Sikhs after several cataclysmic episodes like 1984 etc. now have developed their stake. It is despite their increasing presence as the diaspora community in Europe and US.

Thus whenever South Asia is mentioned now, the people living outside South Asia are counted in; hence the boundaries of South Asia are stretched quite substantially beyond South Asia.

It will be very important here to bring into focus the question of Dalits which assumed quite an aura of intractability by 1930s, particularly when Dr. Ambedkar emerged as the unequivocal leader of that marginalised group. With the mature political strategy and vision, Muslim League could have made the issue of Dalits an anathema for the Congress. Still thorny to the hilt, Dalits are persistently asserting themselves and now when Hindutva has emerged as a political force to be reckoned with, the only faction in the entire India to put up some resistance are Dalits.

Dr. Ambedkar, despite the fact Faisal Devji called him a posthumous leader as he was re invented much after his death, is now considered as towering a figure as Gandhi Jinnah and Nehru.

Close to home, ever since the non state actors have acquired salience in the socio-political setting of Pakistan, situation has continually gone from bad to worse. Pakistani state has lost the monopoly that it is supposed to have over violence. At this hour what is needed the most is the state of Pakistan to assert its predominant position and to do whatever it takes to stem the rot, plaguing state institutions. It is absolutely vital when religious militancy and Sectarianism is rife and the Muslim is being defined in sectarian terms only. Consequently, religion has been deployed with impunity as an instrument of exclusion.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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