Ramachandra Guha, Sadly

Well-known historian Ramachandra Guhawrote an article, “Liberals, Sadly” (Indian Express, March 20, 2018), as a response to the social activist Harsh Mander’s piece “Sonia, Sadly” published in the same newspaper three days earlier. Guha’s response largely misunderstood Harsh Mander’s concern and took the debate in a wrong direction. While Harsh Mander was pained to see the complete marginalisation of the Indian Muslims and the reluctance of the Congress party to address that problem, Guha began to scold Harsh Mander and his likes for being silent about Muslim religiosity in the public sphere. Reading Guha’s article reminded me of a similar accusation by the Hindutva right-wing forces that the Left is always hard on Hindu religious symbols but silent about those of Muslims.

Let me first talk about the context of the debate. Harsh Mander first wrote the article, following a statement by the former Congress President and UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, at India Today’s conclave. Sonia said that the BJP had succeeded in painting the image of the Congress as a “Muslim party”. Harsh Mander’s piece rightly expressed the fear that her statement might be an indicator of “the community’s abandonment” by the Congress. While Harsh Mander is right to predict a major shift in Indian politics where Muslims have become politically “untouchable” and they are demonised as the “the other” of our society, he failed to mention the fact that Muslims’ marginalisation predated Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi. As noted political scientist, Zoya Hasan, has argued that the plight of Muslims has gradually become worse since the Partition, “If we take 1947 as the baseline, Muslims have suffered downward mobility (Congress after Indira, 2012, p. 173)”. Journalist Saeed Naqvi has made the same point in his book, Being the Other (Aleph, 2016).

Guha himself had expressed a deep concern about the plight of the Indian Muslims. In an article titled “The triple tragedy of the Indian Muslims” (The Telegraph, October 25, 2008), he blamed both the BJP and the Congress for not doing justice to Muslims. As he rued, “The Congress seeks to exploit the Muslims, politically. The BJP chooses to demonise them, ideologically (but also with a political purpose in mind). The Congress wishes to take care of the (sometimes spurious) religious and cultural needs of the Muslims rather than advance their real, tangible, economic and material interests. The BJP denies that they have any needs or interests at all.”

Note the similarity between Guha’s Telegraph article and the concern of Harsh Mander’s article. But it is very strange that Guha has now pushed the backwardness of Muslim issue to the right-wing domain. The man, who earlier criticised the apathy of mainstream political parties, both secular and communal, toward Muslims, has now implied that the backwardness of Muslim has much to do with their own religiosity in the public sphere and carrying cultural and religious symbols outside their homes. At this critical juncture, when Hindutva forces are trying to turn the political majority into a communal majority by othering Muslims, showing intolerance to Muslims’ religious symbols has potential to inflict much damage on the already “wounded” community. 

In his response to Harsh Mander, Guha has attacked the Indian liberals for not being critical of their religious symbols; the blow is felt by the Indian Muslims. Mark the vehemence in Guha’s remarks: “Many people, this writer among them, object to Hindus flaunting saffron robes and trishuls at rallies. While a burka may not be a weapon, in a symbolic sense it is akin to a trishul. It represents the most reactionary, antediluvian aspects of the faith. To object to its display in public is a mark not of intolerance, but of liberalism and emancipation.”

He does not say that burka is “akin to trishul” in the real sense but he argues his case in such a way that many readers, including myself, feel that he indeed has equated VHP’s trishul with Muslim women’s burka. Equally unfortunate was his suggestion that persons like Arif Mohammad Khan were “secularising modernists”, who could have taken the Muslim community from “medievalist ghetto into a full engagement with the modern world”.

Let me first take up the issue of religious symbols in the public sphere. So-called liberals like Guha are often blind to majoritarian religiosity at the public sphere and state institutions while they are allergic to minority culture in the public sphere. Guha should have kept in mind the feminist critique of the public sphere before making such a provocative statement. Feminists have already demolished the myth of public sphere being the domain of “rational”, “universal” and “neutral”.

Guha has shown high regards for Gandhi and gone through much of his works but he does not seem to have imbibed the Gandhian secularism. It was the spirit of Gandhian secularism along with the experience of nationalist movements that the makers of the Indian Constitution gave constitutional safeguards to minorities to live with their culture.

Another fallacy of Guha is his equation with majority religious symbols/communalism/with minority religious symbols/communalism. The secular institution in any so-called liberal democracy is never “neutral”. It carries strong majoritarian symbols which are normalised as “neutral” or “core” of the society, while the minority cultural symbols are often treated with suspicion, hostility and fear and they are demonised as “the other” of the society. That is why the awe-inspiring trishul can never be equated with the self-effacing burka and why offensive Hindu communalists cannot be equated with defensive Muslim communalists. For, Muslim communalists, unlike Hindu communalists, do not have the support of the State and its institutions.

Another highly problematic aspect of Guha’s article is his faith in “liberal” personality to take Muslims out of “medievalist ghetto into a full engagement with the modern world”. He does not realise that society changes through the churning at grass-root levels and through material and cultural contradictions. The formulation that a person like Arif Mohammad Khan would take Muslims out of “darkness” is seriously flawed, which completely ignores social, cultural and material forces at work in society. Even in his selection, Guha could have suggested a better Muslim than Khan. Muslims do not have much expectation from a person like Arif Mohammad Khan, who have been lambasting them at every given opportunity and is not known to have served the community in any way, to rescue them. Once he was shunned by Congress, he joined the Hindutva forces and unsuccessfully contested the 2004 Lok Sabha election as a BJP candidate, just two years after the Gujarat pogrom.  Moreover, Khan has reiterated that Modi is “man of the movement” and “need of the hour” but never questioned his silence as CM or PM over continuous attacks on Muslims.

This is linked to the Islamophobic discourse to blame Muslims for not being modern. Much before Guha, well-known orientalist Bernard Lewis, who considered as the father of the discourse of the war on terror as a disguised strategy to wage war on Muslims, had blamed the Muslims for their “failure” to become modernized. Guha, similarly, criticized Muslims for not becoming “modern” and scolded Harsh Mander for failing “to shame” the Muslims in this regard.

The discourse of “modernity" has now been fully appropriated by the majoritarian communalists who use it as a stick to beat Muslims with, as seen in the case of triple talaq in which they are legislating a law without consulting any Muslim scholar or organisation. Guha, who is a historian with around half a dozen books on modern India, has forgotten that colonial rule was similarly justified on the very pretext of Indians being “uncivilized” and trapped in deep “religiosity”, “fanaticism” and “superstition”.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. His other writings are available at abhaykumar.org

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