In an India Where Minorities Are Singled Out for Abuse, Is Another Politics Possible?

Today's climate of communal rhetoric that pervades India has led to a partition, not of territory, but of the hearts and minds of citizens.

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What is the impact of hate speech, stigmatisation, stereotyping, and mockery upon the psyche, the sense of self-respect and the self-confidence of Indians who happen to belong to the minority community? 

The holders of power and their minions refer to members of the Muslim community in disparaging and dismissive terms; perverse ideologues misuse social media to target them in brutal ways and foot soldiers of the currently-dominant ideology regularly waylay them, bully them and demand that they chant an ode to a Hindu God

How many of us even think about how our fellow citizens feel when they are mercilessly bullied; when they are asked to prove their fidelity to the country they were born in, time and again? 

Members of the minority community have lived in India all their life, contributed their labour to the production and reproduction of the country’s wealth, exercised their right to vote in elections, reverentially saluted the national flag, enthusiastically sung the national anthem and served in the armed forces to guard India’s borders. Yet, they are regularly and ritually denigrated, degraded and, above all, dismissed, as if they simply do not count.  

We have witnessed a vibrant debate on the redistribution of resources to ameliorate poverty. It is perhaps time to reflect on the damage that vilification causes. It is time to focus on the theory of recognition.   

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The concept of recognition erupted onto the platform of political theorists after the collapse of the socialist bloc in 1989. Socialism was replaced by ethno-nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe. The ethnic divide, much of which was manufactured by leaders greedy for a monopoly over power, resulted in identity wars, hate speech, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Horror stories came to us from all parts of the region. Dominant ethnic groups forced individuals who did not belong to the ‘right’ community to perform unthinkable acts. They were forced to hear unthinkable things. 

Witness the irony. Socialism – which was delegitimised after the collapse of actually existing socialist societies – nurtured hopes of human emancipation from all bonds. Ethnic nationalism preaches little but hate that corrodes souls and lacerates mentalities. 

The theory of socialism dreams of globalism; all that ethno-nationalism wants is closed-in societies and a closing-in of the mind. It believes that a nation can only be built when minority groups have been put in their place by the skilful use of  mortifying words and deeds.  

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Until then, political theorists, many of whom were inspired by John Rawls’ 1991 magnum opus A Theory of Justice, had concentrated upon justice as fairness and redistribution. By the early 1990’s, they began to worry about the harm wreaked on human minds by calumny and insults. Confronted by the vulnerability of minorities in divided worlds, a number of political theorists argued that there was an urgent need to address the pain and suffering of (mainly) minority groups. 

Redistribution was a wider, ambitious goal; the imperative to protect individuals from the pernicious impact of invectives was an immediate need. In the 1990s, at a time when the religious right was mounting an assault on secularism and tolerance in India, political theorists took up the task of conceptualising multiculturalism, minority rights, secularism and pluralism. 

The same sort of argument justifies both redistribution and recognition. Skewed patterns of resource distribution and the concentration of resources in a few hands constitute fundamental injustice. The outcome is mass poverty which diminishes human beings and leads to harm. The solution to the problem is redistribution. 

There is another sort of injustice that marks divided societies; the lack of recognition. This causes injury. People should be “seen”, regarded as worthy of respect. When individuals are not recognised as human beings with the same rights that are held by others or are summarily dismissed as insignificant, singled out for abuse and mockery, they are, in philosopher Avishai Margalit’s words, “humiliated”. 

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

In his 1998 work The Decent Society, Margalit defined humiliation as any sort of behaviour or condition that constitutes a solid reason for a person to consider his or her self-respect injured. People experience humiliation when they are treated as if they were non-human. “Ignoring human beings means, among other things, not paying attention to them: looking without seeing”.  

Margalit’s argument forms part of a political theory of recognition which suggests that the self-respect of individuals depends on others. If they are pilloried, abused and denounced, ignored and bypassed, humiliation scars their soul exactly as the body is irremediably scarred after it has been lynched, raped, brutalised or maimed. 

There is a difference between physical harm and the harm that is done to the mind. Both damage people. Whereas physical scars may heal, mental scars strip the person of self-respect.  To live without respect is to live life as a diminished human being.

Self-respect is further eroded when we acknowledge that humiliation is based on the recognition that the perpetrator (especially the institutional humiliator) has power over the victim he assaults, writes Margalit. “It crucially involves the sense of utter helplessness that the bully gives the victim.” 

Bullies hammer the point home that the people they intentionally harm are powerless. Nothing can be done for the victim and nothing is done to the perpetrator of humiliation. They are protected, even rewarded. 

Margalit, laying aside grand dreams of a perfectly just society, recommends negative conditions on institutions. Institutions (or more precisely, the people who command these institutions) have the duty not to humiliate anyone. Institutions might not do anything to help people but at the least they should not subject them to demeaning treatment. The moral imperative of lessening pain and suffering trumps every other ethical consideration. Everything is inconsequential before the terrible harm that humiliation heaps upon people.

This argument suggests that dreams of institutionalising justice in well-organised societies might have to be put on hold. We need to deal urgently with the pain and trauma of those who are humiliated by state institutions, even if our theories are modest compared to the magnificent image of a good society. Every action that dehumanises people because it humiliates them should be prohibited. It is only then that we can think of ourselves as a decent society.  

The implication, intended or unintended, of the argument is politically significant. Whereas some sort of injustice might be acceptable, humiliation of people is simply not. The project of justice has to be realised, but we have to also deal with injustice. In his piece in 2001, Privacy in the Decent Society, Margalit argues that negative politics – the politics that counters evil – should come before positive politics, which promotes good. 

There is more urgency in fighting evil than in furthering the good. We need to prioritise the troubling issue of humiliation which comes from treating human beings as if they are non-human.

Margalit’s argument centres around a fundamental question which propelled a lively debate in political theory circles: Are redistribution and recognition discrete and parallel concepts or do they constitute each other?

A just society based on redistribution may still harm people for reasons that are beyond their control; for instance, birth into a community that is considered “inferior” or the “enemy”. A decent society ensures that institutions should not harm people even if the distribution of resources is unjust. But poverty also causes harm. Do we have to choose one over the other? 

The issue is fraught because in India, huge numbers of people suffer from double disadvantage. Take the case of the so-called lower castes and minorities. They are treated in demeaning ways because they may be poor. They might, on the other hand, be poor because their identity forecloses options and opportunities. To consign people to mind-numbing poverty is unjust; so too is discriminating against them on grounds of their community identity. 

We cannot place justice on a spectrum that stretches from proposition (a): that each citizen should be provided with needs, to proposition (b): that we have to treat people with respect, and choose which end of the spectrum we prefer. Justice is constituted by both aspects. 

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In the present situation of communal rhetoric that India is caught in, we might have to prioritise the terrible consequences of humiliation that wrecks lives and leaves damaged psyches in its wake.

The tragedy is that the makers of the Indian constitution had set out to create a national identity that transcended the identity of specific groups. The constituent assembly met against the backdrop of the Partition and the carnage that had accompanied the division of territory. Yet, the makers of the Constitution insisted that no religious group will be allowed exclusive rights to rule the country, even if it is in a majority. No group will suffer or be excluded from power merely because it is in a minority. India will be defined by the values of the Preamble, particularly the virtue of fraternity or solidarity. 

We have regressed; we are back to the days of colonialism when administrators spent their time in classifying Indians as either Hindus or Muslim, estimating demographic strengths and weaknesses of religious groups, all while communal organisations were busy demonising each others communities. 

The process led to the Partition. Today, we see a partition not of territory but of hearts and minds and many of us ask in deep distress: how many more Partitions? We want to live in a society that acknowledges redistribution as well as recognition as integral parts of justice.  Our children have to live in a decent society, not one in which people are harassed and humiliated for reasons that are purely arbitrary; for their birth into a community that has been stigmatised in history. 

We have to go beyond politicised religion or religion as politics and the harm it has wreaked upon the minds of many. We have to chart another sort of politics; one that will enable us to call ourselves a decent society.

There is always an alternative politics that offers itself to our imaginations. Recollect the last scene of M.S. Sathyu’s heart-rending movie on the Partition, Garm Hava. The film subtly details the fate of many Muslims who refused to migrate to Pakistan, a country that was founded on the basis of  religion. In independent India, however, their status turned for the worse. 

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Towards the end of the film, the protagonist, Salim Mirza, played brilliantly by Balraj Sahni, reluctantly climbs onto a tonga to reach the railway station and take a train to Pakistan. He did not want to leave, but he was regarded with suspicion in his own country. 

He did not want to go to Pakistan, a country that had been carved out in the name of religion but his family had migrated; he was left with no option. He speaks a sentence that he himself had written into the script: ‘Insan kab tak akela jee sakta hai?’ (How long can a person live alone?’) and sets out to join his family in Pakistan. 

A still from ‘Garm Hawa’.

But then the political miracle happens. As the tonga begins to move, Sahni notices a procession wending its way through the streets of Agra. The participants are vociferously protesting against unemployment and poverty. They are carrying a red flag signifying their political allegiance. Sahni asks the tongawallah to halt, climbs down, straightens his cap and joins the procession of communists. 

Garm Hawa was his last film. He died shortly after but left an impact both on cinema and on our collective conscience.

The message he delivered is worth remembering. We do not have to be bound by religious fundamentalism. There is an alternative politics waiting to be rediscovered; a politics that emphasises that we have obligations of solidarity to our fellow citizens. Let us look for it. Let us adopt it. 

Politics is, after all, the art of the impossible.  

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.