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Muslims and Dalits as Subalterns

Muslims and Dalits as Subalterns Subaltern Studies XII: Muslims, Dalits and the Fabrications of History, edited by Shail Mayaram, M S S Pandian and Ajay Skaria; Permanent Black and Ravi Dayal Publisher, New Delhi, 2005; pp x+ 322, Rs 695 (hardcover).


Muslims and Dalits as


Subaltern Studies XII: Muslims, Dalits and the Fabrications of History,

edited by Shail Mayaram, M S S Pandian and Ajay Skaria; Permanent Black and Ravi Dayal Publisher, New Delhi, 2005; pp x+ 322, Rs 695 (hardcover).


ne of the principal unifying themes in the latest volume of subaltern studies is an engagement with the construction of a dominant historical narrative of the Indian/Hindu nation in colonial and nationalist discourses. The eight essays explore the uneasy presence within this narrative of religious and social minorities, matrilineal practices, bardic traditions of critique and “imaginative” alternatives to modern historicism. These are viewed not just as interruptions, but as “excesses” that inform, interrogate and threaten the very fashioning of the narrative. The focus is on the narrative’s negotiation of the unassimilable and the irreducible: both in terms of ideas, as in Prathama Banerjee’s thoughtful exploration of the concept of ‘kalpana’ (imagination) in early 20th century Bengal, as well as in terms of practices, as in Praveena Kodoth’s detailed discussion of the distilling of a bewildering variety of practices in 19th century Malabar into pre-conceived colonial notions of what constituted proper matrilineal custom. This realm of the unassimilable might be a positive excess, as in the radical, individualistic representation of Kabir, explored by Milind Wakankar. It could also be, as M T Ansari shows, the disciplining of the Mappila Muslims of Malabar (viewed as being in excess of familiar categories of race and caste), into the negative and powerful stereotype of “the fanatic”.

Growing Dalit Politics

Two essays, from very different perspectives, stem from the question of a growing dalit politics in postcolonial India. Investigating the category of “caste atrocity” through the lens of one brutal case of murder in Marathwada in 1991, Anupama Rao underscores the importance of acknowledging dalit political militancy in recent decades, and especially the violence it has produced in response, in framing contemporary legal tools in postcolonial India against caste discrimination. Rao illustrates the limits of these legal efforts, which focus on the “exception” of caste violence (defined as a wide array of physical, linguistic and psychological acts). They ignore, in the process, the broader, everyday caste sociality that the violence springs from, while making violence the vehicle through which dalit citizens are rendered visible in legal discourse. Rao also details the archival challenges involved in piecing together the issues and narratives surrounding the murder case, and the bureaucratic requirement from her to declare that she would use the materials gathered for “purely academic purposes” (p 187). While explicitly underscoring the vacuity of this phrase, she also implicitly emphasises the importance of these archival sources and the ways in which providing (or restricting) access to them is itself part of the wider sociality and legal bureaucratic apparatus within which caste politics functions.

While Rao’s essay examines dalit political militancy around the ‘namantar’ agitation move to rename the Marathwada University after Ambedkar from the 1970s, Wakankar’s essay takes as its departure another aspect of this politicisation: the claim to an autonomous dalit tradition in the past. In north India, this includes dalit claims to Kabir as the creator of an autonomous dalit religion, and powerful critiques of his “brahmanisation” in modern Hindi criticism. Reading dominant analyses of Kabir in the spirit of these recent critiques, Wakankar examines how Kabir’s lower caste status and ambiguous religious affiliations made him a problematic figure for upper caste Hindu nationalists, but also made him available for appropriation by secular, Nehruvian visions. He argues that when refracted through the historical lens of the coming of Islam to the subcontinent, Kabir’s radical individualism was deployed to assert the inner resilience of “Indian” culture and society, essentially silencing his critique of caste.

Interpretations of Gandhi

Two other essays present different interpretations of Gandhi’s response to Muslim religious sentiment during the Khilafat movement of 1920-24. Faisal Devji argues that during this time Gandhi foregrounded friendship as a “practice of prejudice” as a relationship of choice between Hindus and Muslims. This choice not only critiqued the liberal regime of rational interests within which both communities encountered each other in the colonial state, but also put forward an ethical position that sought to retain and respect their cultural differences in a vocabulary of “everyday neighbourliness” (p 89). Critical to the practice of this prejudice was the disinterested and unconditional support of the friend’s claim, in this case the Muslim demand for the preservation of the Khilafat. Devji suggests that Gandhi’s search was for a negotiation that went beyond the symmetric compromise based on contractual and interestbased relations. Ansari’s essay certainly details the communitarian contexts within which Gandhi sought to develop this notion of friendship, but also points to the contradictions and limits of this practice of prejudice in Gandhi’s own response to the violent Mappila rebellion in Malabar in the 1920s. He argues that Gandhi too invoked and rehearsed these familiar colonial stereotypes when he described the Mappilas as “cruel”, or having “gone mad” (p 73). This lens of “fanaticism”, placed the Mappilas outside the pale of other Indians and even the rest of the Muslim community for Gandhi, and represented, in Ansari’s argument, represented Gandhi’s inability to understand the religious framework through which Mappila rebels reimagined their local, economic grievances within a larger, Islamic and internationalist context. Devji suggests that Gandhi rejected the “supposed memory of some common historical experience

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006 making for brotherly obligation” (p 94), preferring, as it were, to forsake the past in staking the claim to friendship afresh between Hindus and Muslims. Ansari’s essay, however, points to the ways in which these communitarian categories and pasts informed even radical efforts to work past them.

Question of Historiography

Three essays in the volume take up the questions of historiography and representation more explicitly. Shahid Amin considers the creation of a common sense about Muslims in popular memory about the past. From literary and ethnographic writings from the late 19th century to contemporary national integration rhetoric, he examines the fabrication of particularistic and contextual memories into a seamless narrative about Muslim rule. Prathama Banerjee explores the alternatives the category of kalpana offered in Bengali writings on art, history and literature for a critique of modern historicism when conceived not just as visual imagination, but also as temporality. This temporality worked both to decentre western historicism and its racialised notions of progress, as well as to distance bhadralok elites from “primitive” tribal worldviews. Banerjee argues that despite its potential to negotiate multiple temporalities, however, this harnessing of the act of imagination remained a poetic gesture yoked to the nation’s overall creativity, and did not translate into a political act of accommodating difference.

Female Infanticide

Finally, Rashmi Dube Bhatnagar, Renu and Rashmi Dube examine the intersections of colonial discourse on the practice of female infanticide and on the bardic traditions of bhats and charans from the late 19th century. Colonial officials and native princely elites in Rajasthan colluded, in their argument, in producing the panegyrists as extortionists of their landed patrons during the daughters’ weddings, and thereby as the principal cause for the killing of infant daughters. Colonial anxieties about the subversive nature of the peripatetic bards’ craft and narratives of the past, combined to suppress them, and destroyed the “pro-daughter function” of the bard’s social critique of his patron. The “curious symmetry” that the authors posit between an increase in female infanticide practice and the decline of bardic practices in the 19th century, however, remains empirically unsubstantiated, beyond a sweeping argument about the abandoning of the bardic craft by most bhats and charans for western education and colonial service, and that “the erasure of non-western modes of history-writing facilitated the erasure of women” (p 234).

Motion of Fabrication

In terms of the regimes through which lived experiences and diverse practices are rendered visible in discourse, then, all the essays have implications for history “as both fabric and as fabrication”, as referred to in the short preface, more broadly (p vii). It is important, however, to pause and consider the usefulness of the term “fabrication” in enabling the democratisation of historical representation, but also in contesting exclusionary narratives such as those of the Hindu right, the spectre of which haunts the entire volume. As such, individual essays provide divergent approaches to the notion of historiography, its importance and authority and the volume as a whole misses an excellent opportunity to frame explicitly the overlaps and contradictions between them, and restate critical questions about the practice of south Asian historiography today, particularly the response of professional scholarship to the question of fabricated pasts.

It is in Amin’s leading essay that the notion of fabrication finds the clearest exposition. To Amin, the fabrication of a seamless representation of the Muslim was in the service of contemporary political contexts of colonial north India. “Fabrication” appears here as invention, a “product of belief, memory and imagination” that builds on particular memories and representations, but disregards the contexts and particular histories out of which these emerged. Amin’s plea, in response, is for locating communitarian relations and histories of interaction and conflict within such particular, grounded contexts. In other essays, the application of fabrication appears less clear, and at points, contradictory. For instance, although the Dubes make a strong case for considering nonwestern narratives of the past such as bardic panegyrics as legitimate history and reclaiming bardic genealogical narratives of dissent for a woman-centred critical history, for instance, they dismiss Bhartendu Harishchandra’s construction of caste histories in the later 19th century as “concoctions” (p 243).

Banerjee argues that imagination in Bengal was intended, on the part of many thinkers including Rabindranath Tagore, as a means of reducing the estrangement between different communities.

Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

In my own research, however, I have found that in the early 20th century, imagination was also deployed to deepen these estrangements; Marathi historical novelists eagerly embraced the domain of kalpana as creative licence, braided with positivism, to imagine a Maratha medieval past of homogeneous and antagonistic Hindu and Muslim communities, with the latter uniformly and cruelly oppressing the former. Indeed, this fabrication has been one of the central features of Hindu nationalist activity. What, then, are the slippages between history, memory, myth, polemic and fabricated narrative and how do we plot narratives of the past along a continuum ranging from critiques of historicism to outright falsehoods?

As Amin argues, a simple reiteration of “definitive, historical records” is unhelpful in countering divisive and stereotypical fabrications of the past; what is needed is also a history of this meaning-making process itself (p 2). Here, Banerjee’s point about the desire for history even in the face of a subtle critique of historicism and the need for “imagination to...harness history itself in its practices for the future” (p 297) is an important one here, and one that needs further exploration. This imperative to use history in order to emphasise the transience of the colonised condition, it underscores the need to clarify the position of modern, professional history in this project of recovering the way pasts are made and remade, and the extent to which its claims to authoritative representation should, and indeed can be, harnessed in hope of voicing more inclusive and nuanced accounts of the past.

Subaltern studies volumes have usually appeared without critical introductions, and this is only the second volume to have a subtitle indicating the common threads running through the essays. Debate about subaltern studies as a critical intervention in south Asian historiography and its changing theoretical preoccupations has also usually taken place off-stage, as it were, in the pages of other journals and volumes. Although unproductive to view the project as a whole as representing a rigid method and perspective, one of the most important and long term, and by now familiar, shifts has been in the category of the subaltern itself, from the concerns of identifiable economically disadvantaged tribal and peasant groups highlighted through an empirical rich social history to a broader, more shifting condition of marginality and postcoloniality explored largely through discourse analysis. This volume, once again, focuses on specific social groups – Muslims and dalits – and the preoccupation with the making of elite nationalist historiography also harks back to one of the project’s original concerns. While some of the essays remain situated within discourse analysis, preferring to consider the idea of the Muslim or the dalit, as “points of critical intensity” disrupting the national imagination (p 124), others, notably Amin and Rao, suggest the need to locate these categories in histories of lived experiences and in a serious engagement with the archive. The historiographical implications of marking these groups as “subaltern” and the relationship of this “subaltern” interpretation to the large body of scholarship on these categories, communities and their histories, however, remain unexplored in the volume as a whole. A detailed introduction that engaged this scholarship historicised the themes of this volume in terms of the wider theoretical horizons of subaltern studies, and brought together the diverse ideas about historical representation expressed in the different essays would have, therefore, been a welcome addition to the volume.



Economic and Political Weekly August 26, 2006

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