Society

Taking Secularism Beyond Iftar Parties

The ‘performance’ in the much-publicised and politically engineered Iftar parties has begun to look superficial.

I ask my Muslim students and friends about Ramzan prayers and the extraordinarily beautiful process of fasting from dawn to sunset. Yes, with a sense of wonder, I try to get a feel of this intense religiosity—fasting as a process of cleansing, purifying the body and soul, making one humble, and bringing one closer to the divine. But then, a disturbing question haunts me: Am I really sincere, capable of breaking the wall of separation that the troubled history of the sub-continent has created between the two major religious communities? Or am I merely diplomatic trying to be ‘secular’?

My anxiety, I feel, emanates from a culture that gives more importance to formal mannerism rather than inner honesty. Take, for instance, the much-publicised and politically-engineered Iftar parties. Well, I cannot deny that Iftar parties have symbolic significance in a religiously diverse society like ours— and particularly at a time when the might of majoritarianism seeks to create a monoculture. However, the way Machiavellian politicians use these occasions in front of the television camera reminds me once again that ‘secularism’, for many of them, is nothing more than a well-scripted ‘performance’ in a stage show. Not much is done in terms of symmetrical pluralism, sustained cross-religious dialogue, human-to-human interaction, and creation of truly inclusive habitats for collective living. Instead, a Muslim continues to exist as the ‘other’ to be tolerated, textualised, gazed at, and used as a potential political ally. Possibly, secularism in India has not yet emancipated itself from the ongoing theatre of ‘tolerance’ and heavily cultivated ‘concern for the other’.

Inauthenticity of a ‘Divided’ Self

I know that my quest for a more authentic secularism to come out of this hypocrisy is likely to remain incomplete unless I look at myself, and come to terms with my own ignorance, pride, apprehension and anxiety. These days, I often ask myself whether my privilege of being part of the majority ‘Hindu community’ has made me somewhat ignorant of the everydayness of Muslim living and culture. Yes, as a student of sociology, I know intellectually and theoretically. However, experientially I remain poor. Believe it, so far I have attended only three Muslim weddings—that too of my students. Even though I read a lot about Ghalib and Iqbal, Maulana Azad and Zakir Husain, I have not visited many Muslim households and experienced the intricacy of their everyday life. And at times, my ‘anthropological gaze’ has further separated me from them.

As I walk through the narrow bylanes of Old Dehi and Hazrat Nizamuddin , my penetrating look at ‘ biryani shops’ and distinctive ‘identity markers’ has further intensified the ghettoised mindset. Not solely that. My academic sophistication has made me clever. For instance, if in a seminar I refer to a ‘Hindu’ thinker, I make it a point to compensate by immediately referring to a ‘Muslim’ thinker. Or, even if I feel like giving a copy of the Katha Upanishad to a Muslim friend, I would hesitate because I would like to be seen as ‘secular’. In other words, my engagement with Muslims is not free from anxiety and apprehension, cleverness and nervousness. However, at the finest moment of contemplation, I have begun to realise that without spontaneity, trust and everyday interaction a truly meaningful secularism is not possible. It needs the ability to see beyond showy and inauthentic practices like the kind of Iftar parties newspapers write about.

Secularism in India has not yet emancipated itself from the ongoing theatre of ‘tolerance’ and heavily cultivated ‘concern for the other’. Here former Congress president Sonia Gandhi is seen at an Iftar party in 2008. Reuters Files/Pawan Kumar (INDIA)

Diverse and Contradictory Articulations of Secularism

Before I go further, there are two forms of secularism I want to problematise. First, think of what I would regard as ‘soulless’ secularism: a politico-cultural design that devalues the significance of religiosity in human life, pleads for abstracted science as an answer to all existential riddles, and celebrates the idea of a value-neutral state initiating a modernising project, and aiming at a sanitised ‘rational’ public culture. A project of this kind is arrogant and culturally insensitive. Even though its adherents can be found in select conclaves of universities and radical political circuits, it does not seem to have a popular appeal; it doesn’t touch one’s heart the way a folk Baul mystic like Lalan Fakir does. Not surprisingly, thinkers like Ashis Nandy have come forward with a heavy critique of this sort of secularism for its inherent modernist/elitist inclination.

And then, there is ‘official’ secularism with its slogan of ‘unity in diversity’, and the idea of a state that does not discriminate people on the basis of their faiths. Think of its symbolism in the calendar art—Buddha, Nanak, Kabir and Jesus blessing the mankind! Or, see the projection of Ashoka and Akbar as representatives of the age-old ‘syncretic ‘ culture, or the Bollywood narrative of Amar, Akbar and Anthony born of the same mother, but separated from one another because of inexplicable events, yet united with a return of the ecstasy of togetherness. Its idealism is appealing, particularly when I see it in the context of the emergent religious nationalism. Yet, it becomes utterly hypocritical and manipulative in the realm of real politics.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at an Iftar party in 2014. Credit: PTI Files

In fact, the complex trajectory of representative democracy in India, far from enabling us to overcome the boundaries of segmented identities, has kept these exclusionary practices alive. No wonder, political parties—Left or Right—make their arithmetic in terms of ‘Hindu’ votes, ‘Muslim’ votes, or ‘Dalit-OBC-Muslim’ alliance against the ‘Brahmin-Bania Hindu’ rightist force! Under these circumstances, as history shows, strange paradoxes take place. While casteist, yet ‘secular’ Lalu Prasad Yadav restricted the rathayatra of ‘communal’ L.K. Advani, the Hindu Right became the champion of the ‘liberation’ of Muslim women from the tyranny of Triple Talaq. No wonder, the political culture remains perpetually susceptible to communalisation of consciousness. This sort of ‘official’ secularism, because of its inherent hypocrisy, political engineering and contradictions, has failed to combat people’s sufferings. A look at the Sachar Committee report would suggest that, despite the presence of so many ‘secular’ parties, the condition of the Muslims remains so dismal.

Hence, I would plead for spiritually enriched secularism: the politico-ethical practice that enables us to expand, break the walls of separation and exclusion, and strive for the fusion of horizons. This needs empathy, not political Machiavellianism; this means the intense urge to understand what it means for my Muslim friend to fast in this month of Ramzan; this is the ability to realise that the old man in Jamia Nagar who sells dates on the footpath looks like my grandfather with the same wrinkled face. Likewise, we need the warmth of the vibrations of non-diplomatic/spontaneous/trustworthy interaction in everyday life. This is possible only when we fight all sorts of ghettoisation; this is possible when to see a Muslim festival, I need not go to Old Delhi or Kolkata’s Park Circus; I can be part of it in the DDA colony of Vasant Vihar or Lajpat Nagar. In other words, there is no other healer except love—the spirit of communitarian solidarity.

As I am about to conclude this piece, someone knocks my door. I open the door. And here is Nizamuddin—the old man from Ranchi living in Delhi as a migrant, and collecting old newspapers and magazines from middle class households for earning his livelihood. “Sir, once again severe asthmatic attack. I don’t have the money to buy the inhaler”, he whispers. “Don’t worry. I will try to do something about it”, I assure him. He smiles. “Have a glass of water”, I request him. “No ,sir. Ramzan is the most sacred month of the year; it was during this month that God revealed His truth to Prophet Mohammed. I am fasting…”

How do I see him? A Muslim—the ‘other’ of my ‘Hindu’ identity? A potential terrorist? Or yet another statistical number in the vote bank? I look at him again. Something happens. He begins to look like my elder brother who too suffers from chronic asthma. Our shared humanity has triumphed. The ugliness of the majoritarian violence has become clear. Likewise, the ‘performance’ in politically engineered Iftar parties has begun to look superficial. This is the moment of love and tears.

Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

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